Drive five classics in one day

Drive five classic cars in one day. That didn’t sound like too much of a burden. So, whilst Gavin Big-Surname was tending to his lower back, PetrolBlog sent Peter Counsell along to Autotweetup 18.

To be frank, it wasn’t a tricky decision. Go up to the Midlands and drive a selection of Great Escape classic car hire vehicles for a day, with some of the country’s top motoring writers and bloggers. For sure, I felt a complete fraud, but with the keys to the toy box on offer, what the hell.

Kent to Redditch for 8:30. That’ll be an early start then. Frustratingly that meant 4:50am. Frustrating because that is too early. More frustrating because I can’t use the “3am Eternal” or “Faron Young” jokes.

A significant flurry of snow around the bottom of the M40 was a tad worrying. After all, if everything worked to plan, we would be playing with a fleet of rear-wheel drive classics. An additional and somewhat persistent snow shower in Redditch did nothing to settle the stomach. Free coffee and bacon sandwiches on arrival did, however, help.

Our hosts were Great Escape Cars, quite probably the country’s leading classic car hire business. Graham Eason runs a burgeoning  enterprise, with work in personal and corporate hire, as well as loaning vehicles into film and television opportunities. Great Escape has some 50 vehicles available, of which a dozen were made available for us on the day. E-type, Mk 2 Jaguar, Corvette, Cobra, Healey, quattro. A lot of familiar names. A lot of cylinders. Oh, and an Allegro.

Triumph Herald convertible

The Great Escape’s car pound also has some future PetrolBlog delights in store. A Herald convertible, X1/9 and a Fiat Coupe are all in prospect in addition to our menu for the day.

The day is arranged over five stages, all documented in easy to follow pace notes and with a change of vehicles at each stage. Two people share a car, allowing each person to drive and then navigate. My companion was Stuart McKay – author of the BHP Project and high level karter. I struck lucky here. McKay was a very affable colleague, a very fine driver and quite talented at drawing vehicles out from a hat. Well, a Morris 1000 hub cap.

First up was good news. We didn’t get the Allegro. We got the Saab Turbo Convertible. From 1987 in handsome dark grey and therefore squarely in PetrolBlog territory both on age and brand.

Saab 900 Turbo

It pulls well. Boy it pulls well. First, second, third, fou…. Hang on,where’s fourth gone? OK. First. Second. Third. Four…. Bugger. Fifth. Hood down, it is about three degrees, I’m cold but I’m not going to be beaten by this.  Gently now. First, second, third, fourth, aha! Hidden down near the ignition key. Saab – built for the individual.

End of the first stage brings us to Broadway Tower. The sun is now out, the sky is blue, the view is beautiful and the cake is exceptionally fruity. A lovely scene indeed – twelve classics in some of England’s rolling countryside. An ideal location for proper snappers to take their proper pictures and for me to do a couple of ropey ones on the phone.

All feels good for the second stage. McKay dives into the hubcap and comes back with the keys to the Alfa Spider. Good work, McKay. But hang on.

“Does anybody want to swap for an E-Type?”

Hell yes.

Thanks to the generosity of the well-dressed man, we have the keys to the Series III E-Type V12. Creamy.

Jaguar E-Type badge

For both of us, this vehicle is on the bucket list. This, after all, is an E-Type. Of all the vehicles here, this is properly iconic. Stop a man in the street and ask him for a sports car and he’ll say “E-Type”. No pressure.

Keys. Turn. Whirr, whirr, whirr. Oh, come on. Rumble.

Oh.

I.

Say.

At this stage I admit to McKay that this is the first vehicle that I have driven with 12 cylinders. He trumps this with tales of his *best* 12 cylinder vehicle that he has driven. We live different lives, but we’re on the same page with this E-Type.

It is special, but not a difficult drive. Four-speed gearbox, but so much oomph that more gears are unnecessary and in any case we are keeping well within the speed limits. Well.

The E-Type is an icon and it is fast. But it is surprisingly comfy too. We try to avoid the potholes, of course, but even if you hit one by mistake the car remains composed. That is pretty impressive for a 40-year-old sports car. It lives up to its reputation. Yes, we’ll take one, even if third gear seems to be as elusive as the Swedish fourth gear.

The end of the second stage brings us to a luncheon stop just outside Solihull. Lunch consists of excellent fish and chips, amiable chatter and Cobra news. It has disgraced itself by running out of fuel in the countryside. It was a sign. We should have listened.

Stage 3 and out of the hubcap comes a Healey.

Good choice.  Both of us quite fancied a drive in a Healey. Not an original, this is a HMC MkIV, built in the 90s, which demonstrates the business sense of Great Escape. To run and hire an original would be prohibitive, so better to offer the next best alternative. They’ve done the same with the Mini Cooper by building a replica. For 99% of hirers, this is of no consequence. But the audience today is the 1%.

This “Healey”, though, is a winner and one on which there was an absolute consensus. It is fast and responsive and feels like it has been screwed together properly. The gearbox, a more modern confection, is short and precise. That’s a bonus after the Saab and the E-Type.

Austin-Healey 3000

The noise, likened by McKay to a Spitfire (I hope he meant Supermarine and not Triumph) is addictive. Lovely, lovely sound that gets you in the stomach as well as the ears. Wheel-spin in third is not just possible but almost mandatory. Better still, when the rain inevitably comes down, two men can put the hood up in short order. It even has the right air horn – used wisely by McKay on the approach to a single lane humpback bridge.  This is a champion vehicle and one that I’d be happy to spend longer with. Much longer.

The end of stage 3 brings us to a large lay-by populated by the rest of today’s fleet and a selection of police cars. I did wonder if they were for us, but we never found out what they were doing. Running a little late, it was time to grab a vehicle. No time for the hubcap.

“Interceptor?”

“Interceptor!”

The interior of the Jensen was clearly the inspiration for Kylie’s classic “Step Back in Time”. It seems much older than the E-Type albeit broadly contemporary. The dashboard looks like a control panel from Joe 90 and the seating is a bit odd too. I feel like I am squashed up against the driver’s window and my co-driver is in the adjacent lane of the dual carriageway. Correction, he is in the next postcode.

Jensen Interceptor front

The contrast with the Healey is acute. The Jensen is lazy in its ways and is probably suited to wafting down to St Tropez rather than the lanes of Warwickshire. The contrast is made worse when we get lost on the Coventry Ring Road, into a setting sun, with rain, awful wipers and no chance of de-misting anything this side of Easter.

With the benefit of time, I probably could learn to love the Interceptor. It is a stunning vehicle to look at, but less so to drive.

The end of this stage brings us to the centre of Coventry and a parade of vehicles outside the Motor Museum. The centre of Coventry is made considerably more beautiful by the addition of a dozen classic cars and an Allegro.

Time is against us and so McKay and I make another snap decision for the run home. Cobra. For emotional reasons.

Cobra replica headlight

It took about 50 yards for McKay to note that the emotional reasons were far outweighed by the practical reasons. In short, the car is a brute. A replica, a swine to handle and with a misfire that starts at 3,000rpm. That then worked its way down to 2,000rpm during the drive.

It is a testament to his skill as a driver that he nursed the recalcitrant Cobra home across 35 miles of greasy and then snowy roads. He described it as very scary. From the passenger seat, it was a bit lively. I didn’t drive this one – frankly that would have been added risk for all. One day, perhaps, but a nice warm sunny one.

I left Great Escapes HQ in a much more modern vehicle – a current model Golf Convertible. The 150 miles passed comfortably and without incident. Without incident. Yes, that is how we mostly want our travel to be and that is why most of us don’t generally travel classic.

But from time to time, a bit of incident is what one seeks. And on those occasions, renting a classic from the excellent Great Escapes is no bad idea.

I have an appointment with their Capri 280 that remains outstanding.  To that I am very much looking forward.

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Peter Counsell
Official. And still here. 48. No longer in my prime.

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