“Do you know Jeremy Clarkson?” and “What’s your favourite car?”
“Do you know Jeremy Clarkson?” and “What’s your favourite car?” tend to be the first two questions you’re asked when folk you’ve met for the first time discover you are a motoring journalist. The first answer is simple: “No, but I was at the same media event as him once,” but the second is a little harder to answer. It’s usually the Swiss Army knife of the automotive world, the M5, but which generation of super saloon I go for varies from day to day, and, currently, I’d probably go for an E39 as I feel the need for a naturally aspirated V8 in my life before it’s illegal to own one.
However, the other day, I was taken by surprise when I was asked: “What’s the best drive you’ve ever had?” as this is a question that requires significantly more thought. I’ve been so lucky to have driven some brilliant machinery on some superb roads that trying to narrow it down is all but impossible. I still vividly remember being thrown the keys to an M1 by its owner and spending a happy time blasting around the South Downs for an hour or two, and there have been many memorable launches which still bring a smile to my face. Trying to get back to a hotel on the launch of the E60 M5 still sticks in my mind as a particularly glorious drive. We’d lost time earlier in the day when ‘our’ M5 had illuminated various red and yellow warning lights on its dash, and we’d had to wait around while another car was found and brought to where we were. We decided to ignore the approved test route and headed off into the Alps to get our pictures in the bag, and it was only when we found a suitable location for photography that I realised how late it was and how far away our overnight hotel was. Back in those days, launches were pretty laissez-faire and just about the only thing you had to do was attend the press conference that often preceded dinner. We had an unfeasible number of kilometres to cover to make it back, but the M5 made light work of it. The stonking V10 howled its way through the Alpine valleys as the sun dipped below the peaks, never spinning at less than 6000rpm while the SMG ’box thumped home every ratio with that whipcrack ferocity that seemed so amusing back in those days. We made it with time to spare, and we slunk away from the car with its smoking brakes and ticking exhaust, giggling like schoolboys who had just avoided getting caught smoking behind the bike sheds by the headmaster. There have been plenty of other memorable journeys – tacking the Stelvio pass in my Alfasud when I was 18, hooning back from the South of France in my E34 M5 and numerous late-night runs to Devon in my M635CSi E24. But the one thing these all have in common is that they happened quite a long time ago. Recent trips have been less fulfilling – the sheer number of cars on the road, the proliferation of speed cameras and the fact that modern cars tend to be less exciting to drive, make me think that the best drives I’ve had are all behind me.
The transition to cars powered by electrons won’t help as they’re too heavy and seem to be missing the soul that a conventionally-powered machine has in abundance. I don’t care how many Hans Zimmer soundtracks BMW commissions, they’re never going to sound as good as an M-power engine at full chat. I’m going to do my best to go and have some good trips this year, and hopefully, I can rekindle that joy of being behind the wheel, as it would be such a shame if all my best driving days were behind me.