Top Gear editor and The Car Years judge Jason Barlow talks classic cars

Top Gear editor-at-large Jason Barlow is among an elite group of petrolheads acting as judges on the new series of the Adrian Flux-sponsored TV show, The Car Years.

Jason took his foot off the gas to spend a few minutes answering questions put to him by the classic car insurance experts at Adrian Flux.

What makes a classic car?

Different people apply different criteria. For me, I’ve always enjoyed cars that represent something significant in terms of design, so I can get as excited by an original Fiat Panda or Volkswagen Golf as I can a Duesenberg Model J with Figoni bodywork or a Lamborghini Miura.

I co-own a Ferrari F355 and have a W123 Mercedes 280 E saloon. They both generate the ‘fizz’ as far as I’m concerned, but for very different reasons. 

The sound the F355 makes when you hit 4,000rpm on third or fourth gear is really something. In the Mercedes, I feel like I’m in a Cold War-era spy drama set in Berlin. 

What buzz do you get when you flick the ignition on a classic car?

It’s always a special moment. Much depends on what sort of engine you’re firing up… internal combustion is an explosive process, and it’s illuminating to actually think about what’s going on while it’s happening. 

I had a weekend in a Mercedes SLR McLaren MSO recently, it has a straight-through exhaust and bypass valve. It made an extraordinary noise. You could play tunes by flexing the throttle pedal. 

Are you lucky that your passion for cars is also your profession?

I am very lucky. But I also love music and cinema. It’s important to have a broad set of interests. And I’m at my happiest when all three intersect. It’s one of the reasons I love [the film] Bullitt, for example, which is a great thriller, obviously has that amazing car chase, and also a great soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin. 

I’m as obsessed with David Bowie, The Beatles, and Stanley Kubrick as I am with Ferrari or Porsche. 

I’ve amassed a pretty good record collection. Anyone who knows me will tell you that wherever I am in the world I’ll go looking for a vinyl store. Plenty of people have been dragged along with me. 

Which is the best car you’ve ever driven?

I always enjoy driving Porsche 911s, and have a soft spot for the 997 GT3. But it’s probably the McLaren F1. The combination of Gordon Murray’s engineering monomania, Peter Stevens’ design, and the BMW V12 adds up to something that really is as good as the legend suggests. They’re a bit pricey these days, though. 

Can you identify a couple of factory cars of today that will become classic cars of the future?

I remember thinking the Lexus LFA was outrageously good when I attended the launch back in 2010. F1-related engine, carbon-fibre chassis, made in very limited numbers… just watch that go over the next few years. 

I wish I’d persuaded my bank manager to loan me the money to buy one when it was new. And the BMW 1 M Coupe is fantastic. Any limited-run Ferrari is a sure thing. Or a Black Series Mercedes. 

How do you view electric cars?

The best EVs are already very good indeed, although the technology still has a way to go, in terms of range, software integration, and of course infrastructure.

I’ve driven all the new electric hypercars and the Rimac Nevera and Pininfarina Battista are pretty persuasive when it comes to the performance part of the equation. 

But batteries and electric motors just don’t have the same soul as internal combustion engines. 

Can you see an electric being a classic in the future?

I worry that EVs are too much like big smartphones. The technology moves so fast they risk becoming redundant. That said, I think the BMW i3 and Honda e have future classic potential. And someone just paid £30k for an original iPhone so anything is possible.

How do you feel about those who’ve replaced the engines in their classics with electric powertrains?

Name-drop coming here: I spoke to David Beckham about this a few months ago. He’s an investor in a company called Lunaz which retrofits electric powertrains.

I understand the appeal of future-proofing a classic, and it works for me on some levels – and on certain cars. But honestly, the engine is too integral to the whole experience for me to fully embrace the idea. 

No-one in their right mind would ever replace a Ferrari engine with an electric one, would they? 

And it doesn’t need to be high-end. I recently drove an original Renault 5 with a retrofit electric powertrain thinking, “well, no-one goes nuts over the 845cc engine in an early R5, do they?” Then I drove one with the original engine and absolutely loved it. 

Do you think classic cars should be restored back to original factory spec or are some modifications acceptable? 

Originality is obviously important, but cars with patina are often lovely. I don’t particularly like over-restored cars, and I’ve driven lots of resto-mods and loved them. 

The Cyan Racing Volvo P1800, Kimera 037, and the Alfaholics GTA-R 290 are all exceptionally good. And then there’s Singer, which does extraordinary things. Rob Dickinson is a genius. 

How long have you been driving?

I passed my test on 8/8/88. A very auspicious day in the Chinese calendar, but also for me. I passed first time, I was ready for the road. 

What car do you drive?

As editor-at-large of Top Gear and a GQ contributor, I’m lucky to get to drive pretty much everything. The F355 and Mercedes don’t get driven as often as they should. The family car is a Dacia Duster, which is a fantastic all-rounder. 

What car would you like to drive?

I’ve still only been a passenger in a Ferrari 250 GTO. I’d love to try it properly. 

Wikipedia states you were named  ‘Spectacle Wearer of the Year’ back in 2001 – how did that change your life?

Only as a reminder that I really should update that Wikipedia entry! And as someone who has been wearing spectacles since the age of three,  and has had to put up with his fair share of stupid comments as a kid, I felt vindicated. 

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