Clarkson on: the Bugatti Veyron
Sometimes, I wish I was James May. Obviously, I don’t want his jumpers, his hair or his collection of Bach records. Nor do I want his house, his cars, his accent, his ability to mend motorcycles or the leather ballet boots he bought recently.
But sometimes I do wish I had his regimented, organised mind because that would make my life as a columnist so much easier. Take Richard Littlejohn for example. Present him with a news story and you know exactly what he’s going to make of it. And it was the same story with the late Auberon Waugh. When you read in his autobiography that he was three when he learned to hate the working classes, you know what his take’s going to be on everything from the French riots to Big Brother.
James is the same. James likes his beer to be brown and his house to be beige. I therefore know what James will think of a new car long before he actually drives it. Poncy, usually. And I know he’ll continue to call it poncy until the day he dies.
I’m rubbish at this. I change my mind six or seven times before I get out of bed. One minute, I think the only way to deal with disaffected Muslim youths is to drop a bomb on them. The next I think the solution is to drop a bomb on America.
I try on opinions like I try on clothes, standing in front of a mirror and wondering if they suit me. Sometimes, I take them home and realise I made a bad choice, so I throw them away and get new ones.
This gets me into all sorts of trouble because I can have a definite, firmly held view on, say, a new Peugeot and then, when I drive it again, I can’t remember what on earth that view might have been. People sometimes stop me in the street and are alarmed to find I sing the praises of something I destroyed in print just two weeks earlier.
Take the McLaren F1. When it came out, I said it was a stupid car because it had a stupid price tag. You’d have needed to win the premium bond jackpot twice to have bought such a thing, and then there’d have been nothing left over for shoes, or supper. “Why dream”, I asked, “about something there’s no point dreaming about?”
If there were any consistency in my life, if I had even a shred of Jamesishness, I would have refused a test drive. Why bother? It’s too expensive. I’m not going to dangle such a thing under the noses of the readers knowing full well their chances of having enough money to buy one are about the same as being gnawed to death by a platoon of woodlice.
I didn’t though. I packed my little suitcase and went to Italy where I was presented with quite the most stunning piece of automotive engineering ever created. (This opinion may change at some future date but I’m sticking with it for now).
I mean take the flappy-paddle, seven-speed gearbox. I spoke to the man who headed up the project at Ricardo and he said he’d never done anything so difficult. Quite an admission from someone whose products are used by F1 teams.
“It’s not that it can do 252mph, it’s the way it manages to do 252 so effortlessly that impresses me most”
“Oh, F1 is nothing,” he said. “They don’t have anything like the power of a Bugatti and only have to last two hours. The one in the Veyron has to work for 10 or 20 years.” Small wonder it took 50 people five years to make the damn thing work.
It wasn’t just the gearbox, either. It was the engine too, that massive quad turbo W16, and the aerodynamics as well. The team had been given the shape of the body and told there could be no alterations. They’d been told too that it must do 400kph and must produce 1,000bhp.
They weren’t fighting to beat Mercedes or BMW. These guys were fighting to beat heat, and friction and lift. They were fighting nature. And how did motoring commentators react? Instead of cheering them on and offering support, we laughed at the many and very public setbacks.
Well, the laugh’s on us now because they’ve made it work. When that massive rear spoiler begins to rise on specially cooled hydraulic rams, you can feel the back of the car being pressed into the road.
It’s not that it can do 252mph, it’s the way it manages to do 252 so effortlessly that impresses me most. At high speed, a McLaren F1 feels like the Bell X-1, a mass of vibrations and terror. At high speed, the Bugatti feels like an Airbus – solid, planted, safe.
You may not like the look of the thing, or the gaudiness of the interior. You may think Ferdinand Piech a mentalist for ordering such a car be made, and to hell with the shareholders. But you have to love the engineering. You just have to.
It isn’t even a straight-line rocket ship, either. On that twisting dual carriageway that comes back down to the ionosphere from the Mont Blanc tunnel, I had it in handling mode, and it’s hard to put into words how much grip there is.
Foot down and with 800bhp hitting the front wheels, you get a dollop of power understeer, but it’s not like any power understeer I’ve ever felt because there’s still 200bhp going to the back wheels... and that’s a number that’s growing by the moment. It feels odd at first, but then it feels spectacular.
Nearly as spectacular as the hammer-blow power delivery when the corner’s over, or the chuckability when you get to the next. I could describe this car as the Lotus Elise’s big brother. So I will. It’s that good.
And now I’ve changed my mind. It’s not ‘that good’ at all. It’s better, because I drove this car for 12 hours and emerged in London with no aches. You can’t do that in an Elise, and not only because after 12 hours, you’d still have 12 to go.
At a stroke then, the Veyron has rendered everything I’ve ever said about any other car obsolete. It’s rewritten the rule book, moved the goalposts and in the process, given Mother Nature a bloody nose.
Of course, I don’t mind changing my opinions about Ferrari and so on. I’m used to it. I spend half my life apologising, and I don’t mind finishing up here with another. I’m sorry I laughed at the Bugatti Veyron’s gestation. I didn’t realise quite what a project it was.
James too is bowled over by the scale of what’s been achieved – I knew he would be – but sadly, the praise is not universal. I’ve have read a couple of reports where commentators are still sneering about the problems of making it, and the supposed soulless nature of the finished product. Come on chaps admit it. You were wrong and the Veyron makes you look like a twat.
I know how you feel. The McLaren F1 did much the same thing to me.
This article was first published in January 2006.