Classic car ownership is fraught with peril.
If you’ve been safely ensconced within the secure bubble of reliable modern motoring, it can be quite jarring when a car has asthmatic heaters, ineffectual brakes and an unwillingness to start on cold mornings.
That’s why classic car hire companies exist: to allow the type of person who wants to be adventurous – but can’t, for whatever reason – the opportunity to drive these beasts. The ones they’d love to own, but are prevented from doing so by financial restrictions or limited driveway space.
To give you the lowdown on what it’s all about, I teamed up with another Covered regular, the fragrant and familiar-to-some Chris Pollitt, to sample a few items on the menu at classic rental specialist Great Escape Cars.
Graham at Great Escape arranged a day-long road rally across the Cotswolds (with pace notes and everything), and for each stage of the event we’d pick a random car out of the hat. Sound fair? We thought so. And first up was…
… a Jaguar E-Type V12!
I was tremendously excited about this. It’s been a dream of mine to drive one since I was five.
Anyone with eyes can see that it’s a jaw-droppingly beautiful silhouette, and the perennial stories of peerless driveability mean that it’s always been on my bucket list. My inner child was bouncing off the walls.
And yes, it was ok.
No, sorry, that’s not fair on the E-Type – it was more than ok.
My first impressions were somewhat hampered by the fact that we had the roof down and it was snowing, and within five minutes I couldn’t feel any of my fingers (we did find a heater switch, but that, frankly, was like pouring a boiling kettle into the English Channel).
But the sheer absurdity of stuffing a 5.3-litre V12 into something so very small, coupled with some distinctly slippery roads, meant that tail-sliding thrills were hilariously plentiful.
Once I realised that I didn’t really need my fingertips for anything, I started to get into a rhythm; the key is to plan ahead – the brakes aren’t modern, the steering’s a bit vague, but this is a 43-year-old sports car. That’s what they’re like. And it's a proper feel-good motor – we found ourselves waving at pedestrians and shouting a cheery “Hello!”, something which seemed to put a smile on everyone’s face.
What a thoroughly lovely little machine. I was quickly won over despite its foibles, as it was just so very pleasant. And IT’S AN E-TYPE! Sorry for saying it was ‘ok’, it was really rather wonderful. A big box ticked.
A quick stop for a cuppa at the picturesque Broadway Tower ('the Cotswolds’ Highest Castle!'), and we were ready for the second leg. With a dramatic flourish, I delved into the hat and picked out the next car, which was… the Austin Allegro.
Ah. Rats. Of all the cars available, this really was the short straw. The Allegro is an unsavoury footnote of British motoring, an entirely unloveable thing. This really did feel like a wasted opportunity, given the other cars that we could have been driving.
But, as has been proven time and time again, first impressions merely serve to demonstrate that I am an idiot. Give me 90 minutes in an Allegro with a good mate and some beautiful scenery and you’ll see a happy man.
Graham was at pains to point out that the car was presented warts-and-all ("The idea of a restored Allegro seems oxymoronic," he said), so it was battle-scarred and rusty, with mismatched panels and a general sighing sense of ennui.
The lethargic indicators – tick… tick… tick… – acted as a metaphor for the car’s ethos; improbably slow, feeling like it’s given up, communicating with you in the voice of Droopy the dog.
The brakes required written requests in advance before actually bothering to try to haul the thing up. The engine didn’t really do anything. The suspension managed the neat trick of being both bouncy and crashy, and this all gets channelled directly into your spine.
And yet it was joyous – a real adventure in a so-bad-it’s-good old motor. It was weirdly charming. I think I rather liked it.
We tried waving at pedestrians as we had in the E-Type, but they kept avoiding our gaze. And one chap in a passing car actually pointed and laughed. But he was in a Vectra, so clearly wasn’t having as much fun as us.
Next up, following a lip-smacking feed at the swanky Hogarths Hotel, was a Mark 2 Jaguar. A 3.8-litre model, no less, in full-on Great Train Robbery spec: wire wheels, sober green paint, more polished wood than your grandma’s sideboard.
This was the weapon of choice for the cockney criminal of the late 1960s, and we spent a good couple of hours tearing down country lanes shouting “Shut it, you plum!” and other Guy Ritchie-isms.
It smelt just like an old Jag should. It rumbled purposefully, it felt very grown up. More than the likes of us deserved anyway.
The final changeover happened outside Coventry Transport Museum and we found ourselves with an original 1984 Audi Quattro. And there was much rejoicing.
Chris and I are children of the 1980s, so this was right up our street. The Germanic engineering really holds its own – you’d never guess there were 170k miles on the clock, everything was tight as a drum. It felt right, it smelt right… It was pure old-school turbo hilarity.
“I don’t want to burst your Quattro bubble,” said Chris after half an hour or so. “But – and be honest – is your Octavia actually faster than this?”
And I had to admit that, yes, my humble 2005 Skoda would probably show the Audi a clean pair of heels – but that’s not the point, is it?
This retro scallywag is all about the boisterous looks, the boost gauge, the lairy seats, the adjustable diffs… the legend speaks for itself, and it really is glorious fun to drive.
Oh, and the handling – it just grips and grips and grips, it’s astounding. Sure, it could do with more power and better brakes, but as a holistic package? Well, it’s a dream come true. And that’s what I thought I’d be saying about the E-Type.
Sorry, Jaguar, but the Audi wins… with the Allegro coming an improbable second. How marvellously peculiar.
You see, this is the true logic of the classic car hire concept. ‘Try-before-you-buy’ is much underrated. I can’t say that I’m actually scouring eBay for Allegros, but I certainly have more respect for them. And the E-Type poster by my desk is in danger of being usurped by a Quattro…