James May

Celeb car illustration

Stars in their eyes

You may not know this, but during the First World War a certain young German corporal called Adolf Hitler narrowly avoided being shot and killed.

If I remember it rightly – I can’t actually be bothered to look it up – he was awarded a medal for gallantry after he rescued a wounded comrade from no-man’s land. It was during this incident that some unknown British or French foot-slogger, had he had the benefit of great foresight, or even a correctly adjusted one, would come to wish he’d spent more time practising at the rifle ranges. With Adolf taken out by a .303 round, the world would now be a very different place indeed.

This brings me neatly – bear with me on this – to Top Gear’s Restoration Rip-Off feature, as seen on TV in the last series. In case you weren’t watching, we had five broken cars of historic significance, all in need of extensive repair, and we could afford to restore one of them. You decided which one in a telephone vote. If you think we got the idea from that programme about old buildings, you’d be right.

There was a Lotus ordered by James Dean, but which he never saw because he died soon afterwards; the Probe 16 used in A Clockwork Orange; a Chrysler Wimbledon once driven into a duck pond by The Who drummer Keith Moon; a Range Rover used by Chas and Di on their honeymoon; and a Mini Cooper driven by Paddy Hopkirk in the Monte Carlo Rally. In the end, the Hopkirk Cooper, although it failed to win in the white heat of competition during early Sixties, romped home to victory while it was merely disintegrating in some bloke’s shed, beating the second-placed spares-or-repair case by a margin of two to one.Thank you for taking the trouble to vote, and, may I say, well done. To be honest, I wanted the Moon Chrysler to win, because I thought it the most interesting car, it was the one I most wanted to drive, and it was easily the most original and unmolested of the five. I actually thought the Range Rover would cream it, because British sentimentality would triumph over concerns for our motoring heritage and people would press four on their touch-tone phones in a 10p electronic tribute to the dear departed Queen of Hearts. Either that or the James Dean Lotus would be seen as a suitable memorial to a man whose other car is probably beyond economic repair. But no – the Mini victory suggests that, in the end, you’re still more interested in cars than in celebrity. And so, as it happens, am I.

I’ve been thinking about this business of provenance and what a lot of nonsense it all is. By way of illustration, I said something really quite fatuous in the film about the Dean Lotus. This was a car the screen legend ordered but grew tired of waiting for, and the Porsche he bought to be going on with was the car that killed him. ‘What if this Lotus had been delivered on time?’ I asked. ‘Maybe James Dean would still be alive.’

“So the Chrysler was owned by Keith Moon. Did you see what he did to his drum kit?”

Well, that’s quite possibly true, but now I think about it a bit harder I realise that it is also complete nonsense. Going back to Hitler, let’s imagine he had been shot in the trenches. People in pubs wouldn’t be saying ‘Hey, it’s a good job that bloke with the funny tache got shot, otherwise Poland would have been invaded and Europe would have been divided by an iron curtain for a generation.’ Likewise, if the Lotus had turned up on time I wouldn’t have ended up making a film about a knackered Porsche 356 Speedster and claiming it was the car that could have killed James Dean, while showing archive pictures of him driving around happily in his Lotus. The world is full of cars that haven’t killed famous people. There are numerous Cadillacs out there that were once owned by Elvis Presley, and he died while he was busy taking a dump.

If provenance is important, then celebrity provenance is the sort you don’t want. So the Chrysler was owned by Keith Moon. This is hardly encouraging. Did you see what he did to his drum kit? And his hotel room? And himself, for that matter. Why would I want the ex-Royal wedding Range Rover? The Royal Family didn’t think it was that significant, otherwise it wouldn’t be rotting away in a barn.

The dealer ads in classic car magazines are full of this sort of thing. A Bentley or similar is advertised as being ‘ex-Greta Garbo’ or whatever. If it still had Greta Garbo in it, or even just smelled of her, then I might be interested. Otherwise, I don’t see how it’s going to improve the car in any way. Likewise a Dussenberg that was once owned by Errol Flynn. It’s not the sort of service history that bodes well for the condition of the car.

‘Former titled owner’ is another one seen on the odd ad for an old Roller or Bristol. Personally, I’d keep quiet about this. Take a look at the state of the average toff’s house and it becomes immediately obvious that you shouldn’t buy a secondhand tea set from this bloke let alone a car. Ever.

In any case, what difference will it actually make to the experience of driving? Jeremy Clarkson, for example, is officially titled, being Dr Jeremy Clarkson (but please don’t go to him with any medical ailments, because his is an honorary doctorate from a technical university. And whatever you’ve got he’ll have had first, and much bigger).

I still don’t want his old car. I wouldn’t drive along suffused by a warm inner glow generated by the knowledge that this was once Dr Clarkson’s car. I’d be driving along picking nub ends out of the upholstery and wondering why every button on the radio gives me bloody Terry Wogan.

I accept that I’m a bloke who once asked what the ‘L’ in L Macpherson stands for, and which F1 team he was in, but even so, I find the whole celebrity motoring thing a bit creepy. And it doesn’t stop with old stuff. Note how pleased manufacturers are when an England footballer buys their Ferrari or Porsche or Mercedes-Benz. Is this supposed to recommend it to me? Am I to think I will enjoy the sexual allure of David Beckham and co if I go out and buy the same thing? If anything, it puts me off.

I mean: our boys haven’t scored in ages.


James May, Column, Chrysler

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