Clarkson (and others) on supercars

Sonnie Bailey

23 July 2015

One of the best ways of knowing whether you’ll enjoy something is to look to the experience of others.

There’s a difference between wanting something and enjoying it. Looking at the experience of others can be a prophylactic against going ahead with buying things that you might want but won’t enjoy.

Let’s take supercars as an example.

I fully empathise with the desire to own a supercar. I like seeing Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, Audi R8s, and Porsche 911s on the road. That’s something about them that appeals, at a deep and primal level.

But would owning a supercar be so great?

Let’s ignore the cost (upfront and ongoing) of owning a car like this. Or the thought that if you’re buying one of these cars in New Zealand or Australia, you’re possibly paying two or three times more than someone in the US or Europe is paying for the same car. Let’s concentrate on the experience.

Here’s an article from Popular Mechanics:  The Downside of Buying a Supercar (Besides the Price). The author had an Audi R8 for the week.

The author’s conclusion:

“is driving an exotic car really all its cracked up to be? Unless you… enjoy what I consider the wrong kind of attention, I say no way. Imagine if your wife was a Playboy Bunny. Are the thrills worth the annoyance of strange little cretons bothering you and your wife in Home Depot, when all you really want to do is get some drywall? It’s an interesting diversion. But do you really want to put up with it every day?”

Some specific examples from his one week with the car:

  • “A police car follows me for 20 miles along the New Jersey Turnpike, a careful three car lengths behind. My cruise control is set precisely to 55 mph, even though traffic is passing us on both sides. Finally, I can’t take it any more and exit. He doesn’t follow. I exhale–for the first time in 10 miles.”
  • “Three times in my 20-mile commute, I have to slam on the brakes and take evasive action to avoid morons leaning out the window trying to take a cell phone picture of the 420-hp ride.”
  • “Buying gasoline takes a good half-hour. Everyone wants to chat me up. It’s always the same questions: How much does it cost? How fast will it go? Who makes it? The answers are never good enough. I actually had to explain to one particularly dim bulb that Audi is, in fact, a car manufacturer. What planet is this guy living on? Scary. I eventually make up outrageous answers–answers that seem to be more in line with people’s expectations. They’re more than willing to believe that an R8 can go 250 mph and is handmade in Switzerland by Enzo Ferrari’s illegitimate granddaughter.”
  • “The Monday after the Super Bowl, I’m about to pull into PM’s parking garage. An entire loading dock of union guys comes boiling out into the street, surrounding my car… The union guys actually want me to sign an autograph. No, I am not kidding.”

Remember – these are experiences from having the car for just one week.

Or let’s take Jeremy Clarkson. Whatever his occasional propensities, I find him entertaining. Especially the car reviews featured in his books.

Clarkson has owned his share of supercars. And he’s driven most of the rest. What does he have to say?

He sums it up clearly in What Could Possibly Go Wrong (2014):

“I’ve had my share of [supercars] over the years and they are all stupid. Impractical, ruinously expensive, difficult to park and they leave you with dirty fingers every time you open the bonnet to retrieve your (very small) suitcase.”

In Don’t Stop Me Now (2008), he explains:

  • “Buy a supercar, and your neighbours won’t like the noise. Your wife won’t be able to climb aboard in a short skirt, your friends will be jealous, and other road users will make signals. It’s hard to think of any group or body that likes a man in a supercar; small boys, perhaps. But is that what you want? Probably not, I suspect.”
  • “Supercars… are like athletes, forever suffering from hamstring injuries and groin strains.”

He expands further at various points in What Could Possibly Go Wrong (2014):

  • “if you buy either of these [supercars], it will infuritate as often as it exhilerates. It was always thus in the world of the supercar, though.”
  • I cannot think of one yard of British tarmac where you could sensibly put your foot down in a modern Ferrari. Not one… A lot of people wonder why Top Gear films these really fast cars on an airfield. The reason is simple. On a road, almost all of them are borderline idiotic.” And: “All the things that make [supercars] great on sunny days in the Tuscan hills make them utter pigs in Shpherd’s Bush on a dark, wet Wednesday.”

While reviewing the Ferrari 458 Spider, Clarkson gives a decent explanation for why supercars can be so infuritating.

While the 458 Spider “is the most usable and modern of all the supercars”, “it’s still plagued by the sort of faults that would not be acceptable in a Nissan hatchback”. Because, unlike large-colume cars, where “Every little detail is thought about [and] tested, and then tested again… And then tested again”, “If you’re a small-volume car maker [which is the case for any supercar manufacturer], you simply don’t have the funds to design a feature and then redesign it if it doesn’t work.”

For example, in relation to the fact that all main controls are on the steering wheel, Clarkson says: “We’re told by Ferrari that you get used to this after a while, and I don’t doubt that’s true. In the same way that you can get used to having arthritis.”

Clarkson concludes the review by saying that he “grew out of supercars many years ago”. He says “As a car, it would get two stars, for being silly and too expensive”. BUT: “as a thing. As a celebration of man’s ability to be happy. It’s in a seven-star class of one.”

Elsewhere, Clarkson puts the point very well.

“When we buy a really fast car, the last thing we want is a really fast car. We may think we do. But we don’t. The top speed of a car matters when you’re a child [and] when you are a teenager.” “You buy a Ferrari because you think it makes you look interesting, rich and attractive… You buy one so, at night, when it’s dark and you’re feeling worthless, you can say to yourself, ‘But I have a Ferrari’. And you will feel better. I know. I’ve been there.”

When you buy a supercar, you’re not buying the machine. It’s an exercise in semiotics: what it represents.

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