A man died recently. He was called Lieutenant-Commander Peter Twiss and he began his career, quietly, as a tea taster for Brooke Bond. Then, in 1939, he joined the Fleet Air Arm where, as a carrier pilot, he had much success in the Mediterranean, earning a Distinguished Service Cross and bar. In 1943 he came back to Britain and switched to the twin-engined Mosquito, in which he spent a great deal of time bombing France and generally shooting down German Junkers 88s. Before the war ended, he left for America where he became Tom Cruise, testing naval fighters.
After the war ended he became a test pilot with Fairey Aviation and on October 6, 1954, he took the experimental Fairey Delta 2 on its maiden flight. I had a model kit of one of these as a child and thought it to be the most beautiful thing in the world. For Twiss, though, it was more than just that. He became convinced that the delicate little jet with its Concorde-style drooping nose could fly faster than anything else in the skies at that time. And so, five months after a US air force Super Sabre had set a new record of 822mph, Twiss climbed aboard his beloved FD 2 and headed for a course that had been laid out along the south coast near Chichester.
Flying at 38,000ft, he did indeed break the record. Although actually what he did was smash it. Because the average speed of his two runs was 1,132mph. Twiss, then, had become the first man ever to beak the 1,000mph barrier. And for his services he was awarded the OBE and the threat of several lawsuits from market gardeners in Sussex who claimed his sonic boom had smashed all the glass in their greenhouses.
You might imagine that after he retired from test flying, he’d put his feet up and do a spot of gardening. But no. After 4,500 hours in the big blue, in 148 types of aircraft, he appeared at the helm of a Fairey Marine speedboat in the Bond movie From Russia with Love and features in Sink the Bismarck! at the controls of a Fairey Swordfish torpedo plane. And he developed cruisers. And flew around in gliders and was married five times. This is what I call a proper life. A full life. The life of a man who could lay on his deathbed and think: “Good. I didn’t waste too much time in the 90 years I was awarded.” This brings me neatly on to a track called Time from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It starts thus: “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day. Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way-e-ay. Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town. Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.” This is how most people live. Life is long and there is time to kill today.
But, actually, there isn’t. Life is desperately short and no matter how much you do, there’s always a twang of regret that you didn’t do more. No matter how much you see, you always think that if only you’d gone round one more corner and over one more horizon, you’d have seen something else. I bet when Tom Jones is summoned by the grim reaper, he’ll think of a girl that he could have slept with but didn’t, and that will make him a bit sad. I bet that even Peter Twiss spent at least some of his life wishing he could have shot down one more German bomber and gone 1mph faster in that Fairey Delta.
I’m in the same boat. God knows, I’ve travelled over the years but instead of reflecting on all that I’ve seen and all that I’ve done, I will go to my grave thinking: “Shit. I never went to Pontefract.” This is why, if you have the wherewithal, it’s very important that you go out tomorrow morning and buy a supercar. I’ve had my share of them over the years and they are all stupid. Impractical, ruinously expensive, difficult to park and they leave you with dirty fingers every time you open the bonnet to retrieve your (very small) suitcase.
However, that said, supercars are to cars what jet fighters are to the Airbus that took you to Corfu this year. They are built to excite the speed gene that lives in us all; they are designed to release the cocktail of chemicals that is titillated when we are small and we are pushed higher and higher on the swings. What’s more, supercars are the last great division of the global motor industry where engineers and stylists can try out new ideas and new ways of thinking. When you build a car that can travel at two hundred and something miles an hour, you need to make the brakes from exotic materials and think carefully about what effect the air has at those sort of speeds.
Anyone can make a saloon. It takes a genius to make a supercar. At present, there are two standout examples of the breed. The McLaren MP4-12C, which is science and maths, and the Ferrari 458, which is also science and maths. With a bit of Renaissance art thrown in for good measure. Both use brute force to give you the go, the periodic table to give you the stopping power you need and Palo Alto electronics to give you a level of grip in the corners that beggars belief. And yet, if I were in the market for such a car, I’d buy neither. I’d buy the Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Spyder Performante. Let me talk you through the name.
LP says that the V10 engine is longitudinally positioned in the car; 570 is the metric horsepower that Lamborghini claims it delivers — it’s equivalent to 562bhp. The -4 signifies that it has four-wheel drive. Spyder tells us that it’s a convertible, and Performante that it’s the performance version of something that’s pretty damn fast in the first place. The extra oomph comes mainly from a raft of weight-saving measures. Carbon fibre, for instance, is used to make the huge engine cover, the door panels, the seats and even the bits that shroud the door mirrors. It sounds then like this is another example of science and maths. But it isn’t. Ferrari and McLaren, first of all, are racing teams and Lamborghini isn’t. Lamborghini therefore feels no need to give its customers a taste of Formula One, a taste of all that behind-the-scenes trickery. Lambos are designed mainly to make a lot of noise and cause small boys to clutch at their private parts in excitement.
So, while the Ferrari howls and a McLaren hums, the Lambo bellows. And while the racers were styled by aerodynamicists, the Lambo was designed to make people say “wow”. Which it does. What’s more, with most serious supercars, you would never buy a convertible version, because you’d know it wasn’t quite as good, dynamically, as the stiffer, more rigid hard top. But since you don’t buy a Lambo for the last 0.01 of a g it can generate in the bends, who cares? Best to have no roof, really. That way you can hear the engine more clearly more of the time. And anyway, it’s not like the Performante dawdles.
The acceleration is savage, the braking is fierce enough to tear off your face and, unlike most four-wheel-drive cars, it does not resort to chronic understeer when you exceed the limit.
Plant your foot into the carpet mid-bend and it’s the tail that lets go in an almost cartoonish fog of tyre smoke and noise. In a Ferrari or a McLaren, you concentrate when you are driving quickly. In the Gallardo, you can’t. You’re too busy laughing. Oh, and there’s one more important point. Ferrari recently started to offer a seven-year warranty, which suggests that it has great faith in the quality. But in the past few years, since Audi took over the factory, I’ve never experienced any mechanical malfunction at all in a Lambo. Go on. Buy one. You may think it’s a stupid idea now but trust me on this. On your deathbed, you’ll remember a drive you took in it. And you’ll go through the Pearly Gates smiling.