When did you last see a nice old car on the road? I can’t even remember. Of course there are reasons: it’s the wrong time of year and all the pubs are shut so you don’t even see those hardy souls who might normally venture out to a noggin ’n’ natter with their local car club.
But I think there’s something else going on: obviously we’re not allowed to go anywhere unless the journey is essential, yet there’s no rule determining what you might drive on such occasions. And in any other year I would often fire up some elderly crock of mine and wobble off to the supermarket even in winter, just to give it a run if there was not too much salt about. So why don’t I use an old car to, say, drop off some essentials at the in-laws? It’s because I fear being judged.
It’s ridiculous I know, and having spent so long convincing myself I really don’t care what others think of me, it’s disappointing to discover that, actually, I do. But if I saw some neighbour heading out in a classic car with a big grin smeared across their face, would I automatically assume that this was an imaginative way in which to conduct an entirely essential journey? Or would I in fact conclude that they were not taking this crisis seriously, were breaking the law and putting us all in danger? I can’t promise it wouldn’t be the latter. So the old dears stay in the shed.
But what I have found is that their absence makes me completely readjust my definition of what today constitutes an interesting car. Cars I’d never even have looked at I might now actually cross the road to scrutinise. Cars I’ve found myself peering at in just the last week include a Mk1 Mazda MX-5, an Alfa Romeo 147 (not even a GTA) and a rather dog-eared 996 generation of Porsche 911. And being human and therefore a member of a highly adaptable species, I’ve found my interest thoroughly piqued by such modest machinery so I’m missing the true classics and exotica far less than I’d have imagined. What will happen when I next see something truly rare and special, like a Dino perhaps? I’ll probably explode.
It’s not just old cars I feel guilty about driving at the moment, it’s any car. Every time I go anywhere I carefully rehearse what I’m going to say to any member of the law-enforcement community who might ask me where I’m heading. There is no need for this at all, because I am allowed to travel if it is essential. It is sadly essential that I earn a living, and I cannot drive cars at home. But once acquired, a guilty conscience is seldom shed.
I still felt criminal setting out for Norfolk from the Wye Valley, a journey fully 500 miles there and back. But I was going to Lotus to drive Colin Chapman’s old Esprit and experience the last Elise, which I will review next month.
“This restoration is up there with that of Jim Clark’s Lotus 38 ”
I also got to spend some time with Colin’s son Clive who will probably need no introduction to an audience such as this. Like everyone else in the sport, Clive’s Classic Team Lotus has been grounded for much of the last year, but he’s pinning hopes on some semblance of normal service being resumed in time for the Monaco Historic Grand Prix at the end of April, at which he will be running no fewer than eight cars.
In the meantime his hands are full finishing off the restoration of the Lotus 56B. This car was the unique F1 evolution of the Type 56 Indycar, one of which took pole at the Brickyard in 1968 before retiring in the race. The F1 car retained the 56’s Pratt & Whitney PT6 gas turbine engine and its Ferguson four-wheel-drive system, and had it been ready to race at the same time as the Indycar, maybe it would have done a little better and evolved further.
In the event the car was only wheeled out in 1971 and started three world championship grands prix. At Zandvoort Dave Walker slid off in the wet, while at Silverstone Reine Wisell was so far behind at the finish he wasn’t even classified. But at Monza, a circuit well suited to gas turbine characteristics, Emerson Fittipaldi came home eighth, a feat almost completely ignored due to the battle out front turning into the closest, fastest grand prix in history.
Clive says that for him its restoration is right up there with that of the Lotus 38 Jim Clark raced in the 1967 Indianapolis 500. He hopes the 56B will be ready for Emmo to drive later this year. What a sight that would make.
One interesting old car seen near me was a liquid yellow Phase 2 Renault Sport Clio V6 – that mad mid-engined thing engineered by Tom Walkinshaw Racing and produced in the early part of this century. I know this because I was in it, purely for evaluative purposes you understand.
It’s one of those cars that was pretty rubbish even when new by any objective criteria: overweight, underpowered, tricky on the limit and too expensive for its shabby interior. But I just loved being in it then and still do. It’s quite hard to quantify why, other than to say it belongs to a rare and dwindling species of cars designed by free thinkers not to serve a certain apparent market demand, nor even to homologate a competition version, but just because they can. It felt not just wilfully unconventional, but somehow special as a result. The final extinction of such machines is just one of many things I fear from our increasingly electrified future.
A former editor of Motor Sport, Andrew splits his time between testing the latest road cars and racing (mostly) historic machinery
Follow Andrew on Twitter @Andrew_Frankel