James May

James May

Nobody’s fuel

Great diesel news this month. It seems that the recent burgeoning enthusiasm for the doctor’s evil invention has given rise to a totally new and previously little-understood pollution threat.

This time it’s not carbon dioxide, which everyone has been going on about for years, but nitrogen dioxide. Don’t ask me what the difference is, because chemistry is my least favourite science and was one of my worst subjects at school, although I did once set fire to the laboratory sink which, being a phenomenon that contravenes the regular chemical relationship between water and combustion, struck me as something worthy of further scientific enquiry rather than two hours locked in the stockroom. Still.

This NO2 stuff, apparently, is bad for the lungs, especially if you’re unfit. A diesel engine emits up to three times as much of it as the equivalent petrol job. Coughs and sneezles are spread by disiesels.

This is wonderful. In the past, my arguments with dieselists have always centred around dynamic and fiscal considerations, but now I can also claim that they’re killing me, as well as boring me to death. This means it is now almost impossible to proffer anything other than a truly mealy-mouthed case for owning a diesel-powered car.

I’ve always found diesel advocates to be rather like all the Australians I met in Melbourne. The instant I revealed that I was a Pommy bastard, they launched into a well-rehearsed diatribe about what a wonderful pan-ethnic melting pot Melbourne was, with such a superb climate and excellent civic facilities, plus art and culture in abundance. I hadn’t suggested otherwise, and I certainly hadn’t asked about it, so I was forced to conclude that Melbourne must be a miserable place. Why else would this suspiciously slick and universal PR presentation slip so easily off everyone’s lips?

And Melbourne’s cuisine is a fabulous fusion between oriental and western influences, owing to the diversity of its immigrant population, and contains some of the finest things I would evereat anywhere in the world. But I hadn’t asked for a restaurant recommendation, or raised the subject of eating, or suggested for a moment that England could do you a better curry. So I went away believing that the food in Melbourne would be poor, otherwise they wouldn’t have felt obliged to sell the multi-cultural-fused dining idea concept to me the instant I stepped off the plane.

The scenery around Melbourne is really superb. I know because the man at the passport booth told me, even though all I had said was ‘good afternoon’.

“Only the sort of man who believes no one can see he’s dyed his hair thinks diesel sounds like petrol”

On the whole, I was left with a bad impression of Melbourne. Left to my own devices, I might have found it rather nice, but the People’s Popular Front of Melbourne put me off and left me very suspicious.

It’s the same with the diesel brigade. I ask a man what he drives and he tells me, for example, he has a BMW 330d and then continues to extol the virtues of its engine. Why would he do this if he wasn’t suffused with doubt? If he didn’t know, deep inside, that diesel fuel only exists to help people fall off bicycles on corners? Here’s how the spiel might go:

“I’ve got one of the BMW 330s. The diesel. I find it excellent for the motorway cruise because it’s really torquey, it’s amazing really and you just can’t tell it’s a diesel anymore, I always used to hate them and I was always a petrol man myself, but now there’s no noise like you used to get, and the performance is excellent and I get 42 miles to the gallon instead of 30 like I used to get, and I save almost £40 a month in my job, and filling it up is just the same, you go to the same pump, and people say it smells and makes a mess but I don’t think so, I think diesels are the way to go, I’d recommend one to anybody.”

Cobblers. Your boss made you have one.

What, for example, is all this about the motorway cruise? I’ve never driven a modern car that isn’t good at the motorway cruise. It’s about the least demanding thing you can do with an engine, running it at a constant speed and load on a road with negligible changes in gradient. This is like claiming that a cooker is good for warming plates.

And only the sort of man who genuinely believes no one can see he’s dyed his hair would be able to kid himself that a diesel sounds just like a petrol. Even the best ones sound like a bag of spanners compared with a sorted petrol number. What else do these people think? That the Stylophone rendition of Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy is indistinguishable from the one performed by the Berlin Phil?

“The performance is excellent.” Well, it’s better than it was in the days when Ford put an old diesel van engine in the Fiesta so they could sell some to geography teachers, but it’s still not as good as petrol performance. Really fast cars have petrol engines. I know JCB has just built that diesel Land Speed Record car, but it’s for the diesel land speed record. It’s not an absolute. Trying to dignify the diesel with diesel performance records is rather like bald men claiming to be more virile. Only other bald men are interested, so who cares? And as for boasting about economy: fishing enthusiasts don’t worry about how much they’re spending on maggots in order to catch fish, so why would I worry about the extra little bit I’m spending on petrol in order to have a proper car?

I really do believe that the diesel car is a red herring of the first order. It’s one of those things people want to believe in so badly that they are unable, in the short term, to see its failings. It’s right up there with the SodaStream machine, one-coat gloss paint and reflexology sandals, all of which seem, rightly, to have been forgotten.

Give me petrol. Give me the fizz of 8,000rpm and women’s perfume that smells of freshly pumped unleaded. Allow me the dignity of filling up without falling on my arse in a puddle of this oily muck.

Diesel occupies a lower stratum than petrol in the refinery process and as in fuel, so in life. A gentleman does not drive a diesel.


James May, Column

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