Posts Tagged Top Gear

Rich life, poor taste

Bugatti Veyron Super SportIn his review of the new Range Rover Sport on last Sunday’s Top Gear season finale, Richard Hammond described the “Premier League ghetto” of Wilmslow, home to the majority of Britain’s professional football players. Hammond drove through streets lined with jewelers selling diamond-encrusted Rolex watches, dealers selling Aston Martins, and realtors listing multi-million pound homes.

He also passed the wonderfully alliterative Gentry Grooming, whose motto was “grooming for the distinguished gentleman.”

Are professional athletes “distinguished gentlemen?” Even without American steroid scandals, footballers seem to lack the sophistication of the luxury goods and services they buy.

When Ettore Bugatti decided to sell cars to customers, he made a point of choosing them. Legend has it that Bugatti would invite potential buyers to his mansion (adjacent to the factory) for dinner, and if he didn’t like their table manners, he wouldn’t sell them a car.

Things have certainly changed. Anyone with $1.5 million can have a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, the world’s fastest production car. Not only does the buyer not have to be a gentleman (or woman), he or she doesn’t need to have any extra training despite the Super Sport’s roughly 265 mph top speed.

Sometimes I wonder how makers of expensive cars, clothing, and jewelry feel about their products being bought almost exclusively by crass celebrities, or worse. Mercedes-Benz certainly doesn’t want to advertise the fact that one of its most loyal customers was the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-ClassMercedes isn’t responsible for who buys its cars, of course, and people should always strive for excellence in the things they make, even if the people that get to use those things don’t.

That doesn’t make the disparity between item and owner any less jarring. After all, a car isn’t capable of being vulgar, like a professional athlete or randomly famous celebrity. Unless the athlete or celebrity does this to it, that is.

I don’t know what Mr. Bugatti would say if he was alive today, but he remark on the need for taste as well as money. We assume that, because they have acquired wealth, wealthy people have worked hard, and aren’t obligated to do anything except enjoy their reward. But when they’re being shown up by their own possessions, maybe they need to do a little more than that.

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Clarkson on Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher’s death earlier this week was been provoking many discussions on her policies and legacy. It might sound surprising, but that discussion should probably include Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson.

Before rebuilding Top Gear in his own image in 2002, Clarkson did a series of solo programs on different motoring topics. One of them was “Who Killed the British Motor Industry?”

Today, Britain’s car industry is pretty much non-existent; all of the big names are owned by foreign interests. It’s the fallout from the spectacular collapse of government-supported conglomerate British-Leyland in the 1970s, which Clarkson gives a blow-by-blow account of here.

We join the story via Youtube just before Thatcher’s rise to power, with massive strikes, foreign competition, and shoddy, outdated products crippling B-L. The Thatcher government’s solution to the problem was to sell off nearly everything, sparing only Rover, Land Rover, MG, and Mini.

Do you agree with Clarkson? Are we better off without rusty Austins and malfunctioning Triumphs? Speak your mind.

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Other People’s Cars: Suzuki Kizashi

Suzuki KizashiThe car in the photo is about to become a rarity, at least in the United States. It’s a Suzuki, which means it’s made by a Japanese manufacturer of cars and motorcycles that recently decided to leave the U.S. market. Should anyone care?

Suzuki has been the butt of jokes for years, so it’s not surprising that the company is giving up, or that it’s hard to muster the sentimental feelings that came with Saab’s departure about a year ago. Yet even the most maligned carmakers have some good qualities.

In a sure sign of the impending “Fiscal Cliff”/Mayan Apocalypse, Suzuki’s sales are actually increasing. Despite being bankrupt, Suzuki’s American division is buying 2,500 more cars to fill inventory before it makes its exit.

Apparently, buyers are so thrilled by the idea of a bargain that they’re willing to ignore Suzuki’s bankruptcy and the future lack of factory support for the cars they are purchasing. After all, Suzukis were among the cheapest cars sold in the U.S., so a “Store Closing” sale should yield some epically low prices.

It might be a long shot, but Suzukis could even become future collectibles because of their rarity. Then again, maybe not.

As a bargain basement brand, Suzuki never had the esoteric caché of a Saab or Peugeot, and it made some of the worst cars ever built. The Samurai is a favorite of off-roaders, but everyone knows it will tip over if you look at it funny. Suzuki is also to blame for America’s most egregious economy car, the Cultus, a.k.a. Geo Metro. In addition, Suzuki could never match its fellow Japanese companies’ sterling reliability.

However, there were some bright spots. The Aerio was, at least, unique, and it was Top Gear’s first Reasonably Priced Car. Some of the current models, the Kizashi sedan (pictured), SX4 hatchback, and Nissan Frontier-based Equator pickup specifically, aren’t that bad either.

These cars never offered the flashy styling, million airbags safety, or technological overload of their competitors; they were either incredibly cynical or incredibly honest. They were either trying to trick undiscerning buyers, or being unpretentious.

In the past five years, cars have started morphing into Apple Stores; many are more like platforms for tech than transportation. Suzuki never had the resources to pull that off, so it had to focus on making cars. Maybe there is a reason to care about its departure, after all.

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Other People’s Cars: Porsche Carrera GT

Last weekend, I stopped at an antique auto restoration shop near Westport, Connecticut. While drooling over a Jaguar XK120 and a 1959 DeSoto, I spotted a decidedly modern Porsche Carrera GT. Seeing a blue supercar like the one in this photo (I couldn’t figure out how to upload photos from my phone) was an interesting juxtaposition.

The Carrera GT is one of my favorite supercars, because it looks like it’s from the future. The cabin is pushed forward by a massive expanse of engine, and the whole car rides so low it probably couldn’t clear an ant hill. It’s a roadster, with seat fairings that make it look like a Star Wars airspeeder. On the inside, the center console rises up to bring the shifter closer to the driver’s hand.

The Carrera GT started out as a race car; Porsche wanted to retake Le Mans with it. However, the project didn’t work out, so in 2004 Porsche began selling Carrera GTs made from the bones of its stillborn Le Mans prototype. Apparently, failed race cars make excellent street cars. The Carrera GT packs a 5.7-liter V10 with 604 horsepower. It can do 0-60 mph in 3.6 seconds and set a Top Gear lap record when it appeared on the show in 2004 (the record has since been beaten).

If the looks and performance don’t convince you that this is a race care, look no further than the Formula 1-style single-lug wheels, which are color-coded (red for driver’s side, blue for passenger’s).

Seeing such an anally designed car at a restoration shop does pose an interesting question: what will today’s cars be like to restore? Carbon fiber does not rust, but it is much harder to shape into fenders or door panels than steel. The Carrera GT’s electronics will pose another problem. Will computers in the future be able to interface with the Porsche’s control unit, or will it be like trying to get information off a floppy disk? One thing is for sure: those red and blue wheel nuts will be very difficult to find.

The Carrera GT may look like a vehicle from the future, but so did that DeSoto when it rolled off the assembly line in 1959. Now, that big Mopar is a classic, just as the Carrera GT will be in a few decades. Someday, Porsche’s supercar won’t be considered high tech, it will be an antique. When that day comes, I hope the people who restore antique cars will be up to the task.

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Other People’s Cars: Peugeot Bipper

This past summer, I visited London and Paris. Most travelers look for something quintessentially European in the food, language, or other cultural markers of the countries they visit. I was more interested in the cars.

There are many differences between the cars Londoners drive and the ones in the United States. Most of them are diesel powered and a Buick Regal is called a Vauxhall Insignia, for example. One thing I didn’t realize, though is how different their commercial vehicles are.

On the first day in London, I walked out of my hotel and saw this little bugger. It’s a Peugeot Bipper, a tiny van with a 1.4 liter engine and a manual transmission. Fiat and Citroen make identical versions, and Renault has a similar-sized offering of its own.

The Bipper (whose idea was that?) is about the size of a small hatchback; it seems like it’s too small to be of any use. Nonetheless, London and Paris are crawling with these things. Top Gear may have declared the larger Ford Transit king of British commercial vehicles, but I didn’t see nearly as many of them.

That makes sense, too, because European streets are tiny. London’s streets are only about half as wide as the ones in an American city, and they are constantly jammed with traffic. A compact, nimble vehicle is the only way to get around; I wouldn’t want to drive through central London in a Ford E-Series. Paris is even worse: most streets are barely wide enough to park on.

That isn’t the case in the U.S., and that’s why tiny vans like the Bipper were so novel to me. Other than the Ford Transit Connect and minivan-based Ram Cargo Van, American vans only come in one size: big. The standard size involves V-8 power and enough room in back for a medium-sized person to stand up.

However, big size means big inefficiency. In these times of austerity and environmental awareness, Americans might want to take a page from Peugeot and company. When your electrician leaves for work, is his E-Series filled to the brim with tools? When your local bakery delivers a wedding cake, does it fill an entire Chevy Express?

Probably not, and that’s where compact vans come in. Ford had the right idea when it introduced the Transit Connect: buyers deserve more choice. A full-size van could be overkill sometimes, and they’re still pretty difficult to maneuver through city streets.

Fiat makes a copy of the Bipper, called the Fiorino. Since the Italian company is allied with Chrysler, and back in the U.S., maybe we’ll be able to buy these micro-vans soon. They could really save money and generate CAFE points.

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What technology says about us

If you have an electric car, you’re more likely to get a girlfriend. At least, that’s what Top Gear’s irascible host, Jeremy Clarkson, said when he and colleague James May test drove two such cars last season. Cars have always been totems of pop culture, but it seems that efficiency and environmental awareness have trumped performance and style in the public’s eye. If that’s the case, is it time for desperate single men to trade their Mustangs for Nissan Leafs (Leaves?)?

The new definition of cool? Image courtesy of Wired.com.

Humans would not have survived this long without technology, but not every piece of tech is created equal. Some machines and gadgets are more than just tools, they capture the imagination. That’s why there are so many songs about cars, and why a well-placed Dodge Charger can liven up any bad movie.

It wasn’t just the cars themselves: the lifestyle surrounding them had its own mystique. Seeing America by car inspired Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the photographs of Robert Frank, among others. For Twentieth Century Americans, the car was an engineering marvel, a sculpture, and a piece of folklore.

Now we’re in the Twenty-First Century, and we have a new piece of epoch-defining technology: electronics. If you don’t have an Internet-enabled device, you’re nobody. This trend has led people to reassess their feelings for the car. Upon doing so, they find that cars are expensive to buy and maintain, the fuel they consume threatens national security and the environment, and many of them look the same anyway.

Practical concerns, it seems, have taken away some of the car’s romance. But, in addressing those practical concerns, the game hasn’t really changed. It might take years to travel coast to coast on batteries, but the important thing is that the electric car driver will project an image of environmental awareness, of being a good person.

High style and high emissions. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cars have always been about projecting images their drivers think will impress other people. The eco-aura of a Leaf is the same as the sex appeal of a Corvette or the yuppy-ness of a BMW. Clarkson is right: people want to be seen as environmentally conscious. Whether women will find the whirr of an electric motor attractive is another story.

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Other People’s Cars: Alfa Spider

Spotted amidst the American muscle cars at a local show is something everyone can recognize, but few actually know: the Alfa Romeo Spider.

The Alfa Spider is a traditional European sports car: a small, light, two-seater powered by an equally small engine that loves to rev. The emphasis is on handling rather than outright speed; European roads are narrower and curvier than America’s.

In the years before World War II, Alfa Romeo made some of the world’s most exclusive cars. Models like the 8C 2300 and 8C Mille Miglia won races and cost a fortune. As Italy rebuilt itself after the destruction of the war, Alfa was assigned by the Italian government to build affordable cars to remobilize the population.

Since then, Alfa has been known for bringing the Italian flair normally ascribed to exotic brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini to cheaper sports cars and sport sedans. The Spider is the most iconic of those postwar cars, thanks to its starring role alongside Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

The hosts of Top Gear claim that every real car enthusiast needs to own an Alfa Romeo, because Alfas have and authentic “soul” that other cars don’t. They’re right, but not just because of Alfas’ positive attributes. These are some of the most unreliable cars ever made: every electrical or mechanical system will fail if the body doesn’t rust into oblivion first. Owning an Alfa takes dedication, the kind of dedication only a true petrolhead could muster.

However, a great car is not necessarily a great car person’s car. BMWs appeal to car enthusiasts; they are great to drive. But, since they are also well built status-symbols, they also appeal to non-enthusiasts and, worse, poseurs. Someone who isn’t interested in cars would never put up with the trials of Alfa ownership, and since the brand has no snob-factor (if not for The Graduate, few Americans would know they existed), they can’t use their Alfa to show off.

The Alfa Romeo really is the ultimate enthusiast’s car. It’s great to drive, unique, and designed with the passion of fellow car enthusiasts. And, most importantly, no one else would be crazy enough to buy one.

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