James May

A foible-ridden Triumph

Help the aged

One of the things I love dearly about my old Bentley is that absolutely everything on it works. Open the bonnet, for example, and the little engine inspection light comes on. What are the chances of that happening on a 25-year-old wedding car?

There’s more. The little bristle brushes that sweep the headlights when the windscreen wipers are used (but only if the lights are on) are working as well. On every other T2 or Silver Shadow II I’ve looked at, the motors in these have long since been stopped with rust, and the owner hasn’t bothered to replace them because they’re hideously expensive. But I have, and now schoolchildren are mesmerised by the pixie inside the car who cleans my lamps.

The windows go up and down at the correct speed, which is unusual in this or any old car. All the instruments work and the electric seats work. The central locking works, the air-conditioning works, the jack works, the glovebox works, and even the reading light, positioned over the front passenger’s shoulder and operated by a miniature Edwardian light switch on the dashboard, works.

And now I’ve discovered that if I pull the rotary knob for the headlights until it clicks, a second map-reading light above my shoulder comes on as well. So even things I didn’t know about turn out to be in perfect working order. It’s a miracle.

But of course it’s never normally like this in the world of old cars. I’ve never climbed aboard something like an MGB and not been met with a litany of feeble excuses as to why this bit of trim is missing or that window winder is broken or my feet are perched on a ‘spare gearbox’ that the owner is about to fit, honest. It’s pathetic.

And you’re about as likely to climb aboard a fully functioning old Jag as you are to find a minicab that smells agreeable. I know this because I’ve just sold one, and I advertised it as needing ‘some minor fettling’, which is old-car adspeak for ‘some things don’t work properly.’ I realise that the classic car set will claim that tinkering with the car is part of the fun of owning it, but I can’t help thinking that the time spent tinkering would actually be better spent mending the bloody thing.

The older I get, the more hateful I find this sort of thing. How difficult can it be to make an old car work? If bits are bust, repair or replace them. Or find a man who can. And if you can’t afford it, get rid of the thing. Do anything, in fact, except drive around in an incomplete car claiming that you’re going to ‘sort it’, because you obviously aren’t in the way that I’m not really going to write a novel.

“That’s the great thing about a crap old car. It requires a bespoke set of driving skills only you have” 

Rather worryingly, I seem to be coming around to Jeremy’s way of thinking on this subject. If the fag lighter on his Ford malfunctioned, he’d consider it broken down. And the fact is, he may have a point. Then again, our recent ten-grand supercars debacle, as seen on TV, reminded me of one of the unique pleasures of a truly broken car. And it’s exactly that – it’s uniqueness.

Consider the ancient Triumph sports car I owned a decade ago. I once leant it to a mate, and the first time he exited a roundabout he nearly fell out. That was because I hadn’t warned him about the way the knackered driver’s door would fly open on a tight left-hander. Then again, I was so used to it, and the preparatory grasping of the door on the approach to a left-hander was so instinctive, that I didn’t think it worth mentioning. I used to grab the doors of other cars on tight left-handers as well.

I also didn’t warn him that it would jump out of third gear, but why would I? Whenever I was in third gear, I’d extend the little finger of my left hand from the steering wheel to hold the lever in place. I never even thought about it, because it was all part of driving, like pressing the brake pedal to slow down.

Though ideally not too hard, because this could inadvertently open the front-hinged bonnet as well. Looking back, maybe I should have pointed this out, since it almost certainly didn’t happen on his new VW and he wouldn’t have been prepared. He returned from the short journey an exhausted and gibbering wreck, but I used to drive the old Triumph all over the country with ne’er an anxious moment.

My 1975 Lamborghini Urraco, as featured in the Supercar Shitters piece on the TV show, was something similar. I had to shut the driver’s door with one hand on the radio speaker, otherwise it would fly out and hit me in the face. An elaborate double-declutch routine was necessary to get around the departed first-gear synchromesh. The alternator was ropy, so the battery wouldn’t charge with the engine below 2,500rpm. In any case, it would stall at idle, and the starter motor was a bit erratic as well. Coming to a halt in traffic involved keeping the engine speed up, and as there wasn’t room in the footwell for any of that toe-and-heel malarkey, I had to slot it into neutral, brake with my left foot, blip the throttle and then turn on the auxiliary cooling fan with a free hand. Other people were cruising around oblivious in automatic diesel hatchbacks, but in the Lambo it was like trying to nurse a stricken Lancaster bomber back to base. Oh, and the windscreen wipers only came on if you gave the stalk a bit of a wiggle.

That’s the great thing about a crap old car. It requires a bespoke set of driving skills that only you have. My Urraco wasn’t like any other car. It wasn’t even like any other Lamborghini Urraco. In fact, it wasn’t even like that Lamborghini Urraco had been a day earlier, because a few more things had gone wrong since then. At that moment, in that traffic jam, in that rain-sodden town, I was the only person in the world who could drive it.

Compare this with the Bugatti Veyron I was testing in the last issue. There was another car on which everything worked perfectly. The 1,001bhp engine was a triumph of engineering genius over the cussedness of physics, yet the interior was as logical and conventional as a Honda Civic’s and the flappy paddle gearbox worked as flawlessly and intuitively as any I have ever encountered.

In fact, any idiot could drive it.


James May, Column, Bentley, Lamborghini

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