Some years ago, I nearly killed a man called Jason Barlow who used to work for Top Gear and who you might also remember from Wrong Car Right Car. Nice bloke.
We were fooling around on a circuit in a BMW Z3, roof down, me driving and Barlow in the passenger seat encouraging me to ‘get it sideways’. So I got it sideways coming out of a long, fast, left-hander. Easy. Not really my kind of thing, though, and a few moments later you could tell.
I noticed that we were running out of road. I’d like to claim that I didn’t lift off, but I would admit that I did do something with my foot – maybe just thought about it a bit. Suddenly, the little BMW snapped the other way. And before I could do anything about that, it had turned back onto its original heading. And then we were on the grass and going at a colossal speed, still sideways. I think the car may have gone up on two wheels.
The good news was that this circuit was built around an old airfield; one that, though essentially disused, was maintained for use in an emergency or for landing really big stuff. That meant the grass area either side of the runway (for such it was) had been rolled flat and nicely manicured, since aeroplanes occasionally spin off as well. So there was no digging in, no flipping it over. The car simply waltzed along for what seemed like several miles and came to rest among some rabbits.
I’m glad I didn’t kill Barlow. I would have felt a bit shoddy about it. And I’m glad for him too; for while Bing Crosby had the presence of mind to say “It was a great game” as he fell at the 18th hole, The Oxford Book of Quotations would have recorded Barlow only as the man responsible for the longest series of uninterrupted ‘focks’ in the history of the Northern Irish language.
During the inevitable post-incident analysis, I found myself twirling an invisible steering wheel and declaring that a quicker ratio would have saved the day, since that would have allowed me to rein the tail in before it started fishtailing about. The weight distribution and polar inertia obviously came in for some criticism as well. So it was all BMW’s fault. But then I thought about it a bit harder, took a long look at my sweaty face in the mirror, and had to admit that I’d been driving like an arse.
Still, the whole affair did help cement a theory I had been working on for some time, and which I still uphold; namely, that handling, like the occult, is something that shouldn’t be dabbled in. All through the history of motoring, people have been bleating about how the lift-off oversteer tendencies of this or that car, or the vagueness of the steering on some other, has been a contributory factor in a high-speed get-off. But let’s be honest. It’s all a lot of racing drivers’ excuses, and anyone who ends up in a ditch when no other vehicle was involved should be a man and admit it was his own fault.
“We were on the grass, going a colossal speed, still sideways. The car may have gone up on two wheels”
But when I say that handling shouldn’t be dabbled with, I don’t mean that it’s irrelevant. Far from it, in fact. A car that handles really well is always a pleasure to drive, in the way that a well-balanced kitchen knife is strangely more satisfying than a clumsy one when chopping up carrots.
I have such a knife, and it is as wieldy as a conductor’s baton and a joy to brandish over the quaking root vegetable. Yet I am never seized by an urge to position my woman spread-eagled against the kitchen wall and practice throwing it to within an inch of her head. It would probably be ideal for this, but that’s not the point. The point is that because it’s good enough for the circus, it’s great just for making lunch.
For the same reason, the finer points of on-the-limit car behaviour are something that should lie just beyond the horizon of your everyday driving ambitions, like the function of the airbag. In any vaguely modern car, you will only reach them long after the point when, if you’re honest, you’ve been wantonly taunting the reaper by poking him with a pointy stick and then running away.
The fact is that I’ve only ever driven two cars that actually played tricks on me, and both were built over 40 years ago. One was my 1960s Triumph Vitesse, which, on a tight roundabout, would open its own doors owing to the flexibility of its body shell. The other was a 1950s Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, which had a rightful reputation as a widow-maker because of its cast-off saloon-car rear suspension. In fast bends, the geometry of this can alter depending on the load, which in turn affects the amount of rubber in contact with the road. That is a genuinely alarming car, even at fairly low speeds, which is how I was driving it since it wasn’t mine.
But everything else has given me a fair warning. Even my old Bentley, which is not a great handler in absolute terms, emits clear signals that one is no longer driving like a gentleman long before it ploughs into one of the few walnut trees that wasn’t felled in the construction of its dashboard. Some of you may also remember that I bought an old 911 recently, mention of which causes the car bores in the pub to suck their cheeks in as they contemplate my imminent demise. “Crikey,” they proclaim, with an air of deep foreboding, “you don’t want to lift off in a bend/drive in the wet/brake hard for a roundabout [delete as necessary] in that.”
On the day I collected this car, I was so terrified I drove home at 20mph, such is its reputation for evil handling. But now I’ve realised it’s all nonsense. I know you all think I drive around like a grandpa, but it’s not entirely true. I’ve been driving the 911 quite fast, and long before the point where the rear-weight bias becomes an issue, it hangs a big sign in front of the windscreen that reads ‘You’re being a git’. Same goes for the Peugeot 205 GTi and the original Audi TT. Binning your car because you were caught out by the handling is just like admitting that you’re too stupid to be able to read.
The rules of life really are very simple. Rude, obnoxious and insulting? You’re going to be punched in the middle of the face by Richard Hammond. Driving like a twat? You’re going to crash.