They say that everything is relative and in the automotive world that is especially true. Take a car of today and compare it with its equivalent of, say, twenty years ago and it will be better in every measurable way. Performance, economy, refinement, safety – everything is improved to varying degrees.
The problem is that the march of technology has interfered with the simple act of driving. If, like me, you’re a confirmed car nut the interface between man and machine is something to enjoy, but as cars become more sophisticated so they increase the divide between the driver and the car.
Computers monitor our every input, taking over when they deem it necessary. Our cars have become bloated giants, packed with weighty luxuries and systems that we don’t really need. At the same time soundproofing and suspension systems try their best to mask every sound and sensation of movement, wrapping us in a cocoon to shelter us from the outside world. In short, cars are becoming too sterile.
There’s one way of proving just how far cars have detached us from the experience of driving. You need to try a car that hasn’t been inflicted with the trappings of modern motoring. In other words, get yourself behind the wheel of a classic and rediscover the joy of driving.
That’s exactly what I’ve just been lucky enough to do, experiencing five classic cars in a journey through the stunning scenery of the Yorkshire Dales. The Dales Dash introduced a group of keen automotive writers and enthusiasts to a selection of timeless classics.
Five very different cars were provided from the fleet of Great Escape Cars. If you haven’t heard of them you should head on over to their website and familiarise yourself with their stunning selection of seventy cars, all available to hire at a number of sites across the UK, and even one in France. The choice is staggering with a selection of marques from Alfa Romeo to Volkswagen representing every decade from the 60s to the 90s.
But what were the five classics we were treated to?
1974 Jensen Interceptor III
As soon as you turn the Jensen’s key you discover what makes this car so special. Lying in wait under the lengthy bonnet is a 7.2-litre V8 that bursts into life with a deep rumble that sounds just like an American muscle car. There’s a good reason for that as Jensen sourced their V8s from Chrysler.
The Jensen Intercepter was my first car of the day and it was with some trepidation that I pulled out onto the road. At almost six feet wide and 16 feet long the Interceptor is a big car and, with a warning that the rear could ‘get a bit squirmy’ when the 3-speed automatic transmission kicked down, I gingerly headed out onto the road.
The Interceptor first appeared in the 60s but this was a later Mark III from 1974. Designed as a cruiser rather than sports car, it was fitted with luxuries that have only recently become mainstream. Leather upholstery throughout, air-conditioning and electric windows were the preserve of luxury motors forty years ago, nowadays they feature on all but the cheapest of cars.
Don’t let those creature comforts lull you into a false sense of security. The Jensen is beast of a car whose enormous engine dominates proceedings, the intoxicating rumble doing little to disguise the volumes of petrol being sucked into the 440 cubic inches of its eight cylinders.
Prod the throttle and the exhaust barks loudly, reverberating off the walls and buildings lining the roadside. Stamp harder on the throttle and the three-speed automatic gearbox can be reluctantly persuaded to drop down a gear, the rumble turning into a bellow as the speedometer starts climbing rapidly. This Jensen might not feel as fit as the quoted figure of 300bhp suggests but it is still a very quick car.
Just don’t forget that it weighs over 2 tons as you approach a bend. The brake pedal feels alarmingly vague at first and needs a firm push to persuade the Interceptor to slow down. There’s also a disconcerting wallowing from the suspension as the Interceptor’s bulk settles into the corner. Just hang on in there, because once you’re back onto the straight you get to play with the throttle once more.
The Jensen Interceptor is a car whose strength lies in crossing continents at high speed but that raucous exhaust note will also appeal to your inner hooligan.
1965 Jaguar Mk 2 3.4-Litre
The Mk2 Jaguar is the definitive British sporting saloon and one that has become legendary since it first arrived in 1959. It was just as likely to be seen ferrying members of parliament to their exclusive clubs as it was to be seen hurtling away from the scene of a robbery with four burly gentleman, their cash-filled holdalls and a brace of sawn-off shotguns stashed inside.
It’s a beautifully elegant design and has passed the test of time with flying colours. The leaping Jaguar sits atop the large grille, a sign of bygone times when Health & Safety rules hadn’t banned pedestrian-maiming bonnet mascots.
As I climbed into the Mk2 my first impression was the smell, a waft of old leather and wood that inspired visions of wing-backed chairs and oak-lined studies. Slip into the Jag’s red leather seats and you’ll find they are soft and comfortable, attributes which sum up the ride perfectly too.
The steering is a little vague around the centre but once you’ve gathered up the slack the Mk2 can be positioned with ease. The soft suspension gives the Mk2 a refined feel as it glides across our shoddy roads but the downside is a lot of roll through the bends.
The 3.4-litre engine is responsive and the Jag picks up speed quickly, but the biggest surprise was the brake pedal. This particular Mk2 had been fitted with disc brakes and they work wonders, really boosting your confidence and allowing you to head into corners with much more speed than you might otherwise think sensible in a 47-year-old car.
From my brief time with the Mk2 I can only deduce that the villains of the 60s were either a tad crazy or significantly braver than me to throw a Mk2 around tight city streets.
1982 DeLorean DMC-12
Of all the cars here it is the DeLorean DMC-12 that attracts the biggest crowds. Even the beauty of the E-Type isn’t enough to divert attention from the DeLorean when those gull-wing doors arc upwards. It’s a party trick that’s hard to beat.
Of course, the DeLorean owes a lot of its attention-grabbing abilities to the film-making talents of Steven Spielberg. If it wasn’t for the Back To The Future films the DeLorean might have faded into obscurity, its troubled development and the scandal surrounding the finances of John Z. DeLorean and his company scuppering any chances it had of being a commercial success.
It’s most likely the continuing popularity of Marty McFly and repeats of his time-travelling adventures that keeps the DeLorean fresh in our memories. It’s easy to forget that this 1982 model is thirty years old already.
The ’12’ in the DMC-12 name relates to the original target price of $12,000, with DeLorean hoping to pitch their car against the Corvette in the US market. Sadly the development costs inflated and the DeLorean went on sale at twice that amount, putting it into territory dominated by the Porsche 911. Sadly the DeLorean didn’t fare well in the inevitable comparisons.
With its low, flat design, brushed steel bodywork and gull-wing doors the DeLorean looks like it could travel at 200mph, but the reality is very different. Underneath the rear hatch lives a 2.8-litre V6 that saw service in many large Renaults, Peugeots and Volvos through the seventies and eighties. That big capacity results in a remarkably underwhelming 150bhp but what it lacks in outright pace the DeLorean makes up for with an amusing series of pops and bangs on the overrun and an exhaust note that is almost Porsche-esque as it flies by.
Driving the DeLorean is an experience in itself, but not necessarily for the right reasons. From the driving seat you have very little idea of where the corners of the car are, a problem exacerbated by this model being left-hand drive. The result is a car that’s really difficult to place on the road, with several sharp intakes of breath on some of the narrower sections of road.
On the bright side the steering is good and there’s plenty of grip on offer from the Lotus-tuned chassis. Once you adjust to the car’s width it’s possible to put some faith in the chassis and start to enjoy what performance the DeLorean has to offer.
So does the DeLorean drive like it looks? No, not even close, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a special car to be in. People stop and stare, mobile phones are whipped out to snap a quick photo, curious film fans walk over to ask questions about the car – you will be the centre of attention when you’re driving a DeLorean.
1964 MGB 1800
The MGB is the embodiment of a classic British sports car. Built from 1962 all the way through to 1980 it became a common site on British roads and one that remains popular today in classic car circles. A little known fact is that it was actually one of the first cars to use crumple zones, designed to protect the occupants in impacts at up to 30mph. That’s even more of a surprise when you sit down in the MGB and realise just how small it really is.
This particular MGB is an absolute gem. It’s a 1964 model that has clearly been looked after through the years and has been fettled to almost perfection. With its bright red paintwork, mirror-like hubcaps, and immaculate cabin it looks like it’s been plucked straight from the 60s.
You sit low in the MGB with your feet stretched out in front of you, barely inches from the road. The narrow width of the car means that you’re rubbing elbows with your passenger but apart from that the cabin is very comfortable.
The four-speed manual gearbox has a light, positive action, the steering is direct and feelsome and the brakes are more than up to the job of controlling the MGB’s delicate little frame.
Light and nimble, it is enormously entertaining even at low speeds. The suspension is supple and yet controlled and you can tell exactly what’s happening at each end of the car. The 1.8-litre engine may only have 95bhp but it’s more than up to the job of propelling the little MG at a surprising turn of pace. The driver of the Volvo XC90 that tried to overtake us was certainly surprised!
Of all the cars I drove on the day the MGB was the one that exceeded all of my expectations and after just a couple of miles I was enthralled by its charms.
1970 Jaguar E-Type 4.2-Litre
The last car of the day was the Jaguar E-Type. A car that needs no introduction, the E-Type was an instant sensation when it was launched at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show. Even after fifty years its svelte lines are still considered to be one of the all-time great designs.
Beneath that long bonnet lies a 4.2-litre engine that pulsates to the beat of twelve cylinders. In 1961 it was considered outrageously fast and the V12 still feels strong, propelling the E-Type at speeds that are quick even by modern standards. Part of this is down to the huge amount of grunt available – at any revs in any gear the V12 pulls cleanly, even on a steep slope.
Not only is the V12 engine a tour de force but the E-Type is also a delight to drive. The clutch is surprisingly light and the gearbox slots into each gear with easy precision. The thin rim of the wooden steering wheel takes some effort to turn at low speeds but once on the move it allows you to throw the car around with confidence.
Despite the lengthy proportions the E-Type never feels particularly big. Unlike the DeLorean you have a good feel for the outer dimensions of the car and that boosts confidence, although that may take a knock when you try the brake pedal for the first time. Despite being fitted with discs all round the pedal has a long travel and requires a lot of effort to scrub speed off but once you adjust to its responses you learn to start braking earlier.
The E-Type gave me one of the best memories of the day. Sat in the passenger seat with the sun shining down, the wind in my hair, looking out over the long, curved bonnet and listening to the twelve cylinder symphony as we cruised down a long, empty stretch of road. Glorious.
Classic Cars, A Classic Day Out
The Dales Dash was an event that will be a fond memory for many years to come. The cars, the scenery, the weather and the camaraderie of a group of like-minded car nuts were the ingredients for a great day out.
In relative terms each of the cars I drove is so far behind their modern descendants that you’d expect them to feel hopelessly outdated … and yet they don’t. Each one may have little foibles that make it less than perfect but that’s all part of their charm.
What these cars do is engage more of your senses than any modern car would. The smell of hot oil is something that would trigger alarm in most cars today but with classics it’s quite normal and actually quite welcome, as is the smell of rich exhaust fumes. With less emphasis on soundproofing your ears are treated to more of the sounds from the engine bay and transmission and you can feel the mechanicals of the clutch and gearbox interacting with one another as you change gear. You’re a central part of the driving process and all the better for it.
If you’re in any way interested in the act of driving, not just the sensation of going fast in a car, then I urge you to give a classic car a try. Great Escape Cars have an amazing choice and there’s bound to be something in their fleet to tickle your fancy. Get in touch with Graham or Jamie and see what they can do for you – I bet you’ll enjoy it more than you expect.