What Clarkson should have seen in Argentina

In earlier times, there was a simple bit of advice that spared feelings on all sides when travelling in the land of a former enemy: don’t mention the war.

Tact and diplomacy are not the fashion now, and Top Gear’s adventures in the Argentine are an embarrassing reminder of just how hot things can get when you assume everyone shares the world view of a Daily Telegraph columnist. I’d really like to believe the professions of innocence; I’ve been a Top Gear fan for years. But I cannot. I just can’t quite swallow the suggestion that nobody on the BBC team realised the offending registration plate might actually offend.

The problem of course is that Top Gear has form on this kind of thing, leaving a trail of frayed feelings around the globe from Mexico to India in the wake of its otherwise highly watchable specials. So even if the innocence is genuine this time, many – like me – will not be convinced.

It all seems so unnecessary. In Buenos Aires they welcome you like a long-lost cousin, for the good reason that you might actually be one. Argentina is a very European society; there are many more people of British descent there than in the Falkland Islands. From a derelict Harrods to the red pillar boxes and a clothing chain apparently named after Ken Livingstone, reminders of Blighty are everywhere. Perhaps it’s different in Ushuaia. It’s an awful long way from the capital; evidently feeling on the Falklands issue runs hotter there.

And then there are the cars.

Like the country itself, Argentina’s car industry displays the fruits of successive waves of foreign influence, and the result is a series of mechanical hothouse flowers transplanted from their European or North American roots, from the Siam di Tella 1500 – a sort of 1950s Riley with spats and a Panama hat – to the VW1500, which is what a Hillman Avenger becomes when it sticks around long enough to have more facelifts than the late Joan Rivers. This estofado of influences produced one genuine classic, the IKA/Renault Torino. It’s a Rambler/Pininfarina hybrid with sleek Italian lines that look perfectly at home in the leafier streets of fashionable Palermo Soho. Juan Manuel Fangio drove one, and he’s automotive royalty.

The streets of Buenos Aires don’t have quite the same blend of American Graffiti and rust you’d see in Havana, for the simple reason that the cars are more often European in origin. Yet just like Cuba’s Cadillacs and Chevrolets, Argentina’s transplants have survived far longer in the benign local climate than they did in their countries of origin.

The result is a treasure trove of automotive exotica. And that’s something I’d quite like to see on Top Gear.

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Getting there is half the fun: Dover to the Continent

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Few things have changed the mental geography of Britain more profoundly than the Channel Tunnel. The act of boring twin tunnels beneath the English Channel freed the island nation  from the vagaries of the weather and rendered the famous  headline ‘Fog in Channel – Continent cut off’ forever obsolete. Nowadays, if I’m travelling to Paris from London I do so by train. In comparison with a comfortable train ride barely long enough to finish a magazine, any other means of making the journey seems almost wilfully perverse. Only a masochist with time on his hands would fly.

I’m less convinced of the charms of the Shuttle. True, it’s quick – but only if your timing is precise and you manage to arrive at check-in just before boarding. And time won by spending half an hour sat in your car sealed in a railway carriage is time lost again if you have to stop for a meal break once you get to the other side.

My scepticism is not purely practical. In an age when getting from A to B increasingly means being herded and processed in sealed metal tubes, the Shuttle lacks something rather more profound. There is no sense of occasion to the journey. You shuttle from car park to autoroute with neither the élan of the Eurostar nor the drama of a sea crossing. Which is why, if I’m taking the car, I will always opt for the ferry. Crossing the Straits of Dover is, after all, the traditional means of exit and entry to England from continental Europe. Historians believe that in 55BC Julius Caesar’s armies embarked for England from the pretty bay of Wissant between Boulogne and Calais; William the Conqueror’s fleet assembled amid the flat horizons and big skies of St Valéry sur Somme, well to the south. Starting in the nineteenth century it was from beneath Dover’s White Cliffs and its superlative Norman castle that regular steamship services took increasing numbers of travellers to and from the nearest continental ports. The early ships were either passenger or train carriers, but from the 1930s the first rudimentary car ferries came into service and the rest is history, or at least a neverending fuss of boarding cards,  stick-on headlamp adapters and  bing-bong messages on the tannoy.

IMG_7600 webIMG_7602 webIMG_7604 webThese things – the background noise of a crossing – have become routine for me; I cross the Channel this way at least four times a year. And yet however often the experience is repeated, there’s always a modest thrill to that moment when everything is stowed or locked that has to be, all physical links with the shore are cast adrift and the massive, metal-walled ship begins to move. A walk on deck is all it takes to turn a routine crossing into a maritime spectacle: push past the huddled smokers to reach the open deck at the stern and watch as England recedes, France advances and giant container ships follow the sea lanes to Rotterdam or Hamburg. It’s wonderful on a fine day but even better – more elemental and impressive – when the wind is up.

IMG_7627 webCliffs define the Straits on both the French and English sides. On the French side the breezy heights of Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris-Nez are mirror images of Dover’s cliffs, peppered with old German fortifications that underline just how physically close World War Two came to England. The place in British national mythology occupied by the White Cliffs of Dover is odd but undeniable, though whatever Vera Lynn sang no bluebird ever flew over them.  I am always inexplicably stirred by the first sight of them when I come back from holiday or an extended research trip, as if there were ever the slightest doubt they’d still be there, as dramatic yet disappointingly off-white as ever. I once spent a blustery autumn researching a guidebook in the Pas de Calais, a little fed up of my own company after the first couple of weeks. It was a strange sensation to be homesick within plain sight of home, that unmistakable line of chalk picked out by the watery October sunshine and forming the horizon as I looked across the Channel from the Boulogne seafront. It might just have been my imagination, but every time I looked the weather seemed brighter on the English side.

I crossed from Dover to Dunkerque aboard DFDS Seaways’ Dunkerque Seaways early in the spring of this year, on an unseasonally dismal morning in the school holidays. The sky was leaden and threatened the day with rain; as we cleared the harbour, the wind whipped the Channel into a lively swell that got steadily worse as we headed into mid-channel. The ship was close to capacity, and in the bars and restaurants there was barely a free seat to be had. Never have I been more grateful for the modest retreat of first class, where there were comfy chairs in which to stretch out and floor to ceiling windows from which to observe the simmering sea.

IMG_7606 webIMG_7607 webIMG_7634 webThe rolling and pitching were nothing to disturb anyone who has spent time on a yacht but quite bad enough to upset some of the younger and more delicate stomachs on board, with predictably smelly results by the time we reached Dunkerque.

IMG_7640 webIMG_7649 webNot even an enthusiastic seafarer like me can talk up the experience of arriving in that French port. It is of course more famous for departures than arrivals: the 1940 evacuations took place from the spectacular sandy beaches on the eastern side of the city – a coast as epic in its scale as the events that took place there, menaced these days by sand yachts instead of Stukas. Alas, the ferry terminal is rather less memorably located on the industrial, western side of Dunkerque, with vistas of cranes and containers in place of belfries, promenades or seaside hotels.

Drama was reserved instead for the return trip, on a pitch-black April night three weeks later.  Just before Dover the captain made an announcement: ‘As you will see, we are in thick fog.’ But there was in truth nothing whatsoever to be seen. Fog at sea is an entirely different experience to fog on land; there are no landmarks, however indistinct, to be made out. No streetlights or buildings, parked cars or hedgerows guide the way. It was easy in this muffling blanket of nothingness to understand how large, well-equipped ships succumb to the calm yet lethal effects of fog, slicing into each other with disastrous consequences for simple want of anything to see. I thought of the Empress of Ireland, and of the Andrea Doria.

Nothing so terrible as the fate of those unlucky ships happened that night, but the end of the voyage was haunting in its own way. All at once the lights of the harbour’s eastern entrance emerged from the fog, blurred and dim but welcome and unmistakable; of the harbour wall to which they were attached there was, however, no sign. Once beyond the harbour entrance all hint of land vanished once more; with the harbour lights astern of us the blackness descended again with impressive completeness and we might have been far out to sea instead of a few hundred metres from the town, waiting  for our allotted berth. Docking was achieved not by sight, but with technology, patience and sound, as melancholy yet benign sirens lured the ship to shore. Not to meet its doom, but to connect with the loading ramp.

Neville Walker travelled as a guest of DFDS Seaways.


Gaydon, Warwickshire: an automotive farewell symphony

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Living in inner London, the sight of a Bentley Continental is nothing special; the occasional Ferrari raises an eyebrow only if it isn’t red. I don’t live in the capital’s most exalted neighbourhood, but even so a Maserati resides in the next street, an Aston Martin in the square beyond it. In this city of banks, luxury cars are no big deal. But tell me, when did you last see a Hillman Imp? A Vauxhall Viva? Or indeed any British car from the era when ‘deluxe’ meant a sun visor and a bit of carpet or ‘high performance’ meant Rostyle wheels and a speedometer calibrated beyond 90? Nowadays these – the cars of my childhood – are the true exotica.

I recently spent an afternoon at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, just off the M40 south of Warwick. And they’re all there – the motoring icons of a simpler, more rust- (and strike-) prone era, when garages dispensed Wynn’s and STP instead of computer diagnostics and bad cappuccinos and upwardly mobile young blades craved Dolomite Sprints, not BMWs. I was entranced.

If the much-diminished British motor industry still has a beating heart, Gaydon is surely it: Jaguar-Land Rover does its testing here; Aston-Martin has its headquarters in the village. The Heritage Motor Centre is the industry’s memory bank, and those memories are part of my family story. My father was a tool and die fitter for the firm that stamped out the bodyshells for millions of those sixties and seventies cars; the factory where he worked is, happily, still in business today. If only the same could be said for many of the hallowed British marques commemorated in this wonderful museum. Who nowadays has any clear recollection of the limousine-like stateliness of the Armstrong-Siddeley? Of the days when ministers were chauffeured in sleek Humbers? Or of a time when Wolseley wasn’t a fashionable restaurant but an unfashionable Austin with a nose job and a bit of wood and leather?

Alongside the triumphs of British motoring history – the Monte Carlo Rally-winning Minis, the E-Type, the gorgeous Jaguar XK120 – there is an unmistakable undercurrent of melancholy at Gaydon. So much of the glory commemorated by the collection is gone, never to return, as though Lord Nuffield had been an automotive Ozymandias. Look on his office – lovingly recreated here – and despair. Adieu Austin, bye-bye BMC, tara Triumph. Alvis has long since left the building. Even Ford, whose Cortina became part of British motoring’s DNA, no longer makes cars in Britain. There will never be Dagenham Dustbins again.

Among the saddest, but also the most intriguing exhibits are the stillborn concepts and prototypes that never made it into production. Some are pure oddball – a twin-engined Mini Moke, a slightly unhappy Rover SD1 estate – but some are inspired, like the startlingly fresh 1981 Leyland ECV3 energy conservation vehicle, a bundle of aerodynamics and efficiency that could produce 100mpg and 115mph from a 1113cc, three-cylinder engine. Take that, Toyota Prius. As for the opportunities missed, consider the 1968 Austin Ant, a Mini-based small SUV with four-wheel drive. No call for it, said British Leyland management; Suzuki was later to prove them wrong. Or ponder Alec Issigonis’ neat, angular 1969 study for a Mini hatchback. Again, Leyland management passed on the idea, even though it was BMC who first invented the hatchback, in the unsexy shape of the Austin A40.

Issigonis wasn’t the only one to see the writing on the wall. By the spring of 1975 it was clear that the strife-riven British motor industry was falling behind its continental competition, and the VW Golf, the Renault 5 and the Fiat 127 were mopping up sales that ought rightfully to have gone Britain’s way. At this stage an earnest young draughtsman submitted concept sketches to Leyland supremo Donald Stokes for a hatchback reworking of the Mini that was much simpler than Issigonis’ boxy proto-Metro. The proposal wasn’t taken seriously, perhaps because the sketches were mine and I was 11. The letter I received from Lord Stokes was gracious, but its air of complacency in the face of impending doom infuriated me at the time. That nice man was fiddling while my dad’s livelihood burned.

Who knows what might have been, if Stokes had listened to me or to Issigonis. Perhaps Gaydon would still be a Rover test track rather than a Jaguar-Land Rover one; perhaps MG would be more than a Chinese-owned minnow and I would actually have seen an MG6 by now. And perhaps the Heritage Motor Centre wouldn’t be what it is: an automotive farewell symphony to tug at the heartstrings of any patriotic petrolhead.

The Heritage Motor Centre is at Gaydon, Warwickshire, off junction 12 of the M40. Open 10am-5pm daily. http://www.heritage-motor-centre.co.uk


Belgium. So much more than Death Race 2000

Belgium requires concentration. I cross it by car four or five times a year, zipping through to Aachen from Calais or Dunkerque, usually on my way to Austria. The Belgians have their own special driving style, which combines a lemming-like fondness for following their neighbour with a carefree approach to pulling out that always ensures a lively, exciting ride. It’s no surprise that the road death statistics are roughly twice as bad as those for the Netherlands, a country with which Belgium shares a language, a border, a landscape and a population density usually found only in flash mobs.

Just across the border from Dunkerque the motorway does a slight kink to avoid the town of Veurne. And perhaps it’s merely the novelty of having to turn the wheel, but Veurne always registers in a way so many of the Belgian towns I speed past fail to. It helps that the traffic isn’t as fearsome as the Death Race 2000 rerun that is the Brussels Ring. Plus, there’s a promising-looking cluster of spires and belfries roughly where the signs suggest Veurne will be.

So this time I gave in to my curiosity and pulled off the motorway for a closer look. And do you know what? Veurne is lovely, with one of those step-gabled Flemish market squares that calls for chips all round and a trappist beer or three. It has a Unesco world heritage site, no less.

So here’s a tip. When you’ve been cut up by an apparently suicidal Fleming in a dented Peugeot for the umpteenth time, do yourself a favour and pull off the motorway.

It may save your life. It’ll certainly transform your impressions of Belgium.