Pointless

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“I don’t get it.”
Tom Hanks: Big.

 

There are many, seemingly pointless cars out there as manufacturers chase ever smaller niches and profit margins (yes Audi and BMW, you may well look guilty). But while most are just variations on a theme – bigger or smaller versions of other, more popular models – some cars stand out for their sheer, bloody-minded futility, making you wonder what on Earth was going on in the original presentation meeting and just who would be daft enough to buy one in favour of an obviously better choice?

 

BMW X6   Most recent incarnations of the 4×4 SUV are a fairly poor lot: over-engineered, overweight and under achieving: neither good estate nor a good off-roader. But the X6 really has to take the award for most useless of the breed. An off-road coupe. Really? The definition of a coupe – at least in England – used to be a sleek and stylish, two door sporty little number. Why on earth would anyone want to combine these attributes with a 4×4 SUV? I’m really struggling with the concept of this one; if you want a coupe, there are plenty of excellent alternatives to suit all pockets. If you need – or feel you need – an off-roader, again, there are many supremely efficient mud-pluggers on the market. I’m still trying to imagine the meeting where this one was presented to the board; particularly good wine with lunch that day?

Bugatti Veyron   I could also include the Lamborghini Aventador, Pagani Zonda, Ford GT and any number of ‘hyper’ cars here. I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill Ferraris, Astons and and Porsches from the lower eschelons (those that offer a modicum of practicality), I’m talking about the truly outrageous hypercars, of which the Veyron currently represents the highest pinnacle. A car that does 254 mph, holds only two passengers and little more than an overnight bag, is wider than a Transit van, heavier than a LWB Jaguar XJ and can’t (easily) be driven in any circumstances outside an autobahn or racetrack. Ok, I’ll admit to never having been lucky enough to have driven a Bugatti. Or a Lamborghini Aventador or any one of a number of such cars, but I’m not writing this out of sheer enviousness. I can gawp in awe at the achievement of the manufacturers, and feel the world would be a poorer place if such cars didn’t exist, but there comes a point beyond which they become completely point-less. I’m also sure that the wealthy owners of these cars have a ‘regular’ car (or six) and don’t have to worry about such petty issues as practicality, but I still can’t help the nagging feeling that they’d have far more fun in a Lotus Elise, Alfa 4C coupe or Porsche Cayman. Or even a Citroen 2CV for that matter.

Diesel Alfas   Whenever I feel a yearning for another Alfa Romeo (and I frequently do) my only reason to justify the purchase over something obviously better – usually from BMW, or even Ford for that matter – would be because of its charisma. Choosing an Alfa is a purely emotional decision; but starting the engine and hearing the clatter of a diesel shatters the illusion. I can understand Alfa’s pragmatic need to make such cars, but really, stop it now.

Diesel convertibles   See Diesel Alfas, but substitute the word ‘Alfa’ with ‘convertible’.

MINI Cooper coupe   Hmm, if I wanted a really good two seater sports car I might consider an MX5. Or if I wanted a stylish little coupe I might, at a pinch, consider an Audi TT. Or if I wanted a MINI Cooper with 4 seats I might consider… well… a MINI Cooper.

Caterham 7   I feel very guilty about this one. I’ve admired the little 7 for years. Even built one myself. And there’s the rub; when I used to be lucky enough to borrow one from a friend I’d take it for a short blast on A and B roads, usually on a fine day with the top down. It was an absolute hoot. But then I bought one myself and the reality of owning one was a different matter: it was too low to cope well with the speed-humped, urban crawl, fairly hopeless on motorways, noisy and cramped. Weather protection is a makeshift affair involving tent poles, press studs and broken nails. And once up, the inadequate hood made the driving experience an absolute misery. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the 7 has now been superceded on its natural home, the track: the BMW M3 and even the front-drive Renaultsport Meganes can easily match lap times, while also offering comfort and practicality. But the final nail in the 7’s coffin came after I’d tried a motorbike. With a bike’s superior acceleration and it’s ability to bypass traffic jams – the 7 made no sense at all. And at least on a bike you prepare yourself for the weather in advance.

Icon

Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.
Benjamin Braddock
 

The biggest motoring icons are of course fully-fledged racing cars: heroic vehicles with an immaculate pedigree, meticulously prepared and tuned to perfection, that have been driven up to and beyond their limits by dashing drivers to win events like Le Mans, the Formula 1 World Championship, Targa Floria, Mille Miglia or the Monte Carlo Rally. Cars like Stirling Moss’s Mercedes SLR, or James Hunt’s ‘76 McLaren, Hopkirk’s Mini Cooper, Birkin’s Blower Bentley…

Sorry, no.

I’d wager that the majority of people reading this haven’t heard of any of the above. Excellent cars though they are, they’re the preserve of the motoring geek. Yet when I mention McQueen’s Mustang, Bond’s Aston Martin or Herbie the Love Bug people even people with no apparent interest in cars whatsoever can be overcome with misty-eyed nostalgia. For true motoring iconography you have to turn to the cinema and television.

I quite like a good car chase. Ok, I’ll admit it… I’m ever so slightly obsessed with cars on film. I didn’t spend my childhood standing around rainy racetracks cheering for Stirling Moss and Jim Clark, I served my motoring apprenticeship in front of the TV watching Roger Moore trying to squeeze his quiff into the low-line Volvo P1800. Or in the cinema marvelling at how 007 was able to retract the wheels of his submersible Lotus into the engine compartment.

And I’m not alone; millions of people gain their car lust from the big screen. Years before they’re able to drive, people of every age, gender, race, class, height, width or ability who might never see a race or flip through a single page of a motoring magazine will sit in front of a film and live vicariously behind the wheel.

They don’t have to be chases; some of the best car moments were filmed while not chasing anyone, exploding, being shot at or leaping over anything, but the cars portrayed on film are, for me, the pinnacle of the automotive pedestal (do pedestals have pinnacles?).

Of course this idolatry is deeply, vacuously, shallow, populist nonsense. These vehicles never really achieve anything other than to drive past a camera; they didn’t take anyone to victory or survive an epic feat of endurance – often they didn’t even fulfill the events portrayed on screen – their ‘achievements’ (the leaps, tumbles, spins, drifts and crashes) merely a product of individual short takes edited together to make a seamless whole.

Although some cars are immaculately prepared to withstand a particular film scene, the majority are quite shoddy when viewed up close. Morse’s Jaguar was rescued from a scrapyard and in its early outings required members of the crew to push it into the scene. More than one of Bond’s Astons have been hastily cobbled together and re-painted a week or so before filming with pieces of string to operate some of the gadgets.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the cars generally aren’t individual vehicles either; usually a minimum of two are required for filming but I’ve heard cases of up to 30 identical cars being prepared to achieve the feats portrayed on screen – perplexing for future collectors and museum owners. This is shocking. A lie. A travesty. Why would anyone be seduced by such a blatant fraud?

And yet we are seduced. We’re prepared to suspend disbelief just as we are when the film’s hero runs on top of a train and narrowly escapes death in a hail of bullets. We know that a single car can’t survive the abuse it’s subjected to on screen, yet we want to believe.

Unfortunately that belief is often our undoing as the halo effects of a film appearance induce irrational desires for a vehicle that can never be fulfilled in real life: Connery once stated his opinion that the DB5 was ‘a lady’s car’ with pedals that were too small – the Bond films bestowing it with a reputation it never truly deserved. The VW Beetle is certainly charismatic but also wheezy, slow and ill-handling. If I drove a ‘60s or ‘70s Mustang today I’m sure I’d find it a big wallowy marshmallow of a car. And criticising the early Lotus Esprit would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

But as with movie actors who can’t possibly live up to their screen images, this is hardly the cars’ fault. The philosopher Jaques Lacan termed this the objet petit a, the unattainable object of desire… a case of never meeting your heroes. But let’s not be iconoclasts, let’s just enjoy the moments for the great entertainment they are.

So what makes a truly outstanding car ‘moment’? Well a lack of CGI for one. It’s bad enough that it can take several vehicles to achieve a great scene, but at least they prove that – given perfect conditions, a bit of preparation and as few Hail Marys from the stunt driver – that particular car really could achieve the feat it was portraying. Once you get pixels involved everything goes out of the window: “You want your flying car to turn invisible? No problem!”

I was going to exclude humour, then remembered several films which are silly yet still have desirable cars – What’s Up Doc and The Gumball Rally are still a guilty pleasures.

I was going to exclude the car’s availability: harking back to Lacan, if I can’t (even theoretically) walk into a showroom and buy a Batmobile or a time-travelling DeLorean, how can I desire it? And yet I do.

But there’s one last consideration I can’t ignore. I’ve left many great film scenes off my top 10 that feature in other people’s ‘all time greats’ (The French Connection, The Seven Ups, Fear Is The Key and many more) because they lack one vital ingredient…

They didn’t raise the car itnvolved to iconic status.

My top 10 will not be the same as yours, but it’s my Blog so there. Go and write your own list.

 

10  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

No it wasn’t a real Ferrari, it was a Corvette with a plastic California body. But that’s a good thing, as no Ferraris were harmed in the making of this picture. And like a girl with fake breasts… most men still would.

10  The Graduate

(Hang on… two number 10s? I just couldn’t decide between them… it would be like choosing between my children). The Alfa Duetto is pretty but underpowered, cheaply made, had heavy steering and soggy suspension. But the combination of Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack and Mike Nichols’ visuals is irresistible… I really wanted one of these.

9  Herbie the Love Bug

Not one chase or even one film. The frequent speeded-up footage is terrible, the continuity gaffs appalling, the humour leaden. And yet I can’t help the urge to rush out and buy an identical VW. The sum of Herbie’s achievements gains him a worthy place on the list.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Bond’s Lotus Esprit looked fantastic and the driving stunts were breathtaking and believable. Right up until the point where it turned into a submarine.

7  Bond’s Aston DB5

Unlike the Top Gear team I’m willing to overlook the DB5’s outstanding performance against Xenia Onatopp’s Ferrari… it had Bond at the wheel. I always found the gadgets a bit silly and I can’t get past the fact that the burden of the bulletproof glass and armaments would easily bring the weight to over 2 tonnes; how is it so sprightly? But when a car looks this gorgeous you’ll forgive it almost anything.

Two Lane Blacktop

What is it about the Chevy in Two Lane Blacktop? The film is miserable and I really wouldn’t want that enormous antiquated, ugly lump sitting on my driveway. But this film is a unique example of what the car represents that counts: the primer paint, the lightweight fibreglass panels held on with pins, the slicks in the boot, the supercharger sticking out of the bonnet with its crudely made cover… this film captures the spirit of the truly obsessed petrol head better than any other in its representation of two guys who spend every cent they earn on making their car go faster.

Gone In 60 Seconds (1974)

The original HB Halicki B-movie classic, not the dire Nicholas Cage, CGI, re-make travesty. I sat through two consecutive screenings of this on it’s original cinema release, then impatiently waited thirty years for it to be released on DVD. Supposedly only one Mustang was prepared for filming and many of the scenes were filmed illegally. A truly terrible film which suffers from and abundance of crashing police cars, but the theft scenes leading up to the big chase are pure car porn and it’s still one of the all time great chases.

The Italian Job (1969)

The chase scenes are undermined by the humour and the knowledge that the little Coopers could never withstand the abuse, but it’s a stunning combination of car choreography and music that has never been bettered.

Ronin

I would really like to have put Ronin at number one: I still think John Frankenheimer nailed it in his intention to make the ultimate car chase movie. And it’s not just one chase but two, both outstanding and realistic. But despite the action it’s somehow cold and clinical: is it the vehicles or the actors who lack charisma? Whatever it is, the true test for me is whether the scenes elevate the cars themselves to iconic status – I’d wager most people can’t even remember what the cars were. Or seen the film.

Bullitt

It’s a terrible cliché – Bullitt is at the top of everyone’s list because we all know Bullitt features the best car chase ever made so that’s an end to it. Isn’t it? Well maybe: it certainly has some great cars that everyone remembers, the best star to have appeared behind the wheel on celluloid, one of the best locations ever chosen for a chase scene and a great soundtrack. But the cars are unbelievably indestructible, the continuity’s iffy and… well anything else would be nit-picking. It’s still one of the best cat & mouse chases ever filmed, Bullitt really is that good.

Against All Odds
What’s this? Bullitt not at number one shock! And to be replaced with a dodgy 1980s film that hardly anyone remembers? Well take a look at the chase scene on YouTube: no cars crashing, nothing leaps from a handy trailer, nothing explodes, no special effects and no-one gets shot. It’s just two guys who are old enough to know better, driving two fabulous cars as fast as they can through traffic. With a dog.

 

 

‘Ring

To die would be an awfully big adventure.

J.M. Barrie

In January 2009 I mounted a Yamaha SR125 and lurched around some orange cones in a school playground on the first day of my bike riding course. Other than a wobble down an alleyway on my grandmother’s Honda C50 in 1975 this was my first motorcycling experience. Despite its obvious decrepitude, the little Yamaha gave me one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Being a naturally cautious fellow I like to take all new learning experiences – especially those involving dangerous and unfamiliar vehicles – at a very gentle pace. So by August I had bought an 800cc Ducati. And by the following summer I finally achieved a lifelong ambition of a trip to the Nürburgring.

 

Start line.

Now, we’ll be taking this very easy. Mustn’t forget I’ve already dropped the bike twice on the trip over here (yes, I know it was the wrong side of the road) and I’m not absolutely sure I’ve screwed this new brake lever on properly. Perhaps I should have brought more tools than a Swiss Army knife.

Let’s see, ticket swiped, now er… what do I do with it? Gloves off… “Sorry! Yes, first time”… ticket tucked away in a pocket, gloves back on, here we go.

“Von moment Mein Herr – no lezzer? Vot jeanz are zeez?”

“Er, armoured.”

The German official grabs a handful of leg and roughly rubs between finger and thumb. He looks sceptical.

“Hmm. Ist ok, you can go.”

Right, we’re off… whoops!… er… where am I exactly? This isn’t where you start on the Playstation. F*** – CHICANE! Ah, at least I know where I am… Blimey, this right-hander’s a lot tighter than I thought – drifting to the left, keep right to let all the fast stuff through… BWAAAAHHHH! BWAAAAHHHH! JESUS! They’re not taking any prisoners… Don’t look at the bend, look at the road ahead… Keep right… BWAAAAHHHH! F***! What was that? Porsche GT2 or GT3? You can tell the difference by the… CONCENTRATE ON WHAT YOU’RE DOING. Whooooooh – bends are much tighter than they look on the video and there’s serious camber. Keep right, keep right, take it steady… blimey, there’s a lot of crap at the side of the road, bits of rubber and debris… Uuuuhhhh! G-forces… Don’t look at the bend, look at the road ahea… DON’T LOOK AT THE BEND! “Wahhhhhhh!!!” It’s ok, no one can hear you scream inside the helmet. Don’t stuff it, don’t stuff it… Ok, getting into the swing of it now, at least I know which way the bends go… BWAAAAHHHH!! BWAHHHH!! BLOODY HELL THEY WERE A BIT CLOSE… Brake, don’t lock up, this is a tight one… F***, he’s lost it just in front of me, spinning backwards – the car following him has just managed to keep it together in a cloud of tyre smoke… The Karussell! Most infamous bend in the world – SCREEEEEEEECHHHHHHHHHH!!! Woah! That’s the M5 ‘Ring Taxi drifting all the way round the outside of the Karussell, I’ve never seen control like that before…. actually it doesn’t look that bad and there’s no one behind me, I’ll try to stay in the drainage channel: BWHH-BWHH-BWHH-FUU-FUU-BOUNCY!! Too much G!… LOOK AHEAD, NOT DOWN…F*** – bounced straight out two thirds of the way round… Right, last third of the circuit, Keeeeeeep riiiiiiiiiiight… F*** – NOT THAT FAR RIGHT… that curb nearly had me off then… Oh look, there’s that lovely Gallardo I saw in the car park – doesn’t look quite so lovely with that big scrape down the side… Downhill into a tight S-bend… BRAKE – CHANGE DOWN – DON’T LOCK UP – rear tyre leaps sideways on downchange F***, S***!!! Last bend, this is it, the long straight, nail it coming out of the corner and see if you can get it up to 140… 110, 120, 130… F****! Where did the straight go? On the Playstation it’s much longer – they’ve moved the finish line to halfway along… BRAKE, BRAKE, BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!!!!

Repeat with subtle variation (except for rear tyre leaping sideways on the S-bend every bloody time) until the bike smells of burning brakes and clutch and the rider needs a change of underwear. Then turn around and ride for 4 and a half hours back to the Eurotunnel.

What a day.

 

Try

You can’t always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, you just might find,
You get what you need.
 Jagger

 

I should take a moment to explain that I like cars.

A lot.

I study motoring journalism with the serious contemplation others reserve only for spiritual enlightenment. When it comes to cars (or motorcycles or watches for that matter) I am a self-confessed, anorak-wearing geek.

Over my last three car purchases I’ve been in the unusual (for me) but very happy position of buying new. I enjoy reading a lot of different opinions about the models I’m considering but I’m intelligent enough to assume that I may differ in height, weight, age, gender, temperament, education, culture, diet and beliefs to those journalists and that a test drive of a vehicle before handing over a large briefcase full of cash doesn’t seem too unreasonable.

While I can appreciate that my expectations of a champagne reception were unlikely I thought the dealerships might at least be pleased to see me (or more realistically, my money). But requests for a test drive were greeted with reactions ranging from affront:
How could I dare to question the veracity of their brochure’s claims?

…through indifference:
Was I really going to put them through the inconvenience of having to sell me a car?

…to being ignored, or in one case the lone salesman being absent altogether:
It’s his lunch break.

A Swedish dealership didn’t have my choice in stock but offered to let me drive a completely different, larger model with a different engine and transmission, along with the assurance that it would give me a reasonable ‘feel’ for the car – they were all ‘essentially the same’. Another Swedish dealer advised me to return in a month when they might have a demonstrator available. They have since gone bankrupt.

The Italians suggested I might like to visit their other showroom where a demonstrator (with the wrong engine) was available. In Derbyshire. 150 miles away. Another branch of the Italian firm seemed appalled that I’d interrupted their conversation with something as trivial as a request to look at a car. I was the only customer in the showroom.

The ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ attitude of a British dealer was refreshingly honest. He didn’t have an estate model to drive and didn’t think it likely he’d ever have one available. The saloon version was also absent that day and of a different specification anyway. The salesman was apparently more interested in his sandwich.

A French dealer was on the phone for 20 minutes before thrusting me the keys to a car so that I could check the all-important boot dimensions and presumably sit and make brum-brum noises. When I returned 15 minutes later he was still on the phone so I left. Another French showroom ushered me outside to a car that was up on a service ramp. They didn’t seem very keen when I asked if they could bring it down. And it was brown.

The German’s had no pushchair access to their showroom. Actually they protested that they did have access, but had parked their cars too close together to use it – so I had to leave my wife and son outside. The sales people then proved so obnoxious that I gave up after a few minutes. The second German dealership had excellent access, but was obnoxious anyway.

The Japanese experience was the most successful: not only did they have a petrol model available to drive but were also able to supply the equivalent diesel model for a back-to-back comparison, albeit on different days. Outstanding. Unfortunately the salesman was an idiot with little knowledge of the different cars he was tasked with selling… knowledge with which he could easily have familiarised himself over a couple of hours relaxed study. And the cars – though admirable in many ways – were vile to drive.

I can sympathise with a dealer who is tasked with several different models equipped with a bewildering combination of trim, engines and transmissions, making it very difficult to supply the customer with a sample of the car he’d like to buy. Conversely they expect you to hand over £15,000 – £100,000 for a vehicle you haven’t been able to drive, or in some cases see.

Apparently my friends don’t share my concern: an (admittedly unscientific) survey tells me people rarely bother with test drives, either putting their faith in road tests conducted by people they assume are more qualified than themselves or blindly in the belief that all cars are now ‘good enough’. One friend recently paid over £40,000 for a car he’d only seen in a photograph. Another spent as little as 15 minutes on her purchase – as long as it took to sign the paperwork – and wasn’t even particularly bothered about the colour.

It’s not as if you can just take it back – the car will probably be ordered to your specification and unless there is a serious mechanical fault any ‘design quirks’ will have to be endured throughout your ownership. What if you don’t like the steering? Or the gearbox? Or the way the engine delivers its power? Or the noise the doors make when you slam them? Or the way the seatbelts cut into your neck? Or that the seats give you back ache on long journeys? Will the right badge really be enough compensation?

I refuse to believe that cars have really descended to the level of domestic appliance, they’re just too expensive and have too many emotional and visceral qualities for people not to care, but are they all now so reliable and similar in driving experience that the only critical decision remaining is one in which the buyer decides whether the brand’s badge fits their lifestyle?

Can dealerships change? I was recently encouraged by an article about a dealer that had become a car ‘boutique’, claiming to be more customer-focussed than traditional outlets. You could ‘interact’ with (presumably sit in) the cars on display and choose whether or not you wanted to ‘interact’ with (presumably talk to) a sales person. You could buy a T-shirt, drink espresso or watch a film. It was said to be an ‘experience’ – but the thing you were experiencing seemed to be the brand rather than the actual vehicle.

Sadly there was no mention of driving one of their cars.