THIS EXHIBITION is going to cause some massive arguments. At least, I hope it does, because that’s exactly the point. How do you even start to identify the 13 most important cars in history? That’s only one for every decade that the motorcar has existed.
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You could debate it in the pub for hours, and I suspect a number of Britain’s beleaguered locals have survived on the back of arguments like this, but in the end I’ve been forced by self-discipline and circumstance to narrow it down.
This raises a second question. Does my choice of cars pass the critical “Radio 4 test”: that is, if they put me on the Today programme, could I argue the case for each car with conviction? I believe I could, the interruptions of John Humphrys permitting.
The cars on display in a special gallery at the London Classic Car Show will span the entire history of the car. There are six predictable choices, presented in the Hall of Obviousness, and you could probably guess what they are right now without reading another word. Then there are another six in what I’m calling the Chambers of Bloody-mindedness. They are not as well known, but I believe they are just as significant historically. They’ve simply been forgotten or misunderstood.
Finally, in a chapel of its own, there’s the car that I believe is the most important ever made. It’s certainly the car that looms largest in my motoring life — the biggest inspiration. But I’m not going to give that one away. You simply have to visit the show and indulge me through my halls and chambers to get to it. The exhibition must be viewed as a piece, as what someone more marketing-savvy than me might describe as an immersive motoring history experience.
In a chapel of its own, there’s the car that I believe is the most important ever made. It’s certainly the car that looms largest in my motoring life — the biggest inspiration. But I’m not going to give that one away. You simply have to visit the show.
But back to the cars in the hall and the chambers. These are cars that didn’t just improve incrementally on what was already there. They totally changed the way that people saw, used or merely contemplated “the car”. In one way or another, they all played a part in advancing our understanding of what was normal.
In 1972, for example, body rot and dubious reliability were as much a part of the motoring landscape as furry dice and firing WD-40 in the vague direction of a dead engine on a damp morning. Then the first Honda Civic came along. It was good to drive and it didn’t break down. That doesn’t sound much of a claim in the modern world, but back then it was extraordinary.
To be brutally frank, my relationship with classic cars is a troubled one. I love the history, the amazing stories that some of them have bequeathed to us, the politics and infighting that either propelled them into the world or hindered them. But I don’t really want to own or drive them. Old cars simply aren’t as good as modern ones. If they were, they’d still be in production.
And yet, and despite rumours that the market is flattening out, classic cars are enjoying a bit of a renaissance. I suspect this is because there’s nothing better than buying a toy and kidding yourself that “actually, darling, it’s an investment”. The expression “better than money in the bank” is probably keeping the old-car market buoyant. I suspect it’s a myth. A few exotics appreciate significantly, but most just go wrong.
In any case, if I’m going to spend my evenings up to my elbows in componentry, I prefer old motorcycles, especially Japanese bikes of the 1960s and 1970s. Part of their appeal is simply fiddling about with them and trying to make them work properly, which some people would say of old cars, but the problem with cars is that they’re a bit awkward to work on and so much of what matters is hidden away.
It’s very difficult to look at something like a 1960s DB Aston and know if it’s a perfectly sound example or a skin of shiny paint disguising the remains of the Titanic. I know people who have got this wrong, and it’s cost them a breathtaking amount of money to sort out.
A two-cylinder Honda from the same era costs very little to start with and can be hoisted onto a bench and examined in all its naked detail very easily. A simple old bike readily satisfies my enthusiasm for making and mending stuff and allows me to sate my tool fetish. A modern bike — I do have one, incidentally — can’t do this, because it’s too new to need any work, and even if it did, the job would require specialist diagnostic kit. That means, in essence, plugging it into a computer, which would make garage work feel more like accountancy.
By contrast, a carburettor problem on the Honda allows me to flex my fingers, break out the tiny screwdrivers, take the thing to bits and look for the problem with a magnifying glass. Then I can say (add your own geeky adenoids): “Aha! The idle jet on No 2 is clogged up with gum. Disgusting.” It’s a very nice, happy, calm place for me to be.
I do own one classic car: a 1972 Rolls-Royce Corniche, as seen in a 2008 episode of Top Gear in which Clarkson and I showed off the cars we’d actually spent our own money on. He has a Mercedes 600 “Grosser”.
I’m very attached to the Rolls because I’ve had it quite a long time now, and I’ve spent a bit of money on it (because it’s an investment). But in all honesty I’m slightly allergic to it, or more accurately the seats. If I drive it for more than about half an hour, I have to wash all my clothes and steam-clean myself in the shower. It makes me itch. I believe it may be something that was used in the largely unregulated tanning process back then, probably the urine of a redheaded virgin.
Weirdly, the seats in the TG studio are made from a Rolls-Royce from a similar era. We sit on those for only 10 or 15 minutes to do the news, but even after that I feel myself turning slightly clammy, as if I need to be taken outside and hosed down by the Dunsfold firefighters. I think they’ll have to go. The seats in my BMW i3 are made from something like recycled copies of The Guardian’s art pages and don’t make me itch at all.
We’ll be back in January, and — since everyone keeps asking me — I think Top Gear could, theoretically, continue for ever, even if driverless cars will soon be able to go around the track faster than the Stig. I’ve included an autonomous car in the exhibition, because it seems to be happening suddenly, whether we like it or not, and the Google Car is just the start. But I like the idea that a car can take me around without my having to intervene in the process.
A carburettor problem on the Honda allows me to flex my fingers … “Aha! The idle jet on No 2 is clogged up with gum. Disgusting.” It’s a very nice, happy, calm place for me to be.
For 90% of the time, driving is just complicated enough to engage your full attention but not interesting enough to stimulate you. Think of a typical motorway journey. You have to exist in a sort of semi-coma.
So I’d have a robotic car tomorrow. It can be my designated driver. People have the idea that a self-driving car means the end of driving, but I don’t see why it should. I imagine that for as long as I’m alive I’ll still be able to drive a car the old way, for the pure fun of it. Maybe that’s what “classic cars” will mean in the future. They will be the twee canal boats of the wheeled-transport world.
So there will still be a Top Gear in 2034 and the presenters will still have something to say about whatever the car has become. Maybe, before we peg it, the much-vaunted cyberpresenter will be upon us, and we shall be able to carry on even after we have turned to dust like the dream of the affordable Ferrari.
What a terrible thought.
James May’s 12 cars that changed history — you’ll have to guess the 13th
1886 Benz Motorwagen
People will argue about this, but the Benz Motorwagen was the first true car as we would understand it. It has only three wheels, a tiller and a single-cylinder engine with hot-tube ignition, but it’s an engine, there is steering and there are wheels. It’s a car. It also made the first true car journey when it was driven more than 100 miles by Benz’s wife, Bertha, accompanied by her teenage sons. It’s a heroic story. She repaired the fuel line with her hairpin and the ignition with her garter, or some such bodice-ripping stuff.
1906 Cadillac Model K
The real hero of the mass-produced car story isn’t Ford’s Model T, but the Cadillac Model K. Its engineer, Henry Leland, was the first to show that you could build a car out of parts that were so accurately made that they could be put together in any order and were interchangeable: if you took a water pump off one car, you could put it on another. It’s difficult for people to get their heads round now, but before that, parts had to be fitted individually because they could not be made accurately enough. Leland made Henry Ford’s moving production line possible.
1901 Waverley Electric
At the beginning of the 20th century, electric cars outsold petrol-powered cars in parts of America. Many people — this will sound familiar — thought that electricity was a much better idea because it was clean and quiet and didn’t make ladies’ skirts grubby.
1908 Ford Model T
The brilliance of the Model T is the way that it was made, rather than the car itself. In 1903 cars were being made by teams of blokes working as fitters. Then Ford gave us the moving production line. It came to Ford’s chief engineer when he watched a slaughterhouse in operation, which is a de-production line. He thought that if the process were reversed, he wouldn’t be able to put cows back together, but he might be able to build cars. In the lifetime of the Model T, the price reduced by two-thirds while the workers’ wages doubled.
1933 Standard Superior
This was the work of Josef Ganz, a respected Jewish engineer. It is widely accepted that he came up with the basic layout and philosophy of the Beetle. Ferdinand Porsche, encouraged by Hitler, didn’t actually steal the design, because there was a very free exchange of ideas at the time, but the idea for the layout is pretty much borrowed. Without Ganz and the Standard Superior, the Beetle would probably have been very different.
1938 Volkswagen Beetle
The Beetle story is a real thrill. It has many strands to it. At the start of the Second World War, there was the massive scandal of the savings scheme for buyers that came to nothing. Nobody who put their money in got a car because they couldn’t really build it for the price and the factory was designed to build munitions. Then it was bombed to bits. If it hadn’t been for a few models left in the factory, dispirited German engineering staff and the British Army’s encouragement after the war, it would have disappeared. Instead, it became the world’s bestselling single-platform car, even though early models were pretty horrendous to drive.
1959 Austin Mini
An original Mini is incredibly uncomfortable and a bit hairy if you crash it, but also fantastic fun to drive. The features that made it such a radical package — combined transverse front engine and gearbox, front-wheel drive, room for four in a tiny body — also made it brilliantly responsive. It was definitely the work of creative engineers. I don’t believe marketing would ever have come up with something like it.
1964 Ford Mustang
The Mustang is based on the humble Ford Falcon. Ford had the idea that if you were just a blue-collar working family, you needn’t be confined to a life of family car drudgery. You could get a Mustang for only a bit more than you would spend on a saloon. Ford would give you a big bonnet and a decent-sized engine and a great deal of presence at a reasonable price. In the first six months it was the fastest-selling car in history. It is the car that democratised style and performance.
1972 Honda Civic
The West had long accused Japanese designers and engineers of being mere copyists rather than innovators. But the original Civic was a great innovation, because it was a compact, lively and fuel-efficient car that was well made and almost faultlessly reliable. And this at a time when a horrible oil crisis was looming. In automotive terms it was like finding a Sony Walkman in a shop full of valve radios.
1980 Lada Riva
One of the most despised and mocked cars of all time is also one of the most significant. A deal between the Soviet Union and Fiat resulted in the building of a factory in Togliatti to produce a “Sovietised” version of the pretty 124 saloon. By 1980 the Russian version had been horribly ruined by in-house “improvements”, but it is the car that did more than any other to put communism on wheels. About 20m Fiat 124-derived cars have been built. The vast majority of them were not Fiats.
1997 Toyota Prius
Yes, I know it’s a bit left-field and not particularly Top Gear, but I have always said — mark my words — that in the future we will see the Prius as a significant car. It was the first mainstream car of my lifetime that caused people to rethink the basics of how a car should work, and it reopened our minds to the idea of electric motors turning our wheels. Some commentators are already saying that you should hold on to an early one as “an investment”.
2009 Bruno the prototype ExoMars rover
This is Europe’s version of the Curiosity Mars rover and is said to be even more sophisticated. It is truly autonomous, self-sustaining and suitable for use on other planets. The European Space Agency hopes to put a version of Bruno on the Red Planet by 2018. It is surely the world’s most advanced all-terrain vehicle; if the future of the car is anywhere, it’s in this. Preceded by Bryan and Bridget.
London Classic Car Show 2015 preview
- James May’s most important cars in history
- Born in a barn: an investment that’s even safer than houses
- The magical machines set for London Classic Car Show’s Grand Avenue
- My Lotus Esprit S3 restoration hell
- How to cut a classic car’s running costs and even make money
- Who and what to see at the London Classic Car Show, January 8-11