The Richard Heseltine Column - The Joys of being a Motoring Writer
He was a bear of a man – half grizzly, half teddy. “What seems to be the trouble?” he asked, we’re guessing rhetorically. “You picked a great place to stop,” he blithely continued, as though we’d had a choice in the matter. Ten minutes later, our stroppy Italian classic was deemed kaput and The Fourth Emergency Service [AA Breakdown Service] agreed to dispatch a tow truck – the one we’d requested two hours earlier.
“Don’t send a van – it’s terminal,” we had insisted only for a Transit to home into view some time later. And so ended a day spent with a Ferrari 308GTS that began with jump leads and ended amid a fug of white smoke. Fortunately for us, other road users empathised with the idiots who were taking up part of London’s Hanger Lane gyratory system with their bright yellow supercar – in early evening rush hour. Some even offered suggestions as to what we should do with it, although such ideas would necessitate a crack team of proctologists.
Certain classics confer chills of dread rather than anticipation. Word monkeys in the classic car media enjoy over-privileged lives and get to sample some fabulous cars but they’ve often tumbled down the food chain by the time we get our mitts on them. And sometimes out of sheer expediency – an editor requests a photo shoot at zero notice – we have to ‘make do’ with cars that are cosmetically sound so will at least photograph well. The only problem-ette in this scenario is the question of whether or not they will make it to the photo location intact.
Self-immolating TVRs are a particular favourite and you cannot beat the ‘will it catch before it catches fire’ shenanigans of any early ’70s Lamborghini for sheer entertainment value. Not forgetting seven-cylinder Ferraris, clutch-less de Tomaso Panteras or the Maserati Mexico that boiled over in Cumbria one January morning. It was minus five at the time, and that’s before you factored in the wind chill.
If nothing else, you do meet some interesting people while you’re marooned at the roadside. Often they’re in uniform and emitting puffs of air through pursed lips as you explain why, precisely, you’re blocking a bus stop with a Rolls-Royce Camargue (it had a puncture and no spare). Or why you chose to ‘park’ a Lancia Fulvia Sport Zagato outside a primary school at chucking out time (it had stopped everywhere else, so why not here?).
The Boys in Blue are at least courteous; the men in high-vis vests from a different ‘agency’ rather less so. One exchange centred on why we had deposited a 1957 Abarth on the hard shoulder where the M25 joins the M3; couldn’t we have found somewhere less exposed to danger? They also enquired as to why the car didn’t have its ‘emergency blinkers’ illuminated. Seemingly impervious to reason, sarcasm and good old-fashioned animosity, our heroes stopped just short of a PowerPoint presentation as they lectured us on the recklessness of breaking down in something so old-fashioned.
All of which is pretty redundant as near-death experiences come with the territory. You often find yourself driving cars that have been coaxed into life after a lengthy slumber only to find they then want to kill you. That would be the 1937 Graham-Paige which ran out of brakes descending the only hill in the Netherlands. Or the Fiat Strada 130TC that lost its cogs on entering Castle Combe’s daunting Quarry Bend from a time before they moved the retaining wall further back. Oh, and not forgetting the Caterham that fried its electrics while blatting along the M40’s fast lane – at night - which prompted millimetre perfect avoidance techniques from the Mitsubishi driver who was tailgating at the time.
However, despite the self-pity, primal scream therapy and 4am drop offs, this remains the best job in the world. Being serenaded by an orchestra of blaring car horns, or chewed out by bumptious oafs only reaffirms the positives. Such incidents result in a fund of old stories with new ones being added to the playlist every once in a while; the sort of yarns that come free with a barstool. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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