Hammond hearts his super Stang
It was mentioned on the show recently that I am a bit of a sucker for a muscle car. This is true, I am. I have owned a 1968 Dodge Charger and still own a 1968 Mustang 390GT. I don't own and never have owned, I should point out, a banjo; this was a fanciful addition of James May's in the studio because he is mad.
The point is, I am happy to be seduced by the simple, honest, uncomplicated charm of these cars, with their massive engines, preposterous colour schemes, clumsy handling and childish names. Give me a Roadrunner, a Barracuda or a Challenger over some fey piece of Italian ‘exotica' with a number for a name or some digitally enhanced Japanese shopping car that grazes on laptops and dribbles out equations any day.
I don't want an ornament to enhance my posing in the square at Monte Carlo and I don't want to number-crunch my way round the Nurburgring one billionth of a second faster than a bloke who dresses to match his car. I want a muscle car that roars at the sky and rams its stupid head into the horizon like a bull in a mustard jockstrap. But now I have a new reason to love muscle cars and it is, perhaps rather surprisingly, because of their subtlety.
My Mustang has been ill. It had been languishing at the back of my garage for months; squatting guiltily over a growing pool of leaking fluids more like an old and slightly incontinent walrus than any sort of bull. Or Mustang. I was unable to open the garage doors without being fixed by its reproachful stare and so, finally, was galvanised into action to get it fixed. The problem was kind of hard to define.
It had blown up three heater matrices; sending yet more essential fluids slopping into the passenger footwell. Various engineers had diagnosed this as faulty matrices, faulty hoses and then a leaking head gasket causing the engine to pressurise - which, er, means pressure comes out of the leaky head gasket and inflates the various ancillaries, including the heater matrix, until they explode... I think. Whatever, the thing had lain about long enough and I was now determined to have it up and running again.
‘I don’t want to number-crunch my way round the Nurburgring in less time than a bloke who dresses to match his car’
A mate picked it up and gathered it into his Hereford workshop. His team of engineers had it stripped to the bones faster than if its carcass had fallen into a Piranha river, and I went over to survey the skeleton. The engine was hoiked out onto a workbench. It was taken apart and internal surfaces variously checked for flatness, lumpiness, roundness or squareness.
All came back as OK, given the broad tolerances to which these things were engineered in the first place. The head gasket was not blown and the hoses were checked out as healthy. All of this took 30 seconds and left everyone in the garage and across south Wales coated in oil, and grazed the knuckles of people as far away as Oxfordshire.
I asked what the problem could possibly be. Nobody was entirely sure. But nobody seemed bothered by this either. It was reassembled and returned to me. It now runs like a clock, sounds heart-stoppingly good and once more raises its head to charge at the horizon. So a car was fixed by a garage; great, it's what they're for. But they couldn't really tell me precisely what the problem had been.
Had I taken along a Nissan GT-R or an F430, they would have whipped out laptops and diagnostic equipment and presented me with a pile of equations telling me exactly what was wrong. It would have been fixed, they would have checked it was fixed and given me a print-out to prove it and I would have driven away brimming with confidence that technology had triumphed and the car was mended.
Instead, I took the keys from an engineer, slotted myself into the Mustang and roared off, fully aware it might just keel over again and die, but that in the meantime it was restored to its heroic old self and straining at the leash after its lengthy confinement. And it is this that defines the muscle car, this subtlety that cannot be analysed by a laptop and that defies digital definition.
You'll forgive me if I wax a bit lyrical, or you might not, but I shall anyway: what this proved was that
A muscle car lives. It gets sick, someone does their best to fix it, using tools and knowledge and brawn and drawing upon experience, and then it is well again. It might become sick once more, it might even die. But it will never, everhave its innermost workings and secrets analysed, diagnosed and healed by an anonymous grey box.
PS: at time of writing, the Stang is still working, but there is a funny noise from below the centre console. It might be a lose panel, or it could be a gearbox linkage issue. Or indigestion...