'What I remember most of the Uhlenhaut Coupé was its dreadful gearbox': Andrew Frankel

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Every year until Covid struck, myself and a few journalist mates would meet for a weekend of driving and drinking, very much in that order. How wonderful it was to resume after a two-year hiatus. The cars gathered were eclectic to say the least.

I drove my old crossflow Caterham Seven from Wales to West Sussex where I met friends toting a BMW M635CSi, a Rover P6 and a 1972 Corvette Stingray with the rare LT1 engine upgrade, manual gearbox and limited-slip diff.

Once assembled we never drove our own cars again until it was time to leave. We had good roads but actually this wasn’t about driving fast; it was about the joy found in simply understanding the dramatically different natures of these machines. I knew about the Caterham, and the BMW was as I remembered it. Even the Stingray, my previous exposure to which had been a short drive in a poor example some decades ago, was as I imagined it. The surprise was the Rover. I’d always been quite sniffy about the P6 in general, and those lacking V8 engines in particular. Like this one. In fact it was lovely, so refined, comfortable and relaxing to drive, and still accurate and pleasant to steer. A quality Leyland product. Who knew? Not me.

Had I instead spent my time howling around a race track in something with 600bhp, a rollcage and sticky tyres, I’d have had a very different experience. But a more enjoyable one? I’ll get back to you about that. I must be getting old.

Visiting Lotus to drive the new Emira (see page 42), I was glad to see my old mate Gavan Kershaw wander over and ask what I thought of his latest creation. To call Gav part of the Lotus furniture is to understate the extremely obvious. I first met him in the mid- 90s, but his LinkedIn biog says he’s been there since 1988, the same year I joined Autocar, which means he’s been working for the company for considerably longer than did Colin Chapman. Annoyingly he doesn’t look a day over 50. He started out with the famous Beckers, father Roger and son Matt, before the former retired and the latter left for Aston Martin, but for years now the way a Lotus feels and responds has been his domain. And he has ruled it quite brilliantly.

“A quality Leyland product does exist. Who knew? Not me”

Even so I couldn’t say much about the Emira, first because I’d not yet driven it, and second because he turned up in his Esprit GT3 which proved somewhat distracting. One of my all-time favourite Lotus cars, the term ‘GT3’ means something very different today, but back then it denoted a cut-price Esprit, lightened and with its classic twin-cam four-cylinder motor back at its original 2-litre capacity. Think of it as a Lotus Esprit Club Sport and you’ll not be too wide of the mark. It weighed just 1240kg, some 150kg less than the Esprit V8 and, bar the almost unicorn-rare Sport 300, was the best handling Esprit I ever drove. It was a better car by a distance than the V8 and, at £39,450, was a staggering £20,000 cheaper. Gavan has promised me a go in it next time we meet; I shall be holding him to it.

But it was another new car unveiled this month that made me ponder why more manufacturers don’t go down this Club Sport route more often. This was the BMW M4 CSL, whose very acronym seems to invite that kind of treatment. But while the new ‘Coupé Sport Leichtbau’ is 100kg lighter than the M4 upon which it is based (not to mention £50,000 more expensive), at 1625kg it is still not a remotely light car.

So why not create a genuinely stripped out version, not tricked up for the track but brought back to basics for the road and sold as a cutprice tempter to the range, like the old Porsche 968 Club Sport? Simply because, as Porsche found out, selling fewer units with lower margins is no way to conduct a car business.

Such a car might make you and I all dreamy-eyed, but out there in the big, bad world, if a sports car has not got more power than the last and an even faster Nürburgring lap time, it’s not worth a damn. Pity, really.

Nine years ago, I went to Stuttgart to drive the very same Uhlenhaut Coupé that has now been sold for £115 million. Even then, and according to Simon Kidston whom I called to chat about it, the only car in the world likely to prove even more valuable was Stirling’s sister ‘722’ 300 SLR roadster.

What do I remember most about driving the coupé other than its beauty, the inimitable sound of its Desmodronic straight-eight motor and the fact they were happy for me to drive as fast as I liked? The gearbox, even more than its dreadful brakes. It sounds easy because the change quality was superb and first and fifth located top left and top right, exactly where you’d find them on a Ford Fiesta.

But…second was not below first, but across the gate and back, then third was directly forward, fourth across the gate and back, fifth directly above it. So if you were in third and pulled straight back to upshift to fourth as you would in said Fiesta, you got second and buzzed the engine. Worse, if you were in fifth and pulled across and back to downchange to fourth, that also gave you second, and spread the motor all over the Untertürkheim test track. Or it would have done had I not exercised extreme caution and mentally double checked every shift before I made it.

The repair bill would have made some reading.

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

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