When it comes to car-related rites of passage, we petrolheads are spoilt for choice. Whether it’s passing your test, buying your first motor, topping 100mph, attempting your first powerslide (hopefully not swiftly followed by your first shunt), or maybe even starting your first race, all are moments never to be forgotten.
The trouble is by their very nature these ‘firsts’ are also unrepeatable; intense flashes of euphoria or adrenalin that mark significant waypoints in our four-wheeled journeys through life. However, by my reckoning there’s one great automotive experience that possesses an appeal that never wanes. I’m talking about that most romanticised of automotive activities: the road trip.
Having spent the last 25 years working (okay, I use the term loosely) as a motoring journalist I’ve enjoyed driving more than my fair share of fabulous cars in some truly extraordinary places. In that time I’ve just about managed to get supercars and speed for speed’s sake out of my system; the latter being a blessing only age and the need to pay a mortgage can bestow. I’ve also developed a keener sense of the cars that best express my taste, but I’m pleased to say I’ve never managed to shake the effervescent feeling of anticipation and wonderment that are part and parcel of covering big miles by car.
Sometimes it’s the destination rather than the journey that makes the process special. These are the workmanlike road trips taken out of necessity rather than indulgence. Of these I always enjoy driving to Dijon, Nürburgring or Spa, even though the routes are comprised almost entirely of boring motorways. Throwing a kit bag and crash helmet in the boot ahead of a race weekend might have something to do with the elevated spirits, but the outbound and homeward drives always provide greater opportunity for anticipation and reflection than rushing to catch a flight.
There was a time when driving through France was endlessly enjoyable, the temptation of near-empty autoroutes fuelled by the not entirely delusional belief that the 130km/h speed limit didn’t apply to us Brits. Especially if you were driving to Le Mans in the middle of June. They did of course, but the chances of getting pinged at the péage booths was as slim as the Gendarmerie’s wheezy old Renaults were of catching you in the act. These were innocent times to indulge guilty pleasures.
Perhaps that’s why I have fond memories of many a dash to the South of France. Often as part of a tasty magazine group test convoy and always going quickly, there was something magical about making such rapid progress down the appropriately named Autoroute du Soleil, in much the same way that climbing out of the car for fuel stops and emerging into the summer sun’s increasingly stifling embrace served as a kind of proximity meter as we homed in on the Riviera.