James May on: our speed obsession
I don’t care how fast your car is, it’s actually dead slow. It’s very convenient and very versatile, which is what’s made it so popular, and it gives autonomy, which we covet. In reality, it’s even quite efficient, given that a gallon of 95 Ron in my Panda can take four people 50 miles. But cars aren’t fast.
Over any decent distance, such as between two cities, a modern train is much quicker. I went from London to York a bit back, and it took an hour and 40 minutes. Meanwhile, a trip from London to the aged parents’ house in Devon – just five miles further – took nearly four hours in a fast car, a Ferrari no less.
Light aircraft, even simple ones, whoop cars’ arses. My old Cessna, even throttled back to conserve the hideously expensive Avgas, will cruise through the air at 150mph. That’s a constant 150mph in a series of convenient straight lines, with no let-up until it’s time to land. If you actually want a race, I can crank that up to 175. See ya, sucker.
Cars triumph over short distances and have the advantage of going point to point, but, even here, the news isn’t that great. For really short trips, a bicycle propped up and ready by the garden gate takes some beating. And I will thrash any supercar in an eight ay-em race across a major city on my 90cc Honda ‘motorcycle’.
Four hours to drive to Devon? This is proof that the speed of cars, measured in the only credible way this side of quantum physics, as distance divided by time, is lacklustre. I don’t spend an uninterrupted four hours on anything else in life. Even four hours in the pub is a bit much.
So: given that cars don’t actually get anywhere quickly, we can recalibrate our notions of performance and start thinking in terms of recreation rather than in terms of efficacy.
Unless you happen to be German, we can forget ludicrous top speeds, because they’re not really available to us. Speed, in any case, is relative, even if that doesn’t wash with the magistrate, and is not much of a sensation in itself.
So now we don’t need to boast about 200mph down the pub, supercars can have much smaller engines. We don’t need the power to overcome the exponential increase in aerodynamic drag as speed rises. Forget motorways; they are a conveyor where the engine churns away doing nothing remarkable.
Acceleration is what makes cars amusing, and where cars are fun to drive is out on a winding back road, with its blind bends and crests, and its lumbering tractors; where you need to continually slow down for a bit of a look, and then gi’ it some berries again. Since we’re not going anywhere quickly, we may as well take the scenic route and have a laugh.
So it’s mid-range punch we want. A car that goes quickly from 30 to 60mph is great fun. But I mean really quickly, like a sports bike. This takes me back to the discussions I was having last month with Prof Gordon Murray concerning low weight.
It’s a well-trodden path, this. Reducing weight improves acceleration and braking, and makes the car more agile in corners while demanding less grip, blah blah blah. But we can go further. If we strive for really low weight while simultaneously accepting that outright speed is irrelevant, we can have a smaller but perkier engine, and most importantly a smaller supercar.
Now the engine can be something like the litre-plus four-pots found in Japanese motorcycles: creamy and responsive, very flexible, with a broad rev range and coupled to a lightning-quick sequential gearbox. There would be enough power for trundling around in town, but, once out on our imagined B-road, there would be that other engine to discover in the upper reaches of the rev-counter, where dizzying combustion fury and a hardening exhaust note would add to the sensation of performance.
I hope the Prof is working on this, and I suspect he is. I envisage something around the size of the original MX-5, but weighing half as much, with an engine of around 1.2 litres that revs to 10,000rpm- plus and delivers something like 160bhp. A pint-sized exotic that would be thrilling to use where such a thing should be good – the old A40 – and where current supercars are annoying because they’re too wide.
I love the Lambo Aventador, but, for the life of me, I don’t understand why it’s so huge. Ariel is thinking along the right lines with the Atom, but I’d like a whole car, please.