The chance to drive five legendary classic cars in a day isn't one that comes up often, but one classic car hire firm specialises in offering just that
It’s Saturday. It’s five in the morning. It’s just started snowing, and I’d really quite like to be in bed. Ideally with at least another three hours between me and having to attempt to stand upright, or a vague approximation thereof.
If you’re looking at a map, Redditch doesn’t really look all that far from Kent. But right now, it feels like an awfully long way (and a motorway services breakfast) away. The snow is coming down thick and fast, and I’m not exactly relishing the prospect of the M25, however quiet it may be, followed by a long slog up the M40.
I mustn’t grumble, though. Incidentally, have you noticed how people say this most often just after they’ve done exactly that? Yeah. Sorry. Anyway, It’s all going to be worth it in the end, because at the other end of the motorway is a clutch of classics the like of which few of us can dream of getting our hands on. And I’m going to get to drive a few of them across the Cotswolds.
The day is being run by Great Escape, a classic car hire outfit with bases throughout the UK. The company will gladly hire you any one of its fleet of classics, which range in prestige from an Austin Allegro right up to a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, for a day, a few, or more, depending on how big your budget is.
Today, though, I'm taking part in one of Great Escape’s classic car rallies. Think of these as sampler days, giving you the chance to try a selection of models on a romp through the countryside, with a bacon roll for breakfast and a stop for lunch at a restaurant all thrown in.
The snow has stopped and the sun is shining as I arrive at Great Escape’s Redditch base. There’s a brief welcome from Graham Eason, the company’s owner, during which he explains the fantastic amount of organisation he and his team have put in beforehand.
In each car, we’ll find a route book with maps, directions and emergency phone numbers. Each direction has a photo of what we’ll find at that point – be it a junction, roundabout, road sign, and so forth.
There'll be 20 cars on this rally, of which we'll get to drive five, chosen at random by drawing pictures from of an old chrome hub cap (nice touch).
The whole convoy will be followed by a pair of support vehicles, one of which towing an MGF as a ‘spare’ car in case one of the others breaks down, and the day will be punctuated with driver changes and stops for coffee along the way.
Coffee – lovely, warm coffee – is all I can think of as I get up to speed in the first car of the day. It’s an HMC Mk4, a modern continuation of the Austin Healey 3000, powered by a 3.9-litre Rover V8 and endorsed by Geoffrey Healey himself.
Of course, for all its modernity, it has a heater that’s about as effective as being breathed on by a chinchilla, a fact I hadn’t bargained for when I decreed that I’d drive with the roof down, of course, because the sun is out.
Never mind. The HMC’s glorious classic lines – you’d really be hard-pushed to tell it apart from the original if you weren’t an enthusiast – belie the modernity with which it drives. Oh sure, the driving position is rather hunched, but it turns in with more bite than some modern cars, and corners with a beautiful, progressive balance, all the while producing a rich, mellifluous grumble, which breaks into the traditional Rover V8 snarl at full chat.
Sooner than I’d thought, but not so soon that I'm ungrateful for the chance to warm up, it’s time to change. I jump into the Alfa Romeo Spider for the next leg of the day. This one’s a late example, a Series Four which lacks the elegance of the original cars but benefits from modern fuel injection.
Relatively modern it might be, but the rasping exhaust note and haphazard dashboard layout make it plain that this is a classic Alfa beneath the skin. The trigger-grip gear lever takes some getting used to, and there are several switches which seem to do nothing at all, but this is a little car with a big heart and it’s impossible not to feel fond of it by the time we stop for lunch.
After an improbably meaty burger at Hogarth’s Hotel in Knowle, I'm back on the road, this time in the Saab 900 Turbo. It’s a strange thing, this – at first it feels utterly ordinary, but then a stretch of open road presents itself, and as the revs spin round, the 900 Turbo leaves the E-type that’s following it for dead.
It’s no sharp handler, the Saab, but it presents a likeable – if unusual – blend of safety and speed; foolproof handling and coddling seats, served up with a huge dollop of turbo boost whenever you feel like a thrill. And unlike the modern Saab turbos I’ve driven, a hard-edged and exciting engine note, too.
From one Eighties icon to another – and the car I’ve been hoping to drive and looking forward to all day. A genuine Audi Quattro; lusty five-cylinder engine, four-wheel drive, bright red paintwork and all.
For this, I go off-piste, finding myself a ducking, diving B-road that the Quattro demolishes with astonishing aplomb. It doesn’t boot you in the back like the Saab, but look at the speedo and you realise how deceptively fast it can be. And the way it can maintain its momentum through corners is astonishing. Make no mistake – even at nearly 30 years old, the Quattro is still a force to be reckoned with.
Coventry is the destination for the final car swap of the day – impressively, on the normally pedestrianized plaza just outside the city’s Transport Museum – and it’s out with the (comparatively) new, and in with the old. The keys to the Quattro are near snatched from my hand – it’s a popular beast – and I, in turn, snaffle the keys to the E-type Roadster.
Yes, it’s the least desirable E of all – the Series III V12 – but that doesn’t prevent it feeling sensational as I ease its nose out of Coventry. By the time I hit the country roads beyond, sundown is approaching, and suddenly I'm living a cliché – driving one of the most famous British roadsters of all through picture-postcard villages bathed in golden light.
It’s an unforgettable moment, and an unforgettable car. You’d be forgiven for expecting this late E-type to be a wallowy old beast, what with its age and hoofing great engine up front. And sure, you wouldn’t want to try and drive it as like an Elise, but it’s far more precise than a 42-year-old car has any right to be, and the immense shove from that 5.3-litre engine is a surprise each time I toe the throttle.
As the sun finally drops out of sight, I pull back into Redditch, and Great Escape’s unit. I’d say "all too soon", but by this point it’s getting chilly again, and my face is showing its displeasure with the constant breeze by refusing to deliver any feeling back to my brain.
But this has been a superb day, and one any car enthusiast would revel in. True, it doesn’t look cheap – most of Great Escape’s rallies cost £249 for one person, with a passenger costing an extra £99. By comparison, 24 hours with an Audi Quattro to go where you please and carry all the passengers you fancy is just £175.
Then again, 24 hours with the drop-top E-type will set you back £349, and when you consider the amount of organisation that’s done for you, and that breakfast and lunch are thrown in, the day starts to look like pretty decent value after all.
Besides, there can’t be many other ways to sample such a variety of different classics in one day, and in such glorious surroundings. And going back to an earlier discussion point, I really shouldn’t have been grumbling. This was, after all, an experience worth getting up early for.
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