From the archives: driving an Ariel Atom to the Arctic Circle
A throwback to 2005, when Tom Ford thought it would be a good idea to take a track car to the beautiful, inhospitable wilderness of the Arctic Circle…
I am frozen meat. My weak, temperate circulation waved the white flag some 30 feet from Norwegian customs, and at 60 feet I couldn’t feel my feet. An hour in and 30 miles covered, my legs below the knee and my hands might as well be plastic.
My senses seem to be a bit muddled, because at one point I swear that my feet are bleeding; that my boots are full of blood. I try not to think about it and desperately mumble a confused version of Captain Sensible’s Happy Talk into my helmet while ice clogs the inside of my visor. Lifting the plastic to wipe it clear, the tears in my eyes freeze solid, scratching my eyeballs with unforgiving, vicious little crystals. My nose hair stiffens, my lips crack, and a stray lock of slightly sweaty hair locks solid, flash-frozen. Fifty miles in, I whimperingly pull over to discuss the trip with Matt, Sim and Lee – the support crew in the Land Rover. We are, quite patently, not going to make it the 1,000-miles to the Arctic Circle. Not in an Ariel Atom. Not at this time of year.
This feature was first published in Issue 140 of Top Gear magazine (2005)
Images: Lee Brimble
It all seemed so easy from the comfortable refuge of four pints of cider. We would spend a few days driving to the Arctic Circle in a car quite obviously not designed to do so. Like an Ariel Atom. We would wrap up warm, take some nice pictures and be home in time for tea and sticky-buttered crumpets. In a nod to preparation we had a pair of race batteries installed under the pointy nose, topped up the anti-freeze and asked Ariel to change the standard, almost cut-slick Avon tyres for something more aggressive. We also got specialist equipment suppliers The North Face to kit us out with suits designed to survive Himalayan exposure, and ended up looking like Bibendum after a Chernobyl city break. Roof provided a funky-looking helmet and we scored a heated waistcoat and gloves from the guys at Ariel – courtesy of a company called Klan – which plugged direct into a rewired Atom. Land Rover gave us an expedition-spec Disco 3 with a fridge in the back. We took that to be a joke. To be honest, we thought we’d overkilled the equipment, but that it’d look great in the pictures. We thought that would be enough.
Fuelled on thoughts of Boy’s Own-style adventure, we sallied forth to Newcastle for the 19-hour ferry trip to Kristiansand on the southern edge of Norway, planning to be back within a few days. We were attracting plenty of interest wherever we stopped, especially when we rocked up at the Royal Docks and encountered real Norwegians. At first we laughed at the little sucking noises they made through the teeth. The twisted-up purse of the lips that signified both incredulity and the prospect of reading about us in the local newspaper. People kept looking at me with the kind of sad, remorseful look you might expect if you told someone you had a terminal disease. ‘Oh dear’, said their eyes, ‘how awful for you’. Extravagantly mustachioed Norwegian men strode up to the car, inspected the blatantly stud-less tyres and announced: ‘You are doing this? In that? Now? You are crazy! No, actually, I think you are stupid.’ We laughed, with only a slight edge. It wasn’t so bad, was it? The trip to Newcastle had been OK, to be honest.
Twenty-one hours later, we’re checking the return ferry times and trying to think of a plausible excuse for only getting as far as Oslo. ‘We didn’t want to die’ seems a favourite, followed by ‘I’m really fond of my fingers... and having the ability to hold things’. It doesn’t help. We have to keep going, at least for a bit. Have to try. It’s hard though; the Ariel slips, scrabbles and spins along roads composed solely of sheet ice and snowy fluff as lorries stamp quickly past on studded tyres. A two-hour stint feels as if you’ve been battered senseless and fingers become randomly, painfully numb. Toes. I remember toes.
The countryside is a dirty blizzard of white, nothing to see except dual carriageway and the occasional Colgate-white shock of sunlight. There is no distance view. Thinking slows, brains take longer to engage and hatred for the evil so-and-sos in the warm Land Rover festers. Local police prick up their collective ears, not entirely sure the Atom is road legal, and end up smiling wryly at these orange puffer-suited, crazy Brits, trekking to the Arctic Circle in a collection of motorsport scaffolding. Our smiles are starting to look a little less broad and a whole lot more forced. The temperature, according to the Discovery’s gauge, is dropping to -10. Chemical heat pads are stuffed into gloves and boots, two balaclavas are worn under helmets and still we freeze. The suits and jackets are keeping our torsos and legs warm, but the chill oils itself through the gloves and boots and creeps up arms and legs. Like being dipped in icy treacle, feet and fingertips first. It sucks.
We reach Oslo the first night and decide not to turn back quite yet because we aren’t quitters. Some mutual backslapping occurs for getting this far, a moment of hubris, and we think seriously about lying about getting there. We decide not to, and it proves to be yet another bookmark in our litany of daft. Overnight, the temperature drops to -32 and both headlights on the Atom shatter from the cold – and that’s without wind chill; with it, at 60mph, sitting in the full blast of an Atom’s bare frontage, you’re looking at a continuous -55. Matt phones a friendly GP to ask what the first signs of frostbite are, and we all listen intently to the answer, inspecting fingertips surreptitiously for the tell-tale white spots. Everyone makes semi-pointed calls to loved ones. We may be some time.
Confusingly, Trondheim doesn’t look too far away on a large-scale map, and, as dawn breaks bright and clear, we step on up the E6 toward it with a hope in our hearts. We’ve discovered shorter stints in the Atom, followed by periods with our feet stuffed into the Landie’s rear heater vents might be a way of preventing ourselves being referred to as ‘Stumpy’ in the pub, post-trip. And it helps that, as the roads slowly degrade into shiny pistes, the views pull their socks up, encouraging us around the next bend. They become proper showstoppers. Rough, aggressive pitbull geography. Suddenly, the Atom feels small and fragile in a country that has no time for the comforts of summer. We stop in a garage at the side of the road, and fall into bed exhausted at 9pm, just past Trondheim. It feels as if we’ve been going for three weeks. It’s been three days.
I wake up to find Matt phoning the ferry company and staring bleakly at fatly graceful snowflakes settling on every available surface outside our window. We’ve already missed our boat home, and the next one isn’t until Sunday, so we might as well keep going as far as we can. The next stop is, potentially, a place called Mo-I-Rana, some 20 miles short of the Circle. We don’t really expect to get there, but the roads seem good so we start early. Soon we’re down to 25mph, the Ariel reduced to a crawl along a slick line of glass-ice between two walls of snow. With 32-tonne spike-tyred lorries charging the other way, the horror of being forcibly introduced to their ice-encrusted bull bars should you spin is a Swarovski vision.
You don’t fall asleep. After a particularly long stint, co-driver Matt gets out of the car in some distress, ranting about the many forms of death currently stalking us. I offer inane pleasantries and fail to mention, or indeed laugh hysterically at, the half-inch long icicles on his eyebrows. He was wearing a full-face helmet.
Eventually, after too many hours of almost Zen-like Atom driving, it becomes clear that if we put in the hours and take our time we might just make it. We’re 100 miles from Mo-I-Rana, about 120 miles from the Arctic Circle and it’s late afternoon. We decide to make a break for it and try to beat the impending weather. I take the wheel, start following one of the many lorries tracking their non-stop way up the mountains. It all starts to go a bit pear-shaped as we enter a tunnel, mainly because I see an opportunity to overtake. Half way down, and on the wrong side of the road, I hit black ice and start to slide. Puckering every orifice simultaneously, I flail from full left lock to full right lock twice, losing speed all the time, before clipping the rear mudguard of the lorry with the front cycle wing of the Atom and spinning clear. For what seemed like half a minute all I could see was unfeeling, grinding lorry wheel. If I was a cat, I’d be hastily chalking off another couple of lives.
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Four hours later and the velvet blackness is total. No street lights, no stars. The Circle does not exist on the Land Rover’s satnav, and what we thought to be 20-miles is, in fact, 50. We’re still 50-miles away. Another two hours. My sense of humour fails, I scream, shout, cry like a baby. Throw my helmet on the floor. I must cross the line myself. Tonight. But I’m bloody hurting, or I would be, if I could feel anything in my lumpen limbs. Everyone looks at the floor, unsure of what to say. I’m acting like a snotty child, but I can’t cross the line in the support truck, not after all this.
Two-and-a-half hours later, on the fourth day of the trip, the quality of the acoustics changes inside my icy helmet and the road becomes a strip of white in absolute blackness, like an angel’s bridge over some lost landscape, the Atom’s lights revealing nothing but drifting snow and a strip of road.
And then I see the sign. The Arctic Circle sign. And I cross it, in an Ariel Atom, in winter. Bloody hell, we made it.
With very little energy left to congratulate each other, we stay at a little truckers’ guest house nearby and in the morning trek back up to the Circle to see what we missed in the dark. No trees, no houses, nothing. Suddenly you enter the tundra, and the bleakness and desolation is complete. But it’s also incredibly, heartbreakingly beautiful. The two posts that mark the Arctic Circle’s path are the only landmarks, the rest a waveform of white, an endless sine-wave of winter in all directions. The superlatives dry up and we’re reduced to wandering around mouthing ‘wow’ at each other like senile goldfish.
An hour of taking in the view later, and we point the cars south, ready for the return slog. The Atom hasn’t missed a beat in all these tortuous miles, the Discovery has been our warmth and refuge, our bubble of sanity. But once we made it here, we completed the puzzle, adventure complete. It has been a vivid thing, this drive. But the only way I’m ever going to do something as daft as this again is if Hell suddenly freezes over.
And no, that’s not a challenge.