Clarkson on: beautiful cars
I see Charles Saatchi, who has a London art gallery full of dead cows and pickled sharks, has recently bought a painting of Princess Diana, by a former stripper, for £600.
Now, everyone with Harry Hill collars and a subscription to The Guardian is running around saying she's the new Constable Turner, the greatest find since Tracey Emin refused to get out of bed for less than £10,000.
Of course, I had a long hard look at this new painting and nodded sagely. “Yes'', I thought, "it's an exquisite something or other and I love the way the artist has discombobulated the notion of Princess Diana as a mother, while punking up her owl as a lover and national icon''. It's important, I find, when discussing art to talk absolute crap.
The only trouble is that we sometimes sink to similar depths in the world of cars. Go back through old motoring magazines and you'll find that in almost every road test of an Italian car, the writer will kick off with some nonsense about the Renaissance.
Why? Yes, there are some pretty buildings in Italy -- some of them are nearly as pretty in fact as some of the buildings in France. And yes, there have been some great artists. But what about Rembrandt and Van Gogh, both of whom were Dutch? Does that mean cars from Holland today must be exquisite to behold? Really? So could someone explain the Mitsubishi Carisma?
And anyway, just because Italy used to be good at knocking up a building doesn't necessarily mean the genes have been passed on.
We used to be good at building bridges and tunnels and trains. Now, you can't even get from London to Manchester without being bankrupted and killed.
Sadly, I'm as guilty as the next man at perpetuating this Italian myth. I've argued many times that they can't help but design beautiful cars because they are surrounded by beauty. This is rubbish. Ferrari is based in Maranello which is one of the ugliest towns in the world.
We need to forget this notion that Italian cars are designed by handsome Italian men whose offices overlook the 12th century piazza and whose secretary's legs go on for 2,500 miles.
Giugiaro is a good-looking man with some lovely jackets, but what of the man who did the Fiat Multipla? Perhaps he worked in an office which overlooked a bus station and was brought coffee in the morning by a woman who was part human, part Scammell truck. For all its cleverness, it really was an ugly son of a bitch.
And it's not alone. The original Fiat 500 was more like a mollusc than a thorough bred, And let's not forget that the Morris Marina was converted into the hideous Ital in Italy, or the 1970 Alfa 1750, which looked like a Triumph 2000 that had been at the pies.
Yes, the Fiat Strada Abarth was a sensational road rocket, but was it beautiful? Even if it were the last girl in the nightclub and you'd washed down a handful of Viagra with 64 vodka-Red Bulls, you'd still want to go home on your own.
“We need to forget this notion that Italian cars are designed by handsome men whose offices overlook the 12th century piazza”
Even when the Italians get it right, they still get it wrong. Take the Alfa 164 as a prime example. When it came along, everyone thought it was just the most stupendous-looking saloon the world had ever seen. But long before the first one had turned a wheel in Britain, it was already out of date.
It's a common problem with the Italian design houses -- they're good at coming up with solutions in the here and now, but their ideas, like Jason King sunglasses, never last.
Think. What are the best-looking cars ever made? Well there's the Aston Martin DB7, for sure and that's about as Italian as a Barnsley chop. Then you have the original Ford GT40, and the E-type Jag -- notice a trend yet?
Yes. They are all British, but I have never heard anyone say, “Ah well, you know the reason the British can't help designing such good cars is because of the Shambles in York and the High Street in West Wycombe''.
It's nonsense, this notion, that the surroundings have a bearing on the shape of anyone's next car. The fact is that the Jag came out of Birmingham which is even more hideous than Maranello and the GT40 came out of Slough. God knows where the DB7 was penned. In one of God's wet dreams probably.
Even America, a country with the aesthetic appeal and the artistic ability of a wood louse, occasionally gets it right. I was thumbing through an old motoring annual from 1969 the other day, laughing at the silly cornering angles cars used to adopt when pushed in those days, and generally marvelling at the black and whiteness of it all when I happened upon a photo of the Corvette Stingray. Jesus, in the context of the time, that thing was astonishing.
I used to think the Countach was the greatest shock to the system the car world had ever seen. Having one of those outside your house in 1971 must have been like having an F22 Raptor on your drive today. But the Stingray predated the Lambo. In 1969, it must have seemed about as far fetched as the USS Enterprise.
I look at the cars made in Italy today and I see nothing which sends a shiver down my spine. The Ferrari 360 looks like a surprised frog. That 612 looks like a Bristol and the Gallardo appears to have been drawn using nothing but a ruler.
Further down the scale we find the Fiat Panda, which is just fabulous, but it fails to delight the eye like its predecessor, and the Stilo five door, which can make small children sick. I actually think the current Lancia Thema is the ugliest car made today.
This doesn't mean the Italians have lost their touch, partly because they never had a ‘touch' in the first place and partly because the modern design department of a car firm is as international as Visa's mailing list. Put simply, the Panda is no more Italian than a McDonald's is Scottish.
The fact is that Italian cars do have a soul. But beauty? That can come from anywhere.