Hammond’s Czech mate
Oops. I've done a bad thing. Well, two actually. Firstly, I fell in love. And secondly, the subject of my new-found adoration is also the target for love arrows from TV's James May. I shall have to fight him in a duel: not a frightening prospect, frankly, but a bloody inconvenient one. I shall have to get a sword.
My plunge into love happened at the Top Gear studio. Now, before anyone gets twitchy and rings my wife, can I point out that whilst, yes, our studio is often graced by what certain publications would almost certainly refer to as a ‘bevy of beauties', it was not on account of any of the variously preened and polished young ladies tottering around our freezing studio on inappropriate heels that I found my head whirling with romance and my heart stirring with passion.
I was outside, in fact, walking across from the knackered old hut we call our ‘Green Room' to the caravan where they serve cold chips and warm Fanta for lunch, and I passed the motley collection of cars owned by our crew. And, it was amongst these dreary, humdrum heaps that I saw, for the first time, my new love.
Bear in mind that there was no shortage of glamorous metal at the studio that day. My eyes had already caressed the curves of a gorgeous Lamborghini Gallardo, an oh-so sophisticated Quattroporte, a glamour-puss 430 Spider and a feisty little Caterham R500. We had the new Ford Fiesta in there - not a glamorous car, I know, but a bloody important one. And we had a £250,000 sportscar from Veritas, a reborn name spanning back to the origins of the first German F1 car. It's crap, but nevertheless, a quarter of a million quid's worth of carbon-fibre-bodied supercar kind of tugs at your attention, even if it's crap.
"I was walking across from the knackered old hut we call our ‘Green Room' when I saw for the first time my new love"
These had all made an impression and variously stirred my heart, head or trousers. But none so profoundly as the shape upon which my eyes now fell. It was red. Not the spicy, slinky red of a Ferrari, nor a rich, ruby red as might be seen in the dense velvet of a Royal cape. It was more a sort of flat, dull red as might be evidenced in a blood clot or a discarded cow's placenta. It was faded in places, but this colour tinged the flanks of a car so resonant for me with memories that I knew at once that I must make it mine.
It was a Skoda Estelle. A Skoda Estelle Rapid Coupe 136, in fact. I'm ashamed to say that I can't recall the exact age of it, because my head and heart were dancing a tango together around the rain-soaked car park. It's fairly easy to place though, because they only started building the 136 Rapid in 1987, and by 1990 the whole shooting match was over for the Estelle in all its forms. Now obviously, this is a car mag, so the last thing I need to do for the benefit of you, the reader, is explain the reason for my response to this car.
Clearly, the appeal of a rare, rear-wheel-drive coupe with the rugged simplicity of a Commando's dagger and the innocent charm of a bedtime story all wrapped up in a body as taut as a Russian gymnast hardly needs explaining. However, it's always possible that someone not of our persuasion might be picking this mag up in the newsagent. And for their benefit, and theirs alone, I shall explain why the appearance of this aged Czech beauty had me all of a quiver. It's cool. Job done.
In its day, journalists exclaimed that the Rapid Coupe handled like the Porsche 911 of the time. Hardly high praise, given the porker's propensity for propelling punters up trees on corners, but revealing nonetheless that the little Skoda should even be mentioned in the same breath as anything from a manufacturer of such high status. Not only was the engine in the right place, at the back, it had a sensible amount of power, given the car's limitations in the braking and steering departments. A chunky 62bhp was sufficient to get you into trouble only deep enough to thrill, rather then engulf. My mate had one. It was blue. I adored it.
And now, 20 years later, I want one. I made enquiries of our researchers. They looked at my flushed face oddly when I asked them about my new love, and they told me that, yes, they knew the owner. That he had helped us with some filming recently and was a specialist in oddities like this. And they told me that, yes, the car was for sale. The words rang in my ears like a wedding aceptance from a Victorian heiress. And then they dropped the bomb: James May had taken a shine to the Rapid Coupe, and was considering buying it. I fumed. But it's OK. He is my love rival, and he shall be vanquished. The car is mine and mine alone.