Me­mory lane

Rec­ol­lec­tions from past road testers

Autocar - - THIS WEEK -

John Barker “I WAS A bit sur­prised to find my­self go­ing back­wards at 100mph. One mo­ment I was steer­ing the Nis­san Max­ima gently left onto the wet as­phalt apron at the end of Mill­brook’s mile straight, the next I was fast re­vers­ing to­wards a steep grass bank, brac­ing for im­pact…

“An im­pact that was thank­fully soft. I got right to the top of the 30ft bank, the wipers gave a flick, I breathed a sigh of relief – and then grav­ity as­serted it­self and we started back down on the wet grass. The Max­ima nosed heav­ily into a French drain and was stuck but, in­cred­i­bly, un­scathed. The re­cov­ery truck driver said as much, be­fore adding ‘we found this on the driver’s seat’ and pre­sent­ing me with a size­able turd that was, in fact, part of the soil sam­ple the Max­ima’s tailpipes had made on im­pact and chugged out on the way back down.”

Chris Chilton “TYRES TESTS WERE an Au­to­car reg­u­lar in the early 2000s and as a ju­nior road tester, I was tasked with tak­ing a Tran­sit full of fresh rub­ber to Miche­lin’s Ladoux track in the mid­dle of France in prepa­ra­tion.

“Naively/stupidly tak­ing as read Chris Har­ris’s du­bi­ous as­ser­tion that I’d easily be able to get there, dump the tyres and get back to Ted­ding­ton in a day, I set off for France with no spare clothes, no ho­tel and, this be­ing 2002, no smart­phone to book one. By the time I’d ar­rived, the fa­cil­ity was closed and I spent the night driv­ing back and forth be­tween au­toroute toll booths to stay warm.

“Years later as road test ed I made up for it, send­ing my rookie to de­liver the rub­ber and then flog­ging the lot to a part-worn tyre dealer three weeks later.”

Gavin Con­way “IT’S MAY 1994. The Mclaren F1 Au­to­car was test­ing sat be­fore me, V12 tick­ing as it cooled on a re­mote Welsh road. At the time, road test supremo An­drew Frankel said the mag­a­zine would never run fig­ures on a faster car (he hadn’t an­tic­i­pated the Bu­gatti Vey­ron). The F1’s 627bhp mag­nif­i­cence could reach 100mph in 6.3sec and top out at 240mph, and 25 years ago it cost a stag­ger­ing £627,000 (we also didn’t an­tic­i­pate that to­day you won’t get change from £11 mil­lion if you want a good one).

“I hadn’t been a road tester for much more than a year and I didn’t re­ally ex­pect to be more than a pas­sen­ger in the Mclaren. So I was baf­fled when the half dozen or so road testers and snap­pers piled into the sup­port van. The last of them, Au­to­car su­per­hero Steve Cro­p­ley, walked over and handed me the keys to the F1: ‘See you back at the ho­tel. And take your time.’ Alone, with the keys to a Mclaren F1 – I don’t be­lieve I’ve been so trusted since then. Thank you, Au­to­car.”

Jamie Corstor­phine “IN 2008, I was run­ning a longterm Cater­ham 7 and, in search of a des­ti­na­tion for a farewell jour­ney, I ended up tour­ing the Isle of Man. I was so im­pressed by the qual­ity of the roads and hos­pi­tal­ity of the lo­cals that I re­turned with a pitch to base our an­nual Bri­tain’s Best Driver’s Car con­test there. The fact that the lo­cal of­fi­cials had of­fered to close a road sealed the deal with the ed­i­tor.

“It turns out that clos­ing a road on the Isle of Man is as sim­ple as com­plet­ing a form, turn­ing up at the trans­port de­pot to pick up a few cones and ‘Di­ver­sion’ signs and set­ting to work your­self. At the time, the whole thing felt some­what un­real. Five of the year’s best driver’s cars and one spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain road all to our­selves. Even the rain held off.

“Un­til the next morn­ing, that is, when a huge storm blew in, re­sult­ing in the sin­gle worst ferry jour­ney I have ex­pe­ri­enced.” David Vi­vian “TWO EN­TER­PRIS­ING GUYS – I for­get their names – had trav­elled to Ger­many to buy an Am­phi-ranger, a size­able, an­gu­lar am­phibi­ous 4x4, with a view to mar­ket­ing the ve­hi­cle in the UK. Af­ter tak­ing de­liv­ery, they drove it back to Blighty. Thing is, when they came to the English Chan­nel, they didn’t stop, and spent the next 21 miles dodg­ing fer­ries and cargo ships. How could we re­sist the of­fer of a spin to the Isle of Wight?

“A day that starts with a bump across a Portsmouth pave­ment and a sandy slither past open-mouthed beach dwellers to­wards the sea has a cer­tain sur­real prom­ise, although the anx­i­ety aroused by the sight of my hosts’ legs dan­gling through the open sun­roof and a brick on the ac­cel­er­a­tor to pro­vide for­ward thrust was ri­valled only by the ur­gent f lashes of bilge pump warn­ing light. No mat­ter. We gate­crashed Cowes week, trun­dled across Ryde and even­tu­ally, back in the briny at low tide, got stuck on a So­lent sand bank. At which point I opened the door, re­moved my shoes, leapt into six inches of wa­ter and walked to the near­est pub.”

An­drew Frankel “IT’S THE LAUNCH of the orig­i­nal Ford Mon­deo in 1993. For Au­to­car read­ers, the first group test was prob­a­bly the story of the year and, as road test ed­i­tor, it was my job to de­liver it. Ford had hired the By­b­los ho­tel in St Tropez, so we drove the ri­vals down for the show­down the next day. Then an Amer­i­can called Jack Daniels got in­volved, af­ter which I re­mem­ber noth­ing.

“The next day, I was so ill I’d pre­tend to take each car for a blast in the hills, only to drive out of sight, park and sleep for an hour. Then one of our num­ber in­verted the Primera, while an­other threw up three times on the way to the air­port. Proud? No, and 25 years later I still cringe at the thought. But we got the test done and, most im­por­tantly, got the ver­dict right. That Mon­deo was a land­mark, so much so that not even the han­gover from hell could dis­guise it.”

Chris Har­ris “JUNE 1999. I flew into Stutt­gart and took a taxi to Zuf­fen­hausen – home of Porsche and a place I’d wanted to visit all my life. Just see­ing the signs near the fac­tory trig­gered spasms of joy, but the rea­son for my visit was al­most too much to com­pre­hend: to col­lect a new sports car called the GT3, a faster, more track-savvy ver­sion of the wa­ter-cooled 996. I signed the col­lec­tion doc­u­ment and primed the map book to take me to Calais via ev­ery pos­si­ble type of road. I drove at 180mph on au­to­bahns and zipped through France on N-roads be­fore land­ing in the UK, in the first GT3 ever to do so. I was 24 and thought – still think, in fact – that I had the best job in the world.

“Th­ese would go on to be the cars I would grow to love above all oth­ers. That was one of the hap­pi­est days of my life, be­cause I was never hap­pier than when I worked at Au­to­car. I still have that col­lec­tion doc­u­ment.”

Si­mon Huck­nall “THERE’S A REA­SON why Au­to­car uses one of the UK’S two prov­ing grounds for record­ing road test num­bers: both have ar­row-straight sec­tions of at least one mile, al­low­ing testers to pick off im­por­tant ‘ac­cel’ fig­ures with ease, in­clud­ing the stand­ing kilo­me­tre. But nei­ther was free the day I had to run fig­ures on the then new Maserati 4200 in 2002, so I headed for the Longcross test track in­stead. Longcross doesn’t have a mile straight; in fact, the only straight sec­tion it has is barely a kilo­me­tre, end­ing in a banked 180deg bend. Over­shoot and you’re on the M3. The near400bhp Maser was, Chris Har­ris as­sured me, a ‘sub-24-sec­ond car’ over that kilo­me­tre. At 125mph, I was two sec­onds shy of that tar­get; at 130mph, I nearly spun brak­ing so hard into the turn; and at 132mph/24.7sec, I re­ceived a ‘reck­less’ warn­ing from track con­trol and had to call it a day. So, close, Mr Har­ris, but no cigar.”

Matt Prior “SOME­TIMES, WHEN WE per­for­mance test ex­tremely fast cars at MIRA, its maker will send a sup­port crew, who dili­gently check pres­sures and tem­per­a­tures and of­fer new tyres ev­ery few min­utes. Oc­ca­sion­ally, they even send a driver to ad­vise how to get the best from the car. Once Fer­rari sent ‘Marc’, who turned out to be Marc Gené (who was ut­terly charm­ing and thought our wet han­dling cir­cuit was hi­lar­i­ous).

“When Porsche said it would sup­port the 918 Spy­der test, then, we thought we knew what to ex­pect – which wasn’t one bloke in a 4x4 with some wheels in the back that stayed pre­cisely where they were. His idea of check­ing the 918’s tyres was to put a cig­a­rette down for just long enough place a hand on a tyre to see how warm it was and shrug.

“Thus ap­proved, the 918 went around our dry han­dling cir­cuit a full sec­ond faster than a Mclaren P1.”

Matt Saun­ders “MOR­GAN’S EL­E­GANT ‘AERO’ se­ries of flag­ship sports cars had es­caped the full road test treat­ment un­til 2012, when Matt Prior and I took de­liv­ery of one of the fac­tory’s ‘su­per­sport’ Aero Coupés at MIRA.

“We watched it roll off the de­liv­ery trailer. It looked lovely. We cracked on with our num­bers – un­til halfway through our dry han­dling lap times when there was a nasty lurch, the en­gine cut out abruptly and the brake pedal went wor­ry­ingly dead. Turns out an en­gine mount­ing had failed, and the way­ward mo­tor had snagged and tugged loose the car’s brake lines while it was thrash­ing around. And so, con­trary to our plans, it left MIRA the same way it had ar­rived.

“Three years later, I was fig­ur­ing Rad­i­cal’s RXC500 Turbo when, at al­most pre­cisely the same point on MIRA’S Dun­lop cir­cuit where the Mor­gan came to rest, the Rad­i­cal’s gear­box seized, eject­ing me off across the damp grass, at speed, to­wards the tyres (which, pleas­ingly, I missed). It’s not my favourite cor­ner.

“You will re­call read­ing nei­ther test, be­cause nei­ther car com­pleted the process, nei­ther could be pho­tographed and so nei­ther ap­peared. That’s the thing with lowvol­ume British sports cars: you never quite know what’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

❝ I drove at 180mph on au­to­bahns and zipped through France on N-roads ❞

Crimes against fash­ion – and hair – re­main a con­stant at Au­to­car ‘The Macarena’: once re­quired learn­ing for all Au­to­car testers

Isle of Man: amaz­ingly ac­com­mo­dat­ing

Mclaren F1 road test re­mains a bench­mark

Corstor­phine: “Pass me more tyres, th­ese ones have melted”Ne’er-do-wells and hang­ers-on wanted. Please ap­ply within

Not all lo­cals are so wel­com­ing to Au­to­car’s testers

Mon­deo launch mem­o­ries are a bit, er, hazy

RXC500 Turbo: the road test that never was

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