James May

James on: arguments

James on: arguments

One of the reasons Top Gear works as a TV programme is that the three of us agree on virtually nothing. As some dreary business tycoon once observed, when two people in a boardroom agree on something, one of them is redundant.

One of the reasons Top Gear works as a TV programme is that the three of us agree on virtually nothing. As some dreary business tycoon once observed, when two people in a boardroom agree on something, one of them is redundant.

To be honest, it might work because of the high production values, the superb camerawork, and the unerring ability of our soundmen to capture the exhaust note of a supercar exactly as it's heard by the
driver, which is a tricky thing to do.

Come to think of it, since the vast majority of our viewers don't speak English as a first language - the Australians, for example - this is a far more credible explanation for its success.

And it could be that the blokes we met in Iraq, who loved Top Gear, are just waiting for Clarkson's trousers to fall down, Hammond to look gormless or me to get lost. These things are part of a universal language the grammar of which is innately understood by all, like that little hand gesture meaning "The bill, please."

But that's not the point I'm trying to make. We disagree. It's healthy. We all admit to liking the Subaru Legacy Outback, but only Jeremy and I are united in our love of Sandwich Spread. Hammond doesn't like it, because it's got bits in.

Only Hammond and I like those tins of beans with the little sausages (in a rich tomato sauce). Hammond and Clarkson like the Ford Mustang, but I think it's for fogeys. Hammond and I both like bicycles, but Clarkson doesn't, probably because he rides one like the teacher from The Bash Street Kids.

I'm sort of with Clarkson on some early Genesis but not on Supertramp, while he doesn't get a good big band. Hammond does, but can't stand ‘In Your Wardrobe', and so it goes on.

Still, at least we're agreed on the original VW Beetle. Hateful carbuncle of a car driven by people with hang-ups about all sorts of things. Yes. But I've changed my mind. Sorry.

I've spent a lot of time with Beetles in the past few months, because it looms large in my upcoming Cars of the People Top Gear special. I mean, it's a dreadful thing that makes you look like a subscriber to Health & Efficiency*, but it is interesting.

More interesting than, say, a Morris Minor, which is just twee. The Beetle has inner darkness, and its cutesy bum-cheek profile disguises a tortured past. That gives it appeal, like a reformed train robber. It's sort of why we like a Lambo. It seems to have a bit of previous. Well dodge.

If you look deeply into the story of the Beetle, it is tainted with deceit, possible theft, warmongering, political subterfuge and plain evil. But it became a hippy icon, so the story ends happily enough. And even though some of the greatest automotive minds on the planet originally dismissed it as worthless, it eventually went on to do the job it was intended to do, which was mobilising the masses. It's just a pity so many of them were potheads and wasters.

The Beetle was exquisitely modern, and very cleverly designed. And while we're at it, no, it wasn't the basis for the 911. The Beetle was designed, ostensibly, by Ferdinand Porsche, and he was more than 10 years dead before the 911 came along. That was the work of his grandson and Porsche's design chief, Erwin Komenda.

Just because it was rear-engined, air-cooled and roughly the shape of one of Marie Antoinette's breasts doesn't mean it was really a Beetle. Lots of other cars used this layout, because for a time it was seen as the way forward for reasons of packaging and aerodynamics. Ferdinand's Beetle was simply an excellent expression of cutting-edge Thirties thinking that survived well into the Sixties and Seventies. Look at Subaru, for example.

You may as well say the Cortina was based on the Model T because they were both front-engined, liquid-cooled and RWD. Bah.To drive an original Beetle is still a pretty horrible experience. It sounds like all of history's flatulence combined as one event. The driving position is poor, the gearchange recalcitrant, the heating and ventilation abstract. The windscreen is too small.

But there's another way of seeing it. Generally, I find old cars annoying. They're not very good, which is why they're no longer made. But you can enjoy one at a more cerebral level, in the mere contemplation of what it means to the world.

So if you're going to have one, it may as well be the most fascinating car ever made, and the Beetle is that car. I think I might want one.

*By Lord Young of the DTI during the Thatcher era, if I remember rightly

James May, Column

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