Top Gear’s James May, one of the three best-known drivers in the UK, believes real engineering innovation is to be found in ‘People’s Cars’ rather than supercars. Stuart Nathan reports.
Cars are for driving. It might be stating the obvious but it is surprisingly easy for an engineering magazine to lose sight of this simple fact. With all the ingenuity and expertise that goes into designing the modern car, the debate about environmental impact and the innovations in fuel economy and performance, the most important thing about a car is that a person can get behind the wheel, point the bonnet where they want, and take off.
So, with the thought that we might have neglected that part of the automotive experience, for this special issue, we decided to even up the balance.
Who could we talk to who had experience of driving lots of different cars? Who had an enthusiasm for the more classic vehicle, yet knew what it was like to sit behind the wheel of the most extravagant supercar? Who could talk to us about whether engineering innovations have improved the experience of driving, or just made it dull?
Fortunately, there is just such a person. Possibly one of the three best-known drivers in the UK, along with Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, James May, co-presenter of the BBC’s cult motoring programme Top Gear, has come a long way since his days as a sub-editor on The Engineer in the early 1980s.
He has been to the North Pole in a Toyota Hilux for a start — an experience made all the more arduous by having to share a tent with Clarkson. He has driven over the Alps in the least-comfortable Aston Martin ever built. He has sunk in Dover harbour in a home-made amphibious Triumph Herald. And, in accordance with his nickname of ‘Captain Slow’, he’s an aficionado of a more relaxed style of driving, in less performance-oriented cars.
May thinks that we are now in ‘a golden age of the car’ but we are a long way from the golden age of motoring. Automotive engineering and production techniques have improved so much that cars are now more efficient, better designed and better made than at any time in their history, he said. ‘But the adventure of motoring has palled a bit. We embrace the idea that it’s a daily grind and we just trudge up and down the motorway and stop at a service station and eat a manky pasty.’
He added: ‘I’m not sure it’s entirely the fault of manufacturers; it may be our fault for having too much of a good thing. But the vast majority of cars on sale at the moment are pretty tedious, to be honest.’
While many drivers argue it is the emphasis on environmental performance and safety that has rendered cars dull, May is not so sure. In fact, he said, the environmental drive has led to better engineered cars.
‘When it was decided that cars had to have catalytic converters, it meant that everything had to have fuel injection. Actually, that was a good challenge — the real point of fuel injection on an engine is to increase efficiency, which is another way of saying increasing power, and that improves reliability. Given a challenge like that, the industry actually responds in the end with a better car.’
So why does May think cars are dull? ‘The thing about a consumer manufacturing industry, which the motor industry is, is that they will be inclined to complacency.’
But it does not have to be that way and often isn’t, he added. Japanese kei-cars were designed in response to regulations limiting the length, height and engine capacity of cars so that they could manoeuvre in crowded cities. ‘Propose that now in Europe and we’d say it would lead to very boring, very slow, very rudimentary cars that are nasty to drive and no fun to own. But the Japanese embraced it and produced absolutely fantastic little cars like the Honda Beat and the Suzuki Cappuccino — miniaturised sports cars with fantastic supercharger technology.’
This, May insists, is where real engineering innovation is to be found — in ‘People’s Cars’, not supercars. ‘The world of motoring is moved on by simple cars. Making an interesting small car that costs £8,000 is more difficult than making something exciting that costs over £50,000. Some of the greatest cars in history, and certainly some of the most significant, have been People’s Cars — the Austin Seven, the Beetle, the Mini, the Cinquecento. Not the Bugatti Veyron or the Ferrari 599.’
As any Top Gear viewer will know, May puts his ideals into practice with his choice of everyday car, a Fiat Panda. ‘The other two always take the piss,’ he said. ‘But small, simple cars are actually the way to enjoy driving. The sensations of driving, the tactile and visceral stuff, happen at lower speeds and in many ways are exaggerated by the simplicity of the car, the immediacy of the controls and its responses to the road.’
People’s Cars are synonymous with volume manufacturing — something which is clearly the Achilles’ heel of British-owned automotive manufacturing. While May concedes that Britain is still a good place to make cars — as the huge and productive factories owned by the likes of Nissan, Honda, BMW and GM attest — he does suggest that Britain might not have a complete automotive sector any more.
‘The true measure of automotive greatness is cars for the people, not exotic stuff made in sheds by people with obscure philosophies about what it means to own an Aston Martin,’ he said. It’s not about that, it’s about what it means to own an Austin Maxi — very space-efficient and very underrated. Of course, it wouldn’t start in the morning, but then it was made by communists, so you can’t expect it to work.
‘In the public consciousness, having a motor industry means having a new Jag that’s made in the Midlands by Midlands blokes wearing jackets in sheds, and that’s something for Britain to be proud of. But that’s a dated idea.’
May added: ‘The idea that cars have national characteristics, or marque characteristics, is slightly facile. In the old days cars were made very much according to the influence of one man, like [original Jaguar designer] Sir William Lyons, or a small group of people like the Citroën team, which designed the DS, and there would be a striking difference between what Jaguar and Citroën would come up with, because Lyons’ ideas were very different from André Citroën’s.
‘But these days, they’re more complicated and there’s so much more legislation, they’re more a committee thing. If you set out to make a four-door family saloon, you know what you’ve got to do before you set out. It’s not a black art anymore. It has been worked out.’
But even the black art could do with some improvement, said May. ‘One of the first things that strikes you when you drive a Seventies car is the door pillars are slim and the glass area is big and there’s a great sense of roominess. One of the downsides of safety legislation is the thick door pillars and doors full of side-impact beams and airbags cuts down on the visibility.’
Also, he said, it makes cars much heavier. ‘I also fly light aircraft, and I don’t understand why my little plane weighs about 670kg when it has a 32ft wingspan and seats two people, but a little sports car that we revere as lightweight still weighs 1,000kg. Where’s all that bloody weight coming from? Even if you get rid of only a little bit of it, it makes a hell of a difference.’
So, what does May think is the future of driving? ‘I have my little fantasy,’ he mused, ‘about anti-matter powered levitating capsules flying around the sky guided by electronic highways. The future of moving around must be in the air, because that’s where the space is.’ It’s possible, he admitted, that he has seen Blade Runner a few too many times.