This is the story of when I raced the night sleeper train from London to Penzance in a Chrysler 300C. Unfortunately, the images have disappeared, so it’s little more than a long ream of text.
If I find the images, I’ll upload them. In the meantime, I hope it’s possible to enjoy reading about what turned out to be an epic night.
What’s the quickest way to travel from London to Penzance? Assuming a flight is out of the question, you’re faced with two choices: road or rail.
And if there’s one train service that’s always fascinated me, it’s the overnight sleeper service from Paddington to Penzance. Or, to give it another name, the Night Riviera. Just how glamorous does that sound?
It brings to mind images of transcontinental journeys across Europe, rich in glamour and romance. The reality is slightly different: Reading, Taunton and Newton Abbot aren’t the most exotic locations. However, the opportunity to leave London at a quarter-to-midnight and wake up the next morning in the rail networks’s most westerly and southerly railway station must be quite an adventure.
But this is PetrolBlog and we don’t review train journeys. Our sheds are of the automotive kind rather than those that provide shelter to Thomas, Percy, Gordon and friends. So I had a thought: why not take on the train to see which one would arrive first?
On paper the journey times were remarkably similar. The train departs from Paddington at 23:45 and, depending on any engineering work, arrives in Penzance at 07:53: a journey time of 8 hours 22 mins.
At first glance the car should have this in the bag. A quick dash down the A303 into Devon would see the car darting into Penzance within five hours or so. Heck, the car could probably reach Land’s End and have time for a swift bacon sandwich before the train had reached Truro.
But a level playing field was required: the car would need to visit the same locations as the train and, just as importantly, obey the rules of the road. By the reckoning of Google Maps, that would result in the car taking 7 hours 57 minutes – a remarkably similar time and an opportunity too good to miss.
So a car was required. Something ‘PetrolBloggy’ and something untested on the site. And, for maximum efficieny and speed, something with a powerful diesel engine. How about a Chrysler 300C? Suitably different to the norm and, being American, well-equipped for long and relaxed journeys.
The Chrysler press office said yes, so the game was on.
I’ll admit to questioning my wisdom as I made my way up from Devon for a rendezvous with Ben Foulds of the Chrysler press office in Slough. At best I would find the answer to a question nobody has ever asked. At worst I would be making my way down a near-empty M5 motorway when most sane people were asleep.
But hey, this is PetrolBlog and we don’t pretend to do normal car reviews. And besides, there’s never anything decent on television…
I’ve always admired the Chrysler 300C from afar. It’s an unashamedly American car. Well, as American as a car that’s built by a company owned by an Italian firm at a factory in Canada can be.
How can the styling of the 300C be best described? Imposing? Most certainly. Subtle? Definitely not. Good looking? Perhaps. Brash? Arguably. Put it this way: it’s not a car for shrinking violets or those in search of a discreet motor car. The optional tri-coat Ivory Pearl paintwork manages to turn an already eye-catching car into a vehicle that will turn heads in just about every environment.
In London it seemed to fit in rather well, giving me the look of a night club owner who’s out to impress in his neighbourhood. The further west we travelled, the more out of place we looked. I’m not sure the Cornish school children had seen anything quite like it.
And I say ‘we’ because by the end of the journey I managed to bond with the car – we were a team. It has got character and soul in abundance – something that manufacturers from outside Europe and the U.S. fail to achieve. The 300C feels like a Chrysler and that’s a good thing. It’s mad that it’s badged as a Lancia in Europe, as the 300C feels as much like a Lancia as a Delta feels like a Chrysler. But that’s a story for another day…
After your eyes have adjusted to the dramatic styling and the sheer size of the five-metre long 300C, the next task is to get to grips to the mind-boggling array of standard equipment on the flagship Executive. Nappa leather, 20-inch rims, 8.4-inch touchscreen, rear camera, front and rear heated seats, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, dual-pane sunroof, keyless go, xenons, powered rear screen sunshade… the list goes on. Put it this way: I wasn’t heading west in a poverty-spec motor.
At 23:45 the race was on. Parking restrictions ensured I had to await the start of the race three blocks away from where the Night Riviera would begin its journey west. A light drizzle had descended on London with the droplets of rain serving to give the 300C a shimmering beauty beneath the orange glow of the street lights.
As race starts go, this wasn’t an epic. There was no flag waving. No crowds to cheer on the stateside challenger. As far as any late night wanderers were concerned, a train was leaving London and a car was merely meandering its way home.
But even so, as soon as drive was selected and the foot brake released, the adrenaline started to flow. There was a genuine sense of anticipation. Would the car emerge victorious, with a victory so great that this report would be rendered the most anti-climatic race report of all time? Would I even stay awake?
The Chrysler’s Garmin-powered sat-nav was predicting an easy win for the car. Setting the fastest route to the randomly chosen Break My Neck Lane in Penzance would see an arrival time of 4:30am. Heck, I could beat the train and be home in bed before the train had even entered Cornwall. But the sat-nav wasn’t taking into account the two aforementioned rules of the race.
The race started slowly, but I managed to clear London much quicker than I had anticipated. Traffic was light and consisted mainly of night buses and cabs. A little after midnight and we (that’s me and the car) were already on the M4.
The train would have departed from Reading station at 00:37 and as we passed through at 00:38, it was pretty much neck and neck. But then the M4’s notorious overnight roadworks reared their evil head, blocking my entry back on to the motorway. Numerous diversion lost us 20 minutes and it was past 1am before we reached the relative comfort of the the M4. Not good.
Worse was to follow. A series of 40mph and 50mph speed restrictions meant that the train was pulling out a healthy lead. The temptation to utilise the 300C’s 540Nm or torque was overwhelming. Hell, nobody would know. Expect for me and my conscience…
This willpower was tested to the limit by news that my exit off the M4 and onto the M5 was blocked by more roadworks. The diversion to near enough the Severn Bridge and the long way round to Avonmouth was the final straw. By the time I reached a coffee stop at Segdemoor Services on the M5, the train was about 20 miles ahead.
Still, it could have been worse.
Service stations are a strange place at silly o’clock in the morning. There’s an eerie atmosphere, rather like a closed theme park or deserted shopping mall. According to the friendly Costa barista, the nights are long and customers very few and far between. That is until the summer months when there are queues of people even at 3am in the morning. Blimey.
Back on the M5 and the next stops were Taunton and Exeter. Even as I exited Sedgemoor I knew the train had already departed from Taunton and was making its way to Exeter. Hope remained, as I knew the train didn’t leave Devon’s capital until 4;11. The race was back on.
Between Taunton and Exeter an early morning mist had descended on the motorway and lorries outnumbered cars by ten to one. By 3:45am I was making my way across a deserted Exeter – city driving has never been easier or quicker. It was absolute bliss.
I parked outside Exeter St David’s and wandered into the station to catch my first glimpse of the train since we departed from Paddington. There was a majestic beauty to the train, rather like a beast taking a well earned breather from a long journey. Its engines were still running, but onboard, countless passengers were out for the count.
I took my opportunity and left Exeter at 4am, ten minutes ahead of the train. I wasn’t sure if this would be enough…
It would have been easy to take the A30 all the way to Penzance. Cut out the remaining stops and I’d be in Penzance at 5:30am to claim an easy victory. But no, ignoring the sat-nav once again, I made my way to the A38 and the trip to Newton Abbot.
There would be no more motorways, so the Chrylser 300C would be leaving its natural territory. Until this point the car had been faultless. The 3.0-litre V6 diesel makes for an effortless cruiser – the engine doesn’t even break sweat.
And such is the interior ambience, neither does the driver. For the entire duration the interior temperature was set to 20-degrees, enhanced by the strange combination of a heated steering wheel and cooled leather seat. The weird juxtaposition was mimicked by the cup holders, one cooling a Red Bull, the other warming a Costa. Nice.
Those looking for supreme luxury will ultimately be disappointed. The 300C has the toys but just falls short of the best when it comes to luxury. And the 245/45 tyres only serve to create a bit of unwanted tyre noise and a tendency to tramline over rough surfaces. Arguably the Skoda Superb offers better ride comfort.
But the Superb can’t match the 300C’s sense of occasion. Driving it becomes an event. There’s a genuine feeling that you’re driving something special. But at £40k this should be a given…
Back to the race and a near-deserted Newton Abbot station was reached and passed with our lead cut to four minutes. But no matter: the train was facing another lengthy stopover in Plymouth. Confidence was still running high.
The twisty road back to the A38 from a sleepy Newton Abbot highlighted one of the 300C’s real weaknesses: it simply doesn’t have the dynamics to cope with a B-road. Enthusiastic driving results in a fair amount of body roll and the 300C pitching in all different directions. Leave your braking late and the anchors respond with about as much urgency as a sloth on his lunchbreak.
The transmission is also a little slow witted, often requiring a little extra time to react to your demands. It’s fine for slow and relaxed progress, just not willing to engage in any high-jinx.
Plymouth signalled the end of empty roads and swift progress. I was joined by early morning commuters and students making their way home after a heavy night on the town. But even so, I managed to depart from an already bustling station by ten-past-five, a full 30 minutes ahead of the train.
This lured me into a false of security, to the point where I even stopped for some photos at a very misty Tamar Bridge, signalling the final leg of the journey as we crossed into Cornwall. Traffic on the A38 had cut my lead to just 18 minutes at Liskeard and just 11 minutes in Bodmin. Things were getting tight. This was not a time to worry about my impending headache – I was more worried about a squeaky bum.
The train continued to cut into the once healthy lead as we ventured further into Cornwall. Lostwithiel: eight minutes. Par: seven minutes. Looking back I should have started to panic, throwing out the ground rules in the process.
St Austell was dispatched with little bother. Next stop: Truro. By now the world had woken up. I arrived at Truro station dead on 7am, supposedly a full 16 minutes ahead of the train. But then the full horror of the situation hit me. As I took photographs of the battling 300C, there at the platform stood the challenger. The train had just pulled into the station.
I jumped back into the car praying that the next time I saw the train would be as I stood on the platform of Penzance station as it rolled gently towards the buffers. My confidence was misplaced.
At Redruth the lead was just one minute, the same again at Camborne, and then neck and neck in Hayle. Just one stop to go until the finish, although the penultimate stop on the line at St Erth wouldn’t require a diversion from the A30. We didn’t stop. Instead I merely registered the fact that we were theoretically two minutes ahead.
Suddenly this whole thing mattered much more than it did the night before. We hadn’t come this far, obeyed all the rules, lost a full night’s sleep to be beaten. It wasn’t supposed to be this close. The promise of bacon sandwiches before dawn at Land’s End was just a faded and distant memory.
After 350 miles and seven long hours it had come down to a straight race between two stations. Car versus train. Man and machine versus… er… passengers and train.
As St Michael’s Mount loomed into view, I knew this was it. All or nothing. I couldn’t lose now. It would be like letting the side down. I owed it to the Chrysler. I had to win.
Passing the heliport at 07:48, I could almost see the roof of the railway station. It would be five minutes until the train arrived. Surely this was in the bag?
Wrong. The train was running early. EARLY goddammit. As the road hugs the coast entering the town, the only thing separating it from the sea is the railway track. There it was: the Night Riviera being pulled by an engine named Tintagel and pushed by one called Pendennis. We were neck and neck. There was absolutely nothing in it.
The rule book went out the window. The 300C was forced into a rapid and sudden downshift, and for the first time on the journey it broke into a sweat. We weren’t about to be beaten by an early train. And besides, if the train was running early, we were allowed to break one rule, surely?
As we approached the final roundabout, the train was behind the station walls and out of sight. We were driving blind – nothing to lose. Left into the station car park, along the other side of the station wall and there it was. The magnificent sight of the train rolling into the station. We had won.
By the narrowest of margins the car had beaten the train. No cheating, no short cuts, no setting up a photo finish for the benefit of a good story. If I had wanted to do that I would have driven straight down the A30 and hidden around the corner for a couple of hours. Catching up with some sleep in the process.
But no, this was a victory for the car and more importantly a victory for the Chrysler 300C. An epic adventure for an epic car. As a team we had taken on the train and won.
And you know what, I don’t think I would have liked to have done it in any other car. The Chrysler 300C epitomises the PetrolBlog spirit. If a £40,000 car could ever be called an underdog, then this is it. I salute anyone who defies convention and buys a new Chrysler 300C. It’s a brave choice, but it will reward you with supreme comfort, exclusivity, often brutal performance and character by the bucketload.
In the Chrysler 300C I’ve found another new car to love. Another modern car to add to the small but delightful list of PetrolBlog heroes.
Yes you can let the train take the strain. But engage in an admittedly inconsequential and largely pointless car journey such as this and you’ll find yourself bonding with a car.
An American dream on very British roads on a decidedly sleepless night.
Goodnight. Sweet dreams.