Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond on: roof stripes

I'm a coward. A snivelling, spineless coward, and that's a fact. I let vanity and timidity hold me back and stop me from contributing something useful, stimulating and worthwhile to the world. I am ashamed.

I've just bought a Fiat 500 TwinAir. And, no, the purchase is not the source of my shame. It might not be everyone's pint of strong lager, but I'm delighted with it. Having grown tired of donating billions of pounds to the government every time I filled my Range Rover and drove to work in London, I investigated more frugal alternatives. There are, of course, many. A Range Rover is an enormous, thirsty thing and, while wonderful for tooling about the countryside pulling horseboxes, it's hard to make a case for it as a means of commuting 130 miles into a city where it doesn't fit and where its mountain-crossing abilities are unlikely to be tested.

I have fallen in love with the thrummy little two-cylindered engine in the Fiat 500 TwinAir. To be fair, I like the Fiat 500 with any engine on board. When I went into my local Fiat dealer and discovered that cars he has taken in part exchange for 500 TwinAirs include a Porsche Cayenne and a Mercedes AMG CL63, I felt I might not be alone in making the move. So I ordered a grey one with aircon, red leather and a Bluetooth system. And, no, the red leather is not the source of my shame, either.

I then got down to the business of decorating the thing. A 500 is cute - it deserves little accents and details to enhance that. I'm talking about stripes, specifically stripes over the roof and bonnet. You might be younger than me - you might not therefore feel the same deep stirrings at the mention of a roof stripe. But, for me, the idea fairly vibrates with excitement and glamour. And there is one form of stripe that stands above all the others, even the Shelby ones, and it is the off-centre rally stripe. I wanted two narrow stripes running the length of the car, from boot to bonnet and over the roof, and I wanted them to one side, just like the stripes running down the front and back of one side of my nylon rally jacket as a kid. But I was too scared. The ones in the book ran down the middle of the car. They were symmetrical. Would people think they just weren't on right? Would I have to answer endless questions about where the stripes down the other side had gone? I couldn't do it; I chickened out and went for the central ones. And this act of cowardice is the source of my shame.

I wanted two stripes the length of the car, from boot to bonnet and over the roof. And I wanted them to one side, just like on my rally jacket

I love the car. I love tearing about in it, squeezing every last drop of juice out of that tiny, characterful engine. And it really is a characterful engine; there are two distinct power bands where it fizzes and pops with excitement, straining at the leash to snap at the heels of the next corner. I'm loving getting to know it, to learn when it is happy and when it can surprise you with great lumps of unexpected torque from such a tiny, tiny thing. It looks great, too - the stripes are balanced and central and even. But they are a constant reminder that I was scared. Scared to take the asymmetrical route.

Hyundai has done it recently, grasped the asymmetrical nettle with its Veloster. It has two doors on one side, and only one on the other. God alone knows why. But it is undeniably asymmetrical. But if you're going to do asymmetry, why not do it properly? Why not give your car one square and one round headlamp? It's not as daft an idea as it sounds. The BMW 1000RR superbike has one round headlamp and one enormous sort of oblong one. And it looks brilliant - angry and snarly. So why hasn't anyone else done it?

I read a blog by a psychologist, Pavel Somov, who made a very good case for symmetry being a safety feature. He talked about a Russian psychologist in the Twenties who noticed how waiters only remembered orders while they were serving them and forgot them when the order was processed; he concluded that this was because we remember incomplete information better. And if incomplete information is asymmetry, Pavel suggests this ability for asymmetry to hold the attention might extend to asymmetrical cars. What if we became fixated on an approaching car with an asymmetrical face and didn't see the bus pulling out alongside us?

In a world of symmetrical cars, there is nothing to distract and hold our attention. It might therefore be that, in foregoing my longed-for asymmetrical rally stripes, I have made a selfless sacrifice in the name of public safety and should be applauded for it. In fact, I thank the heavens that I took the safe, public-spirited route and didn't let vanity lead me into creating a monster that could have caused a disaster.

Richard Hammond, Column

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