Anyone who tells you that driving is boring has clearly never driven in mainland Europe. If I was offered the chance to drive across Europe tomorrow I’d move heaven and earth to make it happen. So when MINI UK asked if I’d like to go to the International Mini Meeting in Mugello, Italy, I was naturally quite excited. When they told me I’d be driving down from Munich, my excitement reached fever pitch.
As I was already on the continent for the Jeep Grand Cherokee launch, I flew from Sicily to Munich where I’d be meeting up with MINI UK’s Chris Overall, along with motoring journalists, James Batchelor and Sophie Williamson-Stothert. After a night in a trendy Munich hotel, the plan was to make the quick hop across the city to BMW Welt, where we’d be handed the keys to a pair of MINIs and told to head south. Opportunities like this don’t come up very often – we were in for a truly epic couple of days.
Joining us on the trip were journalists from the US and Germany, giving our MINI convoy a transatlantic feel. We’d start in Germany, nip across the border into Austria, sprint to the Italian border, take in a mountain pass, have lunch on the shoreline of Lake Garda and finish the day at our hotel near Florence, Tuscany. That’s 400 miles – roughly the same distance between London and Glasgow. Doesn’t sound quite so glamorous though, does it?
We lucked out with the cars provided for our adventure. Chris and I would be starting in the MINI Cooper S, with Sophie and James piloting the bonkers MINI John Cooper Works Clubman. Each car was primed with fuel and onboard there were enough road-trip refreshment goodies to last…well, to last an epic 400 mile drive.
There was time to look around the amazing BMW Welt – an amazing museum / factory / dealer on the outskirts of the city. I thought the Audi dealer in Brentford was special, but it’s got nothing on BMW Welt. Apparently customers arrive from all over Germany to collect their new BMW and there were a number of cars already prepared for their expectant owners. There was also the opportunity to have a first glimpse of the BMW X4 Concept and actually, as X cars go, this one looks rather good.
But this was a mere prelude to the main event. Truth be told, we were itching to get on the road. So after a brief photo call we left BMW Welt in our mini MINI convoy.
As convoys go, ours was pretty pathetic to be honest. Barely ten minutes into a slow crawl through Munich the convoy had been carved into three splinter groups. The cars would only be reunited twice on route before we reached the hotel later that night. Shame.
But no matter – at least we were still heading for Austria, ably assisted by our German counterpart in the MINI roadster ahead of us. Only one problem – we were heading for Salzburg and not Innsbruck – disaster. After one phone call and a quick adjustment to the sat nav, we were back on route. Sadly we had lost 30 minutes on the rest of the group and so decided to regroup just before the Italian border at the Europa Bridge.
After clearing the leafy suburbs of Munich we joined the A95 and were finally able to stretch the Cooper S’s legs. A de-restricted Autobahn was just the place to make up some time. At speeds approaching 230km/h we were hurtling towards the Austrian border at a terrific pace – the Cooper S surprisingly well suited to conditions normally reserved for BMW 7 Series and Audi A8s. At such high speeds you’d forgive the little MINI for feeling like it was about to have a major coronary. But not a bit of it – if anything, it felt like it wanted to give more.
But no such luck. With little warning the Autobahn made way for single lane tedium, with the mood lightened only by the terrific scenery and the bucket load of sweets stored on board. We weren’t quite sure what to make of the music pre-loaded onto the MINI’s music system, but after Justin Timberlake provided the soundtrack for Germany, it felt rather apt that Caro Emerald arrived at the Austrian border.
And borders are funny old places these days. I still remember a time when a border crossing meant a meeting with a rather stern-looking border guard and, if you were really unlucky, a chat with a German Shepherd. Today you just sail through, with only a small sign announcing your arrival in one of Europe’s great nations. There’s a greater sense of occasion crossing between Devon and Somerset…
Once in Austria, progress was much slower. The lack of derestricted Autobahns didn’t help, but the issue was made worse by heavy traffic, Fiat Puntos, rain, Fiat Puntos and rain. And a few more Fiat Puntos.
But no matter – when the opportunity arose, a drop of a cog ensured lorries, camper-vans and Fiat Puntos could be dispatched with ease. The Cooper S comes alive on a good A-road, with 240Nm of torque more than enough for it to dart in and out of traffic. It’s a car that feels alive and full of character, helped by a wonderfully satisfying six-speed gearbox. Austria + mountains + MINI = good times.
Eventually we reached the Austrian Autobahn and made our way to the Italian border. That wasn’t before a quick wee stop at what must have been the worst motorway toilets in the whole of Europe. Having said that, I’m not about to embark on a tour to find any worse examples.
At the Europa Bridge services we caught sight of a number of new MINIs scattered across a packed car park. After 100 miles we were back together again.
Minutes later, the heavens opened and we were treated to the kind of rainfall you only seem to get in the Alps – huge raindrops falling near vertically – enough to turn the roads into rivers within a matter of moments. Suddenly the idea of travelling in one of the drop-top MINIs didn’t sound so appealing.
But with the convoy reunited, we made our way towards Vipiteno and the Italian border. At which point the convoy split up once again. An exit off the motorway was inconveniently situated around a bend, resulting in a few cars missing the junction and continuing merrily on their way. A few frantic exchanges on the CB radios concluded that it would be best if they headed straight for lunch. The massive four-lane jam on the opposite carriageway was a good enough reason.
Sadly for them, they missed out on one of the highlights of the route – and it involved snow. Lots and lots of snow.
Even in late May, the mountain passes of the southern Alps are liable to be covered in a thick layer of snow – it’s why so many are just for six months of the year. But with the classic Minis completing the route a day earlier, it was unlikely to be an issue for the new cars. Well, that was the theory anyway.
Clearly the easy to head south would be via the A22 towards Bolzano. But where’s the fun in that? A MINI convoy demands a proper road, so step forward the SS44 or, to give it its more evocative name, the Jaufenpass.
Sandwiched between a MINI Roadster and a John Cooper Works Clubman, it was time to play. The slow moving JCW Countryman at the front did its best to keep things in moving in an orderly fashion, but some point and squirt action kept the adrenalin flowing. Corner after corner, switchback after switchback – this was turning out to be an epic drive.
At which point we noticed the amount of snow attached to the front of the cars heading down the pass. Cue a barrel-load of boyish excitement as thought of driving in the white stuff loomed ever closer. Of course, the boyish excitement wasn’t tempered by any thoughts that we may not actually get through the snow. Besides, there were only a few patches of winter snow left by the roadside…
But then, within a blink of an eye, the view through the windscreen turned from green trees and grey asphalt to a complete and quite beautiful, winter wonderland. In unison we let out a Bill and Ted style “woah”, which was drowned out only by the sound of our jaws hitting the top of the MINI’s dashboard. Party time, excellent.
Only it wasn’t. As the snow got steadily deeper, the level of traction became more and more scarce. By now the MINI Countryman had finally found the loud pedal and was using its ALL4 grip to good advantage as it made its way towards the mountain peak. We figured we’d be okay if we kept going.
Sadly the same train of thought hadn’t filtered up through the convoy and a few seconds later we had stopped. Four MINIs stuck on a mountain in Italy, still a couple of hours from the scheduled lunch stop on the shoreline of Lake Garda. Morale dropped as we reluctantly decided to head back, but was quickly lifted again once we remembered the road we’d have to take back down the mountain.
After letting a BMW and Audi driver through – the latter of whom proudly boasted “I don’t need winter tyres, I’ve got Quattro!” (delivered in a brilliant Italian Sean Connery accent) – we made our way back towards the Autostrada. We were now seriously behind schedule, with our estimated time of arrival for our 3pm lunch a frankly rather late 4.30pm. Arguably the latest lunch in European history.
There was also the small matter of 125 miles to complete. Not that we were that hungry – we had enough pretzels, Coke and Haribos on board to fuel the greatest Italian presidential party in human history. We only needed a few leggy blondes…
It was to be the least interesting part of the journey. Mile upon mile of motorways, interspersed only with the occasional tunnel. Naturally each one was greeted with the windows wound down and the sound of the MINI changing down a cog or two. Tunnels are an addictive part of driving on the continent. I will never tire of them.
Arriving at Lake Garda, the contrast in weather couldn’t have been more dramatic. The grey, menacing clouds had made way for beautifully clear skies and temperatures in the mid 20s. Less than two hours ago we were tiptoeing our way down a snowy mountain near the Austrian border, now we were mixing it with the beautiful ones at Lake Garda – the windows wound down to ensure each and every exhaust pop-pop on the overrun was savoured for posterity.
Lake Garda would signal the end of our time with the Cooper S – after lunch we would get a chance to play with the JCW Clubman. But first there was time to take in the beauty of Lake Garda. To think that as the waves gently lapped against the shore and with the sun reflecting off the calm water, the hell that is the British Friday night rush hour was unfolding at home.
Who am I trying to kid? All I really wanted to do was get my chance in the JCW Clubman. Having enjoyed my time with the Clubvan, I’ve been wanting a go in the Clubman for some time. And what better way to experience it than behind the wheel of the £23,535 John Cooper Works special?
With a 211hp, 1.6-litre turbocharged engine, this MINI estate has the potential to create a little mischief within hot hatch circles. 62mph is reached in just 6.8 seconds and it will reach a top speed of 148mph. And come on, even the most ardent of MINI’s critics would have to agree that the JCW Clubman has got presence. The MINI hatch is simply too well known to turn heads these days. The JCW Clubman, on the other hand, manages to catch the eye.
It’s dramatic to look at, a theme that continues once you’re on the inside. With the JCW Clubman it’s all about the theatre. But don’t think for one minute the props are there for effect. Those 17-inch alloys weigh less than 10kg each, helping to improve the Clubman’s performance. Its longer wheelbase also ensures stability through the corners is good, whilst helping to make it a good long distance cruiser.
If I’m honest, within minutes of getting behind the wheel of the JCW Clubman, I loved it a whole lot more than the Cooper S hatch. It just feels that extra bit special – there’s a greater sense of occasion. It’s probably the more PetrolBloggy of the two, too.
I had expected the ride to be a little softer than the Cooper S hatch, but on the roads of central Europe I could barely notice a difference. If anything, the JCW Clubman’s ride was perfect – just the right side of being too harsh, making it beautifully composed on the twisty bits.
Half an hour outside of Lake Garda we refuelled. It was quite a spectacle seeing eight MINIs filling up at the same time. After a minor incident involving the MINI team being accused of not paying for one of the eight tanks of fuel, we made our way to our final destination – a hotel near Florence.
Only the British contingent had other ideas. Not content with a motorway journey, we needed some more B-road action, not least to get some more photographs. So we cut loose from the convoy and went in search of photo opportunities. The light was fading fast and dinner was arranged for a set time. We had to be quick.
Cutting a long story short, we weren’t that quick and with the fading light soon turning to darkness, we suddenly felt a long way from the hotel and the rest of the group. The truth is – we were. 100 miles to be exact. We knew we would be late – it was simply a matter of how late we’d be.
Like naughty children who had stayed out cycling for too long, we frantically made our way down the A1 motorway via Modena and Bologna and on towards Florence. I can honestly say I’ve never driven as fast for such a long period of time in all my life. The A1 is not like a British motorway – think of it more like a Gran Turismo track on the PS3 – a stream of bends, tunnels, flashing lights and signs.
Throw into the mix a constant stream of Italian drivers, for whom the hard shoulder is simply another lane on the motorway and indicators are an inconvenience and you’ve got the recipe for a major adrenaline rush. Looking back, I’m not sure how we managed to cover so much ground in such rapid time, but the JCW Clubman was a worthy steed. I’ve never taken drugs, but my experience on the A1 in the JCW must be what a drug-fuelled stint on Gran Turismo must be like. Played out to the tunes of Wolfmother and The Chemical Brothers.
We arrived at our hotel exhausted. Mentally drained, physically tired and altogether shattered.
It was only when we awoke the next day that we realised what an epic drive it had been. From the relative calmness of BMW Welt, to the sense of anticipation as we made our way through Munich. From the high-speed jaunt through Germany to the wind, rain and snow of Italy. From the serenity of Lake Garda to the frantic dash down the A1. What a journey. What an event. What a great couple of cars.
I appreciate that it may seem boring and tedious to read an account of one man’s road trip and if you’ve made it this far without skipping any words, I salute you.
But the 400-mile drive encapsulated just about everything I love about driving, especially in Europe. Given the chance to do it all again tomorrow, I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Except maybe the Justin Timberlake CD.
Huge thanks to Chris Overall of MINI UK and Marc Burghoff of MINI Germany for the invite and an amazing drive. The BlogNobs are on me…