Mick Walsh From the cockpit
‘Urgent torque would be continually rewarding when accelerating out of endless mountain turns’
Some of my most memorable drives have been in hire cars, none more so than a basic Renault Twingo when driven up the famed Mont Ventoux hillclimb. I now look at Peuguot 108s with similar affection after my recent Corsican holiday. Road testers have criticised its refinement for city driving, but I’ll never forget the growl of that 1.2-litre triple over the fantastic N196 from Ajaccio to Propriano. Post-rushhour, the route was virtually deserted and the understated little Pug thankfully didn’t engage with the few determined locals chasing home.
My Kiwi chum Rob Whitehouse had previously taken his Lancia 037 over to the island for a historic rally and marvelled at the spectacular roads, but warned about the Corsican drivers – who all think they’re the next Sébastien Ogier. The challenge of maintaining speed, leaning through the fast climbing bends up to Sartène during the golden hour, was great fun. Only the ping of the low-fuel warning cooled my pace on the downhill run back towards the sea.
It’s taken 60 years for me to finally visit the island, which lived up to all expectations. The combination of magnificent coastlines and sinuous mountain passes, all blessed with road surfaces that put the UK to shame, make it a driver’s paradise, if you’re out of season and avoid rush hour. Little wonder so many ’bikers now take the ferry across the Ligurian Sea.
Back in the 1920s, a fine car must have been a real novelty around the quiet roads, as proved by a vintage postcard I discovered of the clifftop road cut through the granite Calanques de Piana. Today you need to visit early in the morning to beat the coaches and motorhomes.
Over the week I’d spotted several classics and as I coasted down to Propriano, I couldn’t help thinking about dream cars to explore this beautiful island. To my partner Liz’s frustration, I was regularly distracted by abandoned Renault Quatrelles spotted under olive trees in remote farmyards but we never saw a DS, so presumably most older cars have rotted away in the salty air.
The most common classics were Citroën Méharis, but most were tourist attractions, parked around the marinas as local runabouts. The exposed, gutless flat-twin would soon lose its appeal on the tortuous mountain routes.
On the road, several visiting classics were enthusiastically spotted including a Healey 3000, a Lancia Integrale and a cool early MGB. Finished in light blue and on French plates, it looked like a 1960s advert as it burbled down the Vallée de l’asco in the late afternoon sun.
On our last night, a pack of modern Ferraris arrived noisily into the hotel car park. But these brazen, ‘look-at-me’ supercars won’t come close to achieving their potential on this island.
As a fantasy destination for personal dream cars, Corsica would be awesome in a supercharged Alfa Romeo 8C Monza or an AC Cobra, where urgent torque would be continually rewarding when accelerating out of the endless mountain turns, not to mention the joy of a glorious exhaust note rebounding off the rocks. More realistically, a Caterham Seven 160 would be huge fun: cramped and impractical for two, perhaps, but its super-responsive steering, handling and brakes would be perfect.
Any number of classic rally cars with Tour de Corse heritage would fulfil all those Jean Ragnotti fantasies – from Alpine A110 to Renault 5 Turbo – but the history of Henri Toivonen and other rally deaths would deter any serious pace. Little wonder the Group B era ended on these roads with their scary drops and few barriers. The distracting vistas regularly took my eyes away from the road, with nervous protests from my ever-tolerant companion.
One day I’d love to bring my Alfa Duetto or Mazda MX-5 to Corsica, but ultimately I think I’d have more fun with another Pug 108 hire car. Closing my eyes, I can still hear the eager thrum of that triple as I relive those epic roads.
From top: vintage postcard of mystery pre-war tourer was discovered in Corsica; 2CV is followed by ’bikers enjoying the spectacular natural distractions