If and when this Covid crisis ever ends, one the first things I will do is make plans for a European driving holiday. It’s my favourite kind of holiday and one that I’ve written about before, but an article by Rich Duisberg in a recent issue of Practical Performance Car magazine has reminded me that I’ve been doing it wrong.
Rich found a place in Switzerland that rents classic cars and he spent a joy-filled few days pedalling a Jaguar XJ6 Series 1 up and down a great many Alps. He took an almost obsessive approach to ticking off passes and discovered in doing so that most of them are staggeringly beautiful and largely deserted, because people only bother with the Stelvio and leave the others to the locals. Who don’t get out much.
So obviously I fancied a bit of that. I’m choosing a different approach, though: let’s weave some pass-bagging into a longer road trip in my own car, thereby removing the need to fly in and out and rent something. And also because we might be going on holiday somewhere in France or Italy with some mates, and getting there by car is something we’ve done before.
So the next question is, for a petrolhead anyway, which car? It’s been a long time since I’ve done any driving abroad in a proper classic. Touring down to Bavaria in an Alvis TD21 is probably the most recent trip of any distance and that was 15 years ago. More recently it’s been in either an ageing VW T4 Westfalia with a five-cylinder petrol engine and an autobox, or some kind of modern diesel estate. And neither of these are how I imagine my ideal chariot for Alp-bashing.
There are several things I would like to try but which are deeply impractical, either for reasons of cost or of available space, or both. There is Beckerman’s Miura (well, not that one, I suppose) from the opening sequence in The Italian Job, and for that matter the Fiat Dinos favoured by the Mafia, and the Minis themselves. Some of the passes Rich Duisberg found were very tight and twisty indeed, and he found himself wishing for a Mini rather than a big Jag. But a Mini, for a family of four, for three weeks’ holiday? When one of us is 6’5”? Maybe not.
Charlie Croker’s DB4 convertible or Bond’s Aston DB5 would be lovely but are as attainable as a Learjet. The E-types used in The Italian Job don’t strike me as machines with a love of hairpins either; every E-type I’ve driven was happiest howling through long, fast bends on a wide and well-surfaced trunk road. And that reminds me of something I was told by a Swiss car enthusiast – someone who really ought to know.
He had plenty of money, this bloke. His hobby was buying ruined coachbuilt Ferraris of the 1950s and restoring them to 100-point perfection, which is a very Swiss thing to do. To give him his credit, he was bloody good at it. When I went to see him, he’d recently finished a 375 America, which is one of the big buggers from about 1953. It had the 4.5-litre Lampredi V12 and a strikingly awkward coupé body, painted in pale custard yellow. It sounded like a WW2 fighter plane and had as much charisma as Lee Marvin, Frank Sinatra and Mussolini combined. I said what a fabulous thing it must be for exploring the Alps, when you could really use that amazing engine up in the mountains. He looked at me like I was an idiot, which perhaps I was.
No, he said. It’s awful for that kind of thing. The steering is terribly heavy, the turning circle is vast, the engine is grumpy at low revs and gearbox is a bastard. The clutch is as heavy as lead and you spend all your time staring at the gauges, waiting for the engine to overheat or lose oil pressure. The brakes fade. There’s no air conditioning and it gets as hot as a sauna in there within minutes. What you want is one of those, and he waved a hand towards the parking bays next to the house where a new Porsche 911 cabrio was resting.
The Porsche was an automatic, perhaps with flappy paddles – I forget. But it had a powered roof and air-con if the outside world got too sunny. It would start first time and go up and down mountains all day long without a murmur, offering speed, neat handling and a bootful of fun if you were so inclined. Which I don’t think he was.
But on the important point, he was right. Classic sports cars, in fact most cars of any significant age, are going to struggle in the mountains. Climbing for 15 or 20km continuously, rising to an engine-boiling 6000ft (which several of the highest passes do) and then having to get back down again with a similar length of time hammering the brakes or leaving it in low gear is a big ask.
So let’s tot up what my ideal holiday car needs. Firstly I want four seats, and though the two in the back will only contain kids, they are quite lanky pre-teen kids these days. It also needs to be small enough not to get wedged in titchy hairpins, so no vast limo-like things. It should probably have a manual gearbox because it’s a crying shame to parade up and down an Alpine pass in ‘D’, isn’t it? It needs a decent boot, strong brakes and a general non-histrionic approach to operation.
This counts out the one car I already own that might have fitted the bill. My Reliant Scimitar is a manual with good brakes, an exciting tuned 3-litre V6 and just about enough luggage room. The back seats are too small but the real reason I wouldn’t choose it is trust – it just finds new ways to go wrong too often. And it also gets bloody hot in summer…so do I need to add air-con to the list? Yes, I probably do. The memory of recent European heatwaves and trying to cover real distances in 35C – 40C heat without A/C in the camper van (I’ve fixed it now) is too painful.
It’s looking more and more like something from the 1980s or 90s, isn’t it? And my dream of an elegant two-door GT is shrivelling. The only candidates that spring to mind are German: a Mercedes SEC or the successor, the C124 things like the 320 CE, but they’re hefty and automatic. Almost all of them, anyway. How about an Audi Quattro? Versatile but expensive. I don’t really do BMWs, but I guess a fast 3-series would work. There’s that 840 or 850 coupe which might have back seats, but a) it’s big and heavy and complex to fix, and b) it’s a rich man’s Ford Probe. A Porsche 928 is too cramped in the back, as is a Lotus Excel, which fails the trust test too.
A Saab 900 Turbo three-door? It’s really a saloon but certainly a classic and a great thing in many ways. Sporting saloons, then…An Alfa 33 Cloverleaf, or a 75 V6? Find one in perfect nick that’s been proven faultless in regular use and I’d consider it. But a Maserati Biturbo…nope. When the bar you set for any classic car is ‘will it get me from Edinburgh to Monaco and back with the wife and kids, without going wrong?’ you realise just how forgiving we are of our weekend chariots.
And perhaps that’s the problem. Trying to have a classic motoring holiday with the wife and kids is doomed, because of all these compromises. If it were just me and another car-mad twit, breakdowns would be part of the fun. Missing the return ferry or having to kip in a lay-by would make for good pub stories, not divorce proceedings.
So at the end of all that I’ve concluded that Rich Duisberg knows what he’s doing, and that I will probably be enjoying my next European motoring holiday in a modern diesel estate car. Again.