James May

James May on Lamborghini

Bull game

This month, I have mostly been driving my Fiat Panda, which I know, from the good-natured badinage directed my way when I have the window open, is something some of you find faintly amusing.

Well, you can all sod off, because I’ve also spent some time in a Lamborghini Murciélago, and I bet you weren’t expecting that.

I quite like a supercar every now and then. Even though my penchant is for big luxury barges and small, simple stuff, you can’t really love cars and not want to drive a Lambo. These days, other supercars – Zonda, Koenigsegg and what have you – may be considered more outrageous, but Lamborghini is the originator of the mid-engined supercar as a piece of community theatre. A Lamborghini is like a fart at a wedding; you know it isn’t funny, but you can’t help feeling that it is.

Ferrari want to be taken seriously, but Lamborghini will be, despite mincing about in a slightly unacceptable suit. As the LP640, the Murciélago dishes up 630bhp and acceleration enough to push your eyeballs round to the sides of your head. The ‘LP’ bit, by the way, stands for longitudinale posteriore, which is an Italian way of saying the engine is in the back and mounted lengthwise, as it was in the Diablo and Countach. This can make for issues when trying to arrange the transmission, but it doesn’t half look good, if you ever manage to find the lever that opens the engine cover.

It all made for an entertaining weekend’s motoring, but at the end of it, I couldn’t help wondering: ‘What’s it actually for?’

Now, I’m familiar with the argument that says a supercar needn’t really be useable day to day, because that sort of thing has to be sacrificed in return for the heightened driving experience and so on and so on. So I’m not going to get too worked up about luggage space, the trauma of climbing over its sills and the reversing problem.

I can accept, therefore, that no one really uses a Murciélago like a car, for going to places and discharging all those duties from which a car is inseparable. Lambos, like two-door Rolls-Royces and Caterhams, are usually part of a stable of cars that includes something like an S-Class for driving around in. A Lambo is an indulgence for special occasions; a sort of caviar for petrol hedonists who normally eat sardines on toast.

But even then, what’s it actually for? The fact is that the Murciélago feels massive and unwieldy on a real road, even if you only drive it once in a blue moon. On a back-road, where it ought to be fun, it’s too wide. On a motorway, even if you can get away with driving it very fast, it is noisy, and you will hardly be pushing the outside of its envelope. You’d be better off in an Audi S8, which is quieter, has a bigger boot and a better radio. Mid-engined supercars seem to have evolved for dynamic reasons, but to have endured for stylistic ones, and that’s somehow unsatisfying. I’m all for extreme machinery for a purpose, but not for its own sake.

“Lambos are an indulgence for special occasions; a sort of caviar for petrol hedonists who normally eat sardines on toast”

When the mid-engined supercar was invented – and Lambo had a lot to do with it through the Miura – there were sound engineering reasons for putting the engine between the axles. It centralised the mass, reduced the polar inertia (don’t ask) and helped the car corner with greater agility. It meant you couldn’t carry anything, couldn’t see out properly and couldn’t take more than one mate with you, but that was the way it had to be.

But back then, vehicle dynamics were still something of a black art. Saloons behaved in a certain way, small, low, front-engined cars behaved in another way, but if you were prepared to sacrifice everything, you could have a bit more with this thing that came to be known as a supercar.

But now, in an era when a Japanese saloon made by Subaru or Mitsubishi can be made to travel so fast, and corner so well, that it’s hard to see how a supercar is in any way necessary. Germany’s archetypal exec saloon, the BMW 5-Series can be turned into a giant-slayer. Vehicle dynamics are so minutely understood that the case for compromising the shape and lay-out of the car in their honour seems like a very old idea. The supercar is looking suspiciously like a dinosaur.

This must be making me sound like a right old mardy pants, and I accept that I may be wrong. So what I’m going to do is drive a different supercar every month, purely for the purposes of finding out.

Next month, Captain Slow drives the Gallardo. I bet you can’t wait.

 

James May, Column

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