‘I’d be all over Russian websites trying to pin down why KGB agents had Ladas with Wankel engines’

Researching dull facts has led Porter to make an interesting discovery

Richard Porter opinion

Last year, during the depths of lockdown, I staved off boredom by publishing a slim volume of wilfully boring car trivia so that other people could stave off boredom by reading about boring things. Yes, I know it’s a strange logic, but there we go. The book sold quite well and because of that, and because 2020’s Age of Boredom really did go on a bit, I knocked up a sequel later in the year, mopping up some of the residual dullness I’d forgotten to include in the first one.

Compiling these books wasn’t actually too difficult because for years I’ve been like a nerdish fact magpie, plucking up extremely arcane car trivia wherever I’ve come across it and stashing it away for future use. Whenever a tasty fact presented itself I’d grab it, whether I was thumbing through car mags, bumbling about the internet, or interviewing the chief designer from a major car company when the head of door handles came in and accidentally said something no one else in the room found interesting. That last one never actually happened but I still live in hope. 

The second biggest challenge in making a book out of this was interpreting some of these years-old notes, because what seemed like a perfectly lucid aide-memoire in 2011 was now ‘MONDEO WINDOW LET BUCKET(?)’ scrawled in the corner of an old notebook, like a mad crossword clue with an oversized asterisk next to it. If the fact was retrievable from the squishy grey thing between my ears, that was okay. From that direct source I was able to remember why Jaguar engineers once installed a home-grown V8 and the suspension from an XJ40 in an old 3-series, or which other car company engineered the Panda four-wheel-drive system for Fiat, but when it came to interpreting the moments when I’d physically recorded something to save my brain the bother, that’s when the trouble arose. Which is how I found myself staring at a scrap of a French receipt with ‘Logo made (poss) glass’ scribbled on it, or wondering why there was a note in my phone from 2014 that simply read ‘Montego wind/lin’. 

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With these things figured out, or not, the next most time-consuming thing was cross-checking the facts as best I could. I was confident many from my memory were pretty solid and not available elsewhere, such as my vivid and certain recall that a JLR engineer once told me about a very specific durability test that involved a two-litre bottle of Coke. Other facts, however, needed some of the details colouring in, and this led me to the most time-consuming part of putting together dull car trivia books: falling inexorably down internet wormholes and losing an entire morning to inconsequential nonsense, all because you were trying to find out for certain if Charles Leclerc’s mum really does cut David Coulthard’s hair. She does, by the way. 

From these relentless plunges into the nerdish end of the internet ocean, however, I’ve discovered something that, unlike my books, is actually quite interesting. Sometimes when trying to double-check some especially obscure fact I’d have to infiltrate the online car chat of countries I don’t live in, where they speak languages I don’t understand. To do this I’d resort to the uncanny powers of Google Translate and, though its rendering of unfamiliar tongues into English obviously isn’t perfect, it’s damn well good enough to get a decent sense of what’s going on. One day I’d be all over Russian websites trying to pin down the bizarre back story as to why police and KGB agents in Soviet times had Ladas with Wankel rotary engines. The next day I’d be rummaging around in Spanish forums seeking additional information about that time SEAT fought a court battle against former ally Fiat using a full-size Ronda hatchback and a large bucket of yellow paint. 

But the interesting bit is what I found as I snuffled about the internet like a very dull truffle pig. Because it turns out that a Spanish car chat, even through the lens of automatic translation, is pretty much like a British one. So is a Russian car chat, or an Italian one, or a French one, or a Turkish one. People ask questions, others give answers, there’s a delight in sharing knowledge, in trying to be helpful and in passing on links to places of record (which was bloody useful to a man making a book of car bore facts). People bicker and get shirty with those they perceive to be ignorant or partisan, or not partisan enough, or just plain incapable of using the search function. But by and large they chat, and they chat enthusiastically and intelligently, drawn together by the bond of a mutual passion. And that, especially in the depths of a pandemic, was strangely comforting. We’re all the same at heart and we’re all just people who like cars. To realise this was as nice as discovering that people can be so absurdly bored that they’ll buy a slim volume of extremely boring car trivia.

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