It may seem an odd way to start a column about road cars in a magazine called Motor Sport but I’ve spent a sizeable proportion of the last month driving a tractor, a form of transport hitherto omitted from my automotive education. I bought it because I have recently moved house and find myself with a small amount of land to manage. I’d like to tell you it’s a 1940s Fergie of unimpeachable provenance, but in fact it’s a small and entirely unremarkable Kubota. And in terms of how difficult it has been to learn how to use properly, it’s up there with my Alvis Silver Eagle and its merciless crash ’box and centre throttle.
But learning it has been a revelation: in an era when even the cheapest road cars are filled with gimmicks and gadgets and do all they can to distance you from their engineering, driving something so mechanical and tactile is a joy. It has no switches, just levers that operate with heavy precision. It makes you work all the time, adjusting the height of this, the ratio of that and the speed of something else. If you get stuck, you stamp your heel on a bar that instantly locks the diff solid, propelling you out of the muddiest bog like a cork from a bottle. It is more involving to drive at 4mph than any number of sports cars at 40 times that speed. It has an honesty rarely seen in any car these days: it knows what the job is and everything about it is designed not to make that job easier, but to do it better. It is supremely, almost definitively, fit for purpose.
‘Fit for purpose’ is not a phrase we see much in the car magazines these days, largely because most of us responsible for making up their content know that very few cars are any more. We live in such a risk-averse society we need our cars to cater for every foreseeable outcome and are quite happy to have their fundamental designs compromised in the hope that on just one of the thousand days we’ll own any given one, it will assist us in or even rescue us from some situation that we can neither predict nor, in our hearts, even believe is going to happen. But for that slight possibility, we’ll happily drive a car that’s nowhere near as good as it could or should be the rest of the time.
We buy cars with sixth and seventh seats that rarely, if ever, get used. We buy cars with four-wheel drive ignoring the fact that it harms economy and emissions, will not improve a tyre’s limit of lateral adhesion, increases braking distances because of its extra weight, instils a largely false sense of security in adverse conditions and, in many cases, serves only to raise the speed at which cars fly off the road. We buy SUVs because we believe we will suffer fewer injuries if we crash them while forgetting that they do even more damage to other vehicles – and pedestrians – and are easier to crash in the first place. Through our demands for passive safety systems that will likely never be used, we let cars gain ever more weight, compromising factors we need every day of our lives like fuel consumption, exhaust emissions, performance, handling and braking. This is not sensible.
Take the new Bentley Continental GT Speed I have just been driving. It is a magnificent car with a thundering new 600bhp version of the twin-turbo W12 motor and is the first Bentley officially to top 200mph – even if, unofficially, all Continental-based Bentleys have been capable of as much for years. It has so much torque developed so low down – 553lb ft at 1750rpm – that when it’s all expertly deployed to all four wheels as you cannon off the line and past 60mph in just 4.3sec, it feels as if there’s enough energy being fed into the tarmac to reverse the rotation of the earth.
And that’s all fine up to a point. But as I drove, I could not help wondering how much better it would have felt and driven had it not weighed 2350kg. If, by removing the four-wheel drive hardware, using aluminium rather than steel bodywork and fitting the smaller, lighter engine that would suffice to maintain the same power to weight ratio, perhaps half a tonne could be shed without making the result any slower, nor any less of a Bentley. It would no longer need the largest brakes fitted to any production car because there would be less of it to slow. Nor would the suspension need to be so substantial.
It would accelerate just as quickly, but feel dramatically more agile and alive in your hands in the corners. Its top speed might drop a few meaningless mph but it would go further between filling stations and pump less CO² into the atmosphere. It would be no less luxurious or comfortable, and arguably safer still. It would be more fit for purpose.
Clearly there is nothing that can be done for this generation of Continental, but Bentley will in all likelihood be looking at its replacement even now and I hope that the marque will in future make its cars quicker and better to drive not by piling on the power, but, instead by shedding substantial quantities of kilos.
I’m making the point because last month I had something close to an automotive epiphany. I was at Jonathan Palmer’s Bedford Autodrome to spend two days on road and track in wet and dry conditions with a wide range of very high-performance machinery. There were a couple of Porsches and Mercedes, a BMW, a Lamborghini and even Audi’s new R8. But the car that entranced me most was a Lotus Elise S that a Lotus chassis engineer had used simply as transport from Hethel to Bedford. Costing just £23,995 and powered by an off-the-shelf 140bhp Toyota engine driving a simple five-speed gearbox, it was a car I drove only because I’d always wanted to and because he said I could.
In conditions as horrible as I’ve ever encountered while driving a two-wheel drive, mid-engined car as fast as I could, it was scintillating. Its little 175-section front tyres cut through water that had sent the supercars wiggling and squiggling across the track. It would drift at any angle you liked, talk constantly and eloquently to you through the steering and generally make you feel like a hero at even fairly modest speeds. In a straight line it felt more than quick enough, while in the corners enchanting is not too strong a word. Was it any less of a Lotus because it was cheap and didn’t have much power? On the contrary, it was the most authentic Lotus product I’d driven since the original Elan. When the purpose is the provision of affordable fun in a usable package, I know none more fit than this.
Which is why the forthcoming Eagle and Esprit worry me. These are the bigger, quicker, more comfortable and expensive Lotuses the company – now returned to profitability – is working on. While Lotus is the biggest builder of Elise-type cars in the market, these new products are going to have to take on the might of Porsche, and with the best will in the world that’s a contest from which I struggle to see Lotus emerging on top.
I understand the imperative for low-volume manufacturers to build more expensive cars with their greater profit margins but I understand too that other small British sports car companies, even Lotus itself, have become unstuck by this process in the past. I’d like to see Lotus continue to build the Elise in all its many guises and hire out its renowned expertise in building lightweight cars to an industry which will soon come to regard weight reduction with no loss of structural integrity as perhaps its most important challenge of the short to medium term.
I welcome it. If the imperative to reduce fuel consumption and CO² emissions results in us all driving cars made lighter through the clever use of modern materials and the deletion of needless gimmickry, we all win. These cars will be less wasteful, more fun and safer, too. I cannot wait for them to arrive. So don’t fear that the days of the enjoyable sporting motor car are about to end. On the contrary, I expect they’re about to make a long overdue return.