James May

James May

Boxing stupid

Something that’s always bothered me about the car business is this: why can’t manufacturers just get the bloody car right first time around?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Karl Benz should have realised, as he was cranking over his Motorwagen, that what he should have been doing was designing the C-Class and then shoehorning a 6.3-litre V8 into it. I’m talking about the way a given model supposedly ‘evolves’ over its lifetime.

There are countless examples of what I mean, but the general pattern of things goes like this. A new car is launched, and it’s reasonable for us, the buyers, to assume that it’s finished and as good as it can be, and that the people who designed it kept their noses pressed firmly to the grindstone until no further opportunity for refinement of the idea could be conceived. But then, a year or two later, the maker announces that it has retuned the engine for increased low-range torque, and we in the motoring press become terribly excited about how much easier motorway overtaking has become.

Or perhaps the specification of the springs and dampers is changed to improve the ride and handling, so we all have a drive, talk to a suspension engineer for a bit and come away amazed at what they can do these days.

Or maybe some more welding points are added to enhance rigidity, and that’s very welcome, and all part of the continuous improvement we’ve heard so much about.

But maybe a salient question is in order here, such as: why didn’t you just do it like that in the first place?

It’s not as if automotive engineering is a black art anymore. It’s a well understood and completely quantified science. No one with the brains to calculate that a car should run on 15-inch wheels could possibly fail to realise that it would work better on 16-inch ones, or that 180lb ft of torque is more useful if it’s available at 2,000rpm rather than 2,500. Yet we are expected to believe that they miraculously work all this out after 500,000 cars have been built.

"It’s not as if automotive engineering is a black art anymore. It’s a well understood and completely quantified science"

A case particularly close to my heart is that of the Porsche Boxster. Two years ago, having realised that nobody fancied me anymore, I decided that it was about time I owned a mid-sized two-seat roadster, and set about trying them all out to see which I liked best. Eventually, I settled on the Boxster 3.2S. It was clearly the best of the bunch, and I couldn’t really fault it beyond the rather churlish criticism that the engine was only 3.2 litres and not, say, 3.4, like it would be in the forthcoming Cayman.

A year or so later, Porsche boldly announced the Boxster 3.4S. They had shaved a little bit of metal from inside the cylinders or minutely altered the dimensions of the crankshaft and made the engine a bit more powerful. Excellent. But did they honestly expect me to accept that this was the fruit of a year’s worth of scratching their heads and staring at a cutaway drawing of a flat six? They must have known it was possible all along, so I’m forced to conclude that they deliberately sold me a car less good than it could have been, and that the new and improved Boxster S was the one they should have given me in the first place.

Now at this point business types – the sort of people who, at airports, pull their cabin luggage along on wheels and understand all those meaningless advertisements for the services of management consultants and the benefits of relocating to Wales – will be wanting to tell me that this is all part of keeping the market buoyant and managing customer expectations. An acquaintance once told me that Jaguar staggered the faceliftingof its cars so that it would have something new to announce every year. But how can a car maker honestly plan a facelift? If they know the car can be made better, they should make it that way from the outset. It would be like Gustave Eiffel designing the perfect tower but then building his first draft, just so he could return a decade later and make it look better; or a concert pianist recording a few bum notes so he could release a better version of the same CD later on.

The whole thing is a plot, obviously; the deliberate subversion of excellence in the interest of manipulating our desires and aspirations. Pah!

By the way, this column isn’t quite as good as it could be. I deliberately wrote it that way, so I can do it again next month, only better.


James May, Column

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