James May

Vintage cars

Ruling glass

I have this theory that there are only actually two generations ever to have existed in the world. One is the young, the other is everyone else that went before, including all the dead people.

All the old and dead people think the world was better in their day, and that everyone had respect for policemen and was able to make their own entertainment etc. Oddly, I’m beginning to think like this myself. When I was a boy, my dad would have said that we were all slobs and it wasn’t like this when he was a lad. These days, I talk to my dad and we believe our childhoods were the same, and that the young of today don’t know what’s good for them.

I suppose when I’m really old and my nephew is in his 40s, we’ll sit together and agree how we remember a time when everything was made of real wood. It’s all rubbish. Every generation claims that the world is going to the dogs, but if that were true surely it would be there by now.

Thinking about it sensibly, the world can only be getting better. Everything is already better than it was when I was in my 20s. There were only about four or five things to eat back then, but now I can buy shittake mushrooms from a corner shop at the end of my road. Not so long ago, it would have stocked bread, milk and coal.

My clothes are better now, and cost a lot less. Same goes for books, magazines, newspapers and recorded music. There’s more education, more wealth and more living space. More people now have showers, central heating and telephones, and where my mum and dad once went from Bristol to Weston-super-Mare for a holiday, they now go to the Caribbean. Even Top Gear is better, because no one says ‘drive safely’ at the end of each episode. The best time to be alive will always be now.

And the best car to drive will always be a modern one. I’ve thought carefully about this, too, and I’ve worked out that the car itself, which was invented in the 1880s, only came good in about 1991. Prior to that they just didn’t work properly. They broke down, they killed you in crashes, and they wouldn’t start in the winter. They rusted within a few years and fell apart constantly. My 2006 Fiat Panda, a cheap car for poor people, in many vital respects offers greater refinement than my 1979 Bentley, and its driver enjoys a better life than that of the Bentley’s original owner, even though he was a very rich man.

So just as there is nothing for us to lament about the passing of the twin-tub washing machine, there is nothing we honestly miss about cars from the good old days. Or is there? I was driving along the M4 the other day when I came up behind a Ferrari 400i, the wedgy four-seater from the Seventies and Eighties. This is one of those also-ran classics that for decades has looked a bit dowdy and uninspiring, but suddenly looks terrific. A bit like the XJ-S. I really fancied it for reasons I couldn’t quite explain.

"My 2006 Fiat Panda, a cheap car for poor people, in many vital respects offers greater refinement than my 1979 Bentley" 

And then, to make matters worse, I saw a Triumph 2500 saloon, and I thought that looked really good as well. This was clearly an aberration of some sort, as my mate’s dad had one and I know it was a terrible car. Come to think of it, I once borrowed a 400i and that was a terrible car as well – hard, rough, noisy and uncomfortable. And let’s be honest, I’d just passed it in a 1.2-litre Fiat.

So I throttled back the Panda and had another close look at both of them, and realised what made them appealing. It’s because they’re so airy. Each has a massive glass area and really slim pillars. The Triumph has a waistline like a pair of Glen Campbell hipsters, to the extent that its proportions almost look comical. Alongside their modern equivalents, the Ferrari and Triumph looked like conservatories in a world of outside dunnies. Here, then, is one attribute of classic motoring that has been sadly lost to us; one argument from the they-don’t-make-’em-like-that-anymore fraternity that doesn’t deserve a punch in the face.

What went wrong here? The other day, and as part of a TV programme I’ve been making, I had my brain scanned in an MRI machine. Essentially, this involves having your head clamped in a cage and being inserted into a long tube. It’s a pretty claustrophobic experience but no worse than the rear seats of some Peugeots I’ve tried.

I know the official explanation: better crash worthiness demands broader and stronger pillars, and the quest for aerodynamic efficiency leads to a high-tailed stance with a consequent reduction in rear glass area. But this doesn’t quite wash.

In the world of motorcycle frame design, and indeed in the chassis of the Lotus Elise, the thickness of tubing and extrusions can be varied so that strength is only present where it’s needed. This saves material and weight. It also means there’s no real excuse for making me drive around with the Cenotaph sticking out of the corner of the dashboard, which not only obscures the approach to junctions but leaves me craving daylight like a Norwegian in December.

After a few minutes looking at car picture books, I conclude that the proportion of a typical car given over to glass has, by area, been shrinking since the 1960s. I know the likes of Citroen has given us some huge glass sunroofs, but that’s not the point. The windows are too small, like they are in the Empire State building, and I can’t see out properly.

The irony is that, of all the materials used in making a car, glass has probably advanced the most. A lifetime ago all glass was like the stuff in houses – thin, brittle, difficult to shape convincingly.

But nowadays Pilkington can produce a glass so pure and so strong that it can be used as a structural material in skyscrapers, doing the job that bricks once did and throwing a lot more light on the subject into the bargain. Once, glass was seen as a means of filling in holes in the wall and keeping the wind out. Now it’s used so extensively that if you removed the glass from some modern buildings you’d be left with little more than a pile of furniture.

The view from the office has improved enormously. Why not from the car?

This article was first published in 2007.


James May, Column

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