Clarkson on: cheap cars
The ultra budget Tata Nano is being hailed by many as the biggest leap forward since the Model T Ford. So, if they're right, it's more important than the Beetle. More important than the Mini. More important than man's conquest of the moon. And amazingly, more important too than the invention of Sky+.
I don't think they are right though. Because the only thing that makes it stand out is the low, low price. Brilliant. But I could make a cheap car if I built it in a factory made from wattle and mud, paid the workers in rice and motivated them into a 20-hour day with whips and flame throwers.
Especially if the car in question didn't have to conform to any of the safety requirements that make other cars so much more expensive. Look at it this way. The Nano, on home soil, is £1,700 and that, I'll agree, is impressive. But the model we'll get in Europe will be £4,500. And I'm sorry, but £4,500 for a car with no boot, no top speed, three wheel nuts and a petrol tank under the passenger seat? That's not Sky+. That's not even a laser disc.
It's just a car. The people who've tested it already report that it's much better than the mopeds most people in that neck of the woods drive. Much better than a moped? Give me a break. That's like saying syphilis is much better than Aids.
Of course, I hope a great many Indians buy the Nano. Partly because I want Tata to make lots of money that they can spend on more supercharged Jags, and partly because its success will infuriate the eco-mentalists who like people to be poor and downtrodden. I don't, which is the main reason I want the Nano to succeed. I want it to mobilise all of South East Asia. It's only right and proper that Johnny Cong should be able to afford a car.
But here, in Britain? No thanks. Because what we are getting here is a tool, and a home-brand tool at that. Do you have a Curry's stereo system? Or a Daewoo television? No. Because while such things are cheap, they are not the real deal. You want beans on toast, you go to Heinz.
And it's the same story with cars.
Because what you're are buying when you buy a brand new cheap car is a smell and the latest registration number to impress the neighbours - who won't be impressed because almost no one knows where we are these days with the 57s and the 08s and so on. So it's just the smell. And you can achieve that by buying a second hand car and some Pledge.
Normally, the second hand car I'd recommend is an Alfa because, as we've said many times, you cannot be a petrolhead until you've had one. With an Alfa you get the sunshine. But then you get the inevitable thunderstorm. And I'd rather have that than an eternity of Tupperware grey that comes as standard with every budget stack 'em high Toyota, Kia and Nissan.
"I want Tata to make lots of money that they can spend on more supercharged Jags"
This time, however, I'm not going to suggest an Alfa, I'm going to suggest something even more preposterous: a Lancia.
I know that for many of our younger readers, a Lancia is the other car in Sega's first arcade rally game. But that wasn't just a bunch of pixels you know. That was a Delta Integrale. It existed in real life, had four-wheel drive, a turbo the size of Sicily and performance every bit as big as Michael Winner's ear lobes. And guess what? A quick check of the Autotrader site reveals you can buy one today for less than a Nano.
If you don't fancy a car with left-hand drive - I had an Escort Cosworth because of this very thing - then do not despair because this was simply the last of the great Lancias. Go further back and it's like crawling on your hands and knees through a field full of oiled-up lesbians. After 10 minutes you will end up panting with the possibilities.
There's the Fulvia HF, the HPE VX, the Beta coupe - the same car I used to cross Botswana - the Ferrari-engined Thema 8:32, and perhaps best of all, the mid-engined Monte Carlo. This came with tweed seats, a canvas Targa roof, a transverse engine and no brakes.
No, that's not fair. The early models had brakes, but those at the front would lock up without warning, causing the car to plough into a tree killing everyone inside. Very unusually, the Monte Carlo was taken out of the dealerships and put back on the drawing board, only to emerge about a year later with the problem fixed.
Except it wasn't. All they'd done in the intervening period was have a lot of lunch. And then remove the servo. This meant the front wheels wouldn't lock up any more, or indeed slow down at all unless you had iron thighs and were consequently strong enough to push the brake pedal clean through the floor. Most people didn't though, and, as a result, they would hit a tree and be killed. Unless the car had rusted away first. Which it usually had, if it was raining. Or dry. Or hot. Or cold.
This was the other thing about Lancias. They were beautiful to look at and lovely to drive, once. But to keep costs down, they were made from Communistical steel that was so thin you could see the engine through the front wings. I'm told you could even see the pistons going up and down, but I never saw that. Probably because of some catastrophic electrical failure caused by the man who was employed to install the wiring choosing to go for lunch instead.
Make no mistake. Lancias were more tangled than an iPod's earphones, and more troublesome than Robert Mugabe. In every single way, a modern Nano is a better means of getting about. But getting about is only a small part of what a car must do to worm its way into my heart.
It must be pretty, and the Nano isn't. It must have a soul, and the Nano hasn't, and it must excite you, even when it's three in the morning, you're in bed and it's on the hard shoulder of the M42, where you left it, in a cloud of steam. I guarantee the Nano won't do that either.
You will never, I assure you, think of an excuse to go into town in your Nano whereas if you had a Lancia, you'd deliberately forget the dog biscuits so you could turn round and go back. You'd be like a human yo-yo.
I've decided I must have a Lancia. I've decided that if anything they are even more extreme than Alfas. An Alfa, if you like, is hotel porn. A Lancia is the sort of stuff you can only find at the very edge of the internet. We're talking dogs here.
I've even decided which model I must have. It's a Stratos, the first car ever designed specifically for rallying. Only 492 were made, it had the engine from a Dino, which was nearly a Ferrari, and it was styled by Marcello Gandini, the man responsible for the Countach, the Diablo, the Alfa Montreal, the Maserati Khamsin, the Bugatti EB110 and the De Tomaso Pantera. It's almost like he was consumed with a never ending thirst to create the perfect supercar. And I know what fuelled this thirst. In 1972, he'd done the Stratos and he just couldn't match it.
And that's where we'll end. With a simple observation. Gandini did not style the Tata Nano. So far as I can tell, no one did.