01 June 2013

James May on: retro car styling

Why are town planners - and car designers - stuck in a rut?

James May
Car image

For some years now, the May household has been looking into some extensive building modifications. This is not a very big or remarkable house. The rooms are badly sized and arranged, and it's upside-down. Not literally - I mean that the sitting room is upstairs and one of the bedrooms down, for no obvious reason.

To be honest, I bought it 12 years ago when I was going through a dissolute bachelor phase, because it had a garage and was near a pub. But now the permanent and fragrant presence of Woman demands something a bit better. Good. There is only so far that she can be fobbed off with some posh chairs and a few exquisite modernist art works anointing the wonky walls, because we're living in the kitchen, like people do in the country.

I also recently acquired the decrepit former carpenters' workshop next door. For years, this was home to a couple of old blokes who sat in there smoking and moaning about whatever was on the radio, stopping occasionally to knock up a dining table or the like. But they retired in 2010, leaving the building ripe for annexing by the Mayan Empire.

It's cold, leaky, damp, even more cock-eyed than the house, silent and heavy with the sawdusty smell of spent woodworking ardour. And, the other day, I found their stash of vintage jazz mags in a cupboard drawer. Now we're on to something. A bit of knocking through and remodelling, a bit of roofing and insulating, and we'd have a reasonably sized house with a party space and room for rolling around on the floor in general. And a massive telly, like Hammond's.

So we started working on ideas: moving walls, adding supporting columns, joining the two together. And, pretty quickly, we realised that the easiest solution was knocking it all down and starting again. I know this sounds a bit extravagant, but, in truth, it isn't. Trying to prop up an existing house while you move floors and walls around is difficult, but starting with a blank rectangle of mud means you can build a modern house with a concrete or steel frame and arrange it exactly as you'd like. It could have nice, big windows, a completely open ground floor and even a small cellar for all the wine I've nicked from Oz Clarke.

Because it's easier, it also costs less, not least because there's no VAT on a new-build. In any case, I've always wanted a really modern house, because old ones give me the creeps a bit. They're full of the stale breath of the dead, like my Rolls-Royce.

But now, as they say on daytime TV, there's a problem. This, sadly, is a conservation area, largely 19th century. So anything we build has to 'blend in'. I find this peculiarly British blight absurd. For a start, our side of the road has already been extensively modernised, by the Luftwaffe in 1941. There were two bombs here, so there are some interesting Fifties and Sixties houses nestling happily among all the Victorian rubbish.

And it's not really a Victorian suburb, is it? There is no night soil porter, no shoeless children play whip 'n' top, and nobody wears an absurdly tall hat and reads Bleak House in the melancholy tavern. They all have central heating and the internet. I can see it glowing softly through their authentic sash windows.

I believe that the best bits of the past should be preserved - and a few of the bad bits as well, as a warning from history - but that new stuff should be new. If you want a Victorian house, that's fine, but buy a real one. Trying to stop the clock in 1864 (or whenever) is to deny our own history to the future. A new house made to look like the old ones surrounding it is fraudulent. It's a fake, like a fake Rolex or a fake Ferrari built on an old MR2. Like those things, it will never look quite right.

A confident people embraces confident new ideas. Replicating the past is for those wanting some sort of reassurance. When a street features houses from several eras, we see real history. When it's all made to look like one, we see a theme park.

Here, then, is the problem with retro car styling. It never looks quite right, because the design language of an earlier era is being shoehorned into the consumer and legal requirements of today - the height of headlights, crash resistance, the desire for electric windows. It's fancy dress and therefore slightly embarrassing. More to the point, it's phoney.

Look: the past, and everything that was in it, has gone. The people we loved and the things we thought precious - it's all landfill. Let's move on.

Tags: rolls royce, james may, retro styling



We make a trip to the north-eastern end of the country to meet a real Jeep, in one that keeps it real from the current crop