PH DOES THE ALPS
Tiny car, big hills, lots of corners and even more noise - PistonHeads has a day out in the Alps
It’s all a question of context.
Pairing the perfect car with the perfect place to drive it can be logistically difficult though, assuming you’ve even established the what and the where.
Skin burning after hours in the Alpine sun, half deaf, wired on brutally effective Italian espresso served to me by a teenager with a bow tie and sitting at the top of the Col du Grand St Bernard, I think I’ve struck the sweet spot for this particular car, on this day.
Just over the Swiss border headed for Martigny
When I told Harris I was taking a Caterham to the Alps he laughed and called me an idiot. If I’d driven the thing here he’d be right, but, as you’ll have read, thanks to the latest VW Transporter-shaped addition to the PH Fleet I didn't actually have to.
Mind you, after espresso number two and more hours and hairpin bends than I can remember he’d probably be sticking with his original assessment.
Alpine switchbacks take on a particular rhythm in this car. Much as when you’re skiing, you find yourself occasionally looking in directions very different from the one in which you’re travelling. Which is how you can arrive at a corner with a huge death-drop at its edge looking backwards over your shoulder at the way you’ll shortly be travelling. Meanwhile you're on the brakes, blipping down a gear or two, steering, stabbing the throttle and enjoying the car apparently pivoting on its own axis in a cacophony of rev limiter-constrained slip.
In the ascendant
Drives like these really are the stuff of dreams (nightmares for the bloke on the road bike grinding his way up the Col whose quiet torment I just rudely disturbed), with every second to be savoured. And having gone to the effort of getting the car here I’m making sure every second counts.
Weigh up the amount of time you actually have opportunity to use your car in the way its makers intended and you’ll probably feel rather miserable. That Cup suspension, so brilliant on that one track day you did last year, is a literal pain in the arse on those speed bumps you drive over every day on the entrance to the office car park. The noisy exhaust you spent a fortune on for that tunnel run is a booming nuisance on the M25. The extra horsepower you invested in is totally wasted stationary in school-run traffic. And yet we all do it – sacrifice comfort, financial and actual, for those rare moments when it all makes sense.
And this is one of them.
At the top of the Col du Grand St Bernard
In the five or six hours I’ve already been driving I’ve seen scenery of such scope, scale and variety as to leave me reeling. The roads have been wide open and fast, tight and twisty, immaculately smooth and then hideously pocked and bumpy, sometimes all at the same time. And all this 500 miles and a few hours on the peage from the banal concrete of the Channel ports.
Starting in glitzy Chamonix beneath looming, snow-capped peaks, my route to this point, halfway up the Col du Petit St Bernard, has already taken in a couple of major Alpine passes, two border crossings and several thousand metres of ascent and descent around countless hairpin bends.
The glamour of Chamonix and the ski resorts further up the valley have given way to the strange frontier land over the Swiss border and down to Martigny, bleak, hard-bitten towns clinging to the valley side on the way up to the Col De Grand St Bernard, a world away from the slick, industrialised tourist traps over in France. Initial worries about traffic have quickly faded, the midweek roads quieter once past the obvious hot spots, deserted in the 70s hinterland over the Swiss border and reduced to a few tourists on the St Bernard after most of the traffic has disappeared into the tunnel.
Petit St Bernard not that petit and tight and twisty
At the top of the St Bernard (reminiscent of Llanberis Pass but much, much more so) I blast past a minibus from mountain bike guides Bike Verbier and as I pause for photos at the top their party, 2010 downhill world champion TracyMoseley among them, take in the Caterham and say “you looked to be having fun!” Seems like they're about to have some too as they limber up for the run back down the valley to Verbier.
This is one of the other joys of the Caterham, even a ‘mere’ 125hp Roadsport. The lack of size – width especially – and gutsy (read noisy) turn of speed mean you can pull some fairly extravagant overtakes and still, somehow, get a friendly, enthusiastic response. Curious pensioners cluster around it at coffee stops, border guards crack a smile behind mirrored shades, kids point and jump with excitement and the vicarious enjoyment of doing something a bit daft - like spending nine hours driving 200-odd miles around the Alps - is as invigorating as one of those Italian espressos.
Tedious link sections like the one between the bottom of the Grand St Bernard descent and beginning of the (not especially) Petit St Bernard ascent are swiftly forgotten too, boring motorways oddly nothing like as memorable as the twists and turns around vast rock outcrops and iridescent lakes atop the Cormet de Roseland.
Epic, rugged scenery on the Cormet de Roseland
Cool, tree-lined valleys give way to sun-drenched meadows and then deserted ski stations, stationary chairlifts clanging in the breeze, before the more exposed summits with their clusters of motorhomes, pink-skinned picnickers and the inevitable bleak and desolate Alpine hospice. The pattern repeats, invigorating mists of water thrown up from the front wheels from snow melt running across the road bringing welcome refreshment in the heat.
You’d get a similar engagement with your surroundings from the seat of a motorbike of course, but there’s something liberating about being able to do it without need for a helmet and leathers and, though I’m willing to be told differently, I’d wager there’s more fun to be had sliding about on four wheels than carving on two.
Nine hours, ringing ears, about 40 litres of fuel (plus a similar quantity of espresso) and about 200 miles later I roll back into Chamonix. The drive was pointless, the car silly and the whole expedition of no real use or merit to anyone in particular. But, by heck, well worth doing. And the kind of thing we should all do, if the opportunity ever presents itself.
Out of Chamonix, through Argentiere and over the Col de la Forclaz (1,526m) into Switzerland and down to Martigny and thence up the Col du Grand St Bernard (2,469m). From Aosta on the Italian side boring Autostrada to Courmayeur and then up the Col du Petit St Bernard (2,188m), into Bourg-St-Maurice and then up the D902 Cormet de Roseland (1,987m), into Beaufort, onto the D2188 through the ski station at Saises (1,650m) before dropping back down to Notre Dame de Bellecombe and back along the N212 through Megeve and into St Gervais Les Bains and back up the A40 into Chamonix.
CATERHAM ROADSPORT 1.6 125HP
Engine: 1,595cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual (option - 5-speed standard), rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 125@6,100rpm
Torque (lb ft): 120@5,350rpm
0-62mph: 5.9 sec
Top speed: 112mph
Price: £19,495 kit, £22,495 factory built (c. £28,305 as tested)