James May

Bookshelf with micro-niche car catalogues

Mr niche guy

I have been in this business long enough now to remember when there were only really five different types of car – saloons, estates, sports cars, hatchbacks and Land Rovers.

Then along came the Renault Espace. At the time, I was working for a different magazine, and the editor became terribly excited about the Espace phenomenon. It was a whole new type of car, and it would change motoring for ever.

After that, it was only a matter of time before the ‘niche model’ was created. Soon, everyone was producing a supposedly niche model, and within a few years of that, every new car launched was touted as a new class of vehicle in itself. Pretty quickly, the whole business got out of hand.

Now look where we are. There are SUVs, sports SUVs, SUV-coupe crossovers, sports estates, four-door coupes, luxury pick-ups, soft-roaders, grass ‘n’ gravel leisure vehicles, lifestyle mid-size MPVs and pretty much a unique take on the motor car for every one of its potential owners. “The distinctions between different classes of vehicle are becoming blurred,” a Mercedes-Benz spokesperson once told me, at the launch of a small van it had fitted with windows and renamed the Vaneo, which was available in Dog specification.

So it may surprise you to learn I have identified a definite niche for a type of car that doesn’t seem to exist, and all because I’ve been hanging around with photographers.

Now wedding photographers, with their crisply pressed morning suits and their belt-fed supply of dead funny jokes you’ve not heard at any other wedding, are one thing, and will drive an old Vauxhall. But the sort of photographer who takes pictures of cars for a living is a more complex marketing proposition.

The car photographer has a great deal of kit, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear in an age when six million photographic pixies are available on a mobile phone. He (it’s never a woman, sadly) will also often have something called ‘an assistant’, who is the modern equivalent of the Victorian chimney sweep’s boy and whose job is to fetch burgers and hold things.

“I have identified a definite niche for a type of car that doesn’t seem to exist” 

So the snapper needs a big car, which isn’t so much of a problem, as there are plenty around.

However, the lensman will also cover significant mileages in the course of his work, and as he must arrive fresh for his encounter with Leica, the Greek muse of creative photography, his car must be comfortable. Again, this is easyto achieve.

But here’s the tricky bit. In order to produce those dramatic low-angle kerbside shots of a new Aston, or the up-the-nostril portrait of Clarkson, taken as though the camera is mounted on his shoes, the photographer must squirm and grovel in the dust of the earth. On every car shoot I’ve ever been on, the bloke ends up kneeling in a puddle. As a result of that, the inside of his car looks like a pig yard.

So what the photographer needs is a large, very comfortable car with a hose-down interior, but as far as I can make out, no such thing exists. Land Rover Defenders are designed for wading and so they can be jet washed on the inside. They will also take a lot of kit. But you wouldn’t want to go any distance in one.

That’s why the Range Rover was created, to combine the utilitarian efficacy of the original Landy with a bit of long-distance comfort. And it worked for a bit, but then it was gradually turned into a gin palace with nice carpet and aromatic leather, and rendered useless.

I think we may have arrived at a genuine misconception, namely that any car that is spacious, mechanically refined and long-legged must be luxurious and opulently trimmed. This is fine for a car that’s taken out for special occasions, but for everyday use, the interior of a car needs to be the equivalent of that wipe-down emulsion in bathrooms – no nooks and crannies, no electric motors under the seat, vinyl upholstery, rubber carpets. Car designers need to think less in terms of sitting rooms and hotel receptions, and more in terms of kitchen worktops and public swimming pool changing rooms.

I would buy the ‘snapper’ edition of the E-Class estate or the Toyota Verso and so, I imagine, would anyone with children, dogs, or who had ever spilled a take-away bhuna in the footwell. In fact, you know those cheap French roadside hotels, where your bathroom is formed from a single plastic moulding?

Like that.


James May, Column

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