Clarkson on: classic cars
This article was first published in October 2007.
Last month, James May explained to us all that his entire collection of old cars and motorcycles never works.
Well of course it doesn’t. Nothing works when it’s old. People, trees, machines, even planets, fall victim to old age. One day, the sun will breathe its last, so why should the same not be true of a Honda CB250?
Even donkeys don’t last for donkey’s years. I know this because earlier in the year, one of my donkeys, who was called Geoff, suddenly decided that he’d been around for eight years and that was enough. So he died. And this morning, his wife, Kristen Scott Donkey followed suit. Aged 10.
But of course, there’s no point explaining any of this to James and others of his ilk, because they actively want a collection of non-functioning motorcycles. It gives them a chance to get their fingernails dirty and to spend time in their sheds, which they prefer to their wives, obviously.
I don’t understand this, but then neither do I understand the appeal of riding a motorcycle with brakes from the time of Chuck Berry’s ding-a-ling. And steering from when British cinema comprised entirely of Robin Askwith hiding in a wardrobe so the vicar wouldn’t see him in his underpants.
Surely, this is the same as buying a television from the Seventies. Why would you do that? Because you prefer the fuzziness of the picture to the high-def plasma you could have had? Because you like getting out of your chair to change the channel? Or is it because you wanted something which sets fire to your house if you leave it on for more than an hour or two?
Everything made now is better than everything made yesterday. That is a simple, inescapable fact. A digital camera is better than one of those boxes which illuminated the subject by blowing up a light bulb. An iPod is better than a wax cylinder. And James’s Fiat Panda is better than all the old motorcycles in the world put together.
We watch those F1 cars piling into the first corner, and we know that whoever comes out of it in the lead will almost certainly win the race. Because one thing’s for sure. His car will not be leaving the track in a cloud of smoke, steam, fire and brimstone. And that, dare I say it, is a little bit boring.
I’ve just spent eight days at the incredible Ascari track in southern Spain filming every single supercar that money can buy. It was a punishing schedule, pounding round and round in savage, face-melting heat for day after day. And predictably, all but two of the cars suffered some kind of problem.
You want to guess which two? Go on. I bet you a million pounds you are wrong.
Nope. Not even close. It was, in fact, the two Lamborghinis: the Murciélago Roadster and the Gallardo Spyder. While the others cooked their brakes, boiled their power steering fluids, ate their water pumps and shattered their clutches, the Lambos just powered on and on like a brace of Energizer Bunnies. It made them feel invincible, reliable... German. And is that what you want from a Lambo?
"Everything made now is better than everything made yesterday. That is a simple, inescapable fact"
Yes, obviously. But, at the same time, no. Not really.
Let me explain. As you are probably aware, I recently drove to the North Pole with James May,who may (or may not) snore. It’s hard to say for sure because the farting is so incessant and so loud that you can hear nothing else. He is a sinus and an arsehole.
Anyway, we drove a Toyota Hilux which had been modified by an outfit called Arctic Trucks in Iceland. It was a brilliant machine: tough, powerful and capable of functioning when everything else – the cameras, the sound equipment, the cookers and my iPod – had been killed by the cold. It was also utterly reliable, and as a result, I never bonded with it at all.Now let’s compare that with the Camaro Z28 I bought for the trip across the southern states of America last year. It had very little clutch, the power steering was broken, the radio would only play gospel, there was a dead body in the boot and six gallons of cow juice in the passenger footwell.
On top of this, it broke down on a fairly regular basis. And yet, despite all of the above, I loved it.
The fact is that a car which works all the time is displaying what Charles Babbage called the unerring certainty of machinery. But a car that breaks down, overheats and coughs when asked to move is displaying some peculiarly human qualities.
Of course, I don’t want a car that coughs, overheats and breaks down when I’m trying to get to London for a meeting. But nor do I want a Toyota Corolla, which is built to function without fault.
And I think the answer to the problem is to be found at the Lucknam Park Hotel, just outside Bath.
I used to go there a lot, and it was heavenly. It’s Georgian, of course, it’s made from honey-coloured stone and is exactly the sort of place that would cause Jilly Cooper to fall to her knees and weep. Why? Because it’s old, so therefore it’s full of character. But unlike one of James’s old motorbikes, it works. You are not waiting six hours for the water to arrive, and when it does arrive, it’s not grey. When you flush the loo, there isn’t a banging noise from the basement which causes any wildlife within 15 miles to run for its life. And all the windows shut properly.
In other words, what we have here is a charismatic building with bang up-to-date innards. Hot and cold running plasma, jus, and a swimming pool which is a bit hotter than the centre of the sun.
I believe the car industry should learn from this and immediately start to make the cars they used to make 40 years ago. Only better.
Recently, I drove a Ferrari 275 GTS from the mid-Sixties, and it was much as you’d expect. Terrible. The grip ran out at 40, it accelerated like a Greek afternoon, and I’m willing to bet its spark plugs stop working whenever there’s an idiot in Number 10.
But my God, what a looker. What character. What human flaw in the design and the detailing. I mean who thought it was a good idea to put sixth gear exactly where your passenger’s crotch would be?
It has, in other words, all the qualities we look for in a car, all the little foibles that mean we have to tailor our driving style to get the best out of it.
I realise, of course, that there are many companies which can fit old cars with modern components. But what I’m talking about here is Jaguar making an inch-perfect replica of the old girl, using all the things they have learned about car production since. Imagine that.
Imagine, too, James’s CB250 with a modern frame, a modern engine, a modern gearbox, a modern electrical system, modern lighting and modern bodywork. He’d have the style he’s after. And he would never need to get his fingernails dirty. I even have a name for such a contraption. Trigger’s Broom.