Clarkson on: noisy motorcycles
As you may have heard, there are proposals to cut the noise that a motorcycle can make from 3,400 decibels, at which point human heads have been known to explode, to 74 decibels, which is around the same as a hairdryer.
What’s more, it would not only be illegal for a manufacturer to sell a noisy bike, but it would also be against the law to tamper with the exhaust and then ride a noisy motorcycle. Under the scheme, offenders would have their bikes confiscated.
It was predictable, of course, that Richard Hammond would convulse in spasms of righteous indignation at the news because he’s the sort of biker who wears green and white Power Ranger romper suits and enjoys riding around on those bikes where the handlebars are all droopy and there are many vivid decals on the petrol tank.
James May is different. He rides around very carefully, refusing to overtake even the slowest moving bus. He indicates with his arms, wears Kenneth Moore goggles and refuses to deviate from a perfectly perpendicular riding position. It’s almost as though he thinks he has an imaginary sidecar alongside. So I assumed that he’d approve of the cut. But no. He was just as vehement as Hamster.
It’s therefore up to me to be the voice of reason. You see, I live near to one of those Cotswold roads which, whenever the sun comes out, plays host to approximately half-a-million city boys on their PQRSTTTs. So, apart from a brief break at lunchtime when they all go to the pub for some bitter lemon and exaggeration, you absolutely cannot hear yourself think.
Some days, when the weather is really good, the only way of keeping my sanity is by dreaming up new and imaginative ways I’d pay these people back. Yesterday, I thought I’d turn Richard Hammond into a sort of mushy pulp and hose him through an offender’s letter box, as an example.
Or maybe, I could just follow one of them home – not hard, bikes are pretty damn slow on the twisty roads up here – and indulge in my passion for Seventies prog rock in a powerful boom box, at four in the morning outside the culprit’s house.
It’s weird this, because normally, I do believe that it’s vital to live and let live. If someone wants to be a Pakistani, and live in Bradford, then that’s fine by me. Why should I care if he supports the Pakistani team when they play England at cricket?
It’s the same story with bird watchers. I think it’s pretty idiotic to sit in a bush, listening to your hair grow, in the hope you’ll see a bird that you know is there anyway. And I have similar views on those who like to be tied up and whipped.
Generally speaking, I don’t even mind when someone else’s passion is a mild irritant for other people. Microlighting, for instance. In anything above a light breeze, these airborne lawnmowers hang in the sky, making no headway at all for about six hours at a time, ruining the peace for everyone within 50 miles. But their pleasure, I suspect, far outweighs the pain the drone causes other people.
I don’t even get cross when people use their mobile phones on the train. Usually because I’m miles away, in a car. But even when I am on a train and they’re sitting next to me, it’s really not the end of the world. One side of someone else’s conversation can often be quite entertaining. Once I even got a share tip that worked out. And it’s better than listening to the clatter of steel on steel.
“If bikers chased me I’d escape, because it’s hard to run in full leathers. That’s why cows are so slow”
There are exceptions to this, however. I’m talking about behaviour so antisocial that it can drive even Patience McPatience into a flurry of rock-throwing rage. Environmentalism, for a kick-off. The idea that the world should spend more averting climate control, over which we may – or may not – have any control, than we spend providing drinking water for the starving and diseased of Africa. That kind of thing really pisses me off.
And then there’s campanology. Those who think it is perfectly acceptable to climb a church tower six nights a week and allow everyone within five miles to hear them ‘practising’ for an event that no-one goes to anyway. i.e. church. Why can’t they take up the piano instead. Then we wouldn’t have to listen to them getting it all wrong.
It’s a tradition, they say. Yes, it is. Like burning witches and persecuting Catholics. Two other traditional church pastimes that have been dropped.
Biking falls into the same category as bell ringing. You can still wear your leather romper suit. You can still accelerate from 60 to 150 in minus 1.3 seconds. You can still crash and die so that someone in need of a spleen may live. But you absolutely do not need to deafen everyone in the process.
Hammond says that this is part of the appeal of biking, the sense that you’re being a bit rebellious, and yes, even a bit frightening. I think he likes to think he’s something of a Hell’s Angel, but it’s hard to be scared of a man whose feet don’t touch the ground when he’s on his Yamuki Davidson.
And it’s hard to conceive any situation that would make James scary. Even if he leapt out of a forest on a dark night, brandishing a blood spattered axe and going “grrrrrrrrr”, he’d still be good, old affable James.
I’m sorry. I’m not scared of bikers at all. If they crash into my car, they crumple and I go home and have supper. And if they were to chase me on foot I’d get away, because it’s hard to run when you’re encased in leather. That’s why cows are so slow.
At this point, I’m sure, some of you will be accusing me of hypocrisy because I’ve spent the last 15 years enthusing about loud cars. This is true. I love the sound of an American V8 or an Italian V12. I love the way cars bark, and bellow and wail.
And sure, Hammond and May like the sound of a massively amplified mosquito. They probably like burglar alarms, too. And drum ’n’ bass. Or bass ’n’ drum as Hammond called it the other day.
But here’s the thing. Most of the noise that comes from a modern car is made by the tyres. And that is now being addressed by dimpled road surfaces that collect the sound and absorb it into the earth. Only a very few cars are truly noisy, and they’re owned by people who would never dream of accelerating high enough into the rev band for that little valve in the exhaust to work its acoustic magic. I’d like to bet that the majority of people reading this have never heard a Ferrari or an Aston at full chat.
Whereas everyone, except for a handful of sheep farmers on Dartmoor, knows exactly what a bike sounds like at speed. Because all bikes are noisy, there are thousands of them and they’re bought specifically to be thrill machines. I say again: they can be just that, without pissing everyone else off.
If Hammond and May want to try and be frightening and rebellious, that is, of course, fine. I don’t care if they go to the woods every night and drink one another’s blood; they can sacrifice as many goats as takes their collective fancy. But what they’re being at the moment, with their loud exhaust pipes is annoying. And that’s not cool.
This article was first published in October 2005.