It’s not often that I find myself jealous of James May. I don’t envy his wardrobe, his hair is ridiculous and who cares if he’s good at darts? He is, though. Bloody good. And he does have a Ferrari. And more followers than me on Twitter. And I wish I could play the piano. OK, I am sometimes jealous of James May, but what really lit the vivid green flames of envy in my breast was when he got sent out to test the Fisker Karma.
The Karma, if you’ve forgotten, is a hybrid, but instead of both engines driving the wheels according to whether there’s sufficient juice in the batteries or extra shove is needed from the petrol lump, the wheels are only ever directly driven by the electric motor, with the fossil-fuel-burner used to charge the batteries when they go limp.
But the thing about it that made me stick my bottom lip out when I heard James was driving it is that it’s cool. It does all that eco stuff, it can be specified with a non-fat, low-carb interior that uses no animal hides and only wood that died of natural causes (I kid you not) but at the same time it looks good. Really good. Good enough to make all the other stuff irrelevant for a moment.
And that makes it unique. You can moan all you like about people believing that petrol engines are burning a hole in the sky like a candle under a newspaper, but the fact is that the stuff is going to run out sometime anyway, so we’d damn well better have something else up our sleeves.
So why, I ask, are all the answers to this fast-looming, all-consuming question so damned boring? Every week, something else is held up in front of us as the next great hope of the age, and every week it’s about as enticing and exciting as a fridge. Why? It’s just another dreary business proposition from some dude in a suit talking about infrastructure, network and lane-sharing.
I had the privilege of a tour of US TV host Jay Leno’s vast car collection this summer. It houses everything, literally, from turn-of-the-century, steam-powered tourers to race-winners with a pedigree long enough to justify a book per car. Each is, in its own way, a masterpiece, and each was created by a peculiar brand of genius. At the dawn of the car, and for a few decades afterwards, the world wanted mobility and glamour. And these guys stepped up and delivered. Why can’t that happen now?
The world wants cars that conform to a particular set of criteria, so why can’t these be met in a car as exciting as a Stutz Bearcat must have looked when it prowled up the drive, or even the Doble steam car when it hissed into view in 1923. It’s not like the rewards won’t be there; we’re going to carry on needing to move about the place for a while yet, long after we’ve sucked the earth dry of oil like a collapsed fruit juice carton. Whoever makes a genuinely workable, reliable, non-fossil-fuel-burning car with range and power will become staggeringly and eternally wealthy. So where are the dream cars to do this?
The masterpieces in Leno’s collection and others like it all have one thing in common: each is the product of passion, not a business plan. The guys creating those cars did it because they dreamt of creating a fantastic thing; they made the cars they longed to see out there, being driven heroically by racers or drawing up outside impossibly glamorous hotels or trundling along every high street in the country helping people live their lives.
When we first joined forces to revamp TopGear over 10 years ago, there was no business plan, no cynical objectivity guiding our thoughts. It grew to be bloody enormous because of luck or timing or, well, whatever the hell it was. We’re still just doing the same thing, trying to make the best show we can. If we had set out with a business plan to make a car show watched around the globe by men, women and children alike, then God knows what bland, homogenous monster we would have created.
Somewhere out there is a kid who is going to dream of a machine, a gleaming, beautiful, exciting machine with a dangerous edge and porn-star looks, and this machine will transport beautiful people to wonderful places where they will be admired and adored as they step from it, simply for stepping from it. And that machine will be the one to remind us that while all we need to get to work and back or drop the kids off at school is a piece of kitchen hardware that moves, it can be so much more. Let’s get to the yogurt-powered utility car in a bit. First up, let’s have the massive, sex-on-a-stick, fire-breathing, toe-curling, ass-kicking yogurt-powered monster. Dreary will come later... it always does. For now, forget the business plan – stoke up the passion.