James May: ‘Our attitude to engineering is a very British disease’
Image credit: Nick Smith
After two decades of making TV programmes about cars, former ‘Top Gear’ presenter James May lifts the lid on why he’s now an advocate for the bicycle, and why the modern world is ‘slightly in denial’ about the impact battery electric cars will have on our lives.
James May just likes talking about and getting stuck in with vehicles. When he’s not on our small screens presenting (in the past) ‘Top Gear’ or (currently) ‘The Grand Tour’, he’s tinkering about in workshops, creating videos of his adventures in making motorbikes out of Meccano, building model planes that can fly across the Channel, or his attempts to build a ‘Swiss Army Bike’. A man it seems obsessed with the machines that get us from A to B, his current focus has turned away from propelling them by burning fossils or charging batteries, and towards those “marvellous vehicles” that only require the application of human muscle.
‘Marvellous Vehicles’ also happens to be the title of his new kids’ book that’s just about to be published. So what vehicles are marvellous and why? “Human-powered vehicles have intrigued me for a long time,” says May, giving bicycles on dry land as examples, pedalos on water and, for flight, Paul MacCready’s Albatross. As he delves deeper into the world of self-propelled transport, he discusses human-powered submarines, skateboards, roller skates and even pogo sticks (it is a book for younger readers, after all).
May traces his interest in this somewhat contrasting niche to ‘Top Gear’ and ‘The Grand Tour’ back to when he was a child in the 1960s, when he realised the potential of the bicycle. As he got older, he started to realise that “most things that people find baffling about physics can be explained with a bicycle better than anything else”. Also, May reckons, anyone wanting to get to grips with the basics of mechanics – “as in mending things with spanners and screwdrivers, basic metalworking and materials problems” – could do a lot worse than taking apart “humankind’s greatest invention” and putting it back together again.
For May, the bicycle has “been through a strange social history. If you go back not-too-far there was this belief that the bicycle was basically the alternative for people too poor to buy a horse or a car. But we’ve gone full circle on that, because now the idea is that the bicycle will save us from becoming gridlocked by cars and vans.” As a mode of transport, May concedes that the horse “has dropped out of the equation” leaving the bicycle free to exploit its “sheer usefulness. It’s always been useful, and it’s always worked brilliantly. It’s just that the perception of its value has been politicised and has varied over time.”
‘Our attitude to engineering is a very British disease’
One of the reasons May was so keen to produce ‘Marvellous Vehicles’ is that he feels children and young adults should have more exposure to engineering. And while the book represents only a small part of the solution, he thinks that the perennial issues of skills shortages, recruitment, diversity and visibility in engineering can in part be traced to the discipline having “a problem with its own PR. There have been some incredibly romantic and exotic aspects to engineering – from jet aircraft and Formula One cars down to humble machines such as bicycles – and yet we’ve been incredibly unromantic about it. Of course, there are unromantic aspects of engineering – such as microwave ovens – but that’s true of any profession. But our attitude to engineering is a very British disease, a kind of snobbery rooted in the class system, where people are sniffy about the technical trades and professions such as engineering and applied engineering.”
How you go about curing the disease is a “God knows” moment for May, who after deeper reflection offers the suggestion: “I suppose we just need some better spokespeople. Some glamorous, charismatic people to talk about tools and tolerances in a gripping way.” May thinks his television work contributes to this outreach, but “not to a significant degree”. While fuel management, emission control, anti-lock braking and all the other technical systems that go into automobile design may be interesting to him personally, “to be honest, they’re not considered entertainment, and things like this tend to get dismissed as boring, although I don’t find them boring at all. I think that you can make aspects such as how cars handle the way they do fascinating. But maybe I’m just a nerd.”
If he is a nerd, he’s one with a background in magazine journalism, having cut his editorial teeth on both The Engineer and Autocar magazines, the latter of which he was dismissed from following a time-honoured editorial prank of spelling out seditious messages in the ‘drop capital’ letters that introduce articles. May recalls being summoned to the publisher’s office where he was summarily dismissed and, perhaps more importantly, stripped of his company car. He has described the incident in mock-ironic tones elsewhere as his “ruin”, but is happy to concede that, at the age of 60, he can reflect on “not having done too badly since then”.
What emerges from this biographical anecdote is the fact that May’s involvement with cars is “accidental”. Early in his career, having done “a load of dead-end jobs, I ended up in the civil service where I had to produce a booklet on engineering and manufacturing”. This was where he learned the journalistic art of sub-editing from the pre-digital typesetters putting together his publication. “As a result of that, I slightly bluffed my way into a job at The Engineer,” following which he progressed to a production editor’s job on Autocar.
One thing that all writers on engineering magazines wonder is what kind of technology guru they’d have become had the winds of opportunity blown from a different quarter. So if he hadn’t become a household name presenting programmes about cars, would May have been more of a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk? “That’s a bloody terrible choice,” he snorts, before confessing that he couldn’t have become a “proper” engineer, “because, apart from O-level metalwork and A-level engineering drawing, I don’t have any engineering qualifications. I know that historically a lot of well-known engineers didn’t either” – here we break off to discuss how the great Thomas Telford was an untutored son of a shepherd – “but if I had pursued an engineering career, I think I might have ended up as a bicycle mechanic.”
When you’re talking to a man who’s spent two decades bringing automotive technology into the homes of millions of viewers, it seems appropriate to get his perspective on what have been the three most influential evolutionary phases in car design and ownership. “What I find most curious about cars is that they haven’t had any big step-changes in the way that there has been in aviation. With aviation you get this massive change in the performance envelope – altitude, speed, range – that hasn’t really happened in cars.”
Incremental changes, when they occur, he observes, are generally the result of pressure created by legislation surrounding aspects such as pollution or safety. The interesting point here, says May, is “every time there is pressure to change the car you get people – often car enthusiasts – complaining, saying things like: ‘Oh, you mustn’t have unleaded fuel’ or ‘safety legislation will ruin cars’. And yet every time these developments happen, the car improves. The introduction of unleaded fuel and the use of catalysts led to much better engine control, more widespread fuel injection, 3D mapping and all that sort of thing. The output of small car engines has almost doubled since my childhood. So electronic control is a big one.”
May is also pleased to report that since his days as a journalist driving his company Vauxhall Cavalier 1.6L, “tyres have improved hugely, but I don’t know very much about the technology here”. That’s his second choice burned up quickly, while his third has nothing to do with technology at all, being more concerned with the “dramatic changes” in the financial options available to the consumer wishing to own and drive a car. With this point disqualified on a technicality, May switches to materials use. “When I was a child my dad had a Cortina Mk1, and the neighbours had an Austin A30 or something like that. Cars were made of one or two metals, leather and maybe some bits of wood. Now they have elaborate breathable fabrics, various types of safety glass, all sorts of different plastics.”
Returning to the present, I ask May why he’s not brought electric vehicles into his great gamechangers timeline of car design. The answer is simply that he’d “overlooked” them, before explaining that “I must like them a bit. After all I’ve got two: one battery and one hydrogen fuel cell car.” He has these because he’s keen to “take part in the experiment. If you’re a car enthusiast, and you think this sort of thing is important, and you’re in the fortunate position to be able to take part, then you should. I accept that at the moment they’re too inconvenient and expensive for most people.” But, says May, drawing an analogy with other consumer technology markets that had daunting initial entry costs, “that was also true for digital cameras, laser disc and, if you go back far enough, the car itself”.
Despite enjoying the experiment, May’s enthusiasm for EVs is distinctly muted: “I’m not an evangelist because I can see problems, especially with battery electric vehicles. And I am prepared to say that remarkable as today’s batteries are, compared with the lead-acid technology of the Sinclair C5 back in their heyday in the 1980s, they’re still not really good enough. They’re still too heavy and they still take too long to charge.”
May says that the case for the battery electric car is in some ways “being falsely propped up by people like me. I can charge off-road at home, and I have two homes, plus a Porsche 911 for when I can’t get the electric car charged in time. But that’s cheating. But if you start to think about the current charging technology and infrastructure, along with the gradual replacement of all petrol-engine cars from 2030 onwards (which will take by my calculation 15 years), then the idea that we’ve got a few hundred thousand charging points in place is nonsense. We’re going to need millions. That is unless some radical leap in battery technology occurs that allows us to recharge in a few minutes. People are slightly in denial about the problems that come with EVs. The cars themselves are wonderful and I really like silent driving and I think it’s very polite. It’s low-maintenance, easy and safe. But we’re rushing headlong at the moment into something that’s not going to work.”
Developing a workable EV recharging infrastructure is not the biggest improvement May would make to the automotive universe. “Speaking as a person who’s made a living out of cars, I hesitate to say this. But having just spent time in Mumbai and Kolkata for my ‘Our Man In…’ travel show, what I’ve seen is a stark warning about what happens when there’s gridlock.” There’s no denying the convenience of cars, he says, especially if you’re going from town to town: “but we have to think carefully about how we use them in cities. Most of the time they’re not being used, and they’re clutter. When we do use them, they clog the place up. That’s why, although I love cars, I’ve become slightly evangelistic about bicycles.”
Then there’s the environmental problems that come with urban traffic, especially in the developing world. “The environment is obviously a massively complicated subject, but having said that, I’ve been to developing countries where I’ve been told categorically that they couldn’t give a **** about any of that because people in the developed world have had our share of the fun and now they want theirs.” Plus, says May, there’s the issue of scale: “If Britain sank into the ocean tomorrow, it wouldn’t make any difference to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, because it’s not coming from us.”
All of which makes May suspicious of western governments issuing “easy” pronouncements about “getting rid of internal combustion vehicles by 2030. I wonder if we should be listening to these ministers in the first place. I mean, they’ve got so many things wrong in the past: diesel cars, smart motorways, driving tests. There’s all sorts of stuff that they don’t get right because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
In mitigation, May suggests Britain’s traffic issues are hardly a special case, because “the government gets everything else that they do wrong. It’s just that I happen to know a bit about cars and I find myself saying: ‘No, no, no. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. You don’t know what you’re on about’.”
‘Marvellous Vehicles’, by James May, is from Red Shed, £9.99
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