mx-5

Don’t panic about snow – learn to drive on it!

More should be done to prepare motorists for coping with snowy conditions

THIS TIME last week there was a joke doing the rounds in the bars of Helsinki about our recent spate of bracing weather.

The English called the weather front, on account of it sweeping across the North Sea straight from the chillier bits of Russia, The Beast From The East. The Dutch dubbed it The Siberian Bear. Even the Swedes got a bit over-excited and labelled it The Snow Cannon. But the Finns called it… Wednesday.
It’s a bit of a harsh observation, but when it comes from a country that’s produced seven world rally champions there is an element of truth in it. We Brits just aren’t too hot at coping with extreme cold.
I can understand the schools closing for the day and the train operators finding things a bit tricky – but all those warnings about not travelling unless it’s absolutely necessary rang a bit hollow. Okay, so horsepower hedonists like me who venture out simply because it’s fun had to hang fire on getting their MX-5s and M3s out for a few days, but everyone else who’s vaguely normal only ever travels because it’s necessary. You might be lucky enough to work from home or to have a boss nice enough to deem your drive in non-essential, but for the rest of us we’re on the roads not to be annoying, but because we have to be.
Which is why there really ought to be more emphasis on learning what to do when you have to go out in the snow, so you don’t have to stay in and listen to people on the news telling you how treacherous it is out there. If you woke up to a genuine ten-foot high snowdrift than fair enough, but you’d be surprised at how far you can get on the white stuff in a car that isn’t a Land Rover Discovery if you drive sensibly. Even on quiet roads that hadn’t been gritted my 20-year-old Toyota Avensis managed to cope admirably, and one pal of mine managed to overcome just about everything in a Fiat Cinquecento. Neither had chunky winter tyres or fancy traction control systems – but they did have decent rubber, a lack of weight and some careful driving in their favour.
But far too few drivers I encountered during Snowmageddon seemed completely clueless about what to do when you get that horrible moment when the steering goes light on an icy patch or what to do when the back end snaps out of line on a slippery bit of snow. I’m not suggesting that we’re sent on weekend breaks to Finland to learn how to drive a Mitsubishi Evo VIII rally car on a frozen lake to sharpen up our skills (although I’d be more than happy to volunteer!), but I’m sure that equipped with some snow-driving knowledge the recent conditions wouldn’t have been as ominous.
Let’s stop panicking about the snow and learn to drive on it instead. Then the Finns might stop taking the mickey out of us…
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I’ll admit it – driving in Scotland is fun

David was able to enjoy Scotland safely in his Mazda MX-5

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve had a pen pal but I seem to have picked one up at Classic Car Weekly. He doesn’t write often but the topic’s always the same – I’m apparently guilty of glamorising driving dangerously on rural roads.

So he’ll no doubt be writing in when he discovers I’ve just spent a weekend driving around the Scottish Highlands, not to visit a distant aunt in Fort William, but for fun. I’ll admit it; I did nearly 1000 miles over four days for no good reason other than to drive on great roads simply because I enjoy doing it.

We’ll start with the location. Pick up any of the glossy travel mags and they’ll tell you that the A82 between Glasgow and Glencoe is Europe’s best stretch of road but this simply isn’t true – you can’t enjoy driving it because you’ll be stuck behind a lorry winding its way up to Inverness, and you can’t stop to admire the view because all the laybys are full of Dutch motorhomes. But the A87 and the A887 are utterly wonderful. Set off from Southport tomorrow morning and you’ll be there by mid-afternoon, and because you’ll want to stay overnight you’ll be giving the Scottish economy a helping hand, too.

But the real joy is you can do all of this without going anywhere remotely near a speed limit. Yes, I’ll freely admit that there were far too many people up in the Highlands driving dangerously in BMW X5s and doing silly overtakes in Honda Civic Type-Rs, but that’s something you’re as likely to see in Parbold as you are in Pitlochry. The trick is to drive around in a car that thrills at real world speeds.

I spent the weekend up there in my Mazda MX-5 but you’d be just as happy in any MG, Caterham, Lotus or Alfa Spider – and if you do need something with an extra set of seats, anything vaguely old with a Peugeot, Ford or BMW badge up front should suit the bill. Some of the best drives I’ve ever done have been at the helm of a derv-driven Peugeot 306 and a 15-year-old Ford Mondeo, so don’t knock ‘em until you’ve tried them!

But the end result is always the same; you emerge with a smile on your face, the Highlands economy gets a boost, and – unless you really do drive like a berk – Police Scotland don’t have to deal with unnecessary paperwork. Drive sensibly of course, but freely admit that it’s something you enjoy, like playing a piano or going fishing.

I might even arrange for my pen pal to go up there and for there to be an Austin-Healey 3000 waiting at the other end. Chances are, I suspect he’ll enjoy it…

MGB vs MX-5 – which would YOU take to Scotland?

IMG_8310THE MGB’s fresh MoT has just made one of my big motoring calls of 2016 that little bit harder.

In a few weeks’ time I’m going on a stag do with a petrolhead twist; driving around the glorious roads of the Scottish Highlands for three days. There’s an odd assortment of automotive gems going on the trip, ranging from a Hillman Imp and an MGB GT V8 to a Saab 9000 Turbo, a Mercedes W123 and a Mazda MX-5.

But – and most of the fellow stag weekend attendees already know this – I’m having a genuine dilemma over which of my two classics to take. MGB GT or MX-5?

Until this morning the Mazda had it in the bag. Drive any early MX-5 and you’ll know instantly why it’s such a masterclass in steering and handling – it genuinely is one of the great driver’s cars of the past 30 years, and yet you can pick ’em for under a grand. If I took mine up it’d be big fun on Scotland’s wonderful country lanes, and if the sun makes a rare appearance it takes all of two seconds to drop the roof down. It’s endlessly reliable too and it’ll easily eke 35 miles out of a gallon on the M6 on the way up there. The only slight snag is that my import-spec one’s been fitted with a three-speed auto rather than the snickety five-speed manual, but that’s a small price to pay for it being such a brilliant companion every day I’m not barrelling down a B-road.

Mazda Eunos Roadster - David Simister

But then last weekend I took the MGB out for a 250-mile trip to the Lakes and back for a Classic Car Weekly gig last weekend. And it was brilliant.

Yes it’s noisy, you have to work with the heavy steering to manhandle it through corners and it’ll do 25mpg on a good day, but it’s so much more of an event to drive. It involves you so much in the experience, and while it’s more tiring to drive on long motorway slogs it’ll happily pound along with the Audis and BMWs in the outside lane if it needs to.

I just assumed the MGB would be too unreliable to turn up and it’d fail its MoT – but having just done a faultless return flight to Cumbria and earned itself another 12 months’ ticket it’s time to think again. I love both cars and would happily take either up to the Highlands – but until I work out how to drive two cars at once, I’m going to have to make a tough choice.

Which would you go for?