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James May on: a visit to the VW factory
I now believe that, in the future, humanity will merely eat and drink. Our bodies will not be temples, they will be elaborate biological retort stands there to supply the head with blood and oxygen and keep it at a height suitable for viewing Facebook or playing the FIFA football app.
Every now and then, I make a TV programme about science or engineering or something equally facile. They do reasonably well, but they are mere media ahems compared with anything by Jamie Oliver or any other fat-faced foodie. It’s like being a pub singer support act to a Boston stadium gig. No one is really listening.
Everyone is only interested in food. My mate Oz Clarke was destined for a life as a dry cleaner, for ancestral reasons, but instead has made a great living interfering with his own mind using the agricultural produce of France and Australia.
There are three supermarkets within a 300-yard radius of my house, but no car dealer, no petrol station and no Kwik Fit. There is a hardware and tool shop, but its owner admits it’s a bit of a struggle. There’s plenty of passing trade, but it all goes straight past and into Sainsbury’s for some pesto.
On this basis, attempting to build cars is especially futile. Even the people doing it are thinking about lunch. The idea that a country like Britain could ever rebuild the engineering skills base necessary to set up a modern car factory is a hiding to nothing, since most of us, presented with a pressure die-casting machine, would see it as a convenient way of heating up a naan bread.
(Actually, this has been going on for a while. My dad used to run an aluminium die-casting foundry, making engine blocks and the like. Once the machines were up to temperature, the workforce, a lot of it Asian, would use the hot surfaces to prepare an exciting range of exotic bread items for lunch. I think the place is a bakery now.)
I visited VW’s Wolfsburg factory recently, and, as ever, I was staggered anew at the sheer depth of technical expertise that comes together in the manufacture of a car. Cars are so ludicrously cheap when you look at what goes into them.
Just watch, if you can, the pressing and robotised welding together of a Golf bodyshell. This is metalworking of the highest order and to minute tolerances, and since I do a bit of metalwork at home, I know how hard this sort of thing is. It’s amazing. Yet the finished car is available to you for less than the price of 4,000 Big Mac meals.
I couldn’t help thinking it would be a lot easier to make something like pies. They are lo-fi goods, and if they are a bit shonky round the edges, you can pass them off as ethical ‘local produce’ and charge a premium for their being a bit crap. That’s what I’d do.
VW, however, is ahead of me here. VW, it transpires, also makes sausages, and in staggering numbers. In fact, numerically, the VW Group produces more sausages than cars, although by weight the cars may just be edging it. But maybe not for long.
The pack of 10 in my hand felt surprisingly weighty. “VW sausages contain a higher percentage of meat than other brands,” said a man in a smart sports jacket. Cars are largely air, but VW sausages are meaty goodness all the way through. They’re now in the fridge, and I’m slightly scared of them.
Interestingly, I was at Volkswagen in the course of making my deadly earnest forthcoming documentary Cars of the People. Some concern was expressed that, since I’m from TopGear, I was merely going to trot out predictable jokes about the Germans and the war.
But far from it. I’m a big fan of modern Germany and its products, and have been since I started going there as a teenager. Our piece is a balanced one about the triumph of the people’s car over political ambition and the conceit of nations, or at least it was while they were listening. Once we’d distracted them, we got into the material about the chip shop being bombed.
And it has to be said that, since VW’s sausages come in official VW-spares packaging and have their own part number, they are sort of asking for it a bit. Bloody silly Germans and their anally retentive obsession with efficiency, etc, etc.
But VW will have the last laugh, because VW is ready for the future. Bentley has started making designer furniture - what a waste of time. Even the electric car is a line-caught day-boat red herring. The future is bangers from the people who gave you the Beetle.
They won’t even have to change their branding. They can just rename themselves Volkswurst.