It seems to be a widely held belief that modern cars are all boring and over-engineered, sucking the fun out of driving. Whenever a manufacturer brings out a new technology, the voices complaining that it’s robbing us of pure driving enjoyment always rise up.
So when the guys at Great Escape Cars offered us the chance to get behind the wheel of their wide array of classic rental cars, we jumped at the chance. What followed was a tumultuous day of loving retro motoring and hating anything with four wheels in equal measure. Being a classic car guy isn’t for everyone; here’s what I learned after a day of indulging my inner-old man…
Back in the good old days, when no one really cared about safety, car designers were free to make some utterly gorgeous shapes. Of all the motors I drove on that day, the Jaguar Mk2 was my favourite car visually. It was surprisingly good to drive too, with a 3.8-litre straight-six that loved to be revved out, making a lovely, unfiltered rasp. This particular model had a four-speed syncromesh gearbox, so changing gear was enjoyable rather than impossible.
The interior was also a work of art, with the comfy - if unsupportive - armchair-like seats perching you before a gorgeous old-school leather and walnut dashboard, with a large, spindly steering wheel. I seriously enjoyed my stint in the old Jaaag, and it turned heads wherever it went. They don’t make ‘em like they used to!
You know when you get in a car, and everything feels like it’s in the right place? Yeah, that rarely happens in older cars. Pretty much everything I drove that day had some kind of glaring, frustrating quirk. You could call it character, I’ll call it bloody annoying.
The Alfa Romeo Spider’s pedals were offset to the left, and were so close together I could probably heel and toe and dip the clutch with one foot; the Jaguar XJR’s steering wheel was so low it rested against my thighs at all times; and it felt like everything in the Corvette pointed in opposite directions. However…
Like most Europeans, I’ve always been rather cynical about American cars. They’re big, unsophisticated lumps of disappointment, right? Nope. The Corvette Stingray C3 was one of the most eye-catching cars in the field, and when my chance came to drive it, I dropped into the lurid red interior full of intrigue.
Sure, it’s not the most capable of cars in the twisties, but putting interior ergonomics aside for a moment, letting that 5.7-litre V8’s grunt hurl me about was hilarious fun. Just allowing the engine to surge forward whenever the mood took me was a surprisingly welcome antidote to the tiny Alfa I’d just unfolded myself from.
The Jaguar E-Type is one of those cars that every petrolhead wants to drive. Whether you’re into muscle, JDM or diving into ditchwater in a 4x4, there’s just something wonderfully alluring about the E-Type. It’s the car that Enzo Ferrari called the most beautiful car ever made, and I’ve wanted to drive one since I was a kid.
So imagine my disappointment when, at the end of the day, I finally had the chance to drive one… and the rear lights wouldn’t turn on. We spent a bit of time fiddling under the hood - the opening of which is an event in itself - to no avail. It wasn’t the only car to have technical gremlins that day, and as someone with almost no mechanical knowledge, there’s no enjoyment in making them work again.
And don’t even get me started on the MGB convertible. Never have I hated driving a car quite as much as I hated driving this thing. I climbed into the hilariously spartan interior, as delightfully tatty as an old English roadster should be. Unfortunately, from cold, the car didn’t like third gear, which I found out while trying to merge across four lanes of 50mph traffic. After a frantic few seconds that felt like an hour, with cars screaming either side of me, trying not to hit my rapidly decelerating little automotive turd, I finally managed to make a cog stick.
Then there was the fact that whenever you dropped below about 5mph, the engine would die, so you had to sit there keeping the revs up. It was all very frustrating and in no way enjoyable, though admittedly once the roads opened up and the speeds were consistently above crawling pace, the car came alive. Definitely didn’t make up for it, though.
Despite a hell of a long day, the wonderful chaps at Great Escape Cars understood my urge to drive a Jaguar E-Type, and pulled their second car out of hiding so I could have a quick jaunt. It was one of the most enjoyable driving experiences I’ve ever had.
It wasn’t particularly quick, it just felt like the ultimate cruiser. The ride was silky smooth, and the V12 at its heart offered up a deliciously creamy power delivery right through the rev range. Despite my stint involving a crusie through some dreary industrial towns on a bitterly cold night, in my mind I was blasting along the south coast of France, the warm evening air blowing around the cabin. Dreamy car, this, and a new addition to the dream lottery win garage.
Because this is England, the day consisted of a mix of baking sunshine, and for five hilarious minutes, the most incredible hail storm I’ve vere experienced. Said hail storm occurred while I was driving the Alfa Romeo Spider, and it was quite an experience I’ll give you that. The pathetic windscreen wipers couldn’t clear spit let alone this biblical downpour, the heaters are non-existent so the windows immediately steamed up, and on a steep hill the skinny rears simply couldn’t find any grip in the icy conditions. Admittedly the last point made for a hilariously tail happy ascent, but it wasn’t exactly ideal for the terrified old lady in a Vauxhall Corsa in the opposite direction, who was busy observing the wayward Alfa…
You don’t have to spend long on Car Throttle to see an example of how great the car community is, and it’s equally true out there in the real world. Spending a day with like-minded individuals, driving loads of different cars and generally enjoying life; what more could you ask for? And classic car fans seem to have an even tighter bond, since they spend so much time helping each others’ cars actually work…
Jeremy Clarkson does a very good impression of the kind of person who likes classic cars, all nasal voice and ridiculous knowledge, and I have to be honest, I’m with him on hating that aspect.
It’s the same with all my hobbies, I’m a do-er not a talker (not that I think there’s anything wrong with the latter, of course); I play football regularly in a local league, and I love it, but I don’t watch much on TV and don’t really care about the latest transfer gossip; I love music and often attend gigs, but when my musician friends start nerding out I switch off; and it’s the same with cars. I love driving, reading about cars and the technology inside them, but I’ve never much cared for numbers and figures and all the tiny differences between model years etc.
In between each stint, everyone would start nerding out about the intricacies of what they’d just driven; I was just waiting for them to take a breath so I could snatch the keys to something else!
These days you can jump from manufacturer to manufacturer and not a lot changes. Sometimes switchgear looks familiar, sometimes the exterior styling is near enough the same, usually the engine is completely identical. With such a wide variety of cars from different manufacturers, nations and eras, it was fantastic to see the differences in the styling, powertrains, and just the general attitudes to how things should be done.
The 1988 Jaguar XJS Coupe was the newest car I drove, and even that had questionable steering characteristics. It took a while to tune into the fact that you really had to wind on the lock before anything noticeable happened at the end of that long, V12-housing snout. And anyone who complains that electric steering robs you of the kind of incredible feel old setups gave you needs to spend an hour chucking an Alfa Spider down a winding road. There was a bizarre delay between turning the wheel and anything happening, and it seemed to be different every time; for such a small car the amount of roll you felt was also wholly unnerving…