Big, lazy V8 engines, powerful and durable, are as American as Coca-Cola and Stetsons. Europeans, with smaller cars, shorter distances, dearer petrol and high-taxing governments, have traditionally gone for fewer cubic centimetres and higher revs, which usually meant more stressed engines but better handling cars. There have been many exceptions, of course, particularly those manufacturers who imported big Americans and adapted them. Best known is surely the Buick 3.5 alloy V8 that General Motors considered too small for the American market. Rover’s managing director, William Martin-Hurst, spotted it powering a friend’s fishing boat while holidaying in America in the mid-1960s. He took out a manufacturing licence and Rover re-engineered it, dropping it straight into the P5, the P6 and, most famously, the Range Rover, where it survived in various forms for nearly half a century until BMW replaced it. It also powered a number of other marques, including Morgan and MG, and thousands of the friendly old lumps rumble faithfully, if thirstily, along our roads to this day.
But such happy morsels of automotive history may soon become rarities: America is forsaking the V8. The Energy Independence and Security Act signed into law by President Bush at the end of last year stipulates that manufacturers selling into the US market should meet a Corporate Average Fuel Economy figure of 42mpg (in British measurement) by 2020. Greenies will complain that that’s a pretty leisurely timetable and that in terms of CO2 it will put the US only on a par with what European manufacturers already achieve. It won’t kill the V8 but will probably limit it to low-volume products such as the Corvette. Indeed, the big boys are already forsaking it for direct-injection twin-turbo V6s or even four-cylinder units such as that fitted to the new Ford Explorer.
But it’s still like hearing that Americans are forsaking beef — and from George Bush, of all people, the man the greenies love to hate. Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: the act is of a piece with the three fundamental premises of his environmental policy, which are, to paraphrase: (a) America is not to be deindustrialised; (b) the solution to the human contribution to global warming is to be found in improved technology, not in a reversion to the Dark Ages; (c) for geopolitical reasons — which will have environmental benefits — America should become self-sufficient in energy. Imagine this country doing anything so bold.
What we do instead is to enact minor measures that penalise individuals while leaving the main problem untouched. This week Ken Livingstone introduced punitive charging of larger commercial vehicles which do not meet Euro 111 particulate standards, with smaller commercials brought into the net from July; there are unconfirmed reports that the scheme might be extended to large older cars. A London borough has introduced higher parking charges for all large cars and Edinburgh is considering banning them altogether. None of these measures will lessen global warming and it is debatable how far they will improve air quality. It is the great mass of vehicles that make a difference, not the few. Big older vehicles are a dwindling minority as higher fuel prices make them ever more expensive to run. Big modern cars, however, are so much more efficient that they’re less polluting than the older small cars that are not penalised.
It’s often forgotten that America, the environmentalist’s bogyman, pioneered lead-free petrol, introduced the catalytic converter and has more effective and demanding air-quality standards than Europe. Its approach — government setting the big picture and leaving the detail to industry and consumer choice — is more likely to lead to serious and sustainable improvements than the kind of petty interference in people’s daily travel choices so beloved of our own politicians and bureaucrats. Once the motor industry knows which way governments are going it can — believe it or not — be trusted to follow. Even Land Rover is going hybrid with its proposed LRX, which involves a two-litre diesel, an electric motor integral with the rear axle and a combined starter-generator. This could mean 60mpg, emission levels below the EU 2012 limits and application across the Land Rover range. Smaller, cleaner, more economical engines are the likely future for all manufacturers for the next decade or two, possibly supplemented with ethanol brewed from rubbish rather than crops. That would surely be better than simply burning or burying it as at present and could be a useable intermediate technology pending further development of the fuel cell. Beyond that it must be solar energy, which could provide all mankind’s energy needs if only we put the money and effort into harnessing it.
The fact that I am being loaned an Aston Martin next week has, of course, no effect on my views on the desirability of preserving larger engines.