James May

Carbon fibre fad illustration

The great big fib

This article was first published in December 2007.

When you sneeze, particles of snot can exit your nose at up to 50mph. That’s the official and scientific belief, anyway. Sadly, because this is a good pub fact, the true velocity of nasal egress has been exaggerated over time, and now people will happily tell you that a bogey can reach mach 3.4.

Some years ago, somebody, somewhere (but almost certainly on Radio 4) pointed out that it was essential to drink water every day. He or she was probably a doctor or dietician, an authority of some sort, and was undoubtedly right.

Whoever it was also suggested a quantity for daily consumption, and I suspect it was something like ‘two glasses’ or ‘half a litre’. I can’t remember drinking more than that throughout my whole childhood, and I’m still alive and not drying up around the edges.

Sadly, though, this bit of wisdom made it to the pub somewhere and thus turned into folklore, with the result that it’s been embellished. In the retelling, by the sort of people who love to say, ‘Your mouth is actually the dirtiest part of your body’, the recommended daily intake has grown, until you’d now be forgiven for thinking that you’ll die unless you drink a gallon of water every hour.

The cult of water drives me up the wall. On TV shoots, people now come up to me after I’ve completed maybe three minutes of talking to a camera, and say, ‘Do you need a water?’ I’ve never needed a water. TE Lawrence went across the Sinai peninsula on half a canteen of the stuff, so why would I need some after talking briefly? On a train last week, the man in the buffet car announced over the tannoy that he was selling tea, coffee, a range of sandwiches and ‘a selection of waters’. There has never been a selection of waters, only water. And no one actually needs any at all.

Which doesn’t really bring me to carbon fibre, but sort of does in a way, because it, too, is being foisted upon us when we don’t really need it.

Yes, yes, yes, yes I know, I know, I know: it makes sense for racing-car tubs, aeroplane wings, the shafts of golf clubs and fishing rods. But I’m talking here about carbon fibre as an adornment, which you will find in your car and other inappropriate places. I’m driven to this by the discovery that the carbon-fibre roof of the new BMW M3 is standard and not painted, so everyone can see it. Why?

"The true worth of carbon fibre has been debased by its use as a sort of phoney high-tech jewellery" 

What we tend to refer to as carbon fibre is usually, in fact, carbon fibre reinforced plastic, or CFRP (or CRP,if you regard carbon fibre as one word, which I don’t). On the face of it, it’s a great material. It weighs roughly 1,800kg per cubic metre, which compares well with mildsteels at around 7,800kg per cubic metre. Aluminium alloys weigh inat somewhere in the 2,600kg region. So carbon fibre really is very light.

However, no one is driving around with a cubic metre of steel in the car and lamenting its devastating impact on handling. Obviously, a carbon-fibre roof will lower the centre of gravity a bit, but so will having a haircut or removing the loose change from your pocket. It doesn’t matter but does make you look a bit of a berk.

If you make the whole bodyshell out of the stuff – Enzo, for example – then it makes a significant difference. The downside, though, is that it’s difficult to paint. Worse, once you’ve had a few, you might inadvertently tell people that your car is made of carbon fibre, and then they’ll think you’re a big chump.

Because the true worth of carbon fibre has been debased by its use as a sort of phoney high-tech jewellery. It has become a fashionable trim material, and fashion is bollocks. Carbon-fibre dashboard, carbon-fibre pedals, carbon-fibre instrument faces – none of this is a legitimate engineering application of the stuff, it’s just drawing attention to yourself. You can buy stick-on carbon-fibre sheets for motorcycle frames. I don’t care how light it is, this must surely be adding unnecessary weight.

There are carbon-fibre pens, carbon-fibre carving-knife handles, carbon-fibre mobile phones, carbon-fibre briefcases. None of this stuff was ever deemed too heavy, was it? What am I to make of a man with a carbon-fibre briefcase? That he’s deeply in touch with the technological zeitgeist? Or that he’s suffering from consumption and can’t lift a leather one?

I’m reminded of the early Eighties’ elevation of the word ‘turbo’ to denote excellence in everything. The Saab Turbo was a cool car, therefore turbos were; and it was a short step from that to turbo vacuum cleaners, turbo sunglasses and turbo disposable razors. It’s all nonsense.

Drink beer. Drive a metal car. Don’t be a ponce.


James May, Column

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