Clarkson on: classic cars
It was a great start to the British summer. Huge lows barrelled in from the Atlantic, bringing showers, drizzle and longer periods of rain. It was cold too, and windy. Marvellous.
But then, disaster. In the middle of July, the Azores High moved into Britain and this cued everyone with a floral dress to spark up some kind of village show.
Being a strict libertarian, I have nothing against these ancient, traditional gatherings so long as they stick to murdering goats, and don't start building wicker men in which to burn the local bobby. No really, if someone wishes to dress up as a Morris Man and dance around a pagan penis, that's fine by me. Same goes with the cake stall, the traction engine display, and the village band... so long as they don't attempt the 1812.
However, the trouble with shows of this kind is that it encourages people with vintage cars to take ‘the old girl' out for a spin.
Why? No-one looks forward to a really wet, rainy night in November so they can huddle round the fire and watch an episode of Z Cars on a 1950s television. "Ooh look, Doris. Isn't it great how the picture's all fuzzy and we can't hear a word that Bert Lynch says. And isn't it fun, doing away with that horrid, modern remote control."
NASA doesn't ever say, "Look guys. Let's not use the Shuttle this time. Let's have a bit of nostalgia and go up there in an old Apollo." And nor have I decided to eschew my laptop and write this column with a quill. So what's this thing people have for old cars?
I should perhaps explain at this point that I'm not talking about stuff which was made since, say, the Mustang. I'm talking about cars which have running boards. Cars where you have to go outside to change gear.
You see them, whenever the sun comes out, cruising around the Cotswolds on their way to some kind of Fred Dibnah village show. Except of course ‘cruising' is entirely the wrong word. They're ‘spluttering'.
And what on earth does the de rigeur woman in the back look like? Honestly, you could wrap her in tin foil and stick her on the bonnet. She'd look a lot less daft.
For God's sake, woman. When you're invited out for a spin in ‘the old girl', just say no. Tell your husband you have a heavy period. Tell him you're eloping with Robbie Williams. Tell him any damn thing but do not get in the back of his car. As I've said before, the only person who ever looked good in the back of a convertible was Hitler.
And when your idiotic husband makes yet another wrong turning and tries to turn round, do not wave cheerily at the people who are being held up, or they may get out of their cars and stab you in the heart with a tyre iron. The back of a convertible can be a very dangerous place. Ask Mrs Kennedy.
Have you ever seen a vintage car trying to do a three-point turn? You sit and watch the driver wrestling with the wheel, spinning it round endlessly and you want to scream, from the air-conditioned, power-assisted luxury of your own car: "Hey, Fool. That wheel. It's not connected to anything, so stop pretending otherwise."
"My biggest problem with old cars is that they don't really mix on modern roads"
Then there's the bothersome business of changing gear. Would someone please write in and explain exactly why it's fun to have a crash box, with a clutch pedal in the boot and a brake near the radiator. All the driver gets, every time he moves the lever, is the noise of 16 cogs eating themselves for breakfast. And once again, you have to lean out of your car and shout: "That's not connected to anything either".
Only the other day, I was taken for a spin in a Blower Bentley, which is valuable for all sorts of reasons I will never be able to fathom. It was hell, but then it would be, since it had Mediaeval springs, pre-Byzantine gears, the engine out of a Spitfire Mk IX and tyres from a Raleigh Chopper. If you want to offer people a lift home from the pub in ‘the blower', buy a bloody XJR. At least a Jaguar can pull up in a few yards, rather than in a few counties.
Of course, fans of the old car will explain at this point that ‘the old girl' is so much more stylish than anything made today, as though everything old simply must be better than anything new. Right. Well, why don't you go to work tomorrow in some doublet and hose?
And when your boss says you're expected to have a video conference with the New York Office at one, explain that you'd prefer to write it all down in a letter.
Actually, my biggest problem with old cars is that they don't really mix on modern roads. Fans of motors with external radiator caps may think, as they splutter about the Cotswolds, that up here, with the lovely old stone barns and peaceful sheep, all is tranquil and folksy. Well it isn't. Some of us have to live and work here, and we can't if you're on your way to buy some jam in a 1932 Potterton.
Let me put it this way. How would you like it if, when you were trying to get some old-fashioned peace and quiet in your garden on a Sunday afternoon, I came along in a Max Powered Renault Turbo and imposed some gangsta rap on you?
You'd hate it, wouldn't you? You'd say I was being selfish. Well quite.
Old cars, I'm afraid, belong in museums. Or the Saturday supplement of The Daily Telegraph. Which is the same thing.
This article was first published in September 2002.