The Grand Tour

James May Thinks It’s Time For Us To Move On From Leather

Earlier this week, James May took to his column in the Driving section of the Sunday Times to further discuss his decision to sell his Rolls-Royce Corniche and explain his distaste for leather in cars. Yes, the reason for the sale is still that the Rolls apparently makes May ‘itchy’ but it seems there may at last be an explanation. And no, James says it shouldn’t put you off bidding for the Corniche should you find yourself at Bonhams Goodwood Members’ Meeting auction on the 19th of this month.

According to May, after even the shortest of drives in the car, he comes home feeling like he is “coated in an invisible layer of something unsavory.” Even his long-time partner Sarah Frater has an apparent sixth-sense for it, as James explained, “If Sarah, my other half, approaches me after I’ve been in the Corniche, she recoils with horror and says: “Urgh. You’ve been in the Rolls-Royce.” I then have a thorough shower with carbolic soap and a wire brush, and domestic harmony is restored.”

Rolls Royce Corniche

May goes on to say that showering alone isn’t enough. He has to thoroughly wash the clothes he has been wearing as well as the liner of the hamper he put them in, elaborating that if he doesn’t, “come bedtime, I’m kept awake by it.” So what is it about the Corniche that is causing James such problems?

“Churchill was tormented by the black dog of his despair during the night; I am tyrannized by something horrible lurking in the wicker.”

Captain Slow theorizes that it must have something to do with the way the Corniche’s leather was prepared, saying that “I also know that tanneries in the past used processes and chemicals so horrible that modern legislation has in effect outlawed them. I’ve heard stories of visitors to tanneries vomiting.” This might make sense since he claims that modern leather, which is produced much differently than it was in the old days, doesn’t bother him in the least.

“I have noticed, however, that other old leather things — jackets, antique suitcases, some other cars, Jeremy Clarkson’s face — can have a similar effect on me.”

Having self-diagnosed the issue, James takes it a step further, saying that we should move on from leather all together. For Grand Tour fans, this point will sound pretty familiar. During Conversation Street of Episode 11 (Italian Lessons) James says that leather is in fact a terrible material for cars. According to him it is, “It’s too shiny and slippery. It’s too hot or it’s too cold. It’s rubbish.”

Conversation street

Richard Hammond agrees with him, explaining that he thinks somewhere along the way, we began to associate leather with being posh and expensive. In reality though, in the olden days, the drivers are the ones who had leather seats because it was more utilitarian, while the passengers had cloth seats. Jeremy on the other hand disagrees with them, saying they just don’t like it because both James and Richard had apparently recently become vegetarians.

Audience member

So what do they think we should use instead of leather? James jokes that you could use cable-knit or wool because they would be nice and cozy. He even points out an audience member in a sweater, saying that it would make quite a nice car seat. In his article though, James makes the more practical observation that “synthetics have come a long way since we turned our noses up at vinyl, leatherette and velour.”

He’s absolutely right, we can manufacture almost anything these days. So why not have make a durable material that won’t stain, is water-repellant, soft and cloth-like enough to not be blazing hot in the summer and ice-cold in the winter?


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  1. Mercedes-Benz has a material they call MB-Tex that mimics the look of leather but is more durable. I actual prefer MB-Tex to real leather.

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