Some dreams just never really stop
In the past two weeks I’ve been to Barbados, India, Turkey and Morocco. And having studied these places in some depth, I’m forced to ask an important question. Why doesn’t anyone buy sportscars any more?
By and large, driving is extremely boring. You sit there listening to the engine moaning out its one long song, with your face in neutral and your mind turned off. Just look at the faces of people when they are at the wheel and tell me this: when do you ever see people look like that in normal life? Gormless. Like fish.
When you are mowing the lawn or buying washing-up powder or having breakfast with the children, you are animated. You are thinking about stuff. But when you are driving a car, the dopamine and the serotonin and all the fun drugs that normally course through your body just dry up. You become the undead. You become a zombie. Unless you are driving a sportscar.
A sportscar is exciting when it’s parked in a multistorey and you’re in a meeting. A sportscar is even exciting when it’s November and it’s raining and you’re on your way to a funeral. Because in a sportscar you are living the dream that gives “the car” all of its appeal.
Remember The Ballad of Lucy Jordan? She was sad because she’d realised at the age of 37 that she’d never drive through Paris in a sportscar with the warm wind in her hair. To me that’s what cars are all about. Nobody dreams of driving through Paris in a Hyundai with the warm wind in their hair. Sportscars make you happy. But I’ve noticed on my recent travels that people are giving up. The car is being bought as a tool, not as a dream.
Remember the film Battle of Britain, when Christopher Plummer set off from his base to meet Susannah York for a bit of inter-sortie rumpy-pumpy? He had an MG. Of course he did. He was a Spitfire pilot. Whereas today I can pretty much guarantee he’d have a Nissan Juke.
I met an astronaut once. He’d been to Top Gun school. He could handle an F-14 on combat power. And he had been the first man to dock a space shuttle that was travelling at 28,000km/h. And yet he drove a Toyota Camry. It was tragic.
And at this point I should explain what I mean by a sportscar. It’s not simply something with no roof. A sportscar must be little and light. It should have a small, revvy engine and no more than two seats. The Mazda MX-5 is a sportscar — and a bloody good one. It is the obvious choice and yet all over Britain there are people who wake up of a morning and think, “If I borrow some money and get a shed, I could make a sportscar that is even better.”
The latest offering comes from Norfolk. It’s called the Zenos and it’s a sportscar unplugged. Its designers have looked at every detail of what isn’t needed and simply thrown it away. Which means it has no doors, no windows, no sun visors, no radio, no carpets and no roof of any kind. I have encountered better-equipped pencils.
The result is a car that weighs just 725kg. That is ridiculously light. A Triumph Herald weighed about the same and that was made from tinfoil and hope. And a Triumph Herald was not fitted with the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine from a Ford Focus ST. The Zenos is. Which means it has a Looney Tunes power-to-weight ratio. And that means it’s bloody fast.
To drive? Well, you climb over the side, hunker down into the unpadded seat, attach the steering wheel and then do up the optional four-point harness, by which time the chap in the Mazda MX-5 — which has a fixed steering wheel and inertia reel belts — is back from his lap of the track, talking about what fun he’s had.
You’re going to have more — eventually. Because when you are fastened in place and the wheel is on, the Zenos is a hoot. It’s more than just a track car fitted with indicators and lights to make it road-legal. And yet you know the track is where it belongs really.
It’s good when the going is smooth and there’s nothing coming the other way. It feels balanced, as it should with the engine in the middle. And as you jink this way and that, you think that maybe your commands are being sent to the four corners of the car using telepathy.
The exhaust bark is tremendous, but all you can hear really is the wastegate, which sounds like a fat man who’s using Victorian plumbing to flush away the after-effects of a particularly enormous dinner. The steering became wearing too because it’s unassisted and very fidgety. And then, I’m afraid, we come to what might fairly be described as the turd in the swimming pool. The brakes.
An anti-lock system would solve the problem, but the whole point of the Zenos is that you get no driver aids. I like that philosophy, when I’m on a sofa and someone else is doing the driving in a race on the TV. But I’ll be honest, I like it a bit less when I’m heading towards a tree in a cloud of my own tyre smoke. At a time like that, you tend to think that maybe you would have been better off in one of the other low-volume British sportscars that have the same amount of go as a Zenos. But can stop as well.