Monday, February 14, 2011

James on open-top motoring

James May

James on open-top motoring

Call me old-school, but when I'm driving a car, I quite enjoy the sensations of, well, driving a car.
There's infinitely variable sound, obviously, the engine being configured to produce a lengthy glissando, the timbre of the tyres changing with the road surface; vibrations too, in different places and at different throttle openings. There's the weighting of pedals, the loading of the steering wheel, the clack of gearchanging, the click of indicators. This is all very engaging, and I love it. So at no point do I feel the need to send an email or do any blueteeth.
As m'learned colleague Horrell pointed out a few months ago, we are suffering a glut of unwanted functionality on cars. The spur to this is electronics, which are so brilliantly capable, compact and cheap that they may as well be included in everything.
In some ways, this is a good thing. There was a time when people were amazed that John Lennon had a record deck in his Rolls-Royce, but now you're a sap if you haven't got the complete Radio 2 archive in your pocket. That's an advance. But on the other hand, at least the electro-mechanical era put a natural brake on frippery. Electronics provide functions that are there simply because they might as well be.
Climate control is an early example of the rot. Never mind that I can generally work out whether I'm too hot or too cold; why can the temperature by altered by half a degree? I simply don't believe that I can detect that. And why are there so many buttons on steering wheels? The steering wheel already has a vital job to do. It's like giving a working brain surgeon a crossword.
Strip all this away, and you remember what's really important in a car. Low-spec cars are rather refreshing in the face of constant button mayhem. It's nice to drive a basic manual with a naked steering wheel and a few heater knobs on the dash. These things matter. And I'm going to stick my neck out and say I quite like a windscreen.
Talking of sticking my neck out, a while back I drove the Caterham R500, which doesn't have a windscreen in the sense that I would understand. I enjoyed this car, and so did my missus, although she thought the experience was tainted by the need to cower in the passenger footwell. Who in the name of God's holy mother in heaven thought that of all the things that could be stripped from a car to make it light, the windscreen should be one of them?
I mean, wind in the hair is great. So is a light ruffling at the back of the neck, and so is the fluttering of shirt sleeves. But a 100mph gale in the face, punctuated by bits of gravel and bumble-bees, is simply not funny.

�Wind in the hair motoring is great, but a 100mph gale in the face, punctuated by bits of gravel is simply not funny�
Now I've been driving the Ariel Atom. I like this very much. It must be acknowledged that much of what defines a car is actually missing from the Atom, including the bodywork. I quite like this as well, because I can watch the suspension at work and check the welding (excellent, it turns out) on the spaceframe.
But having removed everything including the upholstery, Ariel could have relaxed its zealous pursuit of purity just a bit and put a windscreen on it. It does have some tiny triangles of perspex, but I'm not fooled.
Remember, the �dashboard' is so called because it has been named after the curved portion at the front of a horse-drawn carriage that protected the occupants from flying stones. The windscreen is simply a transparent extension of that.
But the real issue here is aerodynamics. The car, turgid though its development has been, has taken around 130 years to progress from a single-cylinder trike to the Veyron. Windscreens emerged fairly early on, probably when Gottlieb Daimler was hit in the physog by some horse poo.
Meanwhile, human evolution has taken many millions of years, and struggles to catch up. My head has been designed to travel through the air at not more than about 20mph, which is all it could do until the late 19th century.
So not only would a windscreen be more agreeable, it would actually improve the car's performance. There's no point ruthlessly minimalising a car in the name of high speed and then sticking my head, with its drag-inducing ears and non-laminar eyebrows, directly into the slipstream. Apart from anything else, it hurts.
I put this to the nice man from Ariel. Why don't you make a windscreen for it, I wondered?
"We do," he replied.
I'll take it.

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