Quicker, safer, duller — where sports cars have gone wrong: Andrew Frankel

“We are meant to be the puppeteers, cars our puppets, but it no longer feels the case”

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Elsewhere in this issue you will find my review of the Ferrari Roma, so I won’t let it delay us here except to say that when I drove it, it did strike me that if a car of such performance were produced not that long ago, it would have been all but undrivable for quite a lot of the time.

Indeed the single biggest reason the entire envelope of automotive performance has been able to expand at what at times has seemed an exponential rate over the last couple of decades is not car manufacturers finding more power, but developing with companies like Bosch the electronic intervention systems to go with it.

I happened to drive over to the Roma’s Goodwood launch in a McLaren GT, but because Ferrari makes you sign a piece of paper promising not to do any kind of comparison testing as a condition of being allowed to get in its cars at launch, I can’t tell you much about their relative strengths and weaknesses. What I can say – I think – is that on wet roads or cold roads, or both, both cars and plenty of others are so traction-limited as to make their power outputs a matter of only academic interest.

The system in the McLaren is so good you are aware of its operation only because the car appears to lose power. There is no sense of traction control ‘cutting in’; indeed if not for a small flashing light, you might feel inclined to take the car to the dealer to discover what’s gone wrong. Discard the safety nets, however, and you’ll soon find out the motor is absolutely fine; whether you scare yourself rigid in the process of that discovery is another matter.

Much depends on the environment, and around Goodwood in the Roma I must confess I left a last line of electronic defence in place because not to do so would have put me clearly on the wrong side of the risk to reward ratio.

Some cars don’t even need nasty conditions. At the other end of the McLaren and Ferrari ranges, you’ll find a Senna is comprehensively held by back its electronics even on a dry road, while a 986bhp SF90 is so clever you can come smoking out of a bend with maximum opposite lock, right foot buried and be in not much greater danger of losing control than were you driving at 20mph along your local high street.

So what’s wrong with this? I’m not going to re-open my argument about us having reached ‘peak car’, though I believe that in performance terms we have. But I will say that we’re meant to be the puppeteers, the cars our puppets, and with a growing number of cars, that no longer feels the case. And while the result may be quicker and safer travel, it is less involving and, inevitably therefore, less fun.

There’s a new documentary about Sir Stirling Moss out on Sky, and I’d recommend all save the bits when you have to put up with my ugly mug pontificating about this and that. There’s lots of footage I’d not seen before and interviews with both of Stirling’s children, Allison and Elliot. As well as the usual suspects (Mille Miglia ’55, Monaco ’61) it provides insight into the more personal side of the Moss story, from how he was bullied at Haileybury to the breakdown of his first marriage.

“If I were Fiat I’d be thinking of a genuine successor to the 500”

But the most moving moment is when Annie and Jim Strudwick, a former nurse and pathologist respectively who were among the very first on the scene of the Goodwood accident, go back to the outside of the entry to St Mary’s where it happened. Annie is the one in all the photographs holding Stirling’s hand and she reveals he was drifting in and out of consciousness, whereas I always thought he was out for the count. And it was Annie who also saw him turning blue, and because she was both intelligent and a motor sport fan, knew that many drivers used to chew gum and managed to dislodge what was at the time the single greatest threat to him. She saved his life, a life that would go on for another 58 years.

If I were an entrepreneur, and I am emphatically not, I would start buying up old and scruffy Fiat 500s from the 1950s and 1960s, ripping out their engines and installing electric motors instead. Because the cars are inherently light and would only ever be used in the trendier parts of town, they wouldn’t need much range. And with a few off the shelf creature comforts, like navigation, a digital radio and so on, you could sell them to rich city types as environmentally friendly fashion accessories all day long. And do so for vulgar amounts of money.

Actually I’d look at converting all manner of small, old, compact city cars from Minis to Messerschmitts, but I expect it’s the 500 that would do best. There is something about Dante Giacosa’s shape that makes its rivals seem amateur by comparison, and the fact that Fiat still mines the design language to this day – as you will see in my test in this issue of the new Fiat 500 Electric – speaks for itself. But perhaps as owner of an old and scruffy 500, I would say that.

Even so, I think the idea worth considering. Indeed if I were Fiat, I would be thinking hard about creating a genuine successor to the 500, not one that just apes its shape at twice the size. There will always be a demand for cars in cities because some people just don’t like public transport, and once cars can no longer be taxed on their emissions and congestion zones have been lifted, a really cute, fun and effective city car could become very popular indeed. And if, as has been widely predicted, Covid is brought under control but never entirely eliminated, such a car could become a goldmine.

A former editor of Motor Sport, Andrew splits his time between testing the latest road cars and racing (mostly) historic machinery 

Follow Andrew on Twitter @Andrew_Frankel