Part three: Returning Home
Steven Ward takes his hot-blooded Fiat Coupé to Geneva to find the secret of what makes a British car British…
Photography: Andrew Elphick
The final part of this year’s Salon was the Green Hall. This was dedicated to electric and hybrid and probably range-extended cars, all of which you could actually drive. Sadly, with it being close to the end of the day, most were out of commission, with flat batteries.
I did however drive an electrical Transit Connect made by Johnson Controls, which was nippy and diesel-clatter free as you’d expect. I was hoping to try a Leaf out – it is to be built in Washington alongside its batteries, but they’d all gone home for the day. Likewise the GM Volt people, although in fairness to them, they’d just won European Car of the Year, so probably have a lot of celebrating to do.
A small British Fact here for you; the bulk of Vauxhall/Opel technical call centre issues are handled not in Germany, nor Luton but North Tyneside. What’s more, the matt black plastic strip which features prominently on the Volt/Ampera between the door glass and the external door pressing was inspired by the Montego. To think that people often mocked the Montego’s Design Council award.
All the talk in Geneva is about Hybrids and I’m wondering if every country in Europe uses them purely as a faux-Green Tax Break? Eventually we decide that we must leave in order to get to Dijon before it’s too late to eat and drink. If we’d been staying in Geneva that night, the opportunities to get legless on free booze were plentiful. I know for next time and I’ll pack my England t-shirt for it.
We head out of Geneva and cover the short hop into Ferney Voltaire, France. Traffic is rush-hour heavy but not much of an issue unless you block a bus lane in an old FIAT featuring English plates. We fuel up for the 125 miles ahead of us, relieved that for the first time in 3 fill-ups we can buy standard unleaded and not the E10 that’s been offered (forced) elsewhere. Using the high-octane unleaded has come at a hefty price – circa €1.79 a litre.
We take the mountain pass towards Bourg-on-Bresse on the basis that it is clearly sign posted. Those signs soon disappear sending us in entirely the wrong direction again.
Tempers become frayed before the right route is found. By now it is dark and surprisingly the snow chain signs are illuminated. We push on in ignorance before we see the snow at the roadside. As the road is clear, we lament that we cannot see the beauty of the snow fall.
However, as we approach a town with street lamps en route, we can now see the extent of the snow. Its over 6ft high where the snow plough has cleared the road. We whimper in fear for what we are about to drive through. Sure enough, the snow fall has been sufficient enough for avalanches in places but thankfully, that’s the only snow we actually pilot the Coupe across. Fortunately we had snow chains, just not the inclination to fit them on the roadside and in the dark. We also miss having an external temperature gauge, although you cannot blame the Fiat for that, we have just been spoiled with modern machinery.
Like a sign from God, I see a Kyriad hotel glowing in the distance, a bolt of lightning drawing my attention to it. The rain is now very heavy and we were about to exit Dijon without finding accommodation. It’s approaching 22:00 hours and this is our last chance at eating where we sleep. I find the road into the hotel and ditch the Coupe into a Disabled Parking bay.
I dash into the hotel and ask for a twin room. Sorted, leaving the hotel just 1 room from capacity. I then ask if the kitchen can be kept open to feed us. The head waiter is beckoned over and the question asked ‘Non. The kitchen is cleaned for the night’.
I explain that I’ve been on the road from Geneva and snow has slowed my progress. I beg for leniency and explain that I’ll not even check into my room, I’ll order now. In fact, I’ll take whatever they give me. They relent, but the waitresses are allowed home. Pretty girls they were too. The two chefs come to look at me and Andrew. I order from the Plat du jour menu while Andrew goes a la carte owing to his meat intolerance – in France.
The starters arrive before the beer is poured. I have a Bourguignon cold meat press with salad and pickles. Andrew has two soft boiled eggs in a creamy mushroom sauce. If this is thrown together, then waiting for food is over-rated. Main course arrives as we mop the sauce up with the baguettes. I have duck (cooked to perfection) with fried potato chunks and a vegetable medley of cauliflower, carrots, green beans and lardons. Andrew has a tuna steak, which is an unusual cut, but none the worse for that.
The head waiter placates the two chefs with a half of beer each while they wait to take our dessert order. Luckily, they watch the football on TV and not us. Dessert for me is a Calvados & Apple Crumble while Andrew has a beautifully presented rhubarb and crème anglaise dish. It has taken the chefs literally minutes to cook and yet, its not microwaved or pre-packed. Wonderful stuff and our room is excellent too.
The next morning dawns and the sky is cloudless and the sun shining bright. Dijon to Newcastle is today’s long haul, again via Essex. We check the levels on the Fiat and find it has used no water, no oil, nothing is amiss. We are both ache free owing to the spacious interior.
Nobody, but nobody believed that this 15 year old machine could deliver us to Geneva and back over 3½ days of fast, demanding driving. Our faith in the car was beyond reproach now. Sadly, I’ve paid the price for pushing myself too far with the previous evenings drive. Aching with bloodshot eyes is the price paid for driving two mountain passes as fast as possible in often atrocious weather with very limited visibility.
We made the Eurotunnel in ample time, returning via a mix of old roads and toll roads. We had averaged just under 80mph that morning and used fuel at around 33mpg. Who really needs a hybrid, then? Think on this, would a hybrid have worked as efficiently and reliably, 15 years into its life as this vehicle? All this car had from me was a lube service before setting out. Certainly, no hybrid I’ve seen over the last few days would attract so many compliments and admiring glances, and that 5-pot motor sounds glorious. Alarmingly, as we check into the Euro Tunnel, a fairly new Peugeot van bursts into flames. The Eurotunnel staff take flight and it is some time before assistance arrives to try and extinguish the flames. By now the whole front of the vehicle is a molten mess and flames are lapping up to five feet high. Andrew claims EuroTunnel should call me the ‘Twisted Fire Starter’ owing to me jinxing them with incendiary incidences.
Newcastle is reached by 22:30; the final mileage covered is 1827. The FIAT has finally found favour after a year of ownership.