Many of us browse the classifieds and ponder the notion of buying a classic car, whether to reconnect to our past lives or just to experience something of a time when life seemed simpler. For some, usually those with mechanical skills, this browsing leads to ownership. But for most of us our rational minds take over, considering the need for maintenance and dry storage, and we consign the thought to a pleasant daydream. Nonetheless, wouldn’t we all want to have a go and see what driving classic cars would be like?
Imagine then, the opportunity to drive a handful of different classics from the sixties through to the nineties back-to-back, without having to be concerned over their upkeep. This is exactly what Great Driving Days cater for with their classic car hire and multi-car road-trip experiences.
A friend and I recently booked onto one of the ‘Break for the Border’ day trips, where up to ten customers share the driving of five classics from their storage unit near Bromsgrove and head out west to take in some of the best roads that Worcestershire, Shropshire and Mid-Wales have to offer.
Driving back in time
It so happened that we would experience the cars in a mostly reverse chronological order, which was quite a nice bonus, so first up was the 1999 Porsche Boxster. It was pretty cold first thing but dry so we felt duty-bound to experience the car in its full top-down glory. We cranked up the heating (the only car in which we managed to work the heater controls successfully) and set off on the route.
Each team is given a route book with stage overviews and waypoints listed, explained and snapshotted. It was pretty simple to follow and the only way you’d go wrong would be through having too much fun, chatting too much and forgetting to navigate (yes, this happened to us twice).
Having skirted Droitwich and crossed the River Severn, the first stage took us into the Teme Valley, turning at Great Witley toward Bromyard. Being a modern classic, driving the Boxster required very little acclimatisation and it handled the mix of roads nicely. It felt very assured and capable, but it’s a needy little car and demands that you keep up the revs of its 2.5-litre flat-six to get the most enjoyment out of it. We did our very best to oblige and pulled into the first stopping point, the car park of Holden Vintage & Classic, well ahead of the others.
Big cat sanctuary
Next up was the 1988 XJ-S, one of three Jaguars on the roster for the day, and on paper the most powerful car in use; its 5.3-litre V12 claiming 295bhp in period. The only automatic of the five, the XJ-S was quiet, smooth and comfortable to drive, floating over a section of road that was being resurfaced with barely a wobble. In complete contrast to the Boxster, the Jag was very undemanding, allowing a lazy, gentlemanly cruise. It was by no means slow though, holding a good speed on the road even as the turns began to tighten through the hills.
This second stage was the longest, but simplest to navigate, heading almost due west along the A44 past Leominster, over the border and finishing up at the service station cafe in Crossgates where we stopped for lunch. This was a good opportunity to catch up with the other drivers on the day, in a socially-distanced way of course*. Most were like-minded friends enjoying a shared experience and one driver had received the trip as a retirement gift. There was even a husband and wife enjoying the chance to indulge themselves in a day of adventure without the constant interruption and demands of their kids.
Taming the beast
Straight after lunch, we were directed toward the 1969 Jaguar E-Type Coupé, a true mid-life-crisis stereotype in bright red and chrome. Again, the contrast to the previous car couldn’t have been more pronounced. There was no way you could sit back and relax with this hairy-chested animal.
The steering was heavy, the manual gearbox took some getting used to and the roar of the 4.2-litre straight-six combined with the wind noise from the open windows (to vent the whiff of petrol) meant that conversations had to be conducted with raised voices.
In terms of automotive theatre, the E-Type certainly produced the most drama of all the cars we drove, but it made you earn your part in the performance. It had us working hard to keep up momentum around the bends of the superb A483 heading north toward Newtown, knuckles turning white whilst hanging onto the Moto-Lita wheel.
Despite eventually getting to grips with the gearbox, realising that 3rd gear was a pretty useful ratio for most of the stage, we never felt in full control of the E-Type. Although the speedometer made some impressive if overstated claims, we still couldn’t keep up with the local tradesman in a modern white van up ahead.
A quick changeover in the village of Sarn saw us swap to the third and final Jaguar, the 3.8-litre MkII. This 1965 sports saloon, powered by a slightly smaller but torquey XK engine, gave the most similar sensory experience to the previous car, although with slightly less buttock-grip on the seats.
The ride was a good deal smoother too than the E-Type and with power-steering, it was much lighter to control, if a little delayed when turning left. It also felt a little grander, peering out across the sloping green bonnet past the leaping cat mascot.
Like all the cars in the fleet, this MkII had pretty high mileage and it was also the oldest car there, but it was certainly no slouch; giving us a very spirited drive back into England through Clun and across to the Clee Hill viewpoint for the last car swap.
It’s Pininfarina you know
The final ride of the day was a 1971 MGB GT, sporting the ‘fishmouth’ grille that was factory-fitted for a couple of years to try and give the ‘B a more aggressive look. Although in power terms it was giving away over 100bhp to all of the other cars, it is a peppy little coupé with enough power from its 1.8-litre four and perfectly geared for country roads.
The steering was heavy but it felt the most precise and direct of all the cars, Porsche included, although there seemed to be very little castor-angle to re-centre the wheels out of a bend. The gearbox was pretty sweet too, once you’d got to know it, with a nice short throw across the gate.
We continued eastwards on this final leg until we had one of those, “Are you still navigating by the way?” moments and realised we’d missed a turn and needed to check Google Maps. Sod’s law; we were in an area with a poor mobile signal. As luck would have it the map segment in the route book showed the junction we were approaching and we realised that if we turned right we’d be able to rejoin the route in Clows Top without turning around and losing time.
The Great Driving Days five-car format is a really good one with enough variety to be able to experience classics from different eras and make direct comparisons. Include some rolling hills and pleasurable driving roads and the road-trip itself is a multiplier on the overall enjoyment.
At £229, this package was one of their more premium options but they have a variety of experience products starting from under £50. Even at the top end though, the amount of wheel-time you get is way more than you’d have on a similarly priced track experience.
Don’t expect a polished performance from the cars though, they’re not Concours Queens and you really wouldn’t want them to be. They are well maintained, honest cars with the patina of age, a few scars of battle and a bucket-load of idiosyncrasies, which is what most classic cars are and that’s part of the attraction.
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Whilst the E-Type might be considered as the highly-strung leading lady, the other cars are not just there as a support act; they all have their own quirky but charming characteristics. In fact, when we were all back at base at the end of the 180-mile drive, everyone declared that in terms of ‘fun for the money’, it was the 95bhp MGB GT that they’d want to take home.
As one pointed out, there’s a reason that the MGB is one of the most popular classic sports cars in the country; and it’s not just that they’re low cost and easy to maintain – they’re cracking good fun to drive!
*Great Driving Days (aka Great Escape Cars) comply with the Visit England “Good to Go” standard for COVID safety and do such things as sanitising the cars at each changeover.