James May

New and old Miura illustration

Blast from the past

I admit, readers, that I was a bit stuck for an idea when I sat down to write this month’s column. Yes, I’m working on a vague theory about personal airships, and soon I will have amassed enough evidence to show that it is theoretically possible to train your dog to drive you home from the pub, and, more importantly, that the dog would enjoy it. But both of those need a bit more work, so I was still stuck.

Then I had an idea. Why not take one of Jeremy’s columns from a few months back, alter it very slightly, remove all the references to Liberal Democrats, and then send that in? Brilliant! But I soon realised that you might notice, and then the Editor would refuse to pay me, and I’d be out of work. Quite right too.

So I’ve decided to tell you about the builder I’ve just had in to replace my bathroom, and a fine job he’s done too. There’s a modern bath with hot and cold water plumbed in with shiny copper pipes, and the walls are clad in tiles fixed with adhesive guaranteed for 1,000 years and separated by waterproof grout. The shower has a thermostatic valve. I suppose he could have installed a tin bath fed by cold water delivered down a lead gutter, and slapped wattle and daub on the walls, but then I’d have sent him away with a tap wrench up his soil pipe and no money, and he knows that.

Nobody really wants to live in the past. We may venerate the antiquity of a rustic, 17th-century farmhouse, but on the quiet we’d fit a dishwasher. I firmly believe, despite everything I’ve read in the Daily Mail, that the world is always getting better. How could it not be? Every generation claims it’s going to the dogs, so if it really was, it would be there by now. The past had pox in it. And minstrels. Obviously, the modern world has a lot of rubbish in it as well. Thing is though, it always did. Time has a fantastic knack of reassessing it all later on, throwing away the bits that were no good, and preserving the stuff that deserved to endure. This is true of everything, from fashion to cathedrals, and is the healthy process by which humankind pushes the outside of the acceptable and the timespan of history reins it back in. It’s why the past looks so appealing: you only see the best bits.

Therefore, we blew up most of the urban redevelopment that characterised the early Seventies, but we listed that insurance building in Ipswich that featured on Top Gear. Nobody remembers Barrier Reef, but we’ll still watch ‘It Ain’t Half Dad’s Army Do ’Ave ’Em Mum’. The glittering oeuvre of AC/DC shall remain with us, while Bucks Fizz will be condemned to the dustbin. At least, that’s what’s happened in my house.

“We may venerate the antiquity of a rustic, 17th-century farmhouse, but on the quiet we’d fit a dishwasher” 

If we don’t allow this process to continue, the world will stall and come to a standstill. And that’s why, to get to the point, I’m fed up with car manufacturers shamelessly aping their heritage. We’ve had the Mustang and the GT, now there’s talk of a faux Lancia Fulvia. Last month’s mag featured the ‘new’ Dodge Challenger and that proposed Lambo Miura pastiche. And so it goes on.

And I don’t think they look quite right. The problem is that the original cars of the Seventies were designed within the constraints of Seventies’ engineering, legislation and manufacturing science, and these things informed the look of the age. Today, the rules are different, and sit slightly clumsily with old ideas about shape and form. The new Miura looks pretty good, but I bet, if you stand them side by side, the original will look better. The same goes for the rest of them, even the Ford GT.

What’s more, we cannot view the new Miura in the way people saw the original, because then it was something new. I suspect a lot of people disapproved of it too, but that is what makes it look so good now. The shape of the thing has survived the brutal process of historical selection described above, because it was seen to be right.

For the same reason, it is pointless to attempt a historically accurate performance of some 18th-century music. Yes, you can dig out the old instruments, which will sound different from the ones we know, and you can play them in accordance with the stylistic fashions of the time. But we don’t have 18th-century ears, so we cannot possibly hear it as the original audience would.

How are these shameless retro cars coming about? Why are the bosses of car companies not saying to their designers, “Oi, you charlatan, we’ve had that one before. Come up with something new.” I think I know why, and I think it’s our fault.

Bullish people embrace bullish things. We think sturdy Victorian suburbs are wonderful, but forget that the Victorians were modernists who swept acres of old stuff aside. If we need a new building in a Victorian area of London, everyone campaigns for something ‘in keeping’. What would be ‘in keeping’ is something utterly modern, which we can knock down if it turns out to be no good.

Our obsession with the past is a sign of timidity, then. Look what it’s done to Jaguar. It is impossible to come up with a modern Jag without breaking entirely with the current styling traditions, because they are all locked in the 1960s. People are complaining that the new XK ‘doesn’t look like a Jaguar’. About time it didn’t, I say.

I met a top car designer the other day – never mind who, he was a bit pissed – and he confirmed something that I’ve long suspected. That our reluctance to embrace the contemporary works its way through fatuous marketing research to management, who then stamp on the creative process that drives the shape of cars forwards. In the future, we will go to classic car shows and swoon over the BMW 6-Series and the Renault Vel Satis, not a remake of a Sixties icon. Apart from anything else, the original will still be there to show us how it really was.

Old cars are great, and the past is fascinating. But it belongs in the past. Be modern, or there won’t be any history in the future.



James May, Column, Lamborghini

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