James May

James May

More fuel you

This article was first published in October 2003.

If there's one thing I can't stand it's wastefulness. McDonald's polystyrene mountain, vegetables in plastic bags, screws that come in blister packs of five when you only wanted two, and all sorts of other things I suddenly remember my dad moaning about. And as for people who leave food, they should be flogged and put to work in the scullery. There are people starving in the world.

But I've never quite been convinced by the argument for saving fuel. The difference between a moped that does 1,000mpg and a diesel hatchback that does 50 might just be significant, but the difference between that hatchback and, say, my old Jag at 24mpg just isn't worth worrying about.

I know we have some of the world's most expensive juice in this country, but it still amounts to a hill of beans compared with the real cost of owning and running a car. Once you've bought the thing, insured it, taxed it, calculated the depreciation, bought some wine gums for the glovebox and put some money aside for tyres and servicing, the cost of filling the tank with fuel starts to look pretty irrelevant.

People whine about the price of fuel all the time but, to be honest, I've never heard anyone say ‘Sorry, can't come to the pub tonight; I'm saving up for some petrol'. No-one I know really has to budget for it, it's just one of those things - like beer, haircuts and video rentals - that comes out of our disposable income. So we can dispense with the economy debate and concentrate instead on enjoying our motoring. Great.

Or so I thought, until I bought my old Bentley. Suddenly, I'm having to cope with a best of 14mpg and I've started wondering if my journey is really necessary.

“Imagine my delight when I discover that Safeway has initiated a grocery related forecourt price war”


Filling up the T2 from almost empty - and it's always almost empty - costs £80 or so. It's not what used to be called a pocket-money hobby. And it's not just expensive, it's bloody boring. Other drivers come, fill up, take a leak, buy a car magazine, ask for a VAT receipt and sod off, but I'm still there single-handedly raping Kuwait and weeping from the pain of gripping the gushing nozzle for so long.

Finally, the other day, it suddenly occurred to me that I didn't have a disposable income. It's just an expression invented by people who are trying to sell you rubbish. I've dry cleaned the odd tenner in the breast pocket of a suit, but I've never actually put any money in the bin. For the first time in my life, I began to worry about how much fuel I was using.

Well, you're thinking, buy the diesel hatchback. I can't. That sort of thing is fine for settled family men who have achieved fatherhood and inner peace, but I'm a single bloke on the brink of a mid-life crisis and I need an old Bentley.

So imagine my delight when I discover, much later than anyone else because I never go there, that Safeway has initiated a grocery related forecourt price war. At the time of writing, if you spend £10 on domestic consumables you qualify for a 2p-per-litre discount at the pumps. Spend £150 or more and a frankly staggering 20p is knocked off every litre, which must mean that the grocer is waving goodbye to pump-product profit and leaving you with just the government duty to pay. No wonder those packets of six frozen cod pieces are so expensive.

Anyway, I bashed my calculator for a bit and worked out that if I buy £150-worth of food at Safeway I will save over £20 filling up the car. Ironically, that's almost exactly what I'd dispose of in a long evening at the pub followed by a restorative visit to the most excellent Light of Nepal Indian restaurant. So Safeway is encouraging a healthy lifestyle and motoring satisfaction at a stroke. It's quite brilliant.

Or is it? Let's think about this. A mate of mine has three strapping daughters and a wife to support, and disposes of most of his income in supermarkets. He always qualifies for the maximum discount and ought to be happy.

On the other hand, because he has a wife and three daughters to support and no money left for the finer things in life, he drives a small Japanese MPV powered by a horrible tiny diesel engine. So he can't really use enough fuel to take full advantage of the scheme.

Meanwhile, I can't possibly shop enough to exploit the offer properly. I've managed it once by buying a portable television from Safeway, but that means I now have three tellys in the house and that clearly has to stop before I end up with one in the garage.

Let's say I fill the Bentley up three times a month. I can't spend £150 in a supermarket every 10 days. Richard Hammond doesn't even spend that much on hair products. I could use the first few visits to stock up with washing-up liquid, hoover bags, 1,001 light bulbs and all those other things on the great shopping list of life, but after that the house would start filling up with rotting food. Even if I spent it all on tins of beans and sausages, and economy bog-roll - a sort of self-fulfilling combination - I wouldn't be able to consume it all before the car ran out of fuel again.

I would respectfully suggest that the fruit'n'veg merchants have got this whole thing horribly back-to-front. They should be offering a sliding-scale food discount based on how much petrol you buy. That way I would be able to keep driving the Bentley because I'd be eating for free. The way it stands, this scheme - like the relative value of the family-size box of cornflakes and the Sezchuan set meal at my local Chinese (minimum two persons) - simply discriminates against your struggling single car enthusiast. All it does is encourage people to have too many kids and drive around in recreational vehicles.

What a brilliant piece of marketing. The big eaters don't buy enough fuel, and the big fuel-users don't eat enough food. I'm off down the Indian. On foot.

First, though, I'm going to drop into Safeway to see if they've got any more red herrings.


James May, Column

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