Clarkson on: his greatest ever drive
I think there’s a consensus that driving is only good fun when the sun’s out, the roads are empty and there are no cameras. In other words, driving is only ever really good fun when you’re in France.
It’s true. The recent race from our Top Gear studio to Monte Carlo in an Aston Martin DB9 was epic. Satisfying too because, contrary to what you saw on television, I arrived in Monaco 95 minutes before James and Richard wheezed into town on the train.
Other good drives? I shall never forget taking a Jeep Wrangler over the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, or an E-type from one side of Spain to the other. And to prove my theory about the importance of blue skies and empty roads, one of the best times I ever had was blasting through a deserted Portuguese forest in a Toyota Starlet.
This month, I disproved the theory with one of the greatest drives ever. None of the ingredients were clichés. The sun wasn’t shining. I wasn’t driving the latest whizz-bang white line snorter. There were loads of cameras. The traffic was awful. It was a Tuesday evening. And all I could find on the radio was some harridan, droning on about not eating lettuce in Mexico.
She was so dull that I turned her off, and turned up the wick just a little bit on my Jag.
It was an XKR with the full drug dealer kit: big wheels, a crap ride, and a colour that could be described as British Racing Green but was more a sort of Cheshire Bling.
Still, no one could see me in it. Partly because I was at the far end of Wales where there are no people, and partly because it was dark. And throwing it down, cold, windy and utterly, utterly miserable. To make matters worse, I’d been up since dawn, filming in the pissing rain, and home was at least four hours away.
As a little garnish, I’d misread the map leaving Saundersfoot, or wherever the hell I was, and wound up on a sea wall in some godforsaken hell-hole, where all the signposts were in Welsh. By the time I eventually found the right road, I felt like those inmates at Camp X-Ray. Dejected. Lonely. Miserable. And too far from my bed.
So to blow away the blues, I turned up the wick even more. And with the supercharger whistling like a demented milkman, went berserk. On the M4, sheets of water cascaded across the carriageway, so every now and again the rear end would kick sideways with a sickening lurch.
“Me, fighting a bolshy car, biblical weather and 400 years of under-investment in the roads. That’s what made this special”
And to compound the problem, every time I emerged from the lea of an escarpment, the wind would thud into the side like a depth charge.
I needed to be wide awake. Also, it’d have been good if I’d had a rudimentary knowledge of Welsh. When one of those digital motorway warning boards is showing a collection of consonants, it’s downright dangerous. Surely, if the message is important enough to be flashed up there, it’s important that everyone should be able to read it. ‘DFRGHLLYLLYH’, it said, as I belted down to the Severn Bridge, feeling like the commander of a U-boat.
Back in England, the traffic jammed up like week-old cereal on the bottom of an unwashed bowl. The guy in front braked every 15 seconds like clockwork and then, just when I’d became used to the metronomic pulse, he’d switch and brake randomly, just when I expected it least. Had the Jag been equipped with guns, I’d have sawn him in half.
Soon though, it was time to turn off the M5 and head for home. To celebrate the moment, the rain stopped falling in drops or stair-rods and started coming down in sheets. Even with the wipers going at full tilt, I could barely see where I was going.
And now with a camber to worry about, the Jag’s rear end became livelier than a terrier’s tail at feeding time. Time and time again, the nearside back wheel would drop into one of the potholes at the side of the road, sending a massive shudder through my spine. Had there been rivets, they all would have flown out. It was so like a submarine in there, I was surprised the glass on the instruments didn’t shatter.
A Jag is supposed to cushion you from the road and provide a safe haven for the weary motorist. But that R on a sports suspension and Humbrol-thin tyres was a bastard. It wanted to let me know just how much effort it was making to stay straight. Sometimes, I got the distinct impression that it wanted me dead.
A sane man would have checked into the nearest pub until the storm passed. But I kept my foot down because, strangely, I was enjoying myself. This was not me and the machine working together to create all those physical sensations we enjoy from a good drive. This was me, on my own, fighting a bolshy car, biblical weather and about 400 years of underinvestment in the roads.
I was also fighting other road users. Sensibly, everyone going my way had slowed to a crawl so I figured it was always safe to overtake. On the basis that everyone going the other way would have slowed to a crawl as well.
It seemed to work. Occasionally, I would see a starburst of halogen light smearing across the windscreen but it was impossible to tell how fast the car was going, or whether it was a car at all. It could have been a spaceship. All I know is that I pulled out to overtake the car in front many times and there was no sickening thud.
When I finally crunched into my drive, I felt absolutely drained, mentally knackered. The next day, I was stiff. I suppose I’d been tensed up like a piano wire for the whole journey, waiting for the impact that never came. And that’s what made this drive so special. They say you never feel more alive than when you’re staring death in the face. I believe it. And if you had been out that night, in a hurry and in that Jag, you’d believe it too.
You can keep your sunny days and your perfectly tuned Ferraris. Real drivers do it in the rain.