Editor's Pick

INTERVIEW: Quentin Willson

One of the UK’s best-known motoring faces, Quentin was a Top Gear presenter for over a decade, wrote and presented BBC2’s The Car’s The Star, started Channel 5’s Fifth Gear, created the Britain’s Worst Driver format and The Classic Car Show.

He’s also a vocal campaigner on fuel prices and is co-founder of FairCharge which works to ensure the UK has the right EV-related policies for the environment, economy and drivers.  A regular face in Westminster, Quentin lobbies ministers and MPs to getter a better deal for Britain’s 40 million licence holders and is currently campaigning for a reduction in the VAT on public charging, which disadvantages the 38% without driveways in switching to EVs.

Having spent your adult life working with cars, were you obsessed with them as a boy?
It occurred to me at an early age, maybe 10 or 12, that they were fabulous symbols that could change your importance in life. They could make you look younger, or more mature than you are. More prosperous, more successful. And I just gravitated towards them.

When I was 11 my dad bought me a Ford Anglia engine for my birthday, he got it from a scrapyard. I dismantled it and then got it working, much to the annoyance of the neighbour because it had no exhaust, so when you fired it up there was this huge noise. And then somebody gave me the AA Book of the Car for a birthday. So I read through that, learning what cars were all about, and how you took them to pieces and what made them work.

So, by about 15, I was pretty good on cars. The teachers at school would come and court my advice. And my dad had a Vauxhall Victor, which was a desperately pedestrian car, just the most unromantic thing, and he was a university lecturer, a very, very lovely man who was a Bletchley Park code breaker but he was completely illiterate when he came to cars. I managed to strong arm him into buying a Daimler and then we were driving around in a Jag. And it was just kind of like, Whoa, this is it.

So from that moment, I determined that this was going to be my life. I realised I could buy cars and then sell them for a profit. So even before I got my license I was buying little Frogeyed Sprites for 200 quid and sell them for 350. My mum would drive them round for me.

By the time I got to university, I’d got this little of stash of money and cars were so cheap then. So while everyone on campus was driving around in minis and escorts, there am I in a wildly unsuitable, mauve Jensen Interceptor wearing a sheepskin coat.

When I got my grant for buying books at university I bought a Granada GXL with it and pretended I was Jack Regan in the Sweeney, smoking Piccadilly cigarettes. But it was just part of this illusion that makes you a new and better person if you’ve got a posh car.

As a youngster, were you obsessed with the cars rather than the driving of them?
It’s a mixture. It’s this heady, narcotic cocktail of noise and speed and what they call vrum-vrum. But I’d worked out in my tiny little mind that they were these tremendously powerful things. Your success in life was measured by the length of your bonnet. And if you look back to the 60s and 70s, it was a huge culture of bonnet badges and GXLs and GTs and all these things were absolute status symbols, they were a currency that everybody understood.

How did you ultimately get involved in the industry?
I started writing about them. This lovely man, Steve Cropley, identified me as somebody who knew about cars but could also write – particularly about second-hand cars. He started a magazine called ‘Buying Cars’ and it got noticed.

I got a call from a man at the BBC who sounded like a vicar. He said, would you come and do a screen test? And the rest, as they say is history.

When did EVs first come in to your life?
I’ve come from the dark side haven’t I? I’ve spent a large part of my broadcasting career telling people to buy these large, multi-cylindered, inappropriate cars but while I was doing Top Gear I was also driving electric cars, much to Clarkson’s mirth.

I was one of the first journalists in the UK to drive a thing called the GMEV1, which was wonderful – the first production EV in the world. And I drove it on Sunset Boulevard and I was thinking, blimey, this is good. It was out-accelerating everything in sight, and looked cool. I said ‘this is the future and one day we might all be driving these’.

GM then crushed them all because, you know, they didn’t want the EV1 to interfere with their global combustion car business. And then we didn’t get proper production electric cars till probably 2009.

What was the first EV you owned?
The first one I bought was a ferociously expensive, miserable, hateful little car, which would only do about 50 miles on one charge. The children had to go to school in their hats and coats, freezing, ‘daddy why can’t we have the heater on?’ And the low battery warning light would come on: ‘are we going to get home? What’s going to happen to us?’

As a family, we did all our motoring in these electric cars for years and years. I bought a Leaf, then a Zoe and now I’ve got a Tesla and it does 300 miles to one charge. The only combustion car I have now is a 60 year old Ford Mustang, which paid off its embedded carbon debt long, long ago.

So I decided: this technology works. We need to do something about it. And also, living in London, you just have to run your finger along the window ledge and it’s black with diesel particulate. I’d walk along Marylebone Road in the traffic and get that metallic taste in the back of my throat.

That’s when I decided to start this campaign called Fair Charge. And we’ve been campaigning for electric cars ever since.

A lot of people driving EVs they say they miss the throb and the rattle of an a combustion engine. You never found that? You were quite happy to drive along in silence?
Yeah, because if you understand about cars you realise that you’re got all that friction – all that flailing around of cogs and wheels and chains and pistons and camshafts – and you understand that 70% of that power is lost by the time it gets to the rear wheels. And they breakdown so much and they cost so much to service. I had a Bentley once and I took it in for service and that’s £5,000 please. And so for me, it’s a kind of liberation. My current car will do 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds, which is faster than most Ferraris. And it’s quiet, it’s refined, it’s smooth and for me, the arch petrolhead, I don’t feel that I’ve made any sacrifices.

When you when you step back into into a combustion car – my daughter’s got a little Corsa – you just think, my goodness, this is medieval. With its funny, gear thing in the middle of the floor and the noise. So I don’t miss it. And sure, I love classic cars. I drove some for a photo shoot the other day and they were great, but you come back thinking that was then and this is now. I would say we will carry on owning classic cars and driving them and getting lots of lots of enjoyment out of them. But that kind of combustion engine, that’s been around for 120 years, it’s had its day.


Are you happy with where we are now in terms of transitioning the country to EVs?
Oh, don’t get me started, we are so behind. With the Prime Minister’s switch from 2030 to 2035, he has completely sabotaged the market. The tirade of misinformation from all the newspapers and random TV stations that EVs are terrible and they catch fire and the batteries don’t last and they make multi-storey car parts collapse and wear grooves in our roads, has disabled this whole transition.

I think that we’re in at very difficult stage where all the early adopters have bought electric cars and the fleets are running around in them quite happily – we have a million electric cars on the UK roads – but getting the private buyers to make that jump is really difficult. And as the government’s taken all subsidies away, there’s very little physical reason for you to change behaviour. On top of that, the price of electricity is so high. Yesterday, I went to the Treasury and presented a letter to cut the VAT on public charging from 20% to 5%.

If we’re not careful, we won’t have this transition and we’ll go back to fossil fuels. And that’s a real problem for me. So to answer your question, we need to pull our fingers out fast and I’m talking to government about this now. Otherwise, the Chinese will just sweep us away with their £15,000 EVs that can do 300 miles.

I was going to bring that up, because a lot of the car manufacturers complained when the mandate was put back five years because they were geared up to meet the original deadline. But they don’t seem to be helping. They’re not making cheap EVs, they’re making big SUVs with electric engines and they are just too expensive.
Yes, this is what legacy auto does. They just carry on doing what they’ve always done and they took their big SUVs and then strapped a battery in the bottom and charged anything up to 100 grand, thinking, ‘well this is what the public wants.’ I guess they’re protecting their profit margins but it’s backfired on them spectacularly.

What we really need is the little £10,000, £15,000 no-frills electric car. I mean even Elon Musk, for all his staggering brilliance, has built an electric pickup truck when what he should have built was the Tesla One model – which he did talk about – for £20-£25,000. The profits are difficult on electric cars, we know that, but the cost of batteries and raw materials are coming down significantly. But everybody’s missed the trick and the Chinese haven’t because they know the market and there are €10,000 EVs out there.

Would you rather the Chinese were able to supply us or do you think it’s more important to protect our motor industry?
It’s a really, really difficult question. We should protect our domestic motor industry in the UK. There are 800,000 jobs in the supply chain and billions and billions of pounds of economic activity, but legacy auto have shot themselves in the foot. And we’re so far behind we can’t play catch up, we won’t be able to do it, there isn’t time. So do you put tariffs on electric cars from China as the Americans are doing? Which causes political friction and difficulty?

I want consumers to have cheap, affordable electric cars that are well made and go for long distances and you think, well, if they come from China, maybe we’ve got to have them. But we’re in such a parlous position that it’s very difficult.

I remember talking to the CEO of a very, very well-known car company in the UK years and years ago and said, look, you need to build an electric – well it was a big SUV – and he said ‘who would want that?’ I said I wanted one. ‘No, no, no, it’s just a passing fad’. And so they went down their road of diesels and confused model strategy. And now they’re blinking into the headlights of this tsunami of Chinese cars. They got it wrong.

Is there anything positive on the horizon in terms of cars? That you’re excited about, say three or four years down the line? That represents a glimmer of hope?
There’s some very, very talented people in the auto industry. Really, really good although maybe there aren’t a lot of them right up at senior board level. Look at Lotus, their electric car is absolutely fantastic, really, good. Musk is fantastic. He’s going to bring out a Tesla Roadster, which will do 0-60 in about one and a half seconds. And Range Rover will bring out an electric model – which perhaps might be slightly out of step with the market -but there’s nothing that I’m jumping up and down about, apart from maybe the Renault 5, which is really just lovely, cheeky, aspirational, clever, retro. And that’s going to be around £25,000.

I was with Sir Jim Ratcliffe the other day at INEOS, and they’ve brought out a thing called the Fuselier, which is going to have a battery and a range extender option. So that’s interesting, because he realises that there is this still idea about range anxiety and that consumers want to have that backup of a hybrid or a little electric motor. So that’s quite an interesting thing. And I’ve seen in the flesh that it looks really, really nice, but it’s not going to be cheap. That’s the problem.

How does the range extender work? That’s not zero emission, is it?
What you’ve got is you’ve got a battery pack of, say about 40 to 50 kilowatt hours, coupled to a little… it’s like a generator which runs on petrol. If you’re low on battery, that kicks in and will get you the extra distance and home.

BMW pioneered that really well with the I3, and you’ve got the London taxis that are also running around with range extenders. There are emissions but they are nothing like the emissions from a full combustion engine. It’s like hybrids. People say no, no, no, we shouldn’t have hybrids because they still pollute, but there is this consumer resistance so, in my book, anything that improves air quality, be it a hybrid, be it a full EV, be it a range extender, be it a hydrogen car – although I’m not at all convinced about that – then we have to do it. We have to make consumers’ lives easier and make it possible for them to switch.

On the Fair Charge website, you call for more measures to help lower income drivers to be able to access EVs. Is there anything that we can do apart from reducing the VAT on public charging?
There’s a whole raft of options. We’re campaigning along with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders to cut the VAT on brand new EVs and second-hand EVs. That would knock 20% off the price of a used EV in some cases.

Government needs to pull more levers to make this work – put signs where the electric chargers are, so people know that we’ve got an existing infrastructure. China’s got 2.7 million electric charging points and we’ve got 53,000. You put your head in your hands and say, why are we so behind?

I’m going to see the new energy minister in a couple of weeks and be quite frank with her and say, look, you need to do this, because the messaging is so mixed now and that U-turn by the Prime Minister means that people are put off the idea of buying an EV until 2035. So that’s, what 11 years? So no wonder the market has stumbled.

Also, the social EV is a really interesting concept. France did this thing where if you’re a certain demographic and on a certain income, you can have an EV lease subsidised for €100 a month. The thing’s oversubscribed. Half a million people signed up for it.

And there must be ways that we can help people without driveways, who can’t charge at home, who are on lower incomes, to have electric cars and to have zero tailpipe emission. There are salary sacrifice firms like Tusker who help many 20% taxpayers: nurses and factory workers and shop workers and that’s very successful. And we see when that happens that you get a 85% to 90% satisfaction rate with their electric car. We could also redeploy a lot of the secondhand cars that come off leases and from companies who are essentially dumping into a second-hand market and letting dealers buy them. Can we not repurpose those, so we can create a funded model where people on lower incomes have access to an electric car and a charging point?

Do you think anti-EV sentiment is getting worse?
It’s a wedge issue and I’m afraid again, the buck stops with the government. ULEZ – and the Uxbridge by-election – was turned into a cultural issue by government and that’s partly why we’ve got this left versus right thing. The left likes electric cars, they think they’re smart, wearing polo-necks and driving Teslas. The right hates them because they want their diesel pickups and it’s been really badly messaged. So you’ve got people learning about electric cars on Facebook, and listening to that stuff, which is being amplified again and again and again. It’s nonsense.

There are people now saying that EVs are more polluting than production cars because of the particulates from the tyres. I talked to Kwik Fit about this yesterday and I said ‘Would you please tell us the party line on this? What is it?’ And he said the wear is slightly more because people tend to drive them faster but broadly, the wear patterns they see are similar to combustion cars. So, where does that come from?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist but you’ve got countries for whom fossil fuel is massively important and they run troll farms and things like that. And this is so huge now that it’s not an accidental thing. There are newspapers who like to run these stories. The Mail did one yesterday, it was pages and pages of things that are wrong with EVs, just because Aston Martin, has not been able to produce battery that they’re happy with. It’s clickbait because the advertising revenue is down and they need clicks for their reach.. so that’s part of the problem.

I saw a headline this week that read ‘Stark battery warning after three cars burst into flames.’ It turns out it was people caused by people jump-starting a combustion engine car but that’s not what most of their readers would take from the headline…
Yes, that’s manipulation. There’s a headline writer being told by somebody, just do it this way and then you’ll get more clicks. And for the record, let’s just absolutely clear this up. Electric cars are 20 times less likely to catch fire than combustion cars. And I mean, that’s a stat which is reflected in all the Scandi countries, and in America and with the Fire and Rescue Service here. So where has that thing come from?

Because of all this, all I’d say to anybody who isn’t an EV convert, who’s thinking about buying one, is talk to someone who owns one! There’s a million EVs driving around in the UK and we don’t hear the voices of those people, those are the voices that we’re not hearing and I think it would be good if we did it.

Maybe I should do something about that….

This interview first appeared in the last issue of Air Quality News Magazine.

Paul Day
Paul is the editor of Public Sector News.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top