James May

james May

The demon seed

As those of you who do me the honour of reading this column on a regular basis will know, I have pretty straightforward views on the business of saving fuel. Saving fuel is for fools.

I don’t even accept that, for some people, driving is a necessary evil, and that it should be done as cheaply as possible. Driving is not necessary at all, because trains and buses are very good these days and still cheaper in real terms. So kindly use them, and free up more road space for people like me who actually enjoy cars.

And as cars are my hobby, I can’t really object to having to spend money on petrol, rather in the way that fishermen can’t really object to having to buy maggots, and fans of hotel TV can’t reasonably object to the price of Kleenex. Given the choice between a car that I’d enjoy driving and one that would save me a tenner every so often, I would always spend the extra £10.

I even have an environmental argument in favour of thirsty cars. Everyone tells me that burning fossil fuels is a bad thing, and that it is destroying lives. In which case, surely it makes sense to buy something like an old Bentley or a Sixties’ American muscle car and do your bit to help rid the world of this stuff. That way it won’t be around to blight the lives of your grandchildren.

However, I’ve now changed my mind. I’ve changed it so much that I’ve sold my ageing Range Rover and bought a new 1.2-litre Fiat Panda, a car that steadfastly refuses to drop below 40mpg even if I thrash it and which, if I’m not paying attention, will readily crack 50. It saves petrol, and that is something we need to do.

We need to save petrol because the nation is in great peril. The nation is in great peril because of enthusiasm for alternative fuels. And amongst alternative fuels the most fashionable is biodiesel.

"Oilseed rape is absolutely and without question completely changing the face of our land, and for the worse" 

I don’t like biodiesel; ’tis a silly fuel. For a start, it smells all wrong. A while back we were filming Top Gear near a farm where the stuff is made, and at one point the farmer went off to the bank in his biofuel-powered old Volvo. The sensation was similar to that experienced on driving past a kebab shop, only now the kebab shop seemed to be driving past me. That’s confusing to an olfactory system conditioned over many decades. It’s like Pavlov ringing his little bell then kicking his dog smartly up the arse.

Unfortunately, biodiesel also smells pretty bad long before it makes it to the exhaust pipe. If I’ve understood The Archers correctly, it is made from oilseed rape, which stinks to high heaven just growing in a field. It’s also an ugly yellow colour and is completely ruining the countryside, which, after all, is for driving through and admiring. England is supposed to be a green and pleasant land. I haven’t given permission for it to be turned into a lurid-yellow hell that whiffs of unpleasant hair products.

It’s a much bigger problem than you may have realised, driving around at ground level. I also fly light aircraft, and generally at fairly low altitude since I’m scared of heights. From 2,500 feet I can see quite vividly just how much of the sceptred isle is being given over to this unutterably crap crop, and believe me it’s quite a lot. The only possible benefit I can conceive of is that soon I’ll finally be able to find my way back to the airfield, because it will be the only bit of the whole country that’s still green.

Oilseed rape is absolutely and without question completely changing the face of our land, and for the worse. All of a sudden, the immutable Arcadian splendour that for centuries has been celebrated by our poets, artists and musicians, and which is at the heart of the rural idyll for which we all secretly yearn, looks as though it’s been splattered with the sort of margarine they use in my local cafe.

Is this what we want? Do we want a hilltop view of Kent or Cumbria to look like the rejected artwork for an old Beatles album? I don’t, so I’m doing my bit with a small car with a small engine that will help keep us in proper petrol for decades.

In any case, I’ve always liked small, simple cars with a sense of humour. The Panda is one such: immediate, efficacious, more than enough car without actually being much of one. It’s surprisingly practical, amusing to drive and comedic in appearance. Oh, and economical too.

Because I’m weak, I allowed the salesman to talk me out of the most basic model I had vowed to buy and into the posh Eleganza version. But this has the advantage of a trip computer and means that, at the touch of a button, I can see immediately how well I’m doing in my quest to preserve what it was the early 19th-century poet John Clare was talking about.

You might think economy driving is boring. It is if you’re simply trying to save money. But imagine the thrill that I’m suffused with when I see on the little dashboard display that I’ve saved another few acres of our island home from the yellow peril. This is something I can enjoy every day, unlike putting in a good time around Castle Combe circuit.

There’s only one problem: people have completely misinterpreted my motives. Some neighbours have imagined that I’m concerned about the difficulty in parking where I live. Others have assumed I’m taking advantage of the lower road tax for small cars. Couldn’t care less.

Someone even suggested that I’d caved in to public pressure and exchanged the old Rangey for a biffabout to ease my conscience. Not interested.

And then, I turned up at a Top Gear shoot. Clarkson was driving the V8 Audi Q7, and I was in my Panda. “Oh,” said a bystander. “I’m pleased to see that one of you drives an eco-friendly car.”

How dare he? I don’t give a stuff about the eco. Or parking, or congestion, or road tax, or fuel duty, or my carbon footprint. Me and my Panda are engaged in something far more important.

We’re saving England.



James May, Column

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