Richard Hammond on: retro styling

Posted by Richard Hammond at 07:30 am on Monday August 27, 2012

Straight away, let me say there is no excuse for a plastic reproduction of a Fifties jukebox that plays mp3s. That is a crap thing and not at all what I mean by ‘retro'. The new VW Beetle and a 60-year-old man walking into a London pub sporting a greasy quiff and nicotine-stained fingers are both also equally crap and not what I mean by retro. I am making a stand for a term that has been applied extensively both to things that I love and to things that I loathe, with equal thoughtlessness, and I think this is something to be cleared up now.

I have just got a new camera. It's made by Fuji, the people who used to make film, and then realised everyone was going digital so hopped the fence and cheerily sold their corporate soul to the digital devil.

They did this with none of that woolly headed nonsense about, "Oh, but it was so much nicer when we could only take 24 shots before finishing the film that then had to be sent off to be pawed over by a grubby youth who made copies of the shot of your wife in a bikini. And then sent back the remaining 23 prints gaudily decorated with stickers telling us the image was of poor quality as though we were first-year students on a bloody photography course and not just a man wanting his holiday snaps back to see if the one of the donkey in a hat had come out."

I'll be honest - I was first drawn to the Fuji X-Pro1 because it looks like something found dangling from the neck of a Fifties war photographer. It's made of metal, the lens is stubby and squat, it's got a rangefinder-type window to one side and proper dials on top. It is, in short, as retro as hell.

I want to wander through Middle Eastern bazaars and frantic European carnivals like a ghost, grabbing portraits of searing truth with the camera millimetres from the unsuspecting subject's face. The thing is, all of this would be romantic nonsense were it not for one, critical point: the thing is brilliant. It steps up to the cutting edge of current digital technology, sniffs the air and leaps it like a gazelle over a fence.

It's got a proper shutter speed dial on top and a proper aperture ring on the lens, not a bloody silly electronic interface lost somewhere so hard to find you have to drop the thing from your eye, find the button, prod it with a cocktail stick and reframe only to find that the pandas have stopped mating and your big moment as a photographer is rather spoiled. It works. It just bloody works.

That system of controls was evolved over the decades that followed the invention of the pinhole camera. They work, in the same way that it's generally better to have an actual steering wheel, much like that on a Model T Ford, rather than a couple of thumb buttons.

I have a 1927 Sunbeam motorcycle. The steering is done by means of a horizontal bar with padded grips at either end. It's exactly the same as the system employed on my brand new ZZR1400, a motorcycle so powerful and modern that I am required to warn NASA and wear breathing equipment before opening the throttle further than 1mm.

Yes, there are a few differences. On the Sunbeam, you switch the lights on with a match, change gear with your ears, and brake by prayer, but those little niceties were soon ironed out in subsequent generations of bikes, and we arrive at roughly the current set-up about 75 years ago. Since which time, nobody has suggested we revert to oiling the chain with our tongue or that we replace the saddle with an office chair.

A motorcycle, like a car and a camera, is required to do only certain things. The manner of achieving those things might change. An internal combustion engine might be replaced with an electric one or film by a light-sensitive chip, but the interface between the machine and the human operating it was generally worked out and honed many decades ago and is best not buggered about with.

Evolution of this kind is generally a one-way sort of affair. We have, apparently, stood straighter over the millennia since caveman times, shed some hair, walked with our knuckles further from the ground and stopped looking so gormless. But the essential lay-out required to perform our daily tasks and functions remains broadly the same. And so I'd advise against replacing your lungs with thumbs or fitting your ears inside your buttocks. Best stay pretty much as we were.

And so we, in fact, are as retro as my new camera and the Fiat 500. If retro means it looks like something used to years ago because actually, once you've fitted the buttons, dials, knobs or switches that you need to make it do whatever it's meant to do, that's kind of broadly how it comes out best, then stick with it.

TAGS// richard hammond, volkswagen, fiat, beetle, 500

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