Tesla vs. Bentley and GSX-R

Recently l have delighted in confounding Tesla fans by telling them while their machines may be remarkable Mobility Devices, to me, they aren’t cars. 

Cars, by their fullest definition, are Blower Bentleys or Mercedes SSKs. Or the Chevelle the teenage yet-to-be-Nascar legend Darrell Waltrip crashed onto his future wife’s parents lawn. Not something designed to be like an Apple product to use. Big block and a Muncie four speed ? Or nice big tablet screen ? Howling supercharger, or…..silence.

The test Tesla, and a photoshopped cat
1929 Bentley Speed Six
The Louwman Museum 1929 Mercedes-Benz SSK
1968/69 Chevelle, not Waltrips, but the slot mags and the primer…you get the message

“Ah but Ludicrous Mode” say the Teslarati.

Clearly, these people have never rented a moped on vacation. In flip flops and sunglasses, 30mph is Fast. Fast is a feeling, not a statistic. I dont care the Tesla is faster round Laguna Seca than a BMW M3. I still prefer the M3. Infact, l would prefer an old, V8 M3, because a high revving race bred engine is more Car than a V6 with turbos (see paragraph two)

Bentley were the featured marque at Pebble this year. I had expected it to be glorious, but what I hadn’t expected was the way vintage Bentley owners drive them everywhere. Cars which appeared on the Pebble Beach podium were also driven around Monterey during Pebble week. Le Mans winners from nearly a century ago parked up alongside caterers trucks and Kia (No) Souls. Because Bentley

With thanks to “the Motor”!

This photo is from Tim Birkin’s autobiography. Look deeper than the obvious, contemporary Make X Great Again reference, and beyond Birkin’s frustration at the time of writing, during the thirties, that Bentley is no longer racing, and he is being forced to compete in an Alfa Romeo. Look even deeper than the way this is England fighting in France again – since most of the Bentley Boys were WW1 veterans, racing at Le Mans might almost seem a strange sort of PTSD. The important insight for me is that Birkin conflates England with the Bentley. What appeared on the lawn at Pebble Beach was not some old cars, but an idea: the idea of England, not a nation, but a collection of values, manners, cultural mores.

Bentleys on the lawn at Pebble, photo credit Sportscar Digest

l have been senselessly acquiring Japanese in line four nineties/noughties sportsbikes; big power but no modern electronics like ABS, TCS, anti wheelie etc – because, like muscle cars in the seventies, the market has yet to regard them as classics, and they languish on craigslist for under $5000, less than half of that if you take a chance on high mile or salvage title example. On the face of it, these machines with their shocking technical superiority, in your face graphics, clenched fist bodywork and shot-from-a-canon performance are as Japanese as manga cartoons and sushi. Yet, considering my obsessive attraction to them more deeply, I realized their dual identity. They are physically sized to suit people taller than most Japanese, and they sell mostly in the US, Western Europe and Australasia, hardly at all in their domestic market. Hence, they are Godzilla; something concieved of and birthed in postwar Japan, but visited upon the west, strange, frightening, dangerous, awesome.

I know what is Great. 

I know what to Hoard. 

I am, then, coming from a position of extreme security. So, when a friend offered to let me drive his 2016 Tesla P90S, l was open to it. Applicably, our test route took us around Google’s Mountain View campus:

  • Reminded me of the BMW i3 due to the aggressive regenerative braking. You only need one pedal to drive, lifting off for a junction or light, the regenerative braking slows you in a smooth, controlled way. It is off-putting coming from an ICE car, and can be turned off, but in practice, I think you would get used to it, used to one pedal driving. This is a big deal: as big as the going from stick to automatic in terms of actual involvement in driving. People who learn to drive this way will find learning braking feel on ICE cars as difficult as learning stick if you learned in an automatic. Thanks Tesla for futher de-skilling driving.
  • Hey who doesn’t like torque – and the performance is therefore super usable, in a point and squirt, dodgem car kind of way, just like those not fast but such fun vacation moped rentals
  • The other controls are light and forgettable, as you would expect from a Camry.
  • The experience has confirmed my impression that these really are next generational

Developing that idea, the Model S may come to be seen to be as revolutionary and influential as Ford’s Model T. Parked next to my E55, the revolution in powertrain, design ethos, style was never more obvious. Hearing my friend talk about it was like learning about a software product, not a car.

Personally, my skin crawls at the Silicon Valley Product Planning nature of this device and its family:

  •  I objected to the first Tesla on the grounds that it was worse – heavier, slower – than the Lotus Elise it was based on
  • the Model S, the big hatchback which I drove, was a shot at M5s and E63s. And people traded their E63s, with those glorious 6.2 V8s for the things!!! A Formula 1 derived V8 for a battery on wheels. I mean, you can have my Breitling, this new Casio digital has a calculator on it!!!!  
  • Then the margin making cynical SUV, with those Mercedes cultural appropriation gullwing doors, I mean give me a break. Someone even tried to tell me it was to do with parking convenience. Reminds me of fifties car salesmen justifying the fins by saying they weren’t for style, but for high speed stability (you know, like the Jaguar D-type….)
  • and now a little one to eat the BMW 3 series lunch. Which isn’t quite as cheap or as high performance or well made as we were promised, but, just like a software product, it is nearly there.

The whole show is as unoriginal and depressing as Alfas nice-to look-at-but-hopeless-reliability return to the US.

My friend tells me soon the motors will be small enough to fit inside the wheel. Thus will allow the device to rotate on the spot. Think of the parking potential in congested cities!! And faster than Waltrip’s Chevelle or a Merc SSK!!

Impressive, yet utterly devoid of charisma. If this is the best tool for the job, l don’t want the job.

Be clear: dealing with carbon emissions is the end of cars, motoring and driving as we have known them. I can see the end of motoring being like the beginning, with hostility from the general public who misunderstand you and your hobby, and refuse to help you stranded roadside by your ridiculous, smelly, expensive contraption.