The Richard Heseltine column - Road Trips: the fun and frustration
The lesson drawn from the exchange was simple – don’t ask. The question was: “Whose Lada is this?” It is May 2006 and all is not well. On reflection, agreeing to a road trip in Russia wasn’t such a sound idea. The substitution of a Soviet grotbox for our equally rubbish Toyota soft-roader may have had something to do with a bar, a bet and maybe even a gun. To tell the truth it’s all a bit fuzzy. Waking up in a strange car in a strange town – and having picked up some strange new ‘friends’ along the way – only bolstered the opinion that this was the worst road trip ever. Or perhaps the best. It’s all relative.
Fast-forward to the present and the whole episode is recalled with affection for all those involved. I love road trips, and am pining to do another, as I suspect are many of those reading this during what are the strangest of times. One of the great joys of this job is getting to hit the road and rack up the miles, preferably in something a bit silly. One of the great agonies of this job is finding yourself marooned in a foreign land, be it on the hard shoulder or in front of a magistrate. Either way it usually makes for a compelling yarn: a tale that invariably gets better with age (and embellishment).
Most road trips inevitably begin with a scramble for the keys and disagreement over the choice of musical accompaniment. Itineraries are often optimistic, not least because I cannot locate north with the aid of a compass. The choice of chariot is important, too, but driving something exotic over the long haul doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good time. You’re more likely to have a giggle in an old crock. It’s the journey that matters, after all. That, and having good company along for the ride.
The general rule of thumb between long-standing road trip regulars is that no more than two near-death experiences are allowed per voyage. Also, passive aggression is always preferable to aggressive aggression: differences of opinion should be set aside within minutes of them being aired. That is easier said than done, but travelling from one end of a country to another amid seething resentment and noiseless hostility gets very old very quickly. Get it out in the open and get it over with.
With this in mind, make sure your car is up to the task. It sounds obvious but I clearly recall - in minute detail - a 3000-mile trip from the UK to Italy and back aboard a mid-1960s Fiat 2300S. It involved as much primal scream therapy as amusement because we had rushed preparations. The car looked lovely but had travelled all of a few hundred miles since it had been restored some years prior. Optimism was visibly waning by the time we got off the ferry in Calais and realised we had working headlights and windscreen wipers, just not at the same time. A further nine days of sodden motoring lay ahead of us.
On changing the alternator in downtown Milan, the sense of accomplishment was undone by the time we approached Calais on the return leg. With just a few miles to go, the fan belt snapped and we learned the international breakdown cover we had taken out beforehand counted for nothing. We had broken down on a French Autoroute which wasn’t covered. “If you can get it back to Britain, we can help,” said a chap from the comfort of his UK call centre without a hint of irony. We (by which I mean my co-pilot) did just that, fashioning a fan-belt out of cable-ties and then pushing the car onto the ferry.
The funny thing is, this trip remains memorable for so many positive reasons. We had lived out our continent-crossing ’60s GT fantasies while also remembering why we love old cars in the first place. Anyone can drive long distances in a ‘modern’. By contrast, reinforcing friendships while pounding the miles in a classic - and displaying never-say-die resourcefulness - is a treasure beyond price.
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