Even these lads didn't take cars seriously. (Top Gear/BBC)


October 11, 2023   6 mins

Has the Age of the Car broken down? In my Nineties adolescence, getting a driver’s licence was a basic rite of passage; now, young people throughout the West don’t seem bothered.

Nothing could bring our waning love for the automobile more forcefully home than reports that the BBC may be axing its internationally bestselling motoring show, Top Gear. First broadcast in 1977, fronted by Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne, Top Gear began as a straight-faced motoring magazine show. It became the best-selling juggernaut production of its peak period after a 2002 reboot, fronted by the laddish trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond.

At its peak, Top Gear encapsulated an entire relationship between engineering and the pursuit of excellence: one inextricably bound up in material and cultural conditions that were already wavering when Clarkson was fired. And it’s this complex relationship, equal parts technical and emotional, which is in flux today: not just within the show itself, but out in the car-driving world itself.

The joy of Top Gear, in its Clarkson/Hammond/May salad days, was the way it captured the two dominant forms of motoring enthusiast: the tinkerer, and the petrolhead. Top Gear tinkerer features would depict these three middle-aged men making daft modifications to second-hand cars, for example turning a Porsche 944 into an “ambulance”, or a Ford Transit into a “hovervan”,  then try to complete ever sillier challenges. Petrolhead segments would feature the same three middle-aged men, driving beautiful, fast, staggeringly expensive miracles of engineering perfection through stunning landscapes.

Of course, petrolheads and tinkerers are often one and the same, though in my observation car-lovers tend to incline one way or the other. My late dad, for example, was a tinkerer: an engineer by training, he spent as much time as he could get away with in a workshop overflowing with hand and power tools, plus shelf after shelf of labelled tobacco tins brimming with nuts, bolts and other small objects that might come in handy one day.

Tinkerers, of course, don’t confine their tinkering to cars. But cars have, historically, been a central object of tinkering attention. Whether mending, restoring, customising, or otherwise fiddling about with engines, the tinkerer is happiest absorbed in the material business of making the damn thing work. This both affords distinctive pleasures, and calls for a particular mindset: one eloquently defended by the mechanic and philosopher Matthew Crawford.

Working with your hands, Crawford argues, requires distinctive modes of knowing based in practice, imitation, and tradition as much as in abstract principles. Importantly, too, such work requires a pragmatic acceptance and understanding of what your chosen material will and won’t accommodate, such as flexibility, flammability, melting-point and so on. The resulting aggregate skill set is both physical and aesthetic: Crawford speaks of “pride in meeting the aesthetic demands of a workmanlike installation”, a sentiment my dad would indisputably have recognised.

For the petrolhead, meanwhile, the main attraction is how fun it is to make machines go ridiculously fast. Crawford analyses the emotional side of driving as a distinct aspect of his philosophy of engines, arguing that self-directed driving at speed expresses an attitude to risk-taking and personal agency that delivers immense social benefits.

For Crawford, giving up that sense of agency to an infrastructure of automated vehicles, speed cameras, and safety-minded restrictions may deliver some social utility, narrowly understood. But, driving is emotional as well as functional, expressing that aspect of our spirit that takes risks, and aspires to mastery of our tools. At its best, he characterises skilled driving as a “state of grace”.

In peak Top Gear, the avatar of tinkering was James May: an amiable nerd emanating pure essence of garden-shed. Clarkson, on the other hand, embodied the petrolhead delight at what these engines can do. (Hammond was the designated straight man and token biker.) Clarkson obviously knew about as much about engineering as I do, but his transparent delight at howling V8s, smoking brakes, and machines that let you corner at speeds that would kill you in a lesser vehicle, was genuinely infectious to watch even for a motoring agnostic like me.

But in different ways, both the tinkerer and the petrolhead have been losing cultural cachet for some time. Indeed, Top Gear itself captured this decline, mostly depicting tinkering in comic terms, and motoring excellence as the out-of-reach preserve of far-away experts. The supercar segments lionised these sleek, roaring vehicles as things of magic and wonder a long way from the reach of someone in a shed. And while my dad took his own tinkering seriously enough, car modifications for Top Gear challenges are usually comically shonky workmanship done not for the admiration and emulation of tinkering peers, but for banter. In amidst all the motoring was a pessimistic message radically at odds with Britain’s history as a nation of engineers: that fiddling under the bonnet is off-limits to amateurs, except as a joke.

As for the emotional side of driving, petrolhead joy in the high-velocity “state of grace” has also grown problematic. This is partly thanks to mounting anxieties over the financial and environmental price of fossil fuels — and, more broadly, a growing sense of scarcity. But it’s not just climate change. It speaks, too, to a growing discomfort with the pursuit of excellence as such — especially such resoundingly impractical forms of excellence as a car that will do 0-60 in 2.5 seconds but doesn’t have a boot.

 

Engineering miracles such as the Bugatti Veyron express a culture that will stop at nothing in pursuit of the “state of grace”, attainable in transcendent moments of harmony between driver and machine. And the cultural cachet accorded to this pursuit is, far more broadly, on the wane. It’s hard to point at a single cause, though it’s possible that at least some of those who once pursued mastery of tools and machines now devote the same attention to video gaming. In any case, the tinkering culture that once underpinned such joyfully pointless quests for excellence is also waning. Here, de-industrialisation no doubt plays a part, and it probably doesn’t help that modern gadgets are deliberately built to thwart tinkerers. So, too, are modern cars: there is much less point in buying a Haynes manual for a vehicle whose innards are largely powered by computer software.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the kind of inventive “shopcraft” that once characterised Britain’s tinkerers is today found more in culture where scarcity is part of life, and hence where tinkerers are still valued. Nor should it surprise us if the aspiration to build supercars has migrated with the tinkerers. Earlier this year, Entop unveiled the first Afghan supercar: the Simurgh, which looks like a Batmobile and runs on a modified 2000 Toyota Corolla engine.

The internal combustion engine was, once upon a time, accessible both mechanically and financially. Such machines afforded a democratic and emotionally potent playground for the symbiotic 20th-century emergence of the tinkerer and the petrolhead: the twin mastery of the engine’s innards, and of its capacity for excellence. But with its comical tinkerers and inaccessibly magical supercars, even peak Top Gear tacitly acknowledged that this age was on its way out.

Post-Clarkson the show has limped on for several fairly forgettable series, until presenter Freddie Flintoff’s horrific track accident last year took it off the air – possibly forever. And this may be wise: for even by 2015, the writing was on the wall.

Regulatory changes and rising fuel costs were already combining into the now acutely palpable pressure on Western consumers, to shift from internal combustion toward batteries. Some years on, there are no car manufacturers anywhere (except perhaps in Afghanistan) working on new internal-combustion models, while the cars we already have are at the heart of many energy-related culture wars. Whether it’s the cost of EVs, the politics of “Net Zero”, “15-minute cities”, or the geopolitics of petrol prices, much of our most contested political fractures concern personal transport. Against that backdrop, Top Gear’s fun, relatively apolitical magazine format feels at best out of step, if not outright disingenuous.

And the energy transition has a bearing on the car as symbol of agency, too. This is partly practical: compared with internal combustion engines, the technical complexity of EVs poses tremendous barriers to entry for car-tinkerers. And there’s a class element, too: hybrids and EVs are prohibitively expensive compared with a battered-but-serviceable petrol runabout.

No wonder, then, that many young people are deciding not to bother, or to treat cars as mere appliances, with as little emotional weight as a dishwasher. To the extent that cars speak of agency or excellence today, they do so in ways that are ever more problematic – or simply inaccessible, whether through complexity or cost.

Cheap, abundant fossil fuels may have placed machine-enhanced grace temporarily in the hands of Everyman; but today, we are witnessing the end of that era. I have too much faith in the world’s nerds to imagine that tinkerers will ever die out completely; but the meaning of cars has already changed forever. And outside the dwindling community of tinkerers, a culture that has largely abandoned the search for mechanical mastery may not even feel this as much of a loss.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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