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29 September 2012

Richard Hammond on: traffic noise

“If you tune in to the musicality of engine notes, it's a symphony.”

Richard Hammond
Car image



Someone living near me drives a Subaru Impreza. I don't know where it lives exactly and I've never seen it, but it enhances my life with its rugged, amiably moronic, flat-four boxer burble.

I like the Subaru Impreza; it's a good car, and hearing one rumble past my kitchen as its owner makes their way home makes me smile over my dinner. I like to picture its blunt, squat form - hopefully in racing blue with gold wheels - splashed with mud. The off-beat engine sings to me of rally stages, of sweeping, gravelly bends, murderous hairpins and full-chat straights flanked by monolithic conifers under low, grey skies.

And, in the interest of good neighbourliness, I provide a similar local service. I am sure my neighbours appreciate the flat-six chunter of my 911, and smile to themselves and picture the scene as it is whipped through the gates, sweating and wrung-out after the blast home from London. Everyone knows that this is exactly how a 911 likes to be treated, and so listening to its well-earned gasps as it drags its weary carcass up my drive and slumps by the front door, exhausts ticking as they cool in the rain, is a tone poem to make them smile. It's free too.

I go further, in the service of my neighbours, and provide the occasional bar or two of soft, woolly straight-six murmur courtesy of my 1934 Sunbeam. Sometimes I treat them to a solo on the angrier, fuzzier and altogether more caddish and zingy straight-six of my E-type, and, on special occasions, the heroic trumpet blast of my Mustang's straightforward old V8 heralds in a new morning with its folksy song of blue collars, green dollars, traffic-light drag races and nights at the diner.

And the reason for this sudden enthusiasm for the aural contribution our cars make to the world? Well, if you enjoy all these sounds, from the evocative hiss of air brakes to the guileless rasp of a simple four-pot Honda engine through a crudely made and cheaply bought aftermarket exhaust, you should be aware that your automotive orchestra might just be missing an entire section.

There are those weak of head, loins and heart, who decry the motorcycle as a pointless frivolity, a device useful only for the removal from society of those compelled to operate it. They even claim that the motorcycle is a release valve for the repressed homosexual urges of the rider, urges expressed subtly through the wearing of leather clothes, not for protection but, apparently, for the provocation and stimulation of the innocent motorist following them, passing the kilometers staring - for reasons known only to themselves - at the backside of the rider. I think you know who I'm talking about here. Yes, it's Jeremy... I was talking about Jeremy Clarkson.

Anyway, digression over, the thing is, it's all well and good slagging off bikes just because you don't happen to like them or you're scared to ride one, but, in failing to accord them even a second's consideration beyond their potential for wasting yobbos or advertising the enthusiasms of advocates of same-sex marriage, you are excluding yourself from a whole symphony of aural titillation easily the equivalent of what is on offer from the four-wheeled section of the same orchestra. I mean how would Beethoven's Fifth thingy sound if a whole department, strings or horns or whatever, forgot to turn up? In a given street scene, your ear might paint in the dieselly huff of a passing bus with, as a delightful counterpoint, the shrill sparkle of a high-revving Honda S2000 zinging along. And then a bike goes past and spoils it all.

However, if you were but able to understand, the piece might have been enhanced for you by the superb solo of a well-ridden two-stroke twin, maybe an old KR1S, shrieking and yelping as the heroic rider keeps the revs in the impossibly narrow power band and wrings its neck. A large capacity vee-twin, bellowing through an aftermarket can before coming to idle with the clutch whirring noisily in its basket means there's a big sports bike, probably a Ducati, rolling up, so there'll almost certainly be another along soon. A Harley-Davidson's ‘potato-potato-potato' booming off the walls in proud celebration of the rider's well-earned mid-life crisis can only make you smile, and even the monotonous drone of a small-capacity scooter has a song to sing of teenage dreams of freedom and battle, if only you understand the words.

You don't have to ride one, and you don't have to wear leather trousers; just as you don't have to be able to play a keyboard to listen to Genesis. Just learn to understand when you hear one, sit back and enjoy the full orchestra.

Tags: richard hammond

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