AS ONE of the three presenters who made Top Gear the world’s most popular factual television programme, James May earned the nickname “Captain Slow”. He was the cerebral, bumbling enthusiast who practised “Christian motoring” — driving within the speed limit and letting people out at junctions — the counterweight to Jeremy Clarkson’s laddishness.
Viewers were never sure whether May was putting on an act or whether he really was a bit accident-prone, but the story of buying his latest car suggests the stars have never quite aligned for the 53-year-old. May wavered for years over buying a limited-edition Ferrari 458 Speciale. So long, in fact, that it was going out of production when he finally placed his order. Just as he was congratulating himself for securing the very last one, fate intervened. A new Top Gear deal fell through after Clarkson got into a tussle with a producer. May was left with a £250,000 bill for the Ferrari — and no income.
“We were all three of us on the brink of a new three-year contract. I decided to reward myself with a new motor from Maranello. Then, suddenly, it had all gone. Oh cock, as I used to say when I was on telly.”
Worse was to come when the car arrived and he tried to park it. “The first time I arrived at the garage door I rotated the mirror knob [to fold in the mirrors] and nothing happened. Later I found out that you get the folding function only if you specify it as an extra. Each time I park I have to get out to fold the mirrors, and then get back in again.”
Since then things have looked up for May. He and his two Top Gear co-presenters have signed a lucrative deal with Amazon, and the Speciale has rocketed in value.
Driving it, compared with his previous Ferrari, is akin to seeing TV in ultra-high definition for the first time, he says. “The Speciale is a 458 broadcast in 4k — it’s sharper all round. The downside is that to some I look even more of a knob than before — largely down to me ordering it in orange with gold wheels.”
It’s a far cry from his first car, a 1978 Vauxhall Cavalier 1.6L that came with “pre-stolen hubcaps” and a stoved-in rear door. “I acquired it at the age of 18 and drove off into the countryside. It was like going into space — it nearly killed me with excitement. To young people it probably doesn’t sound much, but because the world was black and white then and we ate coal, this was: ‘Wow! A Cavalier L.’ ”
May graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in music, and then took a succession of jobs on car magazines. “In those days I used to get fired a lot. When my involvement in Top Gear came to an end, at least I was ready for it.”
May doesn’t think of himself as a car collector; more an impulse buyer. His collection includes a Porsche 911, a Rolls-Royce Corniche and a BMW i3 electric car, as well as a Fiat Panda (his runabout) and 40 motorcycles.
All this poses a problem: parking. May lives in a mews house in Hammersmith, west London, with his partner, Sarah Frater, a dance critic, and two orphaned cats, the Fluff and the Bounce, and there is little space in the street. “Manoeuvring the Fezza into the underground car park is a bit like removing a plaster from a hairy leg. It’s agony and might just as well be done swiftly and mercifully — using the launch control.” To those unfamiliar with the term, that roughly equates to flooring the accelerator, closing your eyes and hoping for the best. Not unlike May’s career, you might think.
James May: My life in cars
- 1981 Vauxhall Cavalier Mk 1
- 1986 Mini Clubman
- 2007 Rolls-Royce Corniche
- 2010 Ferrari F430
- 2015 Ferrari 458 Speciale
- My dream car Despite everything I’ve said, it actually is the Ferrari 458 Speciale. Sublime.
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