Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond

Richard loves muscle

I will concede that there are occasions when our attempts to make a case for something or other being possible, cheap, safe, legal or socially acceptable leave Jezza, James and me standing on the very thinnest of ice. When we tried recently to claim the best car for a teenage driver was a Volvo estate with a broken rear window, for instance, you could hear the ice creak under our boots.

But one claim we have made from the firmest of foundations concerns the extra environmental matey-ness in keeping an old crock going rather than throwing it away and buying a new one. Even the Green Party agree that the environmental impact of sourcing the materials for a new car around the world and then transporting them in ships to a hungry factory that burns vast amounts of energy to turn them into a new car is greater than that of simply topping up the oil and water in your old Escort and squeezing another year out of it. And in these straightened times, it should come as a relief to all that we are being helpful to hedgehogs and gallant towards the guillemot while at the same time saving a boatload of dosh by keeping our wheezy old relics on the road.

And so, it is very much with a world-embracing, planet-loving sense of public spiritedness that I turned my attention this month to keeping my 1968 Mustang 390 GT on the road. It was, I'll confess, still a long way out of range of the jaws of the crusher, but nevertheless, this squirrel-loving hedgehog-saver was in need of tender ministrations if its 7.5-litre, 40-year-old V8 was going to be given a chance to save a few more woodland folk.  

We had reached something of a crossroads, the Stang and I. It might be a tremendous statement of my green credentials, but it is also, and entirely incidentally of course, quite a lot of fun to drive around in, and I have, whilst using it primarily out of an almost parental concern for the crayfish and the meerkat, always been pleased to hop in it and charge off up a country road to whatever meeting, film shoot or fancy dress party has wheedled me out of my home.

“It should come as a relief that we are being gallant to the guillemot, while also saving dosh by keeping an old relic on the road"

But it is quite old now and, on occasion, the limitations brought about by its advancing years and by the slender portfolio of technological know-how available at the time of its birth, have proved a bit of a challenge to even the most committed of green knights. There is no stereo, the aircon serves only to puff out a cloud of brown sludge, the heater matrix leaks, there is no central locking and while there is a limited-slip diff, there is no traction control beyond the one nature fitted to my right foot. And that one doesn't work.

So, driven by the plight of the Tunisian Dune Gazelle that faces extinction due to dwindling habitat resources, I resolved to take steps to ensure that my heroic charger could continue with its good deeds for a few years yet. What I needed was something to motivate me to use this old car in a modern world. What I needed was a really big stereo. And so I sent it away to have one fitted. The man who did so made a great job of it. He put in a unit that faithfully reproduces the look of a 1960s stereo, but that secretly has satnav, voice control and iPod connectivity built in. Of all the modifications I have made to cars over the years, all the engine transplants, suspension re-configurations, de-seaming, re-painting, re-wiring and chassis swaps, this is the best and most effective. It has rendered a complete transformation on every aspect of the car's performance.

I hooked up my iPod and let it choose what to play on shuffle mode. It came up with Motorhead, Ace of Spades and I noticed immediately that the engine, once a bit raucous and embarrassing to drive through a town centre, had been tamed - I could barely hear it. The next track came up, Low Rider by War and I suddenly realised that the Stang's ride, never a strong point in a car running on cart springs invented 200 years ago, now challenges a Mercedes S-Class for smooth-rolling cruisability.  

And better still than these engineering improvements, the stereo has given my Stang a voice. I don't think there's a better modification that can be made to an old vehicle. And when, having given your old car a voice, you discover that you share the same taste in music, it's a pretty intense moment. The Stang is back in service, its mighty V8 singing duets with Aretha Franklin across the Herefordshire countryside, I'm happy and the Yangtze Freshwater River Dolphin is saved. Everybody wins.

Richard Hammond, Column

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