Andrew Frankel: Back on the road

“I was the general, the wheel and pedals my officers. I crashed a lot back then...”

Like many of you, I am back on the road, and how good it feels.

But it also feels as though something has changed, maybe not for long, but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

For it seems I’ve spent half a lifetime taking the fact I can drive entirely for granted. And I don’t mean simply the freedom the car provides, which has made it the greatest single liberating force in the history of mankind. I mean driving.

Feelings I recall from my teens are resurfacing. The feel of a steering wheel in my hands, the thought of the tonne or more of fast moving metal it directs. When I was a child learning to drive, we all had our roles: I was the general, in charge of everything, the steering wheel and pedals were my junior officers whose job it was to take my orders and issue them to the men, which made up every other mechanical component in the car. This way we would advance together in a coordinated, organised fashion and engage the enemy as one.

The enemy being of course any other road user who had the temerity to hinder our progress. This approach may explain why I crashed quite a lot back then. But it’s made me wonder, why I love cars and driving.

For decades I’ve not questioned that. I just do, it’s part of who I am. But this enforced layoff and the gradual re-introduction to the road has provided pause for thoughts and re-examination of what motivates me. And it turns out that yes, of course I love driving fast and hope with all my heart that there will be at least some racing before this season’s out. But more than any of that I just love driving. Fast or slow, it doesn’t matter.

I’m back in command of my troops and, for now at least, that’s all I care about. I wonder also if time away from our cars is going to make us re-evaluate which of their characteristics are more important to us. I am certainly going to think harder than ever about how I go about the business of assessing cars. Is it good enough, for instance, for a car to be best in its class, if that class is populated by lazily designed pot-boilers because that’s the sort of rubbish that can easily and profitably be foisted upon an undemanding public? Increasingly I think not.

I can remember as a cub road tester 30 years ago, motoring hacks of what is now my age reminding me that ‘there’s no such thing as a bad car any more.’ I thought it rubbish then and I still do. I have always tried to judge cars by a single measure: how good are they at the job they are designed to do? The evidence of simply being successful in the market is insufficient at best, misleading at worst: I am always powerfully reminded of the Ford Escort MkIV: Britain’s best-selling car years ago, it is also one of the worst cars I have driven.

I increasingly crave simplicity, which is why I find myself trying to figure out how to get a Caterham back into my life. I’m not quite there yet, but I am working on it. I’ll let you know what happens.

It saddens me so much that there will be no public racing at Goodwood this year. It was my lucky lot to be editor of this title back in 1998 when racing returned to the track after a 32-year hiatus and I remember the excitement of the build up.

The cover of the September issue carried a single image of Graham Hill sliding the Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 250 GTO through Madgwick en route to victory in the 1963 Tourist Trophy and the simple headline: ‘Want To See Racing Like This Again?’ It was one my prouder moments from my years at the helm. And it turned out you did, because 80,000 people turned up to that Revival, which I’d billed ‘the motor sport event of the decade’.

One of them was me. I wanted to enter into the full spirit of the occasion, a desire facilitated by Frank Sytner, who kindly lent me his Frazer Nash Sebring not only to drive there and back, but to race, too. So I lolloped down the well-trodden path from London, taking the Petworth road at Milford, pausing for a pint in Chiddingfold and arriving at the circuit barely able to believe my eyes at the transformation that had been wrought there. The next day I lined up for the inaugural Freddie March Memorial race, quite literally as it turned out, all the drivers standing on little white circles opposite their cars and performing a full Le Mans start before regrouping and racing getting underway.

The car was a museum piece, neither it nor I was competitive and something failed – a head gasket I think – causing the first of what would turn out to be many Goodwood DNFs. It didn’t matter: I was there, part of it. I’ll never forget. Goodwood needs your support. COVID has had, and I use their words, ‘a catastrophic impact on our ability to operate’ and the Goodwood Supporters’ Association, started 25 years ago to help return racing to the track, is open for business once more. Beyond that, book tickets for Goodwood next year: I expect the atmosphere to be better than any since that Revival in 1998.

Lastly a word on the Ineos Grenadier, a car designed to fill the niche of the original Land Rover Defender. It looks like a Defender, and has a BMW engine, a ladder chassis and live axles. But a planned new factory in Wales, which could have offered jobs for redundant Ford workers from the axed Bridgend plant, is now on hold. It is a brave undertaking and I wish all involved the very best of luck with it, whatever the next step.

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