Clarkson on: the future
Subtlety works in a book. You can go back and re-read a passage to savour all the stuff that isn't there, all the hidden meaning and innuendo. It doesn't work, however, on a crash bang wallop show like Top Gear, which is why almost no one seems to have understood the significance of finishing our last run of 2008 with a James May review of the hydrogen-fuelled Honda Clarity.
You might have thought it a bit earnest - you should have seen the 45-minute techno explanation James had planned - and you might have wondered why on earth we should finish a show which featured caravan jumps, a history of the crashes in Touring Car racing, Richard in an ill-fitting hat and me being in love with Will Young with that straight, dry look at the Clarity.
Simple. We were trying to be subtle. We were trying to demonstrate that this is the most important car since the car was invented. That, with one stone, Honda has bagged a left and a right on the big problems facing modern society. It addresses the question of what we will do when the oil runs out, and it shuts up those who would have us believe cars are melting the ice caps. In short, and with all the subtlety removed, the Clarity means we can sleep a lot more easily.
And what's more, since it produces only water from its exhaust, there is no earthly reason why you should not plug it into your house at night and use its motor to power all your electrical items. All of them. Even if you live in a palace. It really is, we think, the solution to everything.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to make hydrogen. There is currently no infrastructure for either transporting it or selling it. And the Clarity, if we're honest, is only Genesis. We will need to get through Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers and the entire Old Testament before you can buy and run such a thing, practically and for a reasonable price in Wakefield.
Ordinarily, all these problems could be solved with money. But the one thing the car industry does not have right now is that. And nor will it have any for the foreseeable future. Other industries? It's hard to think of one. The oil companies are muddling through as I write, their liquid gold selling for just $50 a barrel. And if anyone else feels inclined to invest, they are going to find the banks are not lending. In short, and with no subtlety at all this time, money is the one thing the world does not have.
And so it seems likely the car firms will opt for the easier, cheaper option of making stupid hybrids, like the Prius, which all right-thinking people can tell are nothing more than a complicated way of making people ‘feel' like they are making an effort. We know, as readers of a car website, that they are doing no such thing. Hybrids are power-hungry when they are being made, and environmentally devastating when they are being scrapped. And in-between times, they do, at best, 45mpg.
Making a hybrid to stave off disaster is like replacing a broken window pane with a sheet of polythene. Yes, it makes the room feel all snuggy and warm again, but you're still going to get burgled. You need a replacement for the empty space? You need hydrogen? But that's expensive. And you don't have any money. And you won't have any until people start buying your wares again. Which they can't because they don't have any money either. And if they have, they are not going to spend it, because the Daily Mail will say they are smug, and extravagant, and that they will give women breast cancer.
I fear therefore that, for the time being, there will be no great leap forward. There will be no revolution. The hybrids will continue to be bought by misguided fools, the Clarity will continue to dribble about in California, and the car as we know it will soldier on unchanged.
However, I do believe that they will become more boring. In the last few years, we've had a call almost every week from some bloke saying he's made a two-inch-high, £8 million V48 car, and would Stig like to take it round our track.
"Away from the wide open spaces of the TG test track, a Fiat 500 is much more fun to drive than a Zonda"
We've had Aston Martin pricing its cars with a ‘Think of a number, then double it' technique. We've had Lambo and Porsche working on fantastically expensive four-door supercars. We've had Mercedes making an SL which costs £250,000, and BMW imagining that what the world needs most of all is the magnificently daft X6. The world has had its snout in the trough, and the car firms have been only too happy to feed us with caviar-infused peacocks. It's been fun, if I'm honest, but now, it's over.
This needn't necessarily be a bad thing. I was wandering around London the other day, and strangely all the flash showrooms on Park Lane looked a bit old-fashioned, a bit fat, a bit last-week. Whereas the red and white Fiat dealership on Berkeley Square seemed to be completely right. I wanted almost everything in it. And when they get the 500 Abarth - which I hear will be available with a 200bhp engine in the near future - I might be tempted to actually go inside and do some buying.
This is going to be the trick the car makers must, and will, pull off. They are going to have to take their bread-and-butter Pandas and, with a splash of paint here and a dash of the designer's brush there, make them a lot more desirable.
I'll let you into a little secret. In the real world, away from the wide open spaces of the Top Gear test track, a Fiat 500 is much more fun to drive than a Zonda. A Zonda will pull more men, but on a bumpy B road, you'll be wearing a bigger smile in the Fiat, I promise. Or a Mini. Or if they can zanify the Fiesta, a baby Ford.
In the not too distant future, cars like this will become the norm for enthusiastic drivers, in the same way that in the early Eighties people were selling their Gordon-Keebles and Bentleys to buy a Golf GTi. And instead of dreaming of the day when you can have a Gallardo or a Scuderia, you will tone your aspirations down to something like the new BMW Z4.
This, it seems to me, is about as right for today as the X6 is wrong. Twelve months ago, which seems as far away as the 19th century, the Z4 was hopeless. People put its small sales down to the curious styling, which is probably true, but I reckon the main reason it didn't sell is because it was too cheap. Customers were walking into the showroom to buy a four and coming out with a six. Because why not?
The new model is as well-proportioned as the old one, though now a lot of the strangeness is gone. It's very handsome. It also has a metal folding roof. And, of course, it's a BMW, which is OK these days, because the cocks are now buying Audi TTs instead.
Strange, isn't it? The changes to the Z4 are welcome but fairly superficial in the big scheme of things. You might even call them subtle. Really, it has stayed the same, and the world has changed. We used to dream about shagging a supermodel, whereas now we've sort of grown up and realised that, actually, we'd be better off dreaming of shagging the girl next door.
Two years ago, we'd have dismissed the Z4 as a bit dull. Now though... I'm yearning.