Ferdinand Piech’s Ultimate Car should have been the definitive offering in our romance with the automobile. Why wasn’t it?
A fair amount of my not-so-uber income comes from working, directly or indirectly, for people with lots of money, so I’m vaguely qualified to comment on this. I have discovered something quite amazing. The very rich are much the same as the rest of us – but richer. Some are discerning, some are not. So the fact that people actually bought Bugatti Veyrons at an average rate of almost one a week over its 10 year life doesn’t really give the vehicles more or less credibility in my eyes.
About a year before its long-delayed release, I was driving round Belgrave Square (an expensive part of London) early one morning and came across a burgundy and black pre-production Veyron being photographed in what I assume was one of its intended habitats. But I remember thinking that it didn’t really look at home there though, at the same time, with its fussy retro paintwork, it wouldn’t have looked at home at the ‘Ring. I admit to not really having followed its gestation too thoroughly at the time, since my own preconception of a modern Bugatti would have been something far more light-of-touch in its concept. Seeing it, my immediate question was ‘what is it for?’, and that has never been answered to my satisfaction.
Why is my dismissal of a car so vehement? In part there is the purist in me that feels it doesn’t fulfil my idea of a Bugatti for the 21st Century since it lacks the engineering elegance of its predecessors. But despite this it still deserves to be judged as a car in its own right and there was a time when the car could have appealed. Not now though. What I really find depressing about the Veyron is that it shows up so many of our romantic petrolhead aspirations as the sad, wet-dream fantasies they really are.
The road South to Antibes beckons, the musical sound of the 16 cylinders fills your ears, the needle rises 300, 320, 340. Does it really? The mega-rich inhabit the same physical world as everyone else and, the last time I looked, the road to Antibes was more-or-less full. So, sociopaths aside, when does this actually happen in Europe, beyond the odd early Sunday morning blast over a couple of kilometres? And don’t give me that “it’s the thrill of knowing you could” thing – that’s the most futile idea of all, a bit like keeping a set of surgical instruments under your desk in the knowledge that you could carry out open heart surgery, should you so wish. Or, bearing in mind the criminal nature of really giving the Veyron its head in most countries, maybe keeping a sawn-off pump gun in the boot just so you know you could do over a Bank if you wanted to, is a better comparison.
What else does Veyron ownership give you? Custodianship of an incredible piece of engineering? Well, it’s highly effective, but it’s not elegant. There are systems on top of systems, all there to achieve Dr Piech’s stated end, but there is no pure engineering that you can physically admire, as on its pre-war namesakes. It’s got an exposed engine you say? Well, you can see some covers and shrouds in a classy looking material, but an exposed engine that you can marvel at? To know what that looks like see the Cosworth DFV hanging out the back of an old Lotus 49. What the Bugatti has are the nipples on George Clooney’s Batman costume.
If you rate a car by its ability to actually deliver its owner what it promises, how does it score? I’d give both a Lotus Elise and a VW Up! 95%. My own car (and many other people’s) 75%. A Veyron? 25%, absolute tops. This isn’t a mad rant against a car that I could never afford, although it is true that I could never afford one. No matter how rich I was, there would always be something else I’d rather buy first.
But am I still missing the point entirely? Of course I am. The Veyron was never really there for the driving. It was a symbol. A Holy Grail to put in the garage if you could afford the real thing, or to have as a screensaver if you couldn’t, in order to keep our noses, rich and poor, stuck to whatever grindstone in the hope that, one day, it would be us on the empty, sunny, romantic road to Antibes.