James May

The old masters: a cherished old car

The old masters

I realise that this is going to make me sound like a bit of a mardy pants, but there’s no denying it any longer, so here goes.

I know working on Top Gear is an enormous privilege. Since you’re reading this car magazine, you would probably be interested in driving the Bugatti Veyron around VW’s closed test circuit at Wolfsburg. I have, and, frankly, it’s great.

As was the Maserati Quattroporte round the old Targa Florio route in Sicily. That was brilliant, and I’m grateful to have done it. When I was given a Fezza F430 Spider to take all around Europe, I was acutely aware that it was just one of a number of great driving experiences that wouldn’t have come my way if I’d stuck to my original career aspirations in estate agency and personal finance.

I do genuinely love cars, and over the last few years have been allowed in some that, if things had worked out differently, would only ever have played a part in my life as bedroom posters, including, yes, the Countach. And Brezhnev’s Zil. Only yesterday a man rang me up to ask when I’d like to take the new two-door Rolls-Royce for a spin. No complaints, really.

But there is a ‘but’, and here it comes.

But the thing I like most of all about making Top Gear is when we’re all given a paltry car-buying budget and sent off to source an old snotter, and then – you must know how this goes by now – meet up at the test track for a number of different challenges.

The older I get, and the longer Top Gear goes on, the more I enjoy driving rubbish. The XK Jaguar is a wonderful thing, but an Audi for £65 makes me skip around like an imbecile. Why?

“The XK Jaguar is a wonderful thing, but an Audi for £65 makes me skip around like an imbecile” 

At first I thought it was a simple matter of feeling a bit clever. Assuming you’ve managed to save up the required £70,000, buying a new 911 is easy. You just go to the Porsche shop, choose the colour, and Buzi’s your uncle. It’s no harder than buying trousers. But spending less than a grand on an old Cadillac that will take you across America equally well takes skill, knowledge and experience.

There’s also the rather enjoyable sensation of having beaten the system. A lot of people imagine that an old car somehow won’t make it from Manchester to London, as if these things have sensibilities and age like people. But they don’t. Often, I’m in one of our sheds and I’m struck by the realisation that, with a little ongoing fettling, plus a supply of spare car electricity, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t keep going until I reach Australia.

And then – and the big C is with me on this one – there’s the smug satisfaction that comes from learning the foibles of a clapped-out motor: which gears jump out unless you hold on to the knob, which switches have to be wiggled a bit, how to stop the seat moving about. After a few days in the Audi 80 of the original £100 challenge, I had it sussed, and had developed a set of driving skills peculiar to that car, and which only I knew. Jezza had done the same with his Volvo. If we’d swapped cars, we would have found each other’s undriveable. That makes an old and essentially broken car more exclusive than anything else in this magazine.

I’m also staggered to think how many people are ruining their lives and living in less than domestic bliss just to finance a nice car. You can have a nice car for £500 these days. And when a car’s life is already over in the eyes of most people, and when every turn of the wheel is just a moment of grace stolen from the jaws of the crusher, the burden of ownership is nil. You’ll be so thrilled to find it still working in the morning that the stoved-in rear bumper inflicted by a neighbour will go unnoticed. It might break completely after a few months, but so did my toaster. I threw it away and bought another one.

However, I’m still not being entirely honest with myself. The other day, I drove a very old 2CV. I could say, as many people have, that it had an undeniable Gallic charm, and an appeal born of ruthless pragmatism on the part of its maker. I could applaud its monastic austerity and thrill to the memory of its feeble but struggling air-cooled engine and quirky umbrella gearchange. But I’d be lying. An old 2CV is unbelievably crap in every single way imaginable. And I loved it.

And there’s the truth of it. I can’t deny it for a moment longer. I actually like crap cars, and I think I’m going to ask if I can be fired.


James May, Column

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