24 Feb 2015

Driving Five Classic Cars In One Day

Recently I attended a classic car rally with of Great Escape Cars where I got to drive five bone-fide classics in one day

I've hired a car from Great Escape classic cars before. It was a 1971 Jaguar E-Type Series 3 V12 convertible and was huge fun to drive over a 24 hour period. This time out I was to spend a day with their fleet of classic motors, driving five olde English (and American and Italian) beauties.

At 9am on a cold but clear winter's day 25 of us arrived at Great Escape's Cotswold base. There were 25 cars available and to save arguing it was decreed that the choice of car would be decided by picking them from a hat - well, actually a hub cap.

Graham Eason, owner of Great Escapes, talked us through the various cars available for the day. The final one was a 1981 Austin Allegro 1.1. Graham had included it because it made for a good talking point, and because I think he secretly has a soft spot for it and hoped some of us would too.

I hoped it wouldn't be on the card as I reached into the hubcap. I'd brought my son, Eddie, along for the day and he wouldn't be too impressed if dad got the Allegro!

Eddie hadn't wanted to go with me, saying it would be boring just driving cars all day. Unlike his dad he isn't a petrolhead but he cheered up a bit when I showed him what car would be our first drive. No, not the Allegro but a 1983 Audi Quattro. Fabulous.

The air wasfilled with white smoke as 25 classics were fired up all at once in the morning chill. Rumbling V8s, shrill V12s, smooth inline-6s, a few inline-4s and my own turbocharged 2.1 Audi.

The Quattro's interior was clad in luscious, almost tiger-stripe, material that shows its age much more than the sharp, boxy exterior that still looks fab today. The engine is eager once the turbo has kicked in and whistles excitedly when the throttle is pressed hard.

What made it successful in its day, as well as those looks, are its handling and grip and the one I drove was still sharp round corners, although the brakes took some getting used to.

Eddie enjoyed that drive and took more of an interest in the fleet when we stopped at a cafe atop a hill, with a glorious view of the Cotswolds.

After tea and cake Graham once more flourished his hubcap and I picked a bright blue 1976 MGB convertible replete with 1.8 litre flat-4 with not many horsepowers at all.

The hood stayed down and we set off, following another car as Eddie's map reading skills are not up to much. Yes, the Great Escape's old school adage filters right down to using maps instead of satnav. Much more satisfying and in this day and age I rediscovered that getting lost really can add to the experience.

The MGB's interior was much more basic than the Audi's. So too was the engine and gearbox. With a crunch as I selected reverse instead of first (not for the last time) we were away.

This time Eddie's face really lit up. He's been a passenger in more than a few powerful and expensive cars but we had real fun for that hour in the humble MGB. Mind you we were getting seriously cold towards towards the end. We wished we'd brought some gloves and hats.

Lunch was held at a posh hotel after which Graham once again brought out the hubcap. Eddie had his sights set on a 1980 Corvette C3 in white but with a bright red interior and whilst I waited patiently he ran round the back and asked if we could drive it.

Triumphant he waved the Corvette card at me and we clambered in. White is perhaps my least favourite car colour but the Corvette in white looks sensational. Climb inside and those razor sharp lines around the front wheel arches look a million dollars.

The cabin is a snug fit but extremely comfortable. Despite being from the early 80s it was fitted with all the mod cons you'd expect from a car today - except for a touch screen. Electric seats, mirrors and windows, cruise control, air conditioning and, as a bonus, flip up headlights.

The Corvette's piece de resistance is its V8 which sounds deep and raw. This doesn't really translate into vast reserves of power but it does ride along well on a swell of torque, which is a good job because the 3-speed auto doesn't change down from 3rd unless you press the throttle really hard.

We had set off with the targa roof panels in the boot and the wind in our hair but after 30 minutes big lumps of hail started to come down. It took about 2 minutes to suss out how they fitted and to lock them into place.

Glad we weren't in the MG any more we set off once again. The hail was coming down in huge volumes and pretty soon the roads were very slippery. The Corvette is confidence inspiring and has light controls but as we drove up a steep hill at 20mph the rear wheels slipped and slid, although it did keep going to the top.

Half an hour later we stopped in a lay-by to drive car number four. The rally was running late so instead of the hubcap we merely swapped cars and jumped into a 1992 Alfa Romeo Spider.

Hail had turned to rain so we kept the hood up and set off. I'm not much of an Alfa fan and the Spider confirmed my prejudice. The switchgear is all over the place and the driving position odd but the car we drove was well maintained and reliable so if Alfas are your thing you'll enjoy a spin in it. I sort of did.

The day's final car was a 1965 Jaguar Mk2 3.4 (not the Allegro - yay!). This was the oldest car we'd driven. The interior is timeless and classic with bakelite switches, proper wood panelling, comfortable seats and the thinnest rimmed steering wheel I've ever experienced.

The Mk2 was smooth and the pace was lazy. It doesn't like being hurried. You just cruise around and soak up the atmosphere. Mind you the steering isn't that tight so you do have to keep your wits about you.

And so we arrived back at the base, bade our goodbyes and thank yous and left. Eddie had had a wonderful day and loved the variety of experiences.  He might not be a petrolhead but he does now have a soft spot for old cars, and the Corvette in particular.

So do I. I got in my modern TT and the steering wheel felt weirdly fat and the controls light as a feather.  Classic cars might be great fun but you really do have to drive them with due respect, and that makes you a better driver.

By Matt Hubbard