Taking a Bugatti Veyron across the USA
The full story of TG’s most ambitious road trip ever: from Chicago to LA on Route 66. In a Bugatti Veyron. Talk about going big
"A Boo-gahdi? Are you famous?" On a packed Santa Monica Pier, sprawl of LA to the right, Pacific Ocean to the left, the pneumatic blonde - hair dyed porcelain-white, bosoms overinflated as basketballs, hot pants lacquered to posterior - leans over the Veyron's door, inch-long eyelashes almost brushing my face. "Can I get a ride?"
"Er, no," I reply. "I'm not famous. I'm... English. It's not my car."
Pneumatic Blonde's demeanour switches, flick-knife style, from coquettish to caustic. "Then get off the frickin' pier!" And away she huffs, six-inch heels stomping the boardwalk, in hunt of a man of true wealth and, eventually, a messy, profitable divorce settlement.
And in that instant it pops, the dizzy sense of euphoria, of utter relief, at having delivered a two-million quid, 260mph hypercar - the greatest car in the world, no question - on the biggest, daftest road trip in TG history, 2,404 miles from Chicago to the LA waterfront without damage, speeding ticket or the most retweeted crash in history. Seven days of heady, sun-drenched strangeness, and it ends with a verbal bitch-slap from a wannabe WAG made of 85 per cent aftermarket parts and with a cleavage running 55psi. But, hey, what great road trip doesn't?
Pictures: Justin Leighton
This feature was originally published in the August 2014 issue of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
It began, of course, at the beginning, two time zones and seven days earlier at the eastern end of Route 66, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Only it didn't, because, in true TG fashion, we failed to find the official start point of Route 66: Jackson Boulevard, a block west of the Chicago waterfront. That road was closed for a skiffle festival or somesuch, so after a half-hour loop downtown and photographer Justin somehow setting the satnav language to Dutch, we figured close was good enough and picked up 66, with its tell-tale brown-shield signs, as it wound south-west out of the city, through suburbs described by estate agents as "up and coming" and by the rest of us as "a trifle stabby". The weather was hot and windy and frantic, weather so annoyed it can't decide what it wants to be.
Through Joliet, home to one of America's nastiest prisons - "DON'T STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS!" - I caught sight of a low, silvery bullet, reflected in a shop window. And then it hit like an electric shock. Bloody Hell I'm Driving A Bugatti Veyron On Route 66. As experiences go, that's not so much bucket list as just... bucket.
The Veyron. The fastest car in the world, the car that crowned Captain Slow a speed-record holder, the car that redefined our grasp of fast. The car we declared, last year, the greatest in TG mag's history. And not just any Veyron, but the Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse, the convertible version of the faster version of the fastest production car in history. A brief reminder, if you needed it: 1,200bhp from an 8.0-litre quad-turbo W16, 1,100lb ft of torque, seven-speed DSG, 4WD, asking price north of two million quid. Officially the GSV will do 0-62mph in 2.5secs, the quarter-mile in 10 flat and 260mph vmax. In pub ammo stakes, that's an atom bomb.
And now, after a decade of industrially shredding the record books, it's nearly time to say goodbye to the Veyron. Late this year or early next, Bugatti will build the last of the planned run of 450 cars, and the Veyron's chapter in history will be closed. We figured it'd be nice to do something to send the big lad off with a bang. We never thought Bugatti would let us drive one the length of the 66. Bugatti did. No mag has ever done anything comparable before, nor will in the future. This is it. The Veyron road trip.Advertisement - Page continues below
Cruising gently through Bloomington-Normal, which sounds like the sort of word parents make up to avoid swearing in front of their kids, what felt most astonishing was how... unastonishing the Veyron felt. Beyond its ludicrous width, it's as easy to drive as an Audi TT, DCT buttering through the changes, throttle forgiving. Roof down, it's even pretty easy to see out of. Really, I don't know why you don't see more on the M25. It's the ideal commuter tool.
Over the lumbering brown Mississippi and into St Louis, Missouri. Once a great port city, St Louis now houses a population barely a third that of its 1950 peak. It felt sad and empty, the Veyron painfully ostentatious against the squalor. Stopped at lights, a rangy guy in a basketball shirt spirited out from a side street.
"What's on the dash?"
"Well," I responded, "there's a speedo, a rev-counter, a little gauge that tells you how much petrol's left..."
"No, man. I mean what's on the dash?" He craned his neck into the cabin. "Two-seventy? Man..."
Ah. The biggest number on the speedometer. "Actually, it does 260mph. It's the fastest convertible in the world."
He looked a little disappointed. "But it says 270 on the dash..."
Missouri felt greener, warmer, funkier, more... southern than Illinois. We stopped for soda at the store beside the World's Largest Rocking Chair. It stands 42ft tall. An old boy in dungarees and a sun-bleached baseball cap sidled up to me.
"Wanna know who built the chair?" he asked.
"Me. I built it."
He paused. "Don't really know." Another pause. He squinted up. "Forty-two feet tall." He wandered off. That's 66 for you.
What is Route 66? At its simplest level, it's - and you may have guessed this one - a road. Born in 1926, it was one of America's first east-west arteries, joining Chicago and the Midwest to distant California. 66's fame, and traffic, mushroomed in the Thirties, as escapees of the Dust Bowl - the farming crisis that rendered much of the Great Plains barren, unfarmable - headed west to California in (often fruitless) search of work, a journey chronicled in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
"66 is the mother road," wrote Steinbeck. "The road of flight." Thousands of refugees from Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas loaded up their jalopies and lumbered across the desert, Route 66 becoming the path, the symbol of America's Depression-era migration west. After becoming the USA's first fully paved highway in 1938, 66 enjoyed a renaissance in the Fifties and Sixties, as newly monied middle America developed a taste for the road trip. Route 66 became the vacation corridor to California, crackling with motels, diners and gas stations. Reduced to irrelevance in later years by modern four-lane freeways, 66 remains - in part at least - ossified in its Sixties prime, a time-capsule metaphor for the freedom of America's West, and the freedom of the car. The original road trip, all 2,400 miles of it.
At vmax, the Veyron could get from Chicago to LA in just under nine hours. Sorry to disappoint, but we didn't vmax it the whole way. This is partly because TopGear's fuel budget doesn't stretch to a 100-litre refill every 52 miles, but mostly because doing 260mph on a public highway is a) a trifle antisocial and b) likely to irk the law- enforcement community somewhat. On almost every highway, local sheriffs hovered like reef sharks in the central reservation, just waiting for the next unsuspecting klutz to wander a few miles an hour over the ludicrously slow speed limit.
Call it an exercise in self-restraint. There's a gauge on the dash telling you exactly how many of the GSV's available 1,200bhp you're utilising at any moment. Most of the time, we'd be employing barely 50bhp. Four per cent of the Bugatti's potential. So you get your kicks where you can find them, and in small doses. Accelerating from an on-ramp up to freeway speeds in the Veyron, I discovered,
is like giving the faintest press to the world's most enormous pair of bellows. The gentlest whoosh of air, and then from 30mph to 75mph in an almost imperceptible blink. A second too long on the throttle, and you'd be looking at a lengthy spell in the state penitentiary, and the close attentions of a mustachioed convict named Bubba.Advertisement - Page continues below
States three and four arrived quickly: a dozen-mile wiggle through the south-eastern nubbin of Kansas, through the once-booming mining town of Galena (famed pre-Prohibition, my guidebook sagely noted, for its "saloons and bawdy houses") and over the border into the red dirt of Oklahoma, and billboard central.
"BEEN ACCUSED OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE?" grinned a plastic-haired, fake-tanned lawyer from an 80-foot roadside erection. "I CAN GET YOU OFF!" You stay classy, America.
"MARRIAGE = ONE MAN + ONE WOMAN," read another, for a church. Followed, below, by: "‘CONFUSED? JUST ASK ME' - GOD." That's right, a billboard with a direct quote from the Almighty.
If you've got the big man on speed-dial, guys, we could use his help sorting out the path of the One True 66. See, as we quickly discovered, 66 isn't really a road. Or at least, not one road. Since its birth in the Twenties, the route underwent near-constant upgrade, with new ‘alignments' arriving every decade or so. But here's the thing. The newer sections didn't always replace the older sections but simply bypassed them instead, the original track relegated to an access road, or to rot into oblivion. Much of it is still there. At any given time, pottering happily down a section of Fifties 66, on your right will be the fissured, concrete remnants of the 1926 original route, while to the left will run a newer section, each with their period array of gas stations and diners. To tackle the ‘original' '26 alignment would require a) some high-grade satellite mapping and b) a mighty sturdy off-roader. For the rest ofus, following 66 involves a continual skip between decades, a drive-through history of America's roads.
Which is the true Route 66? All of them. None of them. In truth, it doesn't really matter. Because Route 66 isn't really a strip of tarmac, it's a patchwork of history, interwoven and overlaid.Advertisement - Page continues below
Adrian, Texas (population 149, classified as a city, go figure) declares itself Route 66's halfway point. Of course, the precise halfway point depends on which wiggles before and after you believe constitute the ‘real' 66, but Adrian seems as good a spot as any. At the self-proclaimed centre (1,139 miles to Chicago, 1,139 to Los Angeles, reads the sign) stands the Midpoint diner, an immaculate slice of Fifties Americana. We stopped for waffles and French toast, and watched tumbleweed bumble its way down the highway, as the diner's owner explained how, after decades in the doldrums, 66 is picking up again, with drivers and bikers from all over the world making the pilgrimage down America's original main street.
Right on cue, a swarm of some 40 bikers - Harleys, leathers, the hum of petrol and triple-cooked sweat - parked up some 50 yards from the Veyron. Uh-oh. I've read Hunter S Thompson's Hell's Angels. I know about these biker gangs and the ‘stompings' they dish out to any ostentatious interlopers on their patch. And you can't interlope much more ostentatiously than with a silver convertible Veyron. Justin and I scrambled from the banquette and out to the car.
The gang's leader - a big fella, maybe six-three, wiry, dirt-brown face and skull bandana - strode over to the Bug, cracking knuckles deliberately. I did my best to look as unthreatening as possible, which, being a short, round man from England, is really quite unthreatening. As the leather-wrapped brute straightened up and shook his head gently from side to side, presumably to loosen the punching muscles, I got ready to sample the taste of Doc Martens.
"Alright, butt, where's this from?"
The leader of the biker gang turned out to be a Welsh accountant named Rhys from Caerphilly. He was tackling 66 with a bunch of other Welsh accountant mates on hired bikes, taking a month to do it, living the full American dream: sleepin' under the stars, cookin' round a log fire, rubbin' talc into saddle-sore buttocks. He offered to trade the Veyron for his battered rental Harley. We politely refused.
Texas was fearsome hot. With no roof on the Veyron and the sun beating straight down, I could feel the skin on my arms crackling like bacon in a griddle pan. Still, provided you've invested in suncream, the Veyron GSV is a fine car for big countries. It cruises quietly, rides easily, makes no demand of its driver. It behaves like a normal car, not a speed freak. Engineering a car to do 260mph is like engineering it to survive a howitzer strike: possible, but expensive and likely to be to the detriment of its other abilities. You want springs and dampers and tyres, steering and brakes that can handle such ludicrous speeds? Then they shouldn't, by rights, be capable of delivering a car that can amble along a freeway as lazily as a Continental GT. But the Veyron, somehow, does.
If we're being picky, the Veyron does suffer a couple of issues. Luggage space, for one. There's a glovebox, a tiny cubbyhole behind the driver's right elbow and that's it for storage. For this reason, I might not recommend it as your sole car. Thankfully most Veyron owners can afford to pay a driver to follow with their luggage. In a Veyron, obviously.
And then there's the radio. The Veyron doesn't have DAB, where all America's decent music output now lives. This left us to survive on FM, which, in the Bible Belt at least, consists solely of stations dedicated to religious zealotry or country music. In deepest Texas, we plumped for the latter - Kumquat Country KQBFCGM or somesuch - where a man with a drawl and guitar was relating the following ditty, called, I believe, ‘Rain Is A Good Thing'. The chorus ran thus:
Rain makes corn,
Corn makes whisky
Whisky makes my baby
Feel a little frisky...
Consider the many processes required to get that song from the inside of that man's head, through a recording studio, to a radio station and eventually onto the airwaves, and you will understand why many believe America's reign as a global superpower may be drawing to an end.
America is big. Even in Texas, one of the more populous central states, you can go an hour without seeing a town. The scenery is vast, relentless. I tried to imagine just how paradisiacal the Dust Bowl escapees of the Thirties must have imagined California to be - or at least how dire the land they were escaping - to keep trudging west in their knackered Model Ts and the like, through the arid, broiling landscape, covering 100 miles a day at best, on the distant promise of new, richer life. Weeks and weeks on the hot, lonely road. Apparently they didn't even have cruise control.
In the UK, or France, or Germany, or any other civilised nation, if you drove 300 miles, you'd be in a completely different place, with a completely different feel - new scenery, new accents, new food. But 300 miles in the USA - in the central and western parts at least - barely registers on the travelometer. Same scenery, same sky. The biggest difference is gas a few cents cheaper or more expensive.
Somewhere near the New Mexico border, we stopped for fuel and something to eat in the biggest town signposted for hours. After 20 minutes of hunting up and down every street, we couldn't find a single restaurant, diner or café. Nothing. At the only gas station, I asked the girl behind the counter if there was anywhere to eat around here.
"Sure," she nodded. "Outta here, do a left, then a right-"
"Left then right, OK."
"Then straight on for about 80 miles, and there's a real good steakhouse on the right."
"Eighty miles. Steakhouse. Real good."
Can you imagine the same conversation if you'd stopped for petrol in, I dunno, Swindon? "Sure, honey, just jump on the M4 and keep going for 80 miles. When you get to London there's a cracking Chinese place on the left." Actually, I've been to Swindon. That might happen.
I found it strangely comforting, the incomprehensible size of it all, the way it renders existence so insignificant. Whatever crisis keeps you awake at 4.30am, you can be sure that Manny from Crevice Ruin, New Mexico, doesn't give a damn about it.
Just before Albuquerque, we swung off 66 and up into the Sandia Mountains in search of corners. A detour, yes, but a necessary one. See, the thing about 66 is that, quite by design, it follows the path of least resistance. It was never conceived as a scenic route of mountain passes and wild ridges, instead following the flattest, easiest route from the Lakes to LA, one accessible to rusty wagons and horses and even on foot. So you have to get your driving kicks off Route 66, and, boy, didn't the Sandia Crest Scenic Highway deliver, a twisting, switchbacked, beautifully surfaced track leaping from the sweltering desert below through cool pine forests and, eventually, to Sandia Crest, some 10,678 feet above sea level. It was the first chance I'd had to truly open the Veyron up. I knew it'd kick, but believe me: nothing prepares you for how hard that kick really is. After three days of the big Bug proving itself as friendly and amenable as any car on the planet, the speed wasn't just shocking but deeply unnerving. It felt a betrayal: like discovering your fluffy, friendly-family labrador is, below the surface, a slavering attack-dog.
It's not so much the Veyron's acceleration from standstill to, say, 60mph, though that's freakish enough in itself. It's what happens beyond that point, when those turbos wake up - sucking in air with an exaggerated, comic-book "whoosh" - and detonate, flinging you on and on until you run out of nerve or scenery or both. It is thrust at its most primal, speed almost beyond comprehension, not only one of the most extraordinary automotive experiences, but one of the most extraordinary experiences full-stop. Once you've felt full throttle in a Veyron, nothing ever seems quite the same.
Past Albuquerque, 66 becomes a greatest hits album of tectonic wonderment: snaking canyons breaking into giant red-rock mesas, stacked like tumbled books atop the desert floor. On the old alignment, far from the freeway, we skimmed past ghost town after ghost town, all grand Art Deco motels and neon-trimmed diners, rusting and scorching slowly into oblivion. They're a curt reminder of the fickleness of fortune. The motel owner of the Fifties would have been cackling at his fine foresight and vision, as carloads of post-war vacationers swept through, disgorging dollars. And then, just a couple of decades later, it was all gone, the rooms and eateries and gas stations rendered redundant as the newly built freeway, an agonising mile or so to the north, swept the masses westwards. Somewhere near Flagstaff, I decided this could be a metaphor for the fickle, fleeting nature of human happiness. In retrospect, I think that was the sunstroke.
The Veyron coped with the heat a whole lot better than I did. Ironic, really, as it was hot air that caused arguably the biggest headache in the Veyron's development all those years ago, specifically the headache of keeping a thousand horsepower of W16 from becoming substantially on fire. The Veyron packs no fewer than 10 radiators, which goes some way to explaining the lack of luggage space. We ran for hours in sizzling, 40°C-plus heat without a murmur. Clearly they cracked that cooling issue.
So extraordinarily normal is the Veyron in many regards, it's easy to forget what a venture into the unknown it was. Remember, even VW didn't know if what it'd set out to achieve was at all achievable: boss Ferdinand Piëch essentially gave his engineers a piece of paper and said, "It has to look like this, have 1,001 horsepower and do at least 249mph. Get a wriggle on." And the engineers said, "Sorry, sir, that's not actually possible." And Piëch said, "Is that my problem?" The dual-clutch gearbox took a team of 75 Ricardo engineers to crack, Michelin developed a whole new tyre to cope with the 100°C demands of 250mph-plus running. The Veyron didn't just push the envelope, it overhauled the entire postage system. No car before or since has redefined automotive possibility so completely.
In Oatman, a dusty, kitschy Wild West town high in the Black Mountains of Mohave County, we were ambushed by a donkey on the high street. I'm not sure what a donkey was doing on the high street, but I suspect the donkey wasn't sure what a Bugatti Veyron was doing in Oatman. Anyhow, he was a lover not a fighter, treating the Veyron to a slobbery kiss on the driver's window before ambling back off to the kerbside to nibble at a scrubby bush. I am fairly sure this makes our Veyron the first to be snogged by an ass.
Down from the mountains, into the desert and Needles, a town straddling the Arizona-California border and one of the hottest, loneliest spots in all of America. At 6pm, the mercury was touching 50°C, and our motel was as oppressive as the heat. Nothing like parking a £2m, 260mph hypercar out the front of your $40 motel room - yellowing sheets, cockroaches scuttling along the floor and something that looks suspiciously like the splashback from a close-quarters shooting adorning the headboard - to engender a heavy identity crisis. "You what?" cackled the motel owner, a morbidly obese women covered in tattoos, ink stretched over distended skin like marker-pen scrawls on a half-filled balloon. "You guys parking a Bu-gardy here? You got security?"
We didn't. Instead of broiling to death and risking carjack by a gang of crowbar-wielding 'roaches, as the sun sank we drove out deep into the desert, where the 66 picks a lonely path far from the interstate. I parked up and watched, maybe 10 miles distant, a freight train of 103 carriages clank its way west over the sand, then sat in silence for an hour, maybe two, contemplating... Veyron-ness.
To engineer a 1,200bhp, 260mph convertible is astonishing enough. To engineer a 1,200bhp, 260mph convertible capable of surviving 2,400 miles of America's toughest conditions - 50° heat, dust storm, donkey attack - is almost inconceivable. The Veyron didn't suffer so much as a warning light: no mechanical jitters, no squeaks, no complaints about the watery fuel, not even a puncture. Which, with tyres costing £15,000 a set, was something of a relief. A diesel Audi A6 couldn't have managed the trip with less fuss.
One day, maybe not so long from now, the Veyron will lose its production-car speed crown. John Hennessey's deranged Venom - essentially a Lotus Exige stuffed with a twin-turbo V8 - has already clocked 270mph, albeit only in one direction, and it looks as if Koenigsegg's upcoming One:1 (1,360bhp, 1,360kg) could get close, too. But the Venom, in the nicest way, is a bomb strapped to a shell of a car. Whatever car goes faster than the Veyron, it won't be one in which you'd want to potter right the way across America.
Will any manufacturer ever boast not only the resolve but the resource to out-Veyron the Veyron? It's tough to imagine. The Bug is a high-water mark, not only the most incredible car of the past 20 years but one of the most incredible feats of mechanical endeavour.
The next day would be the last day, the smoggy schlep through a hundred miles of sprawling LA suburbia and its cobweb of freeways and shocking traffic and, eventually, the log-jammed, crammed beachfront and the end of the road.
But that dusk, in the empty desert on wildest 66, was the real end of the Veyron story, the greatest car in history flexing its vast rear wing, shimmying down to the tarmac. The emptiest, straightest of roads, stretching right to infinity across the cooling desert, last embers of sunlight flickering to the west as a thousand stars ignited to the east. Pin the throttle, feel the power, hold on. To the end of an era, to the end of the road.