Classic Car Club

The Classic Car Club is a wonderful idea which gives its members the opportunity to drive an impressive fleet of classic cars without the cost of ownership.  On joining you are given an allocation of points to spend, and cars may be borrowed for up to a week for a number of points based on the class of car, number of weekdays or weekend, and season of the year.  With a growing fleet including two Ferraris, a Maserati, an E-Type, two Porsches and a Bentley there is no shortage of tempting options.  I joined the Club late in 2002 and borrowed my first car, a Porsche Carrera 2, the following February.  After driving each new car I have added a few thoughts on my experiences below.

Porsche Carrera 2 - 1990

As a modern Boxster owner my expectations of a thirteen year old car were not high.  However, I was very pleasantly surprised - it's a cracker!  It may be old, but above all it really performs.  Mine had an automatic gearbox with only four gears, which I had expected to blunt the power and reduce the driver's control.  But with so much torque this is far from the truth.  I began cautiously using auto, after all it was not my car, shifted to pre-selector to delay changing up, and then discovered that much the same effect could be had more easily with kick-down.  Mid range acceleration was electric and overtaking became an experience to be savoured.  Sadly I have to admit that a thirteen year old Carrera 2 is quicker than a two year old Boxster.

I hesitate to comment on the handling, as much of the week was near freezing and I had no wish to test Clarkson's assertion that it was prone to swap ends.  However, it took its corners in a comfortable fashion and I never felt that it might bite me, although it did give me a mild slapped wrist when I came out of a corner a bit too enthusiastically.  The driving position was great and the bucket seats gave good support in the right places.

The style of the 911 is timeless and the bodywork on mine was immaculate, although details like the upright angle of the A pillar and the interior décor revealed its age.  With over 84,000 miles on the clock there were no rattles, apart from the hard suspension coping with a rough road, and everything I tried still worked perfectly.

There were a few minor things I didn't like.  Even with the maximum seat adjustment my head was still uncomfortably near the roof.  Deactivating the immobiliser required the finesse of a brain surgeon, but it improved as the car got to know me (or vice-versa).  The speedometer and associated goodies like the selected gear indicator were covered by my right hand, requiring a distracting lean to view them.  And then there was the horn - a feeble squeak more appropriate to Popeye, which I was eventually too embarrassed to use.

My verdict - a wonderful driver's car which gave us a great week.  But as I drove my Boxster home I knew it was still the right car for me!

Ferrari 328 GTS - 1983

The first thing that hits you about the Ferrari 328 GTS is its stunning good looks.  Its successors may be faster and technically more sophisticated, but for sheer style they can't hold a candle to the 328 coachwork by Pininfarina.  The Club's car is red, naturally, twenty years old and turned heads wherever we went.

It is very much a driver's car and definitely not for the fainthearted.  Settling into the driving seat I found it hard to find the right adjustment; too far back and it's difficult to handle the long throw clutch pedal, but too far forward and your knees rub the bulkhead and your nose is dangerously close to the top edge of the windscreen.  Engaging gear means wrestling with the racing gate, daunting initially but great when you get used to it.  Releasing the handbrake is also an acquired skill.  Finally you pull away, and experience two of the car's outstanding characteristics: blood-racing acceleration and the magnificent throaty roar of its big V8.

Borrowing a thoroughbred with these credentials can be a little intimidating, but I was soon in the groove and comfortable putting it through its paces.  The ride is impeccable and the suspension enormously overqualified to handle even the most demanding windy roads.  With a car so low there is hardly any roll and only a gentle pitch when braking hard.  No power steering can be tiring after a long drive or parking in a tight spot, but the resulting positive feedback reassures the driver that he or she is in proper control.

Our interior was finished in cream leather with comfortable seats, air conditioning and electric windows and mirrors despite its venerable age.  The rigid roof can be removed and stowed behind the seats in seconds, which proved a great bonus during our remarkably hot week in Wales.  Riding alfresco is also less claustrophobic than being totally enclosed in the somewhat snug cockpit.  The luggage space squeezed in behind the enormous engine compartment is surprisingly accommodating, although anything stored there came out cooked to a turn!

When we picked up a puncture, our first for many years, we discovered that all four tyres are different: unidirectional with different sizes front and rear.  After enlisting the help of a strong and friendly car enthusiast to take the weight off the suspension to make room for the jack, we drove cautiously on the (wrong) spare to have it repaired.

We managed a comfortable five hundred miles in three days and revelled in every driving moment.  It was fun using a car that lots of people wanted to look at, but less so by those that wanted to compete often in highly inappropriate situations.  Although we both enjoyed this magnificent car, we had to conclude that it was not an obvious choice for our weekly trip to Sainsbury's.

Maserati 3200 GT - 2000

I was aware that Maserati made exotic performance racers, but it was not a company that immediately sprang to my mind when I thought about road cars.  It therefore came as a surprise to learn that the Club has a modest looking saloon with the Maserati badge on it.  It was an even bigger surprise to discover that it is easily the fastest car I have ever driven.  It is definitely something for the weekend!

Maserati is now owned by Ferrari and so the 'Maz' is powered by a mighty Ferrari 3.2 litre 370 bhp V8, which (allegedly!) can catapult the car to sixty in less than five seconds and a top speed of 175 mph.  The four speed automatic transmission is as smooth as silk, and normal progress up and down the gears is achieved without fuss or noisy ostentation.  Drop your right foot, especially in sport mode, and an Italian hand gives you an awesome push in the back that makes overtaking a dream.  The suspension is something else; a computer controlled ride that manages to hug the bends with little body roll yet avoids the bone jarring consequences of an over-firm setting.  In my experience its performance is second to none.

The Maserati's 370 bhp Ferrari V8 engine

Unlike the Ferrari, its looks are remarkably understated.  To the casual observer it's a stubby saloon, but a closer look reveals its racing heritage: long bonnet, low suspension, four tail pipes, enormous wheels and tyres and many other styling cues that hint at a wolf in sheep's clothing.  The interior is traditional but sumptuous, with tan leather bucket seats and dash and all the goodies you expect in a car of this class.  One small feature I have not seen before is a button to fold the wing mirrors flat to the body for narrow gaps or car washes.  The steering wheel adjusts up and down, but you need to be careful not to choose a position like I did that obscures vital dashboard information.

It is a genuine four seater with comfortable accommodation in the rear.  The electrically controlled front seats automatically move forward when the backrest is tilted, providing easy access even for those in a tight skirt!  My passengers all commented on the excellent ride and the effectiveness of the aircon on one of the hottest weekends of the year.

So if you want electric performance without appearing unduly flash then the Maserati could be the wheels for you.  However be warned; a tank full of its favourite super unleaded tipple cost me nearly sixty pounds - almost as much as I paid for my first car!

E-Type Jaguar - 1975

The E-Type Jaguar is surely the classic British sportscar - voluptuous lines, phallic bonnet and an awesome V12 engine.  Beautifully prepared both inside and out, the club car's scintillating black paintwork, chrome trim and leather interior belies its twenty eight years on the road.  It is not surprising, therefore, that it is one of the most popular on the fleet.

The design is distinctive and unlike any other sportscar I have driven.  Turn the door key (no central locking here), step over the high wide sill and drop into the body-hugging bucket seat.  Feel the smooth wooden steering wheel and gaze in wonder at the spectacular array of rocker switches which control its many electrics.  Adjust the driver's seat with chrome levers (and scraped knuckles) and feel the close mounted pedals squeezed into the narrow foot well alongside an enormous central gearbox housing.  Then the best bit of all - start the mighty V12 engine.  Four large Stromberg carbs feed this thirsty beast, and a four pipe fantail exhaust makes sure you can hear it in all its glory.

It is not particularly quick off the mark and frequently appears to be travelling faster than the instruments tell you, but there is always torque in hand despite just four gears.  The car is surprisingly long with a relatively narrow wheel base, which might suggest poor handling, but it behaves impeccably and never gave me any cause for concern when responding to my modest demands.  The ride is smooth and comfortable with hardly a rattle or discernable vibration for such a venerable specimen.

We enjoyed the delights of a very hot spell while using the car, so the roof only went up when parked.  However, the engine made sure that the cockpit became very warm indeed and would have made a long ride rather unpleasant.  The clutch is heavy and there is no place beside the pedal to rest your left foot, so I was obliged to bend my leg between gear changes.  Like many of the club's cars it is very thirsty, giving me just sixteen miles per gallon of regular unleaded, but it was worth every penny!

This truly classic car turned heads wherever we went and gathered admirers at every stop.  Former owners reminisced, pensioners became nostalgic, young men drooled, and two former Jaguar service engineers even wriggled under it to establish its precise provenance.  Not the fastest car I've driven, but certainly one to remember.

Panther Lima - 1980

Have you ever heard of a Panther Lima before?  I certainly hadn't.  It's a snazzy little two-seater roadster produced by an English specialist car company in the seventies and eighties, and it proved to be a lot of fun.  Mount a pokey Vauxhall engine in a bare-bones fibreglass soft-top weighing next to nothing and the result is a fizzing ferret!

The Panther was constructed by The Panther Car Company in Surrey, as their publicity material claimed, to put the fun back into motoring.  The fibreglass body is mounted on a steel subframe and the car is powered by a 2.3 litre 108 bhp Vauxhall engine and standard running gear.  Weighing just 1,800 pounds, this favourable power to weight ratio delivers a 0 to 60 mph time of under eight seconds and a top speed of 110 mph.

Despite being over two decades old the Club car could still perform.  Its acceleration was remarkable and it cornered well with no perceptible body roll.  The tiny 11½ inch diameter steering wheel gave positive control with minimum movement, although without power assistance parking was hard work.  The four speed box was smooth, but the ratios were too low for the engine and I was frequently trying to find a non-existent fifth gear.  Braking was to modern car standards and overall the car had a taught feel which belied its age.

Inside was very snug!  The leather bucket seats were close together and when changing gear I needed to be on very familiar terms with my passenger.  We sat close to the windscreen but due to a very long bonnet there was masses of leg room.  The soft top was rather like a frame tent, but allowing for its dismountable frame and twenty-two popper studs it was surprisingly easy to put up and take down.  However, visibility with the hood up was seriously restricted for the taller driver; at six foot I had to duck to see properly through the side windows.  When it rained everything inside remained dry - but the running boards filled up with water when parked!

The driving position was unusual, and I often felt as though I was sitting behind the car rather than in it.  However, this meant you could see almost all the car without turning round, making manoeuvring and parking much easier.  There was a good space for luggage behind the seats, but access was not simple with no boot lid.  Adjusting the heater required turning a valve inside the engine compartment, although minor adjustments could be effected by turning the fan on and off.

As ever the car turned heads, and it was frequently mistaken for a Morgan (the running boards I expect).  With the hood down it was great fun to drive: good visibility, sweet engine note and close affinity between car and driver.  With the hood up however, especially in wet weather, it was hard work, and with all the weight at the front and so little at the back I feared the worst.  Overall we enjoyed the ride.  I bet it would be wicked on the racetrack!

Caterham Seven - 2001

In the fifties Colin Chapman of Lotus produced the first 'Seven', a kit car designed primarily to be raced but also suitable for road use.  Graham Hill led the way by racing a Lotus Seven in 1958, and the latest variants of this timeless British sportscar are still available today from Caterham Cars in Surrey.  With a factory built car costing between £15,000 and £24,000 it is an affordable way to enjoy genuine motorsport action.  In 2003, the thirtieth anniversary of Caterham Cars' takeover of production from Lotus, the Classic Car Club organised its first members' track day at Oulton Park.

The Seven is small, light and hairy.  From the smallest 105 bhp Rover K series engine to the top of the range 230 bhp XPower in a car weighing around 1,200 pounds, the performance is exhilarating.  The low centre of gravity, double wishbone front suspension, De Dion in the rear and wheels virtually in the corners combine to provide amazing grip.  A tiny steering wheel with less than two turns lock to lock complete the racing experience.

Your first challenge is getting in; helmeted driver and passenger shoehorned into a narrow cockpit encased by a tubular steel roll cage leaves little room for manoeuvre.  The next is securing the five point racing harness, which can be uncomfortably tight in personal places.  Then Heaven help you if your footwear is too wide for the closely spaced pedals, as Houdini would have been hard pressed to change his shoes without getting out!  However the end result is a driver at one with his car, and once you feel the push of the seat any thoughts of discomfort disappear instantly.

Once on the track the car comes alive.  Such is its surefootedness that I never felt any apprehension about its handling or feared it might bite.  As my confidence grew with each passing lap I tried a little harder, but clearly never came near its limitations.  One strange sensation was being able to see the front wheels, especially odd when correcting a slide as the wheels point in the opposite direction to the movement of the car!  After five sessions each of five or six laps I was on a high - but completely knackered.  I marvel at the fitness of the professionals who can drive on the limit for a couple of hours.

Track days are great fun.  Driving home afterwards requires extra special care and concentration, because the transition to road conditions is significant.  If only I had discovered the buzz of the track a little earlier in my life.  With no time to lose, count me in for next time!

Bentley Mulsanne S - 1989

A Bentley combines the class of a Rolls-Royce with the image of a performance car, which explains why the club Roller had few takers but the Bentley is in great demand.  This magnificent limousine matched its epithet; 2.3 tons of spacious luxury providing high speed travel in almost complete silence.  We used it to take an old friend on a nostalgic journey, and riding in it made all of us feel like royalty.  Passers by would peer inside expecting to see someone special, and we had a deeply conditioned urge to wave back!

The Mulsanne is huge: 17.3 feet long, 6.2 feet wide, just short of five feet high with a forty foot curb-to-curb turning circle, it is not for the timid driver.  To power this monster is a 6.75 litre twin-cam engine of prodigious proportions which guzzles super-unleaded fuel somewhere in the range eleven to twenty miles per gallon; no wonder it has a twenty-four gallon fuel tank.  The (leather bound) driver's handbook does not quote the engine horsepower, no doubt relying on the apocryphal definition 'sufficient', but even allowing for the significant weight and an automatic box it is still very lively.

Inside is driver's heaven; everything is at the touch of a button.  Both front seats can be moved in all three dimensions, include a double lumber adjustment and controllable heat, with four memory buttons to save all your settings for next time.  The electric gear selector is mounted on the steering column and the foot operated parking brake is automatically released when selecting drive or reverse.  There is a push button radio and CD autochanger naturally, but with the added refinement of a mini graphic equaliser to drown out the annoying ticking of the clock or the squeak of trousers on the leather seats.  However, such sophistication can be self-defeating: so complicated are the controls that we never did figure out how to adjust the volume on the radio!

So how does it drive?  In a word, effortlessly.  No scintillating acceleration, but you seem to reach the speed limit frighteningly fast.  No roll, no bumps, no vibration and no noise from the soft suspension.  However, parking can be an exciting experience.  I found it physically impossible to park forwards in a typical multi-story car park, but reversing in is simple with all four corners visible from the driver's seat.  Paying at the exit is similarly challenging as the bonnet is so long that driving right up to the barrier still leaves you short of the ticket machine!  Nevertheless, 300 miles around the narrow lanes of Warwickshire and the Cotswolds and a visit to Birmingham city centre proved an easy and relaxed experience.

The Mulsanne is a lovely car for a special occasion, but its sheer size makes it impractical for everyday use.  It is too big for most domestic garages, overhangs even the most generous parking spaces and is much too thirsty for most of us.  But if you want to feel really special for a few days then I doubt it can be bested.

Ferrari Mondial - 1989

The Mondial is another classic Ferrari encompassing all the heritage styling cues - wedge front, flat top rear, mid engine, hollow rear screen, five point star wheels, round tail-light clusters, and red of course.  However this one is a little different from most, a four-seater cabriolet, but sadly lacking the elegance of its predecessors.  It is a fraction under fifteen feet long, almost six feet wide and just four feet high, which is fine for a saloon but when the roof is down it resembles a speedboat!  And pop-up headlights have never been my favourite.

The engine is a hefty 3.4 litre V8 enabling the car to reach sixty in just over six seconds, if you can handle the clunky five-speed gear box fast enough, and delivers a top speed of 160 mph.  Even after fourteen years the club car is still lively and the engine has a beautiful if noisy note, especially above 5000 rpm.  The ride is smooth and positive and it will potter through town without fuss, but a turning circle of 38.5 feet makes parking and tight maneuvering a struggle.  The brakes are excellent and, surprisingly for a car of this age, it has both ABS and traction control.  Nevertheless, pressing too hard on leaving a corner can make the tail wag, even in the dry, but at my sort of speeds this is easily corrected.

The interior is functional but the design is showing its age.  There are plenty of levers, buttons and knobs but they are not simple to fathom.  I was prone to indicate with the headlight dip lever and vice-versa, but no doubt performance improves with use.  Visibility is generally good, but the shape of the rear side screens obliges the driver to rely on external mirrors when looking over the shoulder.  It is roomy and comfortable in the front, but despite its considerable length the Mondial offers almost no legroom for rear seat passengers.

Remembering the fabulous 328, I was a little disappointed with this Ferrari.  It has some style but is not stunning; it is quickish if you work at it but no match for its ancestor; it has four seats but the rear ones are just for the shopping; it is technically well equipped for its age but the early specification traction control can lure you (and me!) into a false sense of security.  Perhaps, at last, I have found the ideal car for the weekly shopping run to Sainsburys.

Daimler Double Six - 1988

The Double Six is a big, beautiful limousine with a big, throaty engine and classic Jaguar good looks.  It drives like the Bentley, quietly, quickly and without fuss.  Everything about it is big: its dimensions, its engine, its boot and its power, but it is the easiest of cars to drive.  It will glide down the motorway as easily as it will negotiate the narrow lanes of the Cotswolds or the car park at Sainsburys.

The engine is second only to the Bentley in size and power, a 5.3 litre V12 (double six - sic). The automatic box may only have three gears but it has masses of torque at low revs and the change is as smooth as silk.  The driving position is perfect and provides excellent all-round visibility.  The overall result is a wonderfully relaxed driving experience, provided you do not dwell on a fuel consumption around sixteen miles to the gallon.

The Double Six is drop-dead gorgeous to look at, and so like the current Jags that it could hold its own in any contemporary concorde d'elegance.  The interior is spacious and comfortable, and finished in white leather with walnut veneers it conveys the opulence appropriate to a car of this pedigree.  All the knick-knacks still work and the cruise control is so unobtrusive that you have to check that it is actually switched on.  The electric wing mirror adjusters are proper chrome plated joysticks rather than the fiddly wobbly nipples of modern cars. But the radio controls defeated me yet again - I guess it's my age!

With over 160,000 miles on the clock it is beginning to show its age, a few small blisters on the paintwork and a lived-in driver's seat, but mechanically it can hardly be faulted.  After the Maserati it is certainly my favourite club car - perfect for pottering, rallying or hammering down a German autobahn.

Porsche Carrera Sport - 1987

Approaching the end of my membership year, I was drawn towards the only Club Porsche I had yet to try (except for the Boxster, because I own one).  Recognising my propensity for the marque, I tried to put aside my bias in favour of these fabulous German cars and judge it only on its merits - and probably failed.  Porsche build drivers' cars above all else; the Carrera Sport is just that, and I loved it.

Most cars of this age creak a lot, lack guts and many creature comforts, and frequently smell of petrol.  Not this one; it has the tautness and liveliness of a modern car.  The ride is hard but the road holding is superb.  I was reminded of my big old Labrador dog; when he didn't want to move he would splay out all four paws and defy anyone to shift him.  This car has a big wheel in each corner which felt similarly unmovable, and I was not brave enough to try and unstick it.  The throaty 3.2 litre 231 bhp engine generates controlled power which the five speed box delivers smoothly to the drive-wheels in perfect proportions.  The steering is a tad heavy at low speeds but provides reassuring positive feedback at speed.  How I would love to try this car on the track.

I concede that in common with most cars of this vintage the design is dated, but what an achievement it has been by Porsche to stick to the basic 911 shape for so many years.  The sports seats are perfect, hugging your hips and creating the illusion that you are part of the car.  The rear seats are strictly for your coat and laptop.  I did not like the foot pedals because they are difficult to operate if, like me, you prefer to keep your heels on the floor, and it is easy to beat the synchromesh.  The immobiliser is rather fiddly by comparison with today's neat technology, but by and large everything works as it should.

If I had to choose an old car then this would be the one.  It looks good, performs well and drives superbly.  But if I could afford the new car of my choice then its current equivalent, the magnificent Carrera 4 (Turbo or GT if I were super rich), would be my first choice.