James May

Illustration of a Rolls-Royce balancing on a finger

Handle with care

I know this is going to sound like a slightly pompous thing to say, but a shotgun with 28-inch barrels really does feel very different from one with 30-inch barrels.

It's all to do with the inertia of the thing, which effects how quickly and easily you can swing it around.

Similarly - no, not similarly, actually, but illustrative of the same point - a heavy wooden ladder, carried horizontally, is much harder to manoeuvre than a lightweight aluminium one, even if they are the same length. The issue is still inertia, but this time as a result of weight and its distribution.

How bloody boring is this? Fairly, I'd say, and no doubt you're expecting me to continue with an explanation of why the mid-engined layout is good for handling, and why the Lancia Stratos was so successful as a rally car because it was both mid-engined and short.

And I was, until I thought about it a bit harder, and then decided that handling is actually a bit pointless.

I've realised, too, that every time I arrive at a bit of a road test that talks about balancing it on the throttle or how the car can be gathered up with an armful of opposite lock, I put the magazine down and find something more constructive to do, such as texting the Bible to a friend.

Come on, who really cares about this stuff? A while back we entered a 24-hour motor race at Silverstone in a modified BMW 3-Series diesel, and even I could see that handling was sort of relevant around the track - the way it turned under braking, for example, or the benign onset of its understeer in the corner I call 'Abbey' because it has an Abbey National hoarding next to it, but which is really Copse. Or Vale.

But on the track everyone was going in the same direction, even me, and it didn't really matter if you crashed. Out in the real world, though, handling just isn't important.

“I think the Exige is a nice-handling car, but not in the way that a man with bad sunglasses does” 

Now I accept that handling, on a subliminal level, is a good thing. I think the Lotus Exige is a nice-handling car, but not in the way that a man with bad sunglasses does. I simply like the crisp precision of the thing, and the alertness of its responses. But I have never been seen turning its wheel the wrong way in a corner.

I also like the way my Boxster feels in a tight corner: the way it hunkers down and the steering weights up slightly. But not in the way a man who sits too close to the wheel might like it. You know the sort I mean - arms bent, steely-eyed stare fixed straight ahead, looking for the next opportunity to 'exploit the chassis'. Precision haircut. Nobber.

Elsewhere, though, I've taken a bit of a stand against handling. For years I also tooled around in an old 1980 Bentley saloon that had been fitted with something called the Harvey Bailey Handling Kit. This firmed it up and improved its composure etc etc.

But I never really approved of it because it spoiled the ride, so I became the first man in history to book my car into a workshop with the complaint it handled too well.

The solution, it turned out, was not to remove the handling kit but to get rid of the car altogether and replace it with a 1972 Rolls-Royce Corniche. Back in 1972, a Rolls-Royce wasn't actually fitted with handling, in the way that the L version of a family saloon was not fitted with a radio or clock. In fact, I like to believe that if you worked for R-R back then and ever used the 'H' word, you'd have been locked in the stockroom until you learned some manners.

The net result of all this is highly entertaining. The steering wheel of the Corniche simply provides directional suggestions rather than actual input, as if it's fulfilling a sort of non-executive role in the whole business, or is just too damned polite to issue an actual instruction.

It seems fine on a straight road, and after a while I find myself driving one-handed. Then, after a while longer, I'm driving one-handed and with my elbow on the arm-rest. Then I just have a forefinger and thumb clasping the rim and finally, well in to the journey when I've been lulled into a sense of plutocratic torpor, I resort to a single pinkie hooked lightly over its Bakelite magnificence.

And that's when, suddenly and for no apparent reason, it dives into the ditch at the edge of the road like a refugee during an air strike. It's hilarious.

Tell me that getting an Evo sideways is more fun than that.

 

James May, Column

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