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Interview: Talking Cars with AC/DC's Brian Johnson

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 3/26/2015 Edward Loh

In our May 2015 magazine, we kicked off our special issue devoted to the resurgent British motoring industry with a wonderful interview with Brian Johnson, lead singer of AC/DC, which performs at the Coachella music festival on April 10 and 17. As car guys go, you'd be hard-pressed to find one more passionate than Johnson, and that's not just among a small pool of rock stars or celebrities, either. As you will learn in our fun and wide-ranging conversation, Johnson is not only a student of automotive history and a serious car collector, but he also has strong opinions on the direction of the industry and an unquenchable thirst for speed.

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Johnson, whose show Cars That Rock appears in the U.K. on Quest every Thursday at 9 p.m. starting April 16, speaks from the heart -- as is clear by the language with which he seasons his stories. If you're sensitive to cursing or are reading along with a young child, be advised some colorful language and expressions are ahead.

Photo: Discovery Networks© Provided by MotorTrend Photo: Discovery Networks

On Jaguar…

BJ: "I went to see the Jaguar F-Type -- the coupe is my personal favorite, it has a nicer ass than Beyonce. The back end of that car is just unbelievable. I drove with Norman Dewis at [headquarters in] Gaydon, and they let me drive the new F-Type Project 7. I bought it on the spot -- they're only making 250 of them, and I bought number one! Genius! [Laughs]

2015 jaguar F Type Project 7© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 jaguar F Type Project 7 "Oh, it's just unbelievable. I was at Gaydon with Norman Dewis beside me, and I put me foot down, let's see what the baby will do, and the guy says, 'Well you know of course we have it topped off at 155 [mph],' and I went, 'Oh what a shame …' so fine, I'm going hit 155 … then 160 … 165 … 170 … 185 and I had to brake because of the corner I was coming into. I said, 'You little tinker!' He said, 'Shhh …' "

Interview: Talking Cars with AC/DC's Brian Johnson

MT: None of these British brands is actually owned by British companies anymore — Tata is JLR, Bentley is VW AG, RR, and BMW. Does that matter to you? How does this make you feel?

BJ: "Well, it's a bittersweet feeling. Yes, you know, Rolls-Royce in the '70s were … you know … those Mark IIs were … yeah yeah, yes … they were nothing. And you know Bentley were just fthhhhppppbbbbb [exasperated gasp] but came back -- with the Mulsanne Turbo and stuff like that. It was still ridiculous territory money-wise and all of this kind of thing, but they were dying …

2015 Bentley Mulsanne Speed Front Three Quarter In Motion 1© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Bentley Mulsanne Speed Front Three Quarter In Motion 1 "You know, one minute it was British Aerospace, the next minute it was British Airways. They didn't know who the hell was -- I think Vickers owned them for a little bit -- I mean it was just nonsense. They deserved everything they got. The British government were rotten, the unions were … see, the thing is the unions were there to protect the workers from bullies -- from the bully owners from the old days. And suddenly they got more power than the owners, and then guess what? They turned into the bullies. So then they were useless. The management, useless -- the gin and tonic brigade -- they really didn't care!

"Without BMW and without the VW Audi group there wouldn't be these stunning Rolls-Royces we have today or the stunning Bentleys. Thank God for Tata. Range Rover were always there but was a little niggly with the reliability problems and stuff … but look what they did.

AC/DC Lead Singer Brian Johnson© Provided by MotorTrend AC/DC Lead Singer Brian Johnson "Look what they did! You know the British worker is amongst the best in the world. They'll build a car like nobody else. But you gotta give them the tools. You give them the tools, and I mean look what they're doing at Bentley. They've got these wonderful craftsmen, I mean you know that's why every Formula 1 car in the world -- just about -- are all made in Britain. There is a reason; the English engineers and working men are fantabulous. But if you distract them with these stupid unions and bad management, well then you get what you deserve. But it was a bittersweet thing, but also it made you very proud that the names meant something to the world.

"You know like … Jaguar was always a fabulous brand. It was never the kind of car you would see your bank manager in, or a doctor. Because it was always just a little bit too edgy. [Laughs] They would go for the old Daimlers or the old Lanchesters or a nice Rover! But they would never buy a Jaguar Mk II — it was used for getaway cars. But it was stunning … it was stunning, and I'm just so happy as I said that they have got Ian Callum in — who is one of my particular heroes, who designed the DB7 and then he went to Jaguar and just driving around … I think I summed it all up at the end of one of my episodes and I was speaking to him and I said, 'You know, I want to thank BMW, I personally want to thank VW Audi -- for not only keeping the British ones, but for bringing Bugatti back. I want to thank them all for what they've done to make Britain proud of building cars again because we had lost it all. I mean apart from little companies like Morgan there wasn't a British car you could buy -- there was nothing. And you know what they've done to it is just put it on the market again.' It's typical -- Jaguar just can't make enough cars."

On McLaren

BJ: "The 650 … I drove the P1, which was absolutely marvelous. That is in the ridiculous bracket, and you can't buy one anyways, because there is only 350 of them. You know, the 650 — or 675; is that out now? — it's like it's the son of the P1. It's a very naughty boy. You know it's got its father's nose … and it's certainly got its father's ability to pick up the girls. You know it really is a super car.

2015 Mclaren 650S Spider© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Mclaren 650S Spider " McLaren are so futuristic -- [but] they haven't quite got the passion, not the same -- like my Ferrari 458, which I love very much and which the 650S couldn't do all the stuff. Some of it's better at some things, but there is something missing -- me nipples don't get hard. It's a brilliant car, I mean, it's a brilliant car, you know. I want to kiss it and stroke it and just say there's a good boy, but it has this robotic thing about the excitement. It's marvelous. If you're an engineer, you'd love this car. It's perfect. I mean, there's even this button in the middle of the dashboard that when you press it, Ron Dennis pops up and says: 'You're fired. You're driving the car wrong. Don't do this … don't do that …' "

MT: You talked earlier about MG and Chinese ownership and we touched upon very super luxurious luxury and sports cars. There is currently no volume British brand at the same level as Ford or Chevrolet. If British car brands are only known to be for the very rich, does that make them stronger or weaker?

BJ: "Well, I think it's the old exclusivity thing going on. I mean, that's why Jaguar is coming out with the XE. They really want to be up there with the rear-wheel-drive Infinitis and the Lexus, you know. That's a great market to go for … And the BMW … I think they're going to have a fight on their hands. You know BMW just got that corner of the market throttled. And they're not exactly what you'd call a cheap car, are they?

"But you still got this wonderful thing -- it's called human snobbery. 'My dick is bigger than yours. Look what I've got -- I've got is the BMW 5 Series M and youuuu've just got the 3 Series M, so therefore my penis is bigger than yours.' And, er, it's pretty basic, but it's just the kind of thing -- humans have it. Humans want the best and they want to spend more money even if it's made it Wales."

On American cars/American car ownership

BJ: "Let me tell you a lovely story, me son, about a friend of mine called Norman Gorms. He works for Billy Joel. Lovely guy, dedicated American. I keep saying, 'Why don't you buy something European, Norman?' He says, 'No! No! I'm an American. Proud of it.' He's got a Cadillac, CT … Z, is it?"

2014 Cadillac CTS V Coupe© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Cadillac CTS V Coupe MT: CTS-V?

BJ: "A little two-door coupe. Yeah … Real spunky. He says, 'It's as fast as BMW M3.' I said, 'Are you sure about that?' He says, 'Owww fuck yeah.' I said, 'Well that's brilliant. Tell you what, can I have a drive of it? And you drive my Range Rover. My brand-new Range Rover. You drive the Range Rover and I'll take the CT-whatever the fuck it is.'

"He went, 'Oh OK.' And you know this guy has never been in a Range Rover or anything like it. And I get in it and I'm sitting in it with my wife, and wow it's a noisy bugger -- there is just dins of noise. And the dashboard … keeps ringing like I'm in fucking Las Vegas. So we head to hill on the bridge, and I put me foot down to take him.

"And you know he's just a natural racer, this kid, so he sticks foot down in the Range Rover, and I can't fracking catch him. He got out the car at the other side and went, 'I got to have one of these fucking things. I've never been in one, and oh my god it is fucking beautiful.' I went, 'It's a fucking Ranger Rover, mate. Alright, it will cost you a little bit more than what your Cadillac did, but you know …' So anyways we got a convert, but you got that space defined by me; I just bought my very first American car, and people are absolutely -- they can't believe it. 'You? You? Bought an American car?' I went, 'I'm afraid I did.'

"My friend went 'Faaack -- Jesus Christ, Brian, the world is coming to an end.'

"I went, 'Well this isn't exactly what I'd call an American car.'

"I went up to interview Richard Petty for me television show, and he said [in a deep, gravelly-voiced Richard Petty impersonation], 'Brian, I got a surprise for you. Close your eyes.' So I close me eyes, and he says, 'Hold on,' and I hear this big door sliding open. And he says, 'OK, open 'em.' And I just looked and I went, 'Ho-lee shit, that is … beautiful!'

"He said [Petty imitation], 'Yep, they'll only be building 43 of them because that's my race car number. And that's what we're doing.'

"And I look; there was the most stunning Mustang I've ever seen. Well, I call it the un-Mustang because it's fuckall like a Mustang. Richard goes, 'You, you European guys, gotta get kinky about turning left and right … you guys really like to go left and right without sliding off the road.'

Brian Johnson Interview© Provided by MotorTrend Brian Johnson Interview "And I said, 'Well yes, I'm afraid that's true.' And he went, 'I know, you're right. That's a racing chassis, racing suspension, racing wheels. And it's got a 640 Roush engine …'

"And I went, 'I'll fuckin' take it!' [big laugh]

"So we went for a drive in it, and it took the back my skull off, but not just the speed -- I'm used to fast cars -- the sure-footedness of this vehicle. I mean, it is fucking unbelievable. Unfortunately, that is the prototype, and that's going for auction for a children's charity. But he's going to build me chassis 001. Which they're building now; they're building it now. But it's probably the most beautiful Mustang I think I've ever seen, and it's all Richard Petty's little touches; the wing on the back just merges with the window. Oh God, it's beautiful. Anyway Ed, I'm now the proud owner of a fuck of a Mustang! Yeah! [laughs]"

MT: That's a great story. When do you take delivery? We'd love to be the first to test it.

BJ: "I think it comes at the same time as the Jaguar Project 7 …"

MT: Fantastic, we'll definitely talk again.

BJ: "I'm gonna have two new puppies! Boy-o-boy, I love to -- I'm going to take them along to Sebring. And I can go and do track inspection. That's how you sneak on with the [track] marshals … 'Can I go out and check for debris, please?' [laughs] And do two laps!

MT: Yeah, check for debris at 150 mph!

BJ: " '[Laughs] I saw nothing! [Laughs]' "

MT: You mentioned a lot of brands. Is there a particular brand you think is doing it the best?

BJ: "Ooof … Well it has to be … a Jaguar for innovation. Absolutely. Range Rover for sheer stunning quantity of numbers. I mean it is just un-be-liev-able what they're doing there. I mean the little MGs, I basically called it a Chinese takeaway, which I shouldn't have done. The poor guy in charge went, 'Ooop! For God's sake, don't say that.' And I said, 'Well it is!'

"You know the Chinese, they took the name and they build the cars in China, and they sent them to England, and in England, they put the engines in them. And then they put the MG badge on them, which gives it that little bit of exclusivity in China. So the Chinese go, 'Ah, MG!' And that's all they remember. But instead of having a Toyota Yaris or a little Nissan or a little Peugeot spiddly bop or whatever they fucking got … And this is the power of the British name. They've got an MG. And the badge is the biggest fucking MG badge I've ever fucking seen. Tiny little cars … and I just said to the guy, 'I hope this is the first step to bringing back a little two-door affordable sports car.' You know, I hope they're not just using it for the sake of it and not going any further. You know you're just feeling used. I didn't know if I was suspicious or if I was happy it was just one of those 'OK, let's see what happens.' It was one of them things … 'Watch this space.'

© Provided by MotorTrend "So I dunno, but I think out of them all, McLaren is doing a fabulous job getting their cars out. But once again you said quite rightly, they are in the … the … the ridiculous bracket. It's a million pounds -- that's a fucking lot of money! But I actually drove [a P1]. It was quite stunning, but you know I have this maxim when I buy cars: 'Never buy anything you can't park.' Not one where you say, 'Oh, I'm not leaving it here — fuck that shit!' Don't buy it. It's just not worth the worry. I mean, my 1928 Bentley -- the 4.5 liter -- I'll park that anywhere. I mean, first of all, nobody can fucking start it [huge laugh]. And you know it's very confusing; the gas pedal is in the middle, so they're fucked straightaway! [laughs] They're going nowhere when they put their foot on the brake."

On automotive passion and nostalgia

BJ: "You know, it's … it's very personal, all these things you're asking me today, even though it's not personal. We're talking about motorcars here. We're talking about automobiles. We're talking about things that we looked at when we were children. And wanted one, and dreamt of them, but could never get them, until the day …

"We all remember our first motorcar. Why? I can't remember me first pair of jeans, which I always wanted. You can't remember … I can't remember the name of my fucking first girlfriend -- and isn't that something. But your car — you never forget the car. You even remember the registration number. I mean you remember -- PVB96 … PVB96! Couldn't ever forget it. Everybody does. And as time goes, that piece of shit ya had becomes, 'Oh, it was a lovely car, and it would be there in the end.' But if you saw the reality … you on the side of the road, kicking it, going, 'You piece of shit!' [Laughs]

"But it has this wonderful romantic thing … that not all men have … the men who drive the beige Lincolns that they go to work in. And to them it's just a means of fucking transport. They'll never understand what me and you are talking about. They'll just look at us with a raised eyebrow. You know, they probably only make love because they're married and they have to. You know, they paid for it. And that's it. And they want 2.3 children by the time they're 30 … and fuck 'em. You know, fuck 'em all.

"And so we're strange -- and I understand the economics and all that -- but it's … I tend to like the romantic side. And I don't know why. But I do. And the fun side … the Golf GTIs of the early '80s and all that. They're still great cars.

"You know, I mean I hope the British pull through all of this, and from what I can see in visiting all of them factories, I mean it was exciting. It was bustling. It was packed with cars. I visited the Mini factory -- 900 cars a fucking week! Piling out of there in all colors and guises. You know, it's just amazing. These places were just about finished 15-20 years ago, and these wonderful, wonderful people have come in. To the fellow at Tata … I forgot his name now, but he's a fucking genius. And he put about, about -- his first payment was about 5 billion Euros into [JLR]. It's amazing.

Brian Johnson Interview© Provided by MotorTrend Brian Johnson Interview "And now of course unions have minimal say. Which was his [Ratan Tata's] first thing -- 'I'm not having that shit again.' You know when they could just walk in at any time and go, '(whistle) Right, everybody out.' You know that's all gone. It's all gone, thank God for that. I think it's healthy, and I think it's wonderful, and I think we've got a long future thanks to the outside investors. And it's a damn shame that somebody in England couldn't have thought about that. You know, didn't have the faith. Didn't think Range Rover was worth saving or Jaguar was worth saving. You know, before he [Tata] came along, that little Jaguar XF (S?) — that was a Ford Mondeo. When Ford owned Jaguar, that was a Ford Mondeo with a different body on in. Fucking disgusting! You cannot fool the people forever; they'll find out. That's why this XE is such an exciting little car for them. I hope it takes off."

MT: Well, we drove it, and our guy loves it -- rates it higher than the 3 Series.

BJ: "Mmm. I haven't driven it yet."

MT: I think you'll be very surprised and pleased.

BJ: "Well, I know Ian told me he worked so hard on that. He wanted it perfect. He wouldn't let it go. He had fights with them. He said, 'Nope, not yet.' He really, really … he's a great guy. People like him. Trouble is he's Scottish. That's the only problem with him. Ahhh, he's bloody, bloody Scottish. I've had words with him about it, but he can't help it. [big laugh]" Photo: Discovery Networks© Provided by MotorTrend Photo: Discovery Networks

Brian Johnson on Cars That Rock© Provided by MotorTrend Brian Johnson on Cars That Rock
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