Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Clarkson on: ageing

I feel 19. I think I have the body of someone who's 19. I think I look 19. In fact, I only know I'm not 19 when I try to act like I'm 19.

The trouble is that the deterioration of my lungs has been gradual. When I was 19 I could have run to Las Vegas and arrived with perhaps a bead of perspiration on my brow, and only because of the heat. Now, I don't do the stairs two at a time but in two stages. With a cigarette break on the first landing.

It's the same story with my stamina. When I was 19, I could go to parties that went on for a week whereas now, I get sleepy by eleven. And hangovers? Jesus. I'm only just over Boxing Day.

But it wasn't like I suddenly woke up one morning and found that one glass of dry white was enough. It happened s l o w l y. One day it was 14 pints, then it was 13 and a half and then it was 12 until now, after 20 years I'm cross-eyed after a sniff of Ribena.

I bring all this up - and believe me I do that too if I have more than a pint - because I've just spent the last week driving a 1990 Audi quattro. And I'm sorry, but it was like bumping into an old girlfriend who's had three kids since you saw last saw her, and got a job in a chocolate factory. For crying out loud, how on earth did I ever fancy this?

Really. When I wrote for Performance Car magazine in the late '80s, the 20-valve Audi quattro was the equivalent of an M5, a Ferrari, a Subaru Impreza and the Lloyd's Building, all rolled into one. I made it my car of the year every year because there was nothing - and I mean nothing - that even got close to it.

Well it may only have been 11 years ago but, heaven's above, things have changed. Driving it nowadays is like listening to Tubular Bells.

I mean, where are the wheels? How did I not notice that the old thing was connected to the road by four Smarties. Honestly, they're only 14 inches in diameter - four less than on an RS4.

And then you have the wipers which aren't hidden under the leading edge of the bonnet. They stand proud, in the air flow where they can increase drag, not work at speed and, as a bonus, fracture the skull of anyone you run down.

Moving inside, there's the digital dash which Honda has unwisely brought back on the S2000 and er... that's about it. Answer me this. How in God's name did we ever manage without air-conditioning? In that mid-May heatwave I had to drive along with the bloody window down and I still got home every night in need of a bath.

"Driving a 1990 Audi quattro nowadays is like listening to Tubular Bells"

Then there's the stereo. A Blaupunkt Melbourne with buttons that you have to press. And when you press them, a red line moves mechanically up the dial. That's the stuff of Brunel.

But worst of all were the door panels. Today, even the cheapest and most horrible Hyundai has sculptured lining whereas the quattro simply has material to stop you seeing the metal - metal which clangs when the door is closed. Honestly, I've seen cow sheds which can be sealed with more aplomb.

I was amazed. I would never have believed that car design had come on so fast in the last 10 years, that things we take for granted now weren't even available as an extra on an all singing all dancing supercar from just 11 years ago.

However, in one important respect, modern cars still cannot hold a candle to the old bruiser. And that is the way the damn thing moves.

At this point, I know, the Editor of Top Gear magazine will be finding something important to do which involves being in Chile for a month, but he once moved a 20-valve quattro into a cornfield. Backwards, at about 85. And I still don't know how.

Yes, there is a touch of understeer to start with but if you lift off or brake or even die, the tail starts to come round so gradually that even a man with no arms could get it back again.

Needless to say, the 2.2-litre turbo five is down on power compared with the RS4, but in a drag race - and I know this because I did it - you simply wouldn't believe how close the older, lighter car gets. At the half-mile marker, there was just a car's length in it.

More than this, the quattro is a car that begs to be driven hard. The RS4 is stupendous - one of the world's great ground coverers - but when you're just driving along, it turns into a pussy cat. The quattro, however, doesn't know the meaning of ‘just driving along'.

My wife said after a drive from Chipping Norton to Wiltshire that she'd averaged xxx miles per hour (censored because I need someone to drive me home from parties) and, frankly, I didn't believe her. But the following day, without really trying, I managed the same thing. Even though I had to have the damn window down.

It made me wonder about the direction modern cars are taking. Obviously, they are more comfortable, kinder to the environment and equipped with far more in the way of toys. But when it comes to excitement, the old quattro is an easy match for even a Subaru P1.

Imperceptibly, I've got older and slower but the quattro is still 19. Moby may be all the rage but Mike Oldfield did it first. And better.


Jeremy Clarkson, Column

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