Like A Kid in A Sweetshop

A couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to get a tax refund. This isn’t something that happens often, as HMRC are very careful to retain as much of my income as they can, and so – like any responsible adult in times of austerity and recession, I decided to spend it, and spend it quickly before they changed their mind.

Fortunately, I remembered seeing an advert from Great Escape Classic Car Hire; something to do with a rally to the Welsh Borders from their base not far from my home. “Great”, I thought “I can help the local economy, whilst having a good time driving around the countryside in some desirable classic cars.”

Saturday, July 14th, somewhere in rural Worcestershire

On arrival at Great Escape’s garage, I’m greeted by a small body of like-minded folk and a line up of the cars we will be driving:

  • Jaguar Mark 2, 3.8 ltr
  • TR6
  • Jaguar E-Type, V12
  • Jaguar E-Type, 4.2 ltr
  • MGB V8
  • HMC Healey
  • Alfa Romeo Spider
  • DeLorean DMC-12

Split into pairs and handed our route map, we had an efficient driver briefing before being given the keys to our first car of the day. I was paired with Adam, a friendly local chap and our first car was the HMC Healey. Outwardly similar to the original ‘big’ Healey of the 1960’s, this is actually a modern version built in the 1990’s. What a great start to the day – a throaty V8 rumble, lightweight body, 5 speed manual gearbox, electric windows and even heated seats! The soft-top was immediately stowed and we set off for a leisurely drive through Droitwich, Great Witley, and on towards Leominster.

The car was quick, responsive, and great fun to drive – although the turning circle left a little to be desired. The engine noise was great, with the big V8 just crying out for the occasional down-shift to wake the locals from any mid-morning lie-ins.

Those of you who pay attention to the UK weather may have noticed that we are having a particularly watery kind of sunshine at the moment, with rainfall records being broken on a regular basis. Unfortunately, part of our route was to take in a lovely stretch of road alongside the river Teme, but we soon came across a ‘road closed’ sign. No problem – I’ve driven this route many times, so I quickly navigate us to an alternative route higher up the hill, on the A456. (A local farmer explained that he had been out in the morning (farmer’s morning, so middle of the night for me) and the fields were clear. Now, at about 10:00 there were 200 acres or so under four feet of water.) Hmmm. The A456 is also blocked, presumably where it meets the road we were previously on. Ho hum, another diversion and up to Cleobury Mortimer and Clee Hill – a great drive anyway, so no complaints from me! We finally hit our first rest stop, and the first car-change of the day – with the group now running about an hour late. It must have been interesting for the drivers of the DeLorean and the longer cars.

Car 2 – The Jaguar Mark 2 Ironically, as we picked up the Mark 2, the sun came out to play for a while – still, at least we could open the windows as the Mark 2 ventilation isn’t that great. The next stage of our route would take us from Ludlow in Shropshire and on to Llandrindod Wells on the Welsh Border. We set off merrily and were lucky to just miss a small car parked in a dip, just off the A49. A few minutes later, two cars (not in our party) did have a collision at that point, with ‘our’ TR6 just managing to pull up in an adjacent bank, with no damage but well-tested brakes. The Mark 2 proved to be a very different drive than the obviously sporty Healey, although the XK engine works well and is quite happy to pull from fourth and reach a very respectable stroll along the A-roads with minimum fuss. Inside the Mark 2, you have real wood surrounding the dashboard, the ever-reliable Smith’s instruments and leather seats – it has to be said these weren’t overly comfortable, with a slight forwards pitch. With a four-speed box, the overdrive proved to be a useful addition and the disc brakes (advertised to following cars with a small warning triangle, although if a car was close enough to see this warning, it’s likely they had already experienced the stopping power of the Jag) were reliable and up to the job. Beloved of 60’s gangsters and police alike (and Inspector Morse), and only about the size of a small family ‘compact’ saloon, the Mark II was fun to drive – so much so, I’m considering hiring this again for a trip to Cornwall.

Car 3 – The TR6 (Llandrindod Wells to Brecon) Similar territory to the Healey, but less refined – a gutsy little sports car with huge tyres and very heavy steering. Again we had the roof down – most British sports cars of this era were far from waterproof anyway – trusting that a recent shower was all the rain we would be having for a while. If the Healey was perhaps a gentleman’s weekend bit of sport, then the TR6 would be more the local youth’s weekend bit of rough – something perhaps to drive to the art college rather than the golf course. Another exciting drive though, handling the damp corners of the British A and B roads with applomb.

Car 4 – The V12 E Type (Brecon to Abergavenny) I imagine that a straw poll of car enthusiasts would put the E-Type (in any of its guises) near the top of the list for a definitive British sports car. The V12 is more of a tourer – the car had gained size and weight by the time this one was around, but was surprisingly nimble. I’d forgotten quite how deep the sills are though, and it is quite a work of art getting in and out of the car. It burbled nicely through Abergavenny, the steering light but predictable. Driving through town didn’t cause me as much difficulty as I’d expected. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this incarnation of my favourite car, as I’d only ever read disparaging comments and was therefore a little unsure of what to expect.

Car 5 – The MGB V8 (Abergavenny to Malvern) A wolf in sheep’s clothing! The MGB is probably considered a relaxed drive, perhaps a bit soft. This one though had been fitted with a non-standard 3.5ltr Rover V8 engine and big exhaust. Definitely not one for a quiet trip out and a picnic. The car was again quite lively, perhaps a bit twitchy over some of the bumps/potholes in the road. The big red ‘Start Engine’ push-button, huge rollover bar and slightly ‘industrial’ feeling windscreen pillars only added to the hill climb ‘project’ feel of the car. If the Healey was the gentleman, and the TR6 the angry student, then the MGB felt like the student’s younger, angrier brother who’d been to the gym to ‘beef up’. We did have a slight ‘off piste’ moment when swapping between drivers. Having pulled off the main road into a lane, we then couldn’t find reverse – the car now at 90 degrees to the road was pushed backwards up a driveway to allow me to turn around.

Car 6 – The Alfa Spider (Malvern – base) An altogether more modern car, the Alfa Romeo Spider has a 2ltr, 120bhp engine. After all the rough-and-ready excitement of the earlier cars, the Alfa was definitely a more ‘clinical’ experience – with one or two squeaks and bumps to be expected of a car with 120,000km or so on the clock. Ahh, yes km. Us Brits still work in MPH, even though we buy petrol by the litre. I had to keep reminding myself to convert from KPH to MPH when checking the speedometer (and particularly when faced with a speed (sorry, ‘safety’) camera warning sign).

Overall, this was a great day out with the chance to drive some of my favourite cars and some I’d probably not have given a second glance to on any other day. Whilst the E-Type (particularly the 4.2 Series 1.5) would still be my first choice, I’d definitely need to make room in my fantasy garage for the HMC Healey.

Graham and the team from Great Escape did a wonderful job of looking after us all, in spite of the weather and odd technical issue (unfortunately the gear leaver on the DeLorean came off whilst we were at a fuel station, so this had the ignominy of finishing the day on a trailer). You come to expect issues with cars of this age (some of the cars were over 40 years old) and it is the way that the issues are handled that instills confidence in the organisers.

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