Some Very Personal Benchmarks
Since Simon has granted us the discretion to be reasonably subjective, I make no apologies for presenting a set of purely personal benchmarks, which I will make little attempt to defend with any objective data.
Seats. There are differing views on what makes a good car seat. Some will say that the sort of comfortable seat you’d like in your house is not the sort of seat you should have in a car. They’d say that being bounced around in comfort just induces nausea, which I assume is the theory behind the seats of many German cars. Personally, I find the DIN seat too austere for my tastes, though that is of course a generalisation. In a VW showroom the other day, I sat in an upmarket Tiguan and a basic Up!. The latter had the more welcoming seats. Memory plays tricks and, just as the best and creamiest ice cream I ever tasted in my life is the one I had on the beach at Looe in Cornwall in 1959, so the memory of the most comfortable car seat remains that of the Panhard 24CT I sat in at the 1964 Motor Show. It felt supportive and soft at the same time and that memory, true or false, remains the benchmark by which I judge all car seats.
Performance. Four years after sitting in the Panhard, a friend of my parents gave me a lift in his Aston Martin DB5. The push in the back and the sound of the Tadek Marek six set a personal benchmark for what a performance car should feel like though, of course, if you look at the DB5’s actual figures, it was nothing that the right Astra couldn’t achieve today. But it’s no good telling me that a La-La-Dum-Diddly-Dum-Ferrari would push my eyeballs through the back of my skull, it could never impress me like the Aston did.
Gearchange. This is the first gearchange that I ever used. It is the pre-selector of the Armstrong Siddley Typhoon, a car sporting possibly the most minimal dashboard fitted to a supposedly upmarket vehicle. I must have been 8 or 9 and it just involved me sitting beside the driver and moving it to the next position, whilst they declutched when they chose. The whole process involved the minimum of effort, even a child could have managed it. I’ve had very good and very bad gearboxes under my sole control since then, but none has given so much satisfaction.
Looks. Again there are many cars I can look at and appreciate their elegance, style, line, quality of construction, sympathetic use of colour, etc, etc. But none of them is an orange Lamborghini Miura. If I was 10 years older, it would possibly be a dark blue Bentley R Type Continental and, in fact, if I was ever in the market for a Lamborghini to own, that would be a 400GT, but the Miura remains in my memory as the epitome of a coherent design, right down to the rear badge. Unfortunately, by offering these opinions without any justification, I lay the path open for you to be able to present the Miura’s dreadful looking successors with the same blind confidence.
Ride. Here I have to diverge from the parameters set in my childhood. I was never a good passenger, partly through car sickness and partly through the fact that I wanted to be the one driving. So I never sat back and enjoyed the ride and have no abiding memories, save that I never actually vomited. I have not driven, or been driven in every Citroen ever made, but my personal benchmark is that any car you can’t drive over a sleeping policeman at 50kph is deficient. Being driven in taxis is a good way to judge ride quality. Many cars, particularly Mercedes, have failed to impress, though in part that might have been to do with their seats (see above). But a recent drive in a Series One Citroen C5 was incredibly smooth and cosseting. This car is dismissed by Citroen traditionalists, for many good reasons, but I think our view has clouded our objectivity. Unlike my other ‘benchmarks’, the C5 is a Benchmark that doesn’t require inverted commas. That few others in the motoring world would agree is due to a combination of three things. First, the C5’s dumpy styling was a complete turn-off. Second, the hegemony of German chassis engineering makes anyone suspicious of anything that doesn’t shake you about. Third, I have odd taste.
Colour. My Benchmark is silver (or metallic grey if you will). And the far enough you get away from that the better. Once upon a time silver seemed interesting, a pure finish that showed the car’s lines. When you couldn’t get many silver cars, that was the (non) colour I always wanted. Now I don’t. Its very ubiquity highlights that you should be careful what you wish for. The only thing that made cars interesting for me when I was younger was their sheer diversity. Some seemed very good whilst others were demonstrably awful. Now all cars are good, and most are good in just the same way. And available in silver. Now you might point out that silver peaked quite a while ago, and you are right, but the point is that diversity is the only thing that could justify the huge quantity of choices available to us. But how much real diversity remains in the car industry? And if Burnt Orange becomes the next silver, it will be awful too.
In technology, benchmarks can be good – indeed they can be essential. Outside that they are restrictive and frustrating. My list above is opinionated but I’d say it’s as good as any.