Classical gas

A few folk in the automotive blogosphere, including some of those I follow on twitter, have been posting about the 2012 Classic Motor Show which took place at the NEC from the 16th-18th of November. Somewhat behind the curve, here’s my take.

Once upon a time, the NEC was the site of a bi-annual pilgrimage to attend the British Motor Show. Back in the day, you could even get a combined rail-and-motorshow ticket, such was the joined-up thinking that may or may not have resulted from the (then revolutionarily) obviousness of the proximity of Birmingham International railway station compared to the relative faff that was getting to London’s Earls Court for Motorfair on other alternate years.

How times have changed – joined-up thinking appears to have been a casualty in the wider battle to provide what passes for public transport and we no longer have a British Motor Show. However, all is not lost for those with a drop of unleaded in their veins as we do have the Classic Motor Show. This year’s show was the second Classic Motor Show I’ve attended, my first being in 2010 – I missed last year’s and really wished I’d gone and so, after some nice comments on Twitter from my last post, ‘Défense de Fumer’, I decided to make amends this year and maybe even write some words about it.

I was struck by the number of people attending this year’s show compared to 2010. Early omens such as the number of people wearing t-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with automotive marques boarding my train from Manchester at Wolverhampton and again at Birmingham New Street hinted at an increased attendance and, after a walk from the railway station that seemed to take forever, the scene at both the NEC ticket sales and collection offices this year was indeed duly one of organised chaos, with seemingly random ‘queues’ for tickets whether for sale or collection. It was quite a contrast to 2010 when, upon landing at the NEC, I was able to simply stroll up to the ticket office without queuing.

Nonetheless, it is good to see so many people taking an interest in classic cars. Looking at things academically, the profound impact of the motor car upon our landscape and our society suggests that the culturally dynamic nature of the motor car provides the potential to evoke a wide range of socio-cultural memories, for example of our parents’ car or our own first car and of the activities afforded or performed therein. At a classic car show, these memories are tangible, three-dimensional, made metal. From evoked memories to contemporaneous styles, the power of the car as a cultural artefact is made real.

I’m guessing that this year’s show was bigger than that of 2010. This is for two reasons: firstly, I ran out of space earlier than anticipated on the (admittedly small) SD card in my camera and secondly, unlike 2010, I didn’t actually get to see everything. This was despite having a master plan based around scooting through the show getting as many photos as I could before the ambient hue became jaundiced by the NEC’s unique lighting, then hitting the autojumble to peruse books, brochures and models (bliss!) before taking a little more time over things as I worked my way back to whence I’d started.

I’m afraid I rather glossed over the collective Rootes and Ford stands (sorry guys) and I even somehow contrived to miss every opportunity to catch the ‘Wheeler Dealer’ boys in action. Another facepalm came with the realisation that I’d completely bypassed the BMW Car Club, despite having spent some time cooing over the collected Maseratis on the adjacent stand. I somehow managed to miss the Club Audi stand too. Doh!

Despite those glaring oversights, and experiencing range anxiety with my phone battery, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. It’s wonderful seeing so many cars that can take you down memory lane, or bewitch with their style and glamour, or quite simply make you smile. With my academic human geography hat on, it was marvellous to behold so many socio-cultural, economic and industrial artefacts and also to overhear snatches of conversations as people reminisced and shared memories of their cars and so provide a glimpse as to how they ‘consume’ the motor car. There’s a study in there somewhere, I’m sure…

In no particular order, here are some of the cars from the show that, for one reason or another, compelled me to go back and have another look at them.

Austin Allegro Vanden Plas

My dad had a Mark 2 Allegro 1300 Super, in which I subsequently learned to drive and which was also my first part-time biffabout when he wasn’t using it, so I’m grateful that we live in a world where there is an Allegro Club International. This particular car was actually on the Vanden Plas Owners Club stand and, perhaps due to my Allegroid  affiliations, brought the biggest smile of the day. Delightful in a thoroughly Olde English way, and a lovely example too.

Auto Union prototype

Actually a replica of a 1933 study by the pre-war designer and aerodynamicist Paul Jaray, it attracted plenty of attention and rather overshadowed the other cars on the Audi Owners Club stand.

Bugatti Type 57 Corsica

I’d never a seen a Bugatti Type 57 in the metal before, having only succumbed to the glories of various Type 57s such as Atlantic and Atalante in books, and I’d never even heard of the Type 57 Corsica. Voluptuous in form and mechanical in execution, Bugattis are where industry and art collide.

Enfield 8000

This is the Flux Capacitor, a modified Enfield 8000 – a British electric car of the 1970s – which it is hoped will be the fastest street legal electric car in Europe. The brainchild of Fifth Gear’s Jonny Smith, you can follow its progress at http://www.flux-capacitor.co.uk/.

Ferrari Dino 246GT

Choosing a Ferrari may seem a bit obvious, but the Dino 246GT is just such a pretty car. It makes the notion and the pursuit of hundreds of horsepower seem unnecessary and superfluous which, of course, to a treehugging petrolhead like me, it is.

Lamborghini Urraco

The Lamborghini Club UK stand contained a variety of models from the latest Aventador to a rather vintage tractor. For me, there were two stars on their stand – a wonderful silver Espada and this brilliant Urraco. Often overlooked, the Urraco may not be as classically glamorous as the Espada, but the baby Lambo is one of my favourite 70s wedges.

MG PA Midget

Quite possibly my favourite car at the show, even though it sported a red octagon on its nose. An exquisite little car and the cockpit was delightfully evocative, with the dashboard and the gearlever being particularly joyous. It was for sale too, at a whisker under £39k. My lottery numbers are still very much conspicuous by their absence, however.

Morgan 3-wheeler

I visited the Morgan factory with Coventry University late last year and came away wanting a Morgan – any Morgan – rather badly. From customer specification to its hand-built manufacture, each Morgan is surely imbued with a personality in a way that few new cars can match, and the 3-wheeler in particular seems to exist purely to make motoring fun. Not strictly a ‘classic’ car perhaps, given its ‘12’ plate, it is certainly a quintessential car possessing as much national and, in its own way, temporal identity as any other car at the show.

Riley Elf

This was another car to provoke a huge grin upon seeing it. Very, very sweet.

Triumph Gloria Speed Six

I couldn’t not include a Triumph on my list although, with Dolomites, Stags and TRs also in attendance, this may not be an obvious choice. It may be a late-onset Art Deco thing, possibly as a result of drooling over a variety of Bugattis or (particularly) the Peugeot 302 D’arl Mat, but I’ve recently begun to appreciate cars from the 1930s more than I used to. This Triumph Gloria was beautifully proportioned and very stylish. Glorious indeed.

Zundapp Janus 750

Entering the show as I did in Hall 12, this car provided the first big smile of the day. Look carefully at the picture and you’ll see that, resembling the result of somehow managing to reverse two Isetta bubble cars into each other, the Zundapp Janus 750 does indeed have doors at both ends, and not at the sides. Occupants sit back-to-back on two bench seats with the engine sat between the two seats, like luggage does on the train.

I hope that’s provided a taste of what was on show, as it would be impossible to cover everything here. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to next year’s show already!

Défense de fumer

Local air pollution wrought by the internal combustion engine is a real and, in some cases, almost tangible concern, but might plans to remove older cars from the streets of Paris leave the city culturally bereft?

It was reported earlier this week on MSN Cars that the Mayor of Paris has proposed a ban on cars over 17 years old entering the city http://cars.uk.msn.com/socialvoices/blogpost.aspx?post=50e7822d-2760-4002-ae58-4d7c77fdd10b#scpshrtu with the intention of cutting pollution.

The seemingly numerically arbitrary nature of the plan has echoes of the recent UK scrappage scheme which saw many perfectly serviceable older cars – and even the odd classic – sent to the crusher, in a move that was ostensibly as much about boosting retail car sales as it was about any environmental motives, because they were at least 10 years old. Why 17 years? Next year will be the 17th anniversary of the introduction of the Euro 2 emission standards in 1996, a standard which the Maire de Paris seems to have deemed to be some kind of baseline.

However, the article suggests that French emissions testing and monitoring is somewhat less than stringent, and goes on to highlight several shortcomings in the plan, from the fact that many younger cars don’t meet current emission standards to the observation that not that many cars would actually be removed from Paris streets, meaning that the city’s congestion and pollution will remain ever thus.

Any drive to reduce city-centre air pollution has to be a good thing, although this particular drive seems a tad draconian and, my own eco-leanings aside, I do rather feel a cultural unease about this.

A national emblem and cultural icon – and the Arc de Triomphe (Picture source: bahighlife.com)

Why? Well, it’s because I can’t – and nor do I want to – imagine a Paris without a Citroën DS or 2CV, or a Renault R4 or a Peugeot 205 bounding around La Périphérique or parked within a nonchalant approximation to the kerb. To me, these cars are as much a part of the architecture and culture of Paris – and France in general – as the Marseillaise, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. For them to be arbitrarily removed from Paris’ streets would be tantamount to cultural vandalism.

This may seem a romantic, even stereotypical, view and one that rather smacks of cognitive dissonance given my environmental concerns but, in my capacity as treehugging petrolhead, such views are perhaps inevitable and provide an illustration of how the cultural consumption of the car renders it more than mere transport.

Very evocative (Picture source: wikipedia)

Maybe, in time, electric cars such as the Bollore BlueCar used in the AutoLib electric car-hire scheme or the brilliant little Renault Twizy (as pictured in the banner image in the title of my blog) will become les nouveaux icônes de rues Parisienne.

Until then, I echo the calls of the article’s author to leave the classic car alone. The DS, 2CV and R4 are as iconic as the Mini and Jaguar E-Type are on this side of La Manche. A city like Paris stirs the passions – all the books say so (!) – and I reckon if one of Europe’s great capital cities were to be bereft of some it’s nation’s great cultural emblems, it would lose part of its essence, its nature, its affect.

Ce serait tragique!

Lost in translation

Does the recent conviction of six Italian seismologists for manslaughter in connection with the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake suggest a breakdown in communication between the natural sciences and a lay population, and what does it mean for the communcation of climate science?

News that six Italian seismologists were recently found guilty of manslaughter following the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 has been met with widespread astonishment. The six were convicted because it was deemed that their statements regarding tremors prior to the earthquake were “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” and, because of this, the actions taken (or otherwise) by some residents of L’Aquila had resulted in tragic consequences.

A few of the people I’ve talked to about this have reacted by asking ‘where would that leave Michael Fish?’ following his (in)famous assurances prior to the Great Storm of 1987. With our tongues firmly in our cheeks, we can speculate what fate would have befallen any surviving oracles and soothsayers around Pompeii and Herculaneum who failed to predict the severity of what happened in AD79, or we could ponder if the six seismologists were only found guilty upon observing that they floated after having been ducked into a pond (or, to paraphrase the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we’ve found some seismologists – may we burn them?”).

On the face of it, the verdict would presuppose that predicting earthquakes is an exact science and suggest that the seismologists were negligent in their duties. It isn’t and they weren’t. Surely all that seismologists can do, and be expected to do, is to assess the data – the strength, depth, location and frequency of tremors – and present their best guess as to how, where and when an earthquake may strike. And that’s it.

That the six were convicted of failing to communicate the earthquake risk adequately, as opposed to failing to predict the earthquake itself, is of little consequence; that they were convicted at all is troubling. The judgement has brought comparisons with Galileo’s trial in 1633 for suggesting the heliocentric nature of the universe and, to me, the sentences do indeed have an almost medieval whiff about them, while also possessing a very 21st Century mix of litigiousness along with a consumer indignation borne of ignorance.

The L’Aquila ruling begs the question of what, in the light of the sentences meted out to the six seismologists, are the implications for climate scientists? Is the L’Aquila judgement symptomatic of a wider disconnect with nature and, if so, how can climate scientists disseminate their observations and perceived outcomes in a way that doesn’t alienate and bemuse the public or even lead to criminal prosecution?

In The Cambridge Companion to Goethe, Daniel Steuer describes Goethe’s own scientific epistemology as a ‘perspectivism’, whereby knowledge can be defined as the mediation of one’s own experiences and the tradition (or field/direction?) from which a researcher or scientist comes. From an autohabitus point of view, this could pertain to the way we regard and ‘consume’ the car – our ‘knowledges’ – based on mediating our own opinions and experiences with what information we receive from manufacturers or other ‘experts’. For example, I wonder how much currency the views of Clarkson, Hammond and May carry regarding the UK’s automotive psyche?

The climate system is an extremely complex one and, to muddy the communicative waters for scientists, climate change and/or global warming aren’t just scientific issues. Because of potential impacts upon food security, energy policy, mobility and global economics, they have also become political issues, and the way that climate change has been used for various political ends illustrates Goethe’s ‘perspectivism’. For example, international climate accords, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, tend to be subject to sometimes intense political negotiations prior to ratification, despite what the scientists’ numbers and observations may say. Meanwhile, newspapers in the UK such as the Guardian and Independent try to reflect and report climate concerns, whereas others such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail seem unashamedly climate-sceptic. In both cases, the presented views and opinions seem to reflect their respective political left- and right-leanings.

The coalition government has also played its part in climate confusion. David Cameron’s cry of ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, exhorting ‘the greenest government ever’, seems to become ever more hollow with Owen Patterson, an apparent climate-sceptic, put in charge of DEFRA and, more recently, Peter Lilley, one of only 3 MPs to vote against the Climate Change Act of 2008, appointed as a member of the House of Commons Energy Select Committee. Only yesterday, (Liberal Democrat) DECC Secretary Ed Davey had to deny claims made by (Conservative) energy minister John Hayes of ‘enough is enough’ in declaring ‘an end to onshore windfarms’.

What are the public supposed to make of such a polarising issue that can also be communicated in ways that people may find conflicting and/or confusing? It never ceases to amaze me how often Daily Mail-types spontaneously adopt the mantle of palaeoclimatologist in declaring that climate change has happened before and, in their doing so, I wonder how much of this ‘knowledge’ comes from what they have been told, and by whom. That said, the ‘Daily Mail palaeoclimatolgists’ are indeed correct in asserting that climate change has occurred before – it has, but the climate record, for example data from ice and ocean cores, would suggest that it has never done so as quickly as is the case today. How would climate change from a global warming be manifest if it was purely natural and we discount our contribution? What were the effects in previous climate regime changes and how will our fragile societies and sensibilities experience these effects today?

The world’s weather has been somewhat chaotic in 2012 – droughts and heatwaves across the USA and Russia have affected grain harvests and will no doubt inflate global food prices; we’ve had a washout summer in the UK with several flooding events across the country; there has also been record ice loss in the Arctic; and, more recently, the collision and combination of a US mainland winter storm and Hurricane Sandy in the Atlantic ocean – christened ‘Frankenstorm’ by commentators – brought widespread flooding to the eastern seaboard of the USA, affecting large population centres like New York City. Is this what climate change and/or a global warming future looks like? Hardly the balmy conditions facilitating the growing of vines in Cumbria that some of the more, shall we say flippant, commentators have posited in the past.

Perspectivism is the key to how a public which may be uninformed, confused, sceptical or even uninterested understands climate science, all the while receiving conflicting opinion from various media. The climate debate and the verdicts on the six Italian seismologists suggest a disconnect between ourselves and nature, and there is a danger that the causes, effects and risks of climate change aren’t being communicated in terms that people fully understand – witness the Daily Mail palaeoclimatolgists and the Cumbrian vintners. If, as some have posited, climate change is the greatest challenge humanity faces today (and, despite my reverence for the car, I believe it is), then the L’Aquila ruling suggests that the issue of communicating the science and the impacts of climate change needs to be addressed, and as a matter of urgency. It could be criminal not to.