Part one: Rolling Out The Bunting
Steven Ward takes his hot-blooded Fiat Coupé to Geneva to find the secret of what makes a British car British…
Photography: Andrew Elphick
What Makes a British Car British? It’s a question asked by designers and journalists many times over. It is also too much of a cliché for this site. So AROnline, keen to take part in Diamond Jubilee celebrations, looked to ask a more original, yet just as patriotic question. What is more, your pushy AROnline contributor looked to ask a more pertinent question to as many manufacturers with a British base as possible. Let us be clear, planning for this task was immense, so put aside time now to read the results.
It was decided way back at Christmas that the ideal place to carry-out this exercise in New Motoring Journalism was the Geneva Salon in March. That gave us just over two months to get our plan and our questions together. In the best British fashion, much of the planning period was squandered aimlessly. I’ve often read that as a nation, we really only perform when their back is truly against the wall. This is true. What follows is the story of the SFQ – a wonderfully shabby British institution.
I eased the Coupé Fiat down the slip road of the A1(M) and I joined the flowing traffic. Fifth gear engaged, I switched on the SatNav to calculate the route from Newcastle to Geneva via Essex. That’s over 900 miles away geography fans. The plan was to pick up Andrew ‘Pearly’ Elphick from Essex and race to the Salon.
I was already a day and a half late and cruelly, inevitably the first issue struck before Durham. My cigarette lighter wasn’t working. This is a problem for me as I’ve got no sense of direction and I cannot read a map to save my life. Right at that point, it came over the radio that it was 30 years ago to the day that John Belushi died, a man who immortalised the line ‘Fix The Cigarette Lighter’. It wasn’t meant to be this way…
You see back in February I asked MG Motor UK the first of my series of SFQs:
‘Are you taking any cars to Geneva?’ I asked.
‘No,’ came the reply from Birmingham.
‘Well, would you like to loan me a MG6 to mark the first year of building the monumental sales flop that is the MG6 and I’ll take one there for you?’ I quizzed.
‘We don’t actually have any Press Cars, so no again,’ was the unbelievable but true reply. We were off to a great start.
The weather for the trip was to be astonishingly British, that is to say pretty bloody awful. Ferry crossings across the channel were suspended (Europe was cut off), so we diverted to the Channel Tunnel. The lady in a booth asked me, ‘Have you ever been on the Euro Tunnel before?’
I enjoyed answering her, ‘Yes, the last time it caught fire – and I’ve avoided it ever since.’ My reply was not appreciated. She gave me a look like a disappointed school teacher and remarked, ‘such incidents cannot happen now’. Well come Thursday’s 16:10 service, we would all be proved alarmingly wrong. Still, little did we realise she’d (accidentally?) booked us on the 16:10 service for the Friday. English customer service in action, especially when one saw what I’d been charged.
As we disembarked at Calais we tried in vain to find somebody willing to amend our ticket. Quickly realising we were wasting precious travelling time, we headed south. It sounds like a cliché to say the night was inky black dark, but it really was pitch black. The little Coupé headlamps, delightfully voluptuous double bubbles they are, are useless on unlit roads.
The standing water on the roadside was a serious hazard to our stability and safety, so we decided to follow a truck for as long as we could. It was all we could do to maintain safe progress through the water. At one set of road-works, the rain had lifted the road surface so high we had to drive down the footpath to avoid removing the sump. Who says British roads are the worse?
We decided it would be prudent to abandon our plans to spend the night in Arras, so we looked to stay in St Omer’s fine Etap. Except like two donkeys, we kept following the truck in front and completely missed the turn off and found ourselves in Bethune. Bethune was closed and offered us nothing, so Arras was back on the cards. Arriving at their newly refurbished town square, we abandoned the Coupé and dashed to our favourite kebab house which was closing.
We gratefully bought all their congealed remains of the nights business, stuck it in a bun and smothered it with harmfully hot chilli sauce. All we had to do now was find a hotel. The Holiday Inn Express next to the train station got our business on account of the Ibis being full. A tramp in the bus stop offered to valet park the Coupé, but we declined his kind offer. ‘How often do the trains go by?’ I asked. ‘So often you won’t even notice,’ replied Andrew.
Settling into our room with a pint of fizzy red lager and a kebab we watched France’s weather report. Winter storms had brought down power lines, trains had become stuck and much of the countryside was in darkness and deep snow. This didn’t bode well for our route into Geneva. Clearly France is also prone to the ‘wrong kind of snow’.
The next morning and Arras was grey, murky and drizzly. The Gendarmes were out in force and making their presence felt to road users so we slumped out on a quiet road saying ‘this could be Britain’.
It was only right we visited a few obscure Commonwealth and German War Graves before heading off to Reims. There we hoped to see how the race track restoration is going.
As we headed towards Reims, the weather improved and our spirits lifted. The Coupe was running perfectly and we remarked at how competent the car was as a GT. Spacious, fast and quiet, I was almost feeling guilty at how much I’d ignored the car over the past year. Reims city centre was lapped several times before we got our bearings and found the old race circuit. How we continued to miss the convenience of SatNav. A chance visit to a Le-Quick proved to be anything but, so we decided to abandon plans for a burger after consuming their free Wi-Fi instead.
Time was cracking on, so we joined the E17 toll road to take us to towards Geneva. The A40 that actually leads to the city was a wonderful, albeit expensive way into Switzerland. As a feat of civil engineering and as a driving experience, it is delightful, boasting the nicest tunnels this side of the Tyne. On its fast, gently sweeping curves, you could almost imagine you are doing a spot of low flying as you follow the contours of the mountains.
We found our hotel in the French town of Annemasse without incident or wrong turn at 19:00 that night. The hotel was basic and somewhat out of town, but it did boast two ashtrays in the bathroom. What more could a non-smoker in a supposedly no smoking hotel want?
We decided to walk into Annemasse, via its Lada dealership, up past their huge Toyota Lexus emporium and along towards their enthusiastic Honda outlet towards the Swiss border, where we would get a tram into Geneva. The only problem being we had no change to board the tram. Instead we bought chips, watched the unfolding weather disaster on the news and headed back into Annemasse centre where there was a GM outlet.
The choice of restaurants there was limited to two, both of which specialised in Seafood, which appealed to neither of us. So we picked the busiest emporium and ate there. Avoiding the sea-based specialities, I chose a Charcuterie Brasserie which consisted of a slice of cured belly pork, a boiled potato, 2 types of German-style sausage and a hulking great lump of sauerkraut and a pot of mustard.
Andrew chose a cheesy flatbread, rather like a large square pizza. This was washed down by their house beer. When the waitress took away my plate, she asked why I hadn’t eaten the rest of my meal. Unbeknown to me, she’d served only half of my main course and the rest was on a tureen with a burner beneath keeping it warm- on another table. I was stuffed, so declined to continue my Germanic feast. Alarmingly, we wondered how large the house special charcutery dish was like at over twice the price and twice the size according to the menu. Dessert was a cold crème brulee for Andrew and the Tarte Tatin d’jour for me, which was caramelised apple on a sweet sponge and washed down by a coffee.
That night, we formulated our plan of attack. We’d aim to be into the Palplexo for 07:30 and be on the Morgan stand for its Press Announcements. Nothing more could go wrong.
Read part two tomorrow…