Sunday Column: Peter Griffiths – Step On.

They say the best drivers pass their test second time because, well, I have no idea why they say that. I passed mine second time but I know that the original decision to fail me was the correct one because I was unable to make the old guy who was examining me feel comfortable (or avoid bumping a kerb while reverse-parking). I’d already passed my theory test, of course, but circumstances meant that I didn’t need to drive for another two years which means that I needed another theory under m’belt.

By this time I was in Yorkshire at the helm of a red mkII Cavalier with rust holes in the wing the size of which would have downed a Spitfire pilot, or make a comfortable home for a conger eel were someone to sink my J-type Vauxhall. With four-on-the-floor and 1300 incredible ccs it was a steady cruiser, with surprisingly nice seats, and a perky personality in the twisties on which I was to be supervised as I’d only got a provisional at the time.

(Not actual Cavalier) A reliable old nail nonetheless

The Dales…the best driving roads around?

No matter! Anyone who has grown up loving cars, anyone whose first words were mum, dad, and mini would be able to enjoy any car in any situation. Apart from a Mitsubishi Carisma, of course. The screams of my co-pilot’s went unheeded as the old rusty nipper was hustled barely within the limits of my talent through the Yorkshire Dales north of and surrounding Skipton. I feel privileged to have spent some of my formative driving days in that area with those roads and I’m sure they informed my current driving style, particularly in terms of the importance of knowing how big your car is. And that farmers and taxi drivers drive on single-track lanes with no lights when it gets dark.

After some lessons in a lovely new (for the time) Fiesta Ghia with a crap instructor, who thought motion sickness was something to do with your stomach moving forwards and backwards, it was time to do the theory again. With this duly despatched it was time to move back to the Midlands and take the full test again. Basically the new examiner guy used to be a skateboarder, I was a skateboarder, so we got talking and it was just a great time to be in a car. He was relaxed because I was relaxed and it was a formality really.

Since then there has only been one piece of advice to give out to people looking to pass their test – if you can make the examiner guy relaxed then that is ninety percent of the battle. Just don’t bump any kerbs. Or run anyone over.

A few years have passed, think ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd, and in the early days I couldn’t believe my luck that someone had given me a license! Every time I turned the key in whatever the parents had at the time there was a thrill of excitement and an appreciation of the gift, the privilege, that is driving. After a while this became a weekly realisation. About a year after that it was every month or so, and then it simply petered out into a random and occasional thing which might occur on the A417 by Swindon in a beautiful sunset on a hot summer night.

These moments are brilliant, really, and I hope you know something of what I mean. Rare as they are these days, like a non-Vettel win, they are all the sweeter when they do come along and they really lift you up out of just driving. This year I can think of at least one such moment and, of all places, it happened in the Dales and this time I was driving a relatively proper car in my E30 325i so the curves came to me and the hills were flattened in a straight-six wail. My passenger was not as impressed as me but still appreciated that I was keeping it safe on their behalf and that they had some grab-handles to secure themselves with.

The thing about that trip is that I was anticipating it, I’d been looking forward to it for months since booking the trip to a friends wedding. It was great, really great, it was so lucky to have caught the good weather and the dry roads. The journey down home from Darlington to Reading brought another surprise in 33mpg and knocking an hour off the projected time. Unfortunately that car is now in the garage for at least another week in anticipation of being able to pass its MOT and we have been blessed with the in-law’s runabout.

This is fine and we are all familiar with the benefits of a cheap knacker to nip about in and this is no exception. Anyway, last Monday the wife was dragged into another corporate cricket match somewhere in leafy Berkshire and needed a lift back home from the pub. Got the pub on the map, got the route lodged in my brain, got the tunes pouring from the speakers and tootled off down the road, down the A4 past Theale, right a bit, left a bit, then along to Yattendon.

The road I found past that innocuous-sounding ‘left a bit’ brought a smile to my face which lifted my heart out of simply driving and on to another level of experience and joy. This does not happen to me more than once every year but it did happen last Monday. It happened big-time. The road turned on-camber, it flicked into near hairpins, it flowed from leafy ditch to luscious hedge to tree-covered crest which revealed a beautiful sunset bathing the main road through the old village of Bradfield in a creamy gold.

It was an extra joy to drive because the car I was driving seemed to be made for it. The plucky little 1.4 206 with dents on every panel and an unreliable but cheerful nature was, as we all should know, blessed with a fine-handling chassis which was more than a match for the bends which came thick and fast. It really demonstrated everything which you could expect, lift-off oversteer, powering out of corners where the E30 would have spun, and just dying to lift a rear wheel around the tighter bits. Not even the rough surface in some parts could unsettle that thing.

The Peugeot 206 might not be exotic, but it still offers thrills

It really was uncanny, that car. You’d probably have to be there to believe it, but on that evening, with those tunes, the empty roads, and the awesome sky, I’m pretty sure you’re prepared to take my word for it. Now obviously it will be a different road when the E30 tackles it but it is certain to retain its ability to thrill and explode my pleasure nodes.

Having simply got into a crappy car in order to pick up my wife from a triumphantly parochial cricket match in a quiet village on a Monday evening to end up having met a new life-long friend to which I will keep returning in whatever retro or classic car I’m driving is something I’m going to look forward to again and again. It helps that Yattendon is also home to a brewery which was another of the evening’s pleasant discoveries, but that’s almost beside the point; I’d already fallen in love by that point.

The point is that yes, there are still ‘FANTASTIC! I CAN DRIVE A CAR!’ moments in life, they can be planned and enjoyed and remembered. But the greatest thrills come when they’re totally unexpected at the wheel of a eurobox on its last legs on a leafy lane in Berkshire. Yorkshire Dales? They are great – but they are four hours drive away. The lanes surrounding the M4 have nearly just as much to offer no matter what you drive them in.


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