Clarkson on Americans
Americans, although loud and brash were basically harmless. But now things have changed...
We have an image of the American motorist, his big flobbery stomach, flobbering from state to state in a big, flobbery car with big flobbery suspension at a flobbery 55mph. For many years, I've argued that the heart of the average American motorist beats approximately once every 15 minutes. Technically, they're in a coma. But, sadly, this is wrong.
Nowadays, the American motorist drives at the same speed we do, 80 or 85. And he's the most aggressive creature on earth. If you wish to change lanes on the freeway, because, say, your turn-off is approaching, you can indicate all you like, but no one will slow down to let you in.
They won't speed up, either. They'll just sit there until you remember you're in a rental car and make the move anyway. Then you'll get a selection of hand gestures that you never knew existed. I know of no country in the world where motorists are so intolerant of one another.
'I've argued that the heart of the average American motorist beats approximately once every 15 minutes'
The slightest mistake causes at the very least a great deal of horn blowing and, at worst, a three-second burst from some kind of powerful automatic weapon. Then we have the question of tailgating. Of course, this happens elsewhere - I've actually been nudged by a nun in Italy - but there's nowhere it happens so often as on the American freeway.
Everyone sits as a matter of course about three feet from your rear end. Which, when you're being followed by a Kenworth truck and you're doing 80, and he has an M16 carbine, and you need to turn left, and the person on your inside won't let you in, can be a bit unnerving.
It isn't how they drive that's changed, either. It's what they drive. Now, for every nondescript Kojak-style saloon, you'll see two Evos or Subarus. And almost every car has been modded in some way. My favourite was an orange Lotus Exige parked at the pumps in the middle of Death Valley.
"Yeah," said the rather serious-looking driver when I approached, "I've given it two degrees more camber on the back, fitted a 25 per cent softer compound on the front, uprated the supercharger..."
"So," I said after I'd had enough, "you've ruined it".
He was genuinely taken aback. I believe there's a sense over there that car makers are pretty incompetent. And that if GM, Chrysler and Ford can't make a car properly, then what chance do those funny little trolls in Europe have? Never mind the l'il yella fellas from under the rising sun.
I tried to explain to our American friend that the Exige was put on sale after much development work and that if a two-degree shift in rear camber would make it handle better, then he could be assured that it'd be sold that way in the first place.
But he was having none of it, launching instead into a long list of things he'd done to make the Toyota engine run cleaner and better than Tojo had managed. If you want to know what these measures are, he'll almost certainly still be there. It's the only garage in Baker. You can't miss it.
Anyway, the thing is that, thanks to the new found fondness for modding and pimping, and the more aggressive driving style, there are a great many modded and pimped cars on the market. Most of which seem to be based on the new Ford Mustang.
'There's lots of power - 475bhp - but the handling, steering and brakes remain untouched'
That's no bad thing. With its see-saw damping and damp dishcloth V8, the standard product is like one of those 'girls next door' you see featured in FHM. You sense that with a bit of lighting here and a bit of eye shadow there, you could turn the pasty-faced teenager from Pontefract into the next Claudia Schiffer. Shelby's given it a bash with mixed results.
There's lots of power - 475bhp - but the handling, steering and brakes remain untouched. Which means you're paying extra, simply to have a bigger accident. Roush is different. Roush currently fields, I think, five of 43 Winston Cup Nascar racers, which makes the company a bit like Ferrari, McLaren and half of Williams rolled into one.
Roush is also responsible for the alarm/tracker on my GT, so that's not so good. But I don't allow personal issues to cloud my judgement. Actually, I do allow personal issues to cloud my judgement - it's why I punched Piers Morgan - but on this occasion, I'm going to play it straight and say, straight out, the Stage III Roush Mustang is a delightful way of going fast for not much money.
This opinion rather baffled the salesman. "But it's $43,000," he said incredulously. Precisely, that makes it £23,800 and that, for a supercharged V8 muscle car is amazing, really. "Yes," said our man, "but our car only produces 415bhp which is a lot less than you get from Shelby or Saleen." To his astonishment, I wasn't bothered.
415bhp endows the Roush 'Stang with a 0-60 time of 4.9secs and a top speed of something or other. No one's tested it. But I can tell you the speedo only reads to 140. So in a straight line, it's not that epic. It is, however, when you get to a corner because it's lowered, firmed up and injected with a bit of beef. It's 15 per cent stiffer than normal and to be honest, so was I.
There's no finesse, it's not like a BMW in any way, but for sticking the tail out and keeping it there using nothing but the throttle, it's in the same league as that other colonial upstart, the Monaro VXR. This begs a question, then. Would it be possible to import such a car to Britain?
I'm not talking about the technicalities because, of course, you simply put it on a ship, pay some tax and within a few weeks, it'll be outside your house, ready and road legal. No, I'm talking about the sociological issues. Would it be possible to import this car... without causing all your friends to die laughing. At you.
'I suspect driving a Roush Mustang here would be like dipping a chicken drumstick into strawberry jam'
Tell someone you drive a Mustang and no matter what it is, you'll come across as a bit of a local DJ. We think of it in terms of Bullitt. Everyone else thinks we look like we may be married to our sister. And do you really want a car with two stripes down the bonnet? And exhausts which sound like Katrina?
In America, this works. But that's because they are so much more aggressive than we are. They gave the world KFC. We gave the world the cream tea. And I suspect driving a Roush Mustang here would be like dipping a chicken drumstick into strawberry jam.
And then there's the politics. This car means you are aligning yourself with US policies. You're driving around saying you support the war in Iraq and the strategy in Afghanistan. Maybe you do. But I don't.
So why, you may be wondering, do I own a Ford GT? That's simple. The body is British, the gearbox is British, the steering rack is from an Aston, the chassis was set up by a couple of guys from Lotus, the wheels are German and the brakes are Italian. The power is American, yes, but it's tamed and sophisticated by Europeans. It's a metaphor, in other words, for the perfect world.
Oh man, I was laughing the whole time. Good stuff