Thursday, 3 February 2011

Exhibition Engines

Naked engines are offensive. They should be undetectable and decently clothed. Designers apply engine-shaped shrouds so buyers feel they are getting their money’s worth. But nobody is allowed to touch them. Car makers have become so guilty at having made anything so toxic, spewing out noxious vapours, using up scarce resources, that they have swept engines under the bonnet, concealed and silenced.

It is all to appease the greenery-yalleries. Engineers used to be proud of engines. Delighted owners opened them to view. When William Lyons launched the Jaguar XK120 he insisted on polished cam covers so envious onlookers could drool over the twin overhead camshafts. It was part of the mystique. It was as important as the body style. It had to look the part.

No more. Bentley hides its W12 under plastic. Compare its anonymous pall with a self-confident old Jaguar.

Yet to anybody with an ounce of engineering soul the W12 is a work of art. Twelve compact cylinders, four-valve heads, I took this picture at Crewe. What perfection, what symmetry, a symphony in aluminium. You can see why a Bentley is expensive. It is made with such care to make it exquisitely balanced and smooth-running.

In the 1930s people admired technical accomplishment.

This SS proudly announces its valve clearances. Now they are ashamed of valves and pistons and crankshafts; apologetic about turbochargers, reticent about revs.

Bentley swathes its V8 in funereal plastic. Here (above) is what it looks like underneath. What equilibrium. What sense of proportion. Just because some people are getting over-excited about hybrids and electrics that will barely get you to Sainsbury’s and back, there is no need to be shame-faced about bhp.

This is a modern Jaguar, dolled up for the Geneva Motor Show. They wouldn’t dare dress it up like this for a real car. The greenery-yalleries and their earthy friends would accuse it of glorifying speed and power, and dealing in death.

A pallid and thin young man,
A haggard and lank young man
A greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery,
Foot-in-the-grave young man!

So sang Reginald Bunthorne, the fleshly poet in Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece of 1881. Greenery-yallery was Gilbertian code for hypocrisy. Green-yellow for political colourists lies somewhere between environmentalists and the Lib-Dems. It is not too close to the reds although Roundheads and dirigists embrace it. Once it was almost the entire spectrum away from true blue Tory. Hard, alas, to believe now.

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