Automotive connoisseur Ben Oliver lays out a manifesto on the importance of taking your wheels for a spin to rekindle the romance of the open road
London’s most upscale neighbourhoods are probably the best place in the world to spot supercars. On a summer evening, every second car on the streets of Mayfair, Knightsbridge and South Kensington seems to be a Bugatti, Koenigsegg or Pagani. It’s an extraordinary spectacle, certainly better than any motor show, because you can hear them run and see them move – and most of these marques don’t exhibit at shows anyway.
But to me, these cars have the sad-eyed, listless look of big cats in a particularly cruel 1970s zoo. Their dynamic abilities would stretch a professional racing driver. The world’s finest automotive engineers have lain awake at night worrying about how quickly their creations will accelerate to 200mph. Yet on the city streets, where these beasts actually spend most of their lives, they seldom get out of second gear.
Many of us who own cars with more power than is strictly necessary are guilty of the same automotive injustice. We use our cars for tasks that would be better performed by a Prius: commuting; shopping; school run. When did you last drive your car? And I mean really drive it, not just use it as transport?
Despite earning a living testing fast cars, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I promise myself that I’ll use my own cars as they were intended, exercising them regularly on some fabulous, deserted stretch of Tarmac flung like a ribbon across a Tolkien-esque landscape. But life gets in the way. There was the 12-cylinder Bentley with its locomotive-like pulling power, which was used to commute between London and the south coast at weekends, at ruinous expense. An actual locomotive would have been a more appropriate means of transport.
Then there was the Porsche 911 that had my son’s child seat strapped into the passenger seat for months on end. I drove it like a policeman to his nursery and back, and it seemed to look reprovingly at me every time I slid the garage door open.
Your car deserves a road trip. It might be a day or a week, it doesn’t matter. It just needs to be a journey where the sole purpose is to enjoy driving again, exploring the handling and performance that the reviews in the car magazines obsess about, but that we seldom experience. We need to be reminded why we buy these things.
‘The best drives have acquired near-mythical status over the years, and are usually preceded by the definite article: the Grossglockner, the Stelvio, the ‘Ring’
A road trip is deeply self-indulgent. Performance cars are seldom economical and driven hard they can consume petrol with Trumpian abandon. Taking a few days out of your schedule just to drive your car is hard to justify when any free time might be better spent with your family, exercising, or some other more worthy pursuit. But – if you must take someone – you can sell it to your other half as a ‘driving holiday’, and ensure that there’s a decent hotel at either end, with a good restaurant and a view in between. That’s why my honeymoon was a road trip.
The term carries Kerouacian associations of a long drive on arrow-straight desert highways across the west of America in a battered old car, sleeping in cheap motels. Which is all very well, but not what we’re proposing here. A European road trip is quite different. From the Scottish Highlands to the mountain roads of Sicily, Europe has some of the world’s best driving roads: fast, scenic, challenging, but also relatively well surfaced and accessible. European cars have traditionally handled better than those from America and Japan, and it’s no coincidence that the German and Italian performance car industries are clustered on either side of the Alps, whose countless looping passes form the greatest automotive playground in the world.
These roads made your car great to drive: you just need to put them together. Remember the opening sequence of The Italian Job, in which Beckerman pilots his orange Lamborghini Miura over the twisting Grand St Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy, cigarette dangling louchely from his lower lip as the sun bounces off the snow-lined road, Matt Monro singing On Days Like These in the background? That’s the aim.
But while a European road trip ought to be at least faintly glamorous, its planning requires a certain pleasing geekiness. First, you need a destination. There’s probably one famous road you’ve always wanted to drive. The best drives have acquired near-mythical status over the years, and are usually preceded by the definite article: the Grossglockner, the Stelvio, the ’Ring.
You need the right maps, and to know how to read them, because the route suggested by your satnav is never the most enjoyable. You need to calculate your average speed when planning stops, because nothing ruins a road trip like still being on the road long after you’ve ceased enjoying the driving. You should know just how fast your car drinks petrol so you can avoid coming to an inglorious halt. I have notebooks from road trips through the Himalayas, Patagonia and the remotest corners of Africa with precise instructions on the location and reliability of the next fuel stop. Despite this, I still managed to run dry in a Lotus Exige on Dartmoor.
You need to book the hotels and avoid the 2am search for somewhere, anywhere, to sleep. If you’re heading into the mountains you need to know when the high passes close for winter, and the chances of snow and ice on those that are open.
But once you’ve freed the time, chosen the destination and done the planning, there’s a glorious moment when you walk to your car, key in hand, with no purpose other than to get in, drive and reconnect with why you wanted it in the first place.
I distinctly remember that moment with my Porsche 911. The destination was the Le Mans 24-hour race, which Porsche once dominated and to which it was returning that year. I’d planned a route through France that took in some amazing roads and avoided those where the gendarmes lie in wait to rinse overenthusiastic British racegoers.
My iPhone had a dozen new albums on, and the weekend bag I was taking had been specifically chosen to fit into the 911’s odd boot in the nose. The car was clean, its fluids and pressures had been checked, the tank was brimmed and my son’s child seat was in my wife’s car. Most importantly, those bug-eyed headlamps no longer seemed to reproach me as the garage door slid back. Time to go.