If you inhabit planet Earth, and have a television, it’s unlikely that you will not have seen James May on screen. As one of the three presenters of Top Gear, he, along with Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson, has eclipsed even Pamela Anderson and Baywatch as the most watched programme on Earth. Though it’s difficult to know for sure, an estimated one billion people in more than 100 countries have seen it. This isn’t a TV programme, more a global phenomena. But just in case you have recently arrived from Mars, I should explain that, although ostensibly a motoring programme, Top Gear is in fact an enormously successful sitcom with cars as the underlying theme. It used to be that any mention of a new car in a magazine or TV show was wreathed in approval. Criticism was modest to non-existent, with a curious shorthand used to describe any shortcomings. ‘Interesting roadholding’, for example, would indicate that the car had major design flaws that would tend to deliver said vehicle into any convenient roadside ditch should the steering wheel be turned or brakes applied, and suspension described as ‘firm’ would most likely mean that the cars most frequent journey would be to the osteopath down the road… Top Gear changed all that with a trenchant approach to mentioning any failings – usually to the fury of manufacturers – while entertaining a whole new audience of non-car enthusiasts.
But with Clarkson cast as the school bully, and Hammond frequently siding with him, it’s not always apparent just how much James actually knows about the technical side of motor cars, or how much he enjoys the detail. It’s a fact of life that dropping an exploding caravan from 150 feet onto a landmine will tend to overshadow the explanation of a de Dion rear axle… Fortunately, James has lately been ploughing his own idiosyncratic but highly successful furrow.
For oenophiles, there was Oz and James’ Big Wine Adventure. James May’s 20th Century and James May’s Big Ideas allowed him to indulge his passion for clever engineering. Last year, he went to the moon – sort of – and also to the edge of space. And most recently James May’s Toy Stories allowed his knowledge of and interest in things both fun and mechanical to shine through. Projects included building a life-size bridge out of Meccano, a full-size house out of Lego bricks, and my particular favourite, re-laying the entire Brooklands circuit with mileupon- mile of Scalextric slot-racing track.
In other words, he’s something of a renaissance man. Indeed, James even studied music at university,
and conversation with him is peppered with poignant musical allusions. He is also a successful author,
with numerous books to his name. But it’s cars with which he is most famously associated. Like so many car enthusiasts I’ve talked with, James’s passion for cars and Ferrari in particular is made up of a fairly complex mix of elements. I have to say that one of the most enjoyable aspects of these ‘conversations’ is the ever-changing mix of ingredients that make each individual’s explanation unique. One day I might even work out what it actually is that makes these cars so particularly important…
Nick Mason: Your love of old cars and motorbikes is well-documented, but you’ve just bought a Ferrari F430. What happened to TV’s Captain Slow, and your appreciation of all things comfortable and sedate?
James May: Well, I have been misunderstood. I’m not against the idea of cars that are focused, in fact I really like them. I like being able to feel the machinery work. What I don’t like are fatuous attempts to corrupt cars and force a sporty demeanour upon them. I love the idea of things being natural, so that the manmachine interface is intuitive. But it’s often corrupted. Big wheels, thin tyres, over-firm dampers… cars can quickly become skittish and fractious.
The Official Ferrari Magazine: Why did you decide to buy an F430?
JM: I went on the launch of the F430 Spider. I liked the happy feel of it, the noise and the immediacy of it. And the F430 is actually a rather simple car. Joyously so, in fact… the engine’s in the middle, there aren’t that many switches inside, there are seats and a steering wheel. I like that.
NM: The process of acquiring a Ferrari is often rather interesting too, as we’ve discovered…
JM: I was actually going to buy an old Ferrari but I’ve already got enough old cars. Then Chris Evans [fellow BBC broadcaster and Ferrari fan, see TOFM issue two] got involved and started talking me into it, and he’s very persuasive, as you both know. He knew I was thinking of buying a 308 or 328. He’d had one, had fully restored it, reckoned it was probably the best one in the world, and only wanted £30k for it. So I said, ‘yes, OK, where is it?’ He said, ‘well, I sold it last week…’ Anyway, we were filming his California Spider for the programme, and while we were doing that he was sending me text messages saying ‘you should always buy a Ferrari you can’t really afford’. Interesting advice. Chris seems to spend most of his life in his local Ferrari dealership, and when he does the sales manager just disappears into his office and has a cup of tea, because he knows Chris will sell the cars for him… So it’s his fault, really.
NM: When did Ferrari first register with you?
JM: Oh, the usual stuff. Magnum on the TV. CAR magazine, Setright’s five favourite Ferraris… [Setright was CAR’s famously erudite columnist]. But it was like Chopin… I didn’t get it at first. When I first started driving them, I thought they had a bit of a cottage industry feel to them, and still think they do compared to Porsche. But after a while I began to see why Ferrari got under people’s skin. They are not quite the same as other cars. There’s something about the people who make and design Ferraris… it’s difficult to describe, but I call it the fizz. It’s not an erotic response, you understand, but I’m convinced we have a gland in here [points somewhat worryingly to his solar plexus region] that responds to… certain stimuli. Other cars do it, too. But a Ferrari does it in a very particular way. All Ferraris. I drove a 400i recently and it did it…
TOFM: Do you understand this fizz concept, Nick?
NM: Well, maybe not a fizz, in the way James describes it! It’s a childhood association for me. Eric [Clapton] remembers seeing the cars as a child. But what also seems powerful for Ferrari owners is an appreciation for this semi-handmade car that’s a piece of craft. Watches, too. Or perhaps the comparison with a musical instrument is more valid… Speaking of which, aren’t you a trained musician, James?
JM: Well I studied it. Actually, I think it’s the nature of performance that makes a car, not the absolutes. That’s why I’ve always said the original Fiat 500 had the soul of Caruso. Obviously it’s not fast, but it’s the enthusiasm it puts into it, it’s almost as if the car believes in what it’s doing. And a Ferrari believes what it’s doing more than… a Honda NSX, for example, ever did. It’s like listening to piano players doing a Bach fugue or a complicated bit of Beethoven. Some people really make it make sense, others just make it sound like a series of notes.
NM: It’s subjective, though, isn’t it. For example, would you choose a brand new Fender Stratocaster over one that Eric Clapton’s been playing? Without a doubt you’d go for Eric’s, although objectively there’s probably nothing to choose between them. Ferraris are cars conceived and built by people who really care about them…
JM: There’s a feeling with Ferraris – all Italian cars, actually – that everybody involved in the process of its creation enjoyed it. There’s no grumpiness. Whereas there is some grumpiness in a Porsche or Audi. I don’t know if it’s the motorsport breeding, although I’ve never been completely sure how relevant that is in a road car. But there must be something in it because Ferraris just feel more… proper. They just do.
NM: You’re something of an engineer, aren’t you?
JM: In an amateur sort of way. I’m not a true engineer. But I am a bit nerdy. I like taking things apart and putting them back together. It helps me connect with machines. All the Ferraris I’ve ever driven, including some quite old ones, communicate a sense of how they were made and what everything in them does
TOFM: Are you saying other cars don’t?
JM: There’s a lot of stuff on modern cars that isolates you from the experience of what a car is doing while it’s working. If you actually enjoy what’s going on, and you can feel it, it’s part of the process of feedback. The sound is part of the feedback as well as all the tactile receptors. A degree of mechanical feedback is very important. With cars that want to be driven enthusiastically, you need all the tingles to keep on coming. Internal combustion, you see, is full of flaws, the delivery is full of peaks and troughs, and sweet spots and flat spots. If you can’t feel those, you can’t use it properly. It’s like playing an instrument with gloves on or doing card tricks with cold fingers. The really important stuff does come through your hands and inner ear, our bodies really are very sensitive to the tiniest vibrations. So all the things that come out of something as complicated as a car engine must be telling us something…
NM:…Because when you are properly attuned, you drive the car without ever having to look at the instruments. Which is obviously rather helpful if you are driving very quickly! You feel the amount of revs that necessitate a gear change. If you’re racing a 250 GTO and you don’t do that, well, let’s just say it’s an expensive situation to find oneself in…
JM: It would be rather, yes… The better the car, the clearer those little avenues of communication are. A Fiat Panda is actually very good [James also owns a Panda, and is a keen advocate of small cars]. There’s the useable bit, the bit where you’re indulging yourself, and then the bit where the bonnet starts to ripple… Diesel engines are like those kids’ xylophones, where you get a good tune going and then you run out of notes. Ferraris are like piano keyboards and Chopin, there’s that bit at the top end to play with. It’s lovely.
TOFM: As this issue is themed around Ferrari’s 12-cylinder cars, would you nominate a favourite?
JM: I would go for the 612 Scaglietti. Lovely car. A part of me deep down believes that a front-engined V12 is more… proper. I have an abiding love of the BB512 too. I once came up with a hierarchy of the acceptability of engines. The V12 and straight six were at the top. The 12 is very sophisticated and the six is perfectly balanced. It’s all about harmonic balance. After that, you get V6s, oddball engines like five-pots, then it’s really four cylinders and V8s… the four is the European bread and butter unit, the V8 the American one. Except you couldn’t possibly say that about the engine in my car or the new V8 in the 458. But a V12 is definitely posher. According to my hierarchy, there’s something expedient about a V8. The multi-cylinder engine really dates from a time when the ability to re wasn’t as great as it is now, and so you needed more pistons working to get the petrol through. The rate at which things are happening now is incredible. There are some Japanese motorcycle engines that will rev at 16,000rpm straight out of the box, and do it all day long. And the 458’s engine sounds extraordinary, too.
NM: The 12-cylinder is the classic set-up, really. Though Ferrari did have various four-cylinder cars and actually had rather a lot of success with them. Logically, I suppose you could argue that the whole idea of the internal combustion engine is one of redundant effort… which is a depressing thought. Now, what about electric motors?
JM: Actually, I can get quite excited by electric cars. We’ve always known an electric motor is the sensible way to power a car, certainly an everyday car. In fact, electric cars outsold petrol cars in the US in the early 20th century… The electric motor is an older idea than the internal combustion engine, as is the hydrogen fuel cell. We knew the principle 150 years ago. I like the seamless delivery you get from an electric or hydrogen powertrain, but it makes you realise that the thing that’s exciting about internal combustion is its shortcomings, it has to idle, there’s a rev limit, you have to know it. Whereas an electric motor just starts and stops. Internal combustion is mayhem, really.
NM: Do you think engines actually are musical?
JM: Well, John Cage said that music is organised sound. So in that sense an engine clearly is music; it must be organised for the valves to open in the correct way. There is chaos, but it’s ordered. I suspect the whole process is fundamentally a bit daft. That being so, you may as well feel it and enjoy it…
With the collaboration of Jason Barlow
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 8, March 2010