Originally published July 5, 2009
Last weekend the restored Vulcan bomber, the only one in the world now flying, lumbered slowly and noisily over my house. And I damn nearly wet myself with excitement. I ran around the garden, clutching at my private parts with one hand, pointing with the other and screaming at the top of my lungs for the children to put down their Facebooks so they could see it too.
I bet things were a good deal less exciting in the cockpit, though. I bet it was hot and squashed in there and, if we’re honest, a bit frightening as well.
I have never been on the flight deck of a big Brit bomber but I have sat at the pointy end of a Blackbird SR-71 and I imagine it’s about the same. Because there are so many dials and knobs, you are constantly reminded that you are in something that’s made from about a million parts. All of which are operating at the very limit of what 1950s technology allowed. But you can’t crap yourself, because there simply isn’t enough room.
In my own small earthling way, I sort of know what this feels like because I have driven a Lamborghini Countach.
I once wondered, on television, how New Yorkers must have felt when Brunel’s propeller-driven liner, the SS Great Britain, steamed into their harbour. Because there they were, with their horses and their coracles, when into their midst came a metal ship that had no obvious means of propulsion. They must have felt very backward. Almost as backward as they felt in 1977 when Concorde screamed into JFK for the first time.
Well, that’s what I felt like as a 14-year-old boy when I first saw a Countach. I couldn’t believe any of it. Not the noise. Not the lowness — it was only 42in tall. Not the vast rear wing. Not the monstrous size of the tyres. And certainly not the claims that it would do 170mph. At the time, you must remember, the world was a slower place, so 170mph was about Mach 6.
It was many years before I actually got to drive one, and oh my God … as disappointments go, this was like getting your girlfriend’s kit off and discovering she had an Adam’s apple.
The steering wasn’t heavy. An elephant is heavy. A school is heavy. An American is heavy. The Lambo’s steering was in another league. Sometimes you’d try to turn the wheel to go round a corner and, for a fleeting moment, you actually thought the whole system had jammed.
And then there was the clutch. If they’d set the pedal in concrete, it would have been easier to depress. And all the while, you were rammed into a space that was tiny and very, very hot. I’m sure you’ve all seen The Bridge on the River Kwai hundreds of times, which means I’m also sure you remember the box in which Alec Guinness was made to live. Well, imagine being in there, on a sweaty day, while doing a full SAS workout, at 170mph. That’s what it was like in a Countach.
Parking, however, was even worse because you could not see out of the back, at all. The window would only wind down an inch. The car was wider than the owner of a Cheshire tanning salon and, to complicate everything even more, you could be assured you would be trying to get kerbside while under the scrutiny of a very sizeable audience.
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You might have imagined as you took delivery of your new Lamborghini that you would spend the rest of your life drowning in girls. ’Fraid not.
Because you didn’t step out of a Countach; you crawled out, sweating, exhausted and dehydrated to the point of death. Sex? It was the absolute last thing on your mind.
In 1990 Lamborghini replaced the Countach with the Diablo. It was much less striking to behold, principally because the Countach had been there and done that. But it was even faster. And that was a bad thing, because now you were in a hot, cramped box, with heavy controls, doing 200mph. Death was always a very real possibility. Often you’d have embraced it.
By the 21st century every other supercar maker had got round this problem. Their cars had light steering, Nissany pedals, air-conditioning and so on. But not Lambo. It was sticking to the original recipe: make it mad and paint it orange. Which is why the Murcielago, which came along in 2001, was as mad as its predecessors.
I spent some time last week with the latest — and possibly the last — incarnation of this insane raging bull, the LP 670-4 SV. What they’ve done is upped the power from the 6.5-litre V12 by 30bhp. That’s not much. But they’ve also lightened the car by 100kg. That’s a lot. And the result is extraordinary.
When you fire up a modern-day Ferrari, it is almost as though you are stepping into the innards of a PlayStation game. You sense the technology. You feel the wiring working. You can almost hear the electrons monitoring this and covering that. In the Murcielago it’s just pure, unadulterated violence. The grip from the four-wheel-drive system as you leave the line is so immense that you usually leave half the clutch behind. But you’ve no time to think about that because you are already doing 100. And by the time you register that, you’re doing 150. And still there’s no let-up.
The speed is incredible. Mesmerising. Intoxicating. Bonkers. And then you get to a corner.
In a Ferrari you feel an electronic interpretation of what’s going on through the magnetised dampers and the five-way traction control. There’s none of that in the Lambo. It’s the road. And then your bottom.
The grip is phenomenal. There is so much g that you can actually feel — and I’m not making this up — your face coming off. But you’d better not be worrying about that because when, eventually, the laws of physics intervene, you will be doing somewhere in the region of a million. And you will need the reactions of a ninja lightning bolt to stay out of the Armco. This car, in the words of the Stig, is “a bit fighty”.
And that’s it. That’s what the Lambo does. It goes very fast in a straight line. It goes very fast in the corners. Want heated door mirrors? Forget it.
I’m not saying for a moment that life inside is as bad as it was in a Countach. The air-conditioning works, for a kick-off, and there’s nearly enough room for a human. But it’s still pretty basic. You get the impression they got the stereo from a car boot sale and that the factory manager’s mum did the stitching on the centre console. Even the seatbelts are the wrong way round. I like that.
Now, though, I’m a bit nervous. You see, in 1998 Lamborghini was rescued from oblivion by Audi, and for a while it was a good master, keeping the wolf from the door and nothing else. But today you sense it is about to make Lamborghini a bit more — there’s no other word — German.
I don’t doubt for a second that this will make the cars easier to drive, easier to live with, less zany and less prone to breaking down. But is that what we really want? Let me put it this way. I ran round the garden last weekend pointing at a Vulcan. I would never do such a thing if you flew over in a Gulfstream G500.