Driving a car ought to feel like exactly like this,” I thought while powering the new BMW 420d M Sport Coupe along deserted Scottish country roads.
Though it is completely up-to-date in all departments – being drawn from the 3 Series for its communications technology, its safety equipment and its chassis engineering – there is something distinctly last-century about the 420d.
For a start, its twin-turbo diesel engine, with 190bhp and 400Nm of torque will soon be about as illegal and frowned upon as a packet of untipped Senior Service fags. Even though it is enhanced with a mild hybrid system, Ursula Von Der Leyen will certainly purse her lips and shake her head disapprovingly.
Its rear-wheel-drive, supplied through an eight-speed automatic gearbox with paddle shifts on the steering wheel, will soon be as much forgotten as the Gaelic language, kept alive only by isolated enthusiasts and recluses living on remote islands.
Similarly, there’s something so timeless about its beauty that you can practically put a date on it. If, at any point in the last 60 years, you had asked a little boy to draw a two-door sports coupe, he would probably have come out with something close to this classical outline. In fact, its long bonnet and swoopy lines carry some resemblance to the 507 two-seater which captured my own heart when I saw it the 1956 Automobile Year at the age of nine. We have seen Ferraris, Maseratis, even Datsuns along these lines. What the BMW 420d tells us, with complete certainty, is: “This is how a car ought to look, and that’s the end of the story.” Yet, we may never see the like again.
It’s not just Luddite nostalgia that makes me feel a pang of regret for this car: it’s mainly a sense of loss for drivers in future. When all vehicles are fitted with transmitters that will relay all details about their location and performance to a central authority and see instantaneously and unarguably, when you break the speed limit, a car like the 420d will become pointless. If you can’t work this car hard on empty roads and feel its sublime 50:50 front/rear balance and its magnet grip hanging on to your line through corners, there’s minimal point in owning it other than to show off to neighbours (and if that’s your purpose, you might as well park an empty dummy on the drive). It won’t be long, therefore, before rear-wheel-drive becomes as redundant as heeling-and-toeing.
Regretting this loss may be as silly as bewailing the fact that nobody knows how to drive a four-in-hand any longer but, to my way of thinking, for a human being to connect emotionally and physically with a car through a combustion engine and a gearbox, a throttle pedal and a steering wheel was one of the higher achievements of industrialisation.
No purely electric car will ever afford the pleasures that the BMW 420d provides in its very nature.
Neil Lyndon has been a journalist, broadcaster and writer on the UK’s national stage for 40 years, writing for every “quality” newspaper on Fleet Street. He started writing about cars and motorbikes for The Sunday Times in the 1980s and was Motoring Correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph for 20 years, having previously written a column on motorbikes for Esquire. He is also recognised as a leading commentator on gender politics, having published No More Sex War in 1992 – the first ever critique of feminism from a radical, egalitarian point of view.
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