James May

A car medallion

Wise guys

Not so long ago, driving a Ferrari or a Porsche would have invited myriad accusations of being ‘a right tosser’. This was possibly fair enough, since the culture of the time said that anyone who took cars that seriously was probably a bit of a ‘saddo’.

Porsche and Ferrari have always taken themselves terribly seriously. Porsche bangs on about ‘excellence’ and Ferrari about ‘passion’, as if they’re the guardians of the proper expression of these conceits of the human condition. But it’s all cant, really. Excellence is more important in the manufacture of synthetic heart valves, and passion manifests itself more properly in the bedroom. Attempting to express these things through one’s choice of car was perhaps indicative of a few problems in the trouser department.

And how unimaginative was it, if you suddenly found yourself a bit flush, to go and buy a 911 or an F360? The 911 was like the Hugo Boss suit of the successful executive, and choosing a Ferrari was as hackneyed as the expression ‘just like mamma used to make’ in the description of lasagne in an Italian restaurant menu. Thinking people would think of something a bit more original.

But something strange has happened. All of a sudden, the 911 and the F430 are what the clever people are buying. What were for so long clichés are now rising from a mire of confused car culture, just as the brand Excalibur was held aloft by the samite-clad arm of Nimue in the bosom of the lake, like swords of truth. Crikey.

I’m not going to claim that everything’s rosy. There’s still far too much tasteless Ferrari merchandise for my liking, and far too much talk of the significance of F1. These people are claiming that the F430 was developed using the computer ‘normally reserved for Michael Schumacher’s racing car’, but this is obviously bollocks. Why would they do this? Does Michael Schumacher not let other Ferrari people use his stapler?

And the 911 isn’t entirely in the clear, because Richard Hammond has just ordered one, and he uses hair product. But even so, the 911 and F430 are suddenly very cool to my mind.

One reason for this is that people are once again taking cars very seriously. They may be portrayed as the biggest threat to society since Hitler, and we may be encouraged to feel guilty about them and to want a small diesel hatchback, but deep down people are very switched on to what makes a great car. I cannot remember a time when so many people have wanted to engage me in highly informed conversation about cars and what they’re like. And I don’t just mean the bores from my local; I’m including people like my neighbour Ben, who pinned me against the wall for a good half-hour to talk about a Mercedes-Benz he’d been looking at, even though he can’t drive. And earlier this year I discovered that my mother understands the effect of low-profile tyres on ride and handling.

“I recently discovered that my mother understands the effect of low-profile tyres on ride and handling” 

If we’re going to take cars seriously, we need serious cars. Some serious cars that spring to mind are the Bentley Arnage T, the Fiat Panda, the Vauxhall Astra VXR, the Lexus GS430 (no, really), the Citroen C6 and the Renault Grande Espace. In the arenas in which they compete, they do what they’re supposed to do with thoroughness, to the satisfaction of the intelligent and informed owner.

It’s the same with the 911 and the F430. They’re superb cars that work brilliantly, and in this day and age that’s what matters once again.

Viewers will remember that we had the 911 up against the BMW M6 and the Aston V8 on the Isle of Man a short while back. I was expecting to go for the Aston, but after a few hundred miles I realised that the 911 was still a better car. It’s always difficult to explain what makes a 911 great; in fact, on first acquaintance it feels decidedly wonky. The driving position is still slightly odd and old-fashioned, and the engine is still ostensibly in the wrong place. But once it gets under your skin – and it will – it’s there for good. Maybe there is something in that heritage, bloodline and all that other guff that Porsche would put forward in the showroom.

There certainly is where Ferrari is concerned. There’s more cock talked about Ferrari than about any other subject on earth; even football. But there is something about a small V8 Ferrari that cannot be found in any other car. It’s not mystique or any of that nonsense. It’s because it works, brilliantly.

When we took the F430, the Zonda and the Ford GT to the south of France, I became unutterably convinced of this. The Fezza is the connoisseur’s choice, the one that the true lover of cars and driving will appreciate the most.

You simply cannot fake this stuff. Other makers seem to imagine they can leap straight into the realm occupied by Porsche and Ferrari with some ludicrous performance figures, seductive styling and a bit of marketing. Other cars may be more fashionable, but look beyond that and you discover the others aren’t actually as good at being great cars.

But here’s what really amazes me. The Porsche and the F430 no longer look ostentatious. Every other expensive sports coupe or supercar has become so bound up with bling and football that these two are now appearing to go quietly amidst all the fuss. The latest 911 is the most subtly beautiful yet, but remains discreet. The interior is superbly assembled, yet is still functional above all else, whereas the Aston’s interior is disappointing in its details and smacks of flim-flam.

The F430 is clearly still a touch flamboyant, but it is inoffensively styled. It’s more like a perfectly turned ankle than a pumped-up cleavage. Compare it with the Zonda thing that Richard Hammond was driving. That’s covered with bits of carbon fibre, which is now the Burberry check of the supercar world. It’s all tinsel and has nothing to do with the joy of driving.

Call me old fashioned, but my first requirement of a cooker is not that it’s in fancy brushed stainless steel – it’s that it roasts joints.


James May, Column, Porsche, Ferrari

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