Cars on British roads


As moments go it was one of the more surreal of recent times. It was 1.00am and I was sitting in a fold-up chair in a pit garage, clad in fireproof material from head to toe, contemplating the fact that once again the graveyard shift of the Silverstone 24 Hours had fallen into my lap. The weather was horrendous, cars were pinging off the circuit left, right and centre and the best I could hope for was not send the Aston Martin I was sharing the same way.

“Ah, Frankel,” said a familiar voice. An apparition closely resembling a chum who also earns his living testing cars had appeared over my right shoulder. On closer inspection it turned out to be a real person. “Got bored, thought I’d come and see how you were getting on.” That this involved a four hour return drive through the night in appalling conditions to see me for what would be less than five minutes before I got in the car troubled him not at all.

“Now,” he said. “This AMG GT – what do you think?” Struggling to get my head back into road test mode I recalled that when I’d driven Mercedes’ new super coupé in bright Californian sunshine from San Francisco to Laguna Seca and then flung it around the track there, I’d thought it sensationally good, a real driver’s car but not one in which to take too many liberties, a facet of its character I quite liked.

“Hmm,” he grunted, “wait until you try one over here: you may find you alter your view.” At which point my crew chief started making that ‘put your hat on’ gesture all those who do long distance racing know so well and there our conversation ended. But the impression left was indelible: my friend had not been overwhelmed by the AMG GT, in fact he appeared barely whelmed.

So now I have driven the car on British roads both wet and dry and I can see what he was referring to. I don’t actually agree with him because I think the ride quality is good enough (just) on its adjustable dampers for its highly sporting remit and the handling still massively involving. But what is undoubtedly true is that it felt very different on a wet Welsh road to the dry highways of the Golden State.

This is a perennial issue. Indeed I refer to it in the current issue of the magazine where I discovered in England shortcomings in the structural rigidity of the new Ferrari California I never found driving its predecessor on smooth European roads.

For European car designers, our road system is something most would rather not think about. Not only do we drive on the wrong side, but our A and B roads are peppered with unpredictable surface and camber changes not to mention inconsistent drainage properties – and that’s when they’re new – thereafter a guaranteed lack of proper maintenance will introduce an element of randomness sufficient to reduce entire chassis development teams to tears.

Yet most manufacturers seem to make very little effort to make sure its cars behave correctly over here, despite the fact that for most of them it will be their most important European export market. This makes the business of assessing a car abroad extraordinarily difficult, because you can surmise that a car with merely reasonable ride quality in Europe or the US will be problematic when you eventually get to drive it in the UK, but can you conclude that will definitely be the case?

You cannot, because all cars are affected to different degrees: if you drove a current Porsche 911 GT3 on smooth European roads the prospect of doing the same in Britain might well make you fear for the integrity of your dental work. But in fact it’s fine. A BMW M4 is not. So you report as you find and run the risk of being more complimentary to a car than it deserves. Or critical.

Some manufacturers make real efforts to tune their cars for British roads: for years Audi has brought right-hand drive prototypes to the UK along with not just its chassis engineers, but also board-level top brass to make sure their cars are set up properly for the UK, which makes the fact that so many have attracted such criticism for their ride quality even more hard to fathom. But I admire the effort.

Likewise Vauxhall, whose cars are developed in Germany where they are called Opels, but then come to Britain and are assessed by UK chassis teams who specify different spring rates and steering maps for the cars sold here.

But if you really want to drive a car in the UK that’s fit for British roads, there is no substitute to driving one that has not been merely adapted to that purpose, but built for it in the first place. To me there is no doubting why Jaguars, Land Rovers, Lotuses and even Aston Martins feel so at home here, and that is simply because they are.

Nor is it difficult to see that while a car developed in Europe may not work in the UK, one developed here will work any damn place you take it. It’s not that car chassis cannot be made to work in both environments, it’s that their creators cannot be bothered to invest the time and money to ensure that they do.

And while part of me laments the fact, another is aware that while this corporate myopia exists on the continent and overseas, the reputation of British-based car manufacturers as creators of some of the very best riding and handling cars of all will continue only to grow.


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