Earlier this year Jeremy Clarkson received an honorary degree for services to engineering or something. Coming the week after he’d written that he wanted to run over cyclists, presumably because he’s jealous that we use the road more effectively than he, there were calls that he shouldn’t get the award and a thoroughly deserved flanning.
It’s true, the award should be taken off him. But not for the fatwa on cyclists, or the equally dumb comments on environmentalism. No, he should lose the degree because his comments display an appalling lack of understanding of what engineering is, and should be, about.
Engineering is about solving problems, preferably as simply and elegantly as possible. In aesthetic terms a hand built single speed bike is worthy of inclusion in the finest galleries amongst the masters. A Ferrari is that picture of the tennis girl hitching up her skirt.
Levelling the playing field a little, to give cars some chance, the best engineered car of all time has to be the Beetle. There have been more efficient cars, faster cars and (arguably) better looking cars, but none of them is such a simple statement of car-ness in its most basic form (four people and their luggage to their destination as simply and reliably as possible).
Since the Beetle cars have just been getting more complicated. They’re not good, innovative engineering any more. The modern auto designer is little more than a hot rodder, forever fiddling with the details and introducing more gimmicks. It’s very easy, relatively, to build the sort of super car Clarkson salivates over. The real automotive challenge lies with the sorts of vehicles he mocks, hybrids, Smarts and low energy town cars.
What about the Industrial Revolution, that great age Clarkson likes to hark back to. He’d tell you that the machine age couldn’t have started with the sort of health and safety rules that exist nowadays. But that’s a non argument, easily ignored. The Industrial Revolution was about increased efficiency. Cheaper products meant more people could afford them and the quality of life rose. Who, these days, are the greatest proponents of increased efficency? You can bet it’s not Clarkson’s favourite car makers, desperate to sell soft roaders for the school run and condemn a generation to obesity and early heart attacks.
And finally, what would Clarkson’s hero Brunel make of all this. Brunel tackled the problems of the day in the most audacious ways he could imagine. He wouldn’t be chasing diminishing returns with ever more pointless supercars. He’d be building offshore wind farms or solving congestion by hanging monorails above pedestrianised city centres.
Clarkson glorifies past triumphs of engineering, which isn’t such a bad thing. But he can’t recognise great contemporary engineering and belittles the area in which the discipline’s next great achievements will be made. As such he is doing it great harm and should have his honorary degree rescinded.