Clarkson on: sports cars
According to Mercedes Benz, I'm an ill-informed ne'er-do-well who doesn't understand the basics of automotive marketing.
It seems the new SLK is only available with an automatic gearbox because the majority of the customer base doesn't want to be bothered with a clutch. That's fine. Let them have their automatics. But why can't those of us who like to drive a car be given the option of a manual?
When I first saw a picture of an SLK, I couldn't believe Mercedes had made a car which looked so awesome. If Eva Hertzarentalcar, or whatever her name is, became a member of the cabinet I'd be less shocked. The SLK was, is, utterly beautiful.
And that hood? Have you ever seen such an engineering masterpiece? That old bridge in Shropshire? Stephenson's Rocket? Do me a favour.
I wanted one badly, but as you'll see elsewhere in this sportscar-tastic issue, I found it a huge disappointment. Not only was the gearbox all wrong, it made a drab noise, wasn't that fast and had a small fuel tank.
By then, though, I'd caught the sports car bug. I had the money and wanted wind in my hair. Even better, I could give it to my wife for Christmas, creating the illusion that I'm a nice guy after all. Then, when the sun came out, I could just refuse to let her anywhere near it.
Perfect - except for one small thing. If I wasn't going to buy an SLK, what was I going to buy? The MGF is too girly. The TVR too unreliable. The Alfa too wonky. The Lotus doesn't have any carpets... and so on.
What I did buy is a BMW Z1 which has confused more than a few people. "I see," said the editor. "You didn't buy a Lotus because it has no carpets but you have bought a car that is left-hand drive, too heavy, too slow and is made of plastic. Also, it's a BMW, which you hate."
"The MGF is too girly. The TVR too unreliable. The Alfa too wonky. The Lotus doesn’t have any carpets... and so on"
He could have added, had he known, that it is finished in exactly the same colour as margarine. Plus it's been clocked and has received repair work to everything forward of the windscreen.
The exhaust does bark, but it's more a sort of woof noise than the creamy roar you'd expect from that 2.5-litre straight six. So, what on earth possessed me to do such a thing? Well, firstly, my wife has had a damp spot for the Z1 since we tested one six years ago. I knew that with a Z1 in the drive, my life at home would be a year-long orgy of massaged shoulders and fine cooking.
Secondly, I like it too, even though it cost a bloody fortune. Only 72 were imported to Britain, mainly because it retailed for £37,000, which, even by BMW's standards, was pricey. They fell in value quite quickly, but have been stuck at the £20-£25,000 mark for a couple of years now. I gave £22,000 for ours.
I'm sure the Z3 will kick those values into touch but I maintain that the Z1 is a better car.
You see, the Z3 is too obvious. It's a brassy blonde with false lashes and large breasts. Even after a couple of kids, it would insist on wearing tight sequinned mini-skirts, in the hope of winning a northern industrialist. The Z1 is entirely un-obvious. It looks like nothing on earth and it has those doors.
And I know it's pervy, but there is no way a girl in a skirt can get in without flashing her knickers. It's a small point, but an important one.
I just love the idea that someone at BMW sat down and said - why does a car have to have doors? It suggests free thought, imagination - and the result is an ordinary car made into an extraordinary thing.
And that's exactly what I want from a sportscar. We've now come to expect weatherproofing, fine hand-ling and a decent turn of speed. Without wishing to sound spoiled about it, we want more.
That's why I made the TVR win my TV road test of the current crop. Never mind the questionable reliability, the awkwardness of the hood, the weird and wonderful cabin or the astonishing turn of speed.
What sets it apart is that blood-and-thunder soundtrack. God knows how it is legal, but who cares?
If Mercedes had done away with the wheels on its SLK and fitted four beach balls instead, I'm sure the handling would have been adversely affected. But rest assured, it would have won the test instead... and I'd have bought one.