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James May

James May: cars should be fit for purpose

Published: 27 Apr 2011

I know this is going to sound like a bit of a Fifties attitude, but I’m beginning to think there’s a case for things that do, well, just one thing.

A watch, for example. Somewhere, I have one of those trendy Tissot Touch things, which includes a couple of alarms, two chronographs, a compass, an altimeter, a thermometer, some sort of weather predictor (I think), an altimeter – have I already said that? – a second time zone and a light, which counted as a function in any digital watch-off during my youth.

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It’s a fascinating bit of kit, actually, but because I don’t wear it very often, I struggle to remember how to operate all these things. Worse still, Hammond has one as well, and he’s completely forgotten. So I spend hours setting his up for him.

After wrestling with this, it’s a relief to put on the old Omega, which just tells the time and nothing else. It doesn’t even show the date.

The iPhone is another one. It’s an amazing thing, but when it went wrong the other day, I had to put the SIM card in my faithful eight-year-old Nokia. I couldn’t take any pictures or play Battleships, but I also couldn’t help noticing it worked better as a telephone for talking to people.

Every now and then, the iPhone sympathises with me and simply dumps the entire contents of its iPod bit into the ether. This is annoying if you’ve taken it on holiday.
So I went to John Lewis and bought a proper iPod classic thingy, the one with the rotary control on the front. Do you know what? It’s better for music, it stores much more of it, and it’s utterly reliable. If you want music on your telephone, ring up any bank or insurance company and listen to some Vivaldi.

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You don’t want me to go on, but I will anyway. While I was in Jean Louis I decided to buy a new radio-alarm/CD/mp3-player/clock/timer for the kitchen, so I could listen to my new iPod while I prepared Parmesan shavings and octopus foam.

But what I came home with is something called the Arcam rCube [sic], which is a sort of cube, and you stick the iPod on the top and it plays the tunes in it and nothing else. It just sounded so much better than anything else in the shop, and as playing the iPod was all I wanted to do, that’s the one I bought.

There are two ways of looking at this. If I don’t take the Tissot watch on an expedition, I’ll also have to carry some aircraft instruments, a stopwatch, a weather station, a wind-up alarm clock and a lodestone. So, multi-functionality makes life easier and your luggage a lot lighter.

But on the other hand, the single-function things – the watch, the rCube, my nonreversible jacket, a single-bladed penknife I was given for Christmas – are much nicer possessions and the ones I care about. Singularity of purpose seems to beget desirability.

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I’ve now realised that as much is true of cars. The cars we revere from history are ones with an obvious and uncluttered remit. It’s obvious what the Ferrari 250 GT California was for, and, as a result, it’s beautiful. Same goes for the Citroen DS, or even the original Mini. The Triumph TR6 was a simple two-seat roadster and nothing more, and that’s why it was good. The men at Rolls-Royce were devoted to the cause of Sybaritic poncing about when they designed and built my Corniche, which is why it’s excellent for that and crap for transporting furniture.

You will want to point out that in the olden days, the ‘crossover vehicle’ hadn’t yet been invented. If you wanted superb performance and you were also a plumber, you had to buy a Maserati and a van. Times was tough.

Then came the Range Rover, which I think could be classed as a crossover car, because it combined two attributes that had previously been considered incompatible – luxury and proper four-wheel drive. The Series 1 Rangey qualifies, I think, as a classic. But I can’t see many more of them on the horizon.

Can anybody name a car that combines two supposed roles that is genuinely, gut-achingly desirable? I can’t think of one. I keep reading of sporty pickups and luxury MPVs and urban this and that, and I don’t want any of them.

There is still, after all, a case for cars that can be pigeonholed: the 458, the Rolls-Royce Ghost, the Land Cruiser. And it’s not just posh stuff, because the same is true of the Suzuki Splash.

Certainty of mind is an admirable thing. I can play the piano and mend motorcycles, but I’m a bit rubbish at both.

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