It’s a whisker past 8.15am on a misty April morning as I turn the Tuscan’s ignition off. With my window down I am approached by a Police motorcyclist resplendent in his fluorescent jacket and clutching his crash helmet. Behind him is a scene of police cars, bikes and accident investigation vans.
I sit apprehensively as he gets closer. “Are you selling it?” he quips, “How much do they cost? What engine does it have?”. This police officer likes TVRs. While he takes a look around the car, I get a wave from a passing motorist. That must be Stuart Grigg and this must be the correct rendezvous point outside West Yorkshire Police’s vehicle compound.
Stuart is a serving police officer for West Yorkshire Police. On duty he patrols the local stretches of the very busy M62 and M1 motorway network. Today however is a day off for him and he is my ‘Ride Drive’ mentor taking me on a full day Advanced TVR Handling Skills course.
After introducing ourselves (and Stuart has familiarised himself with the exterior styling of the Tuscan) we jump in and buckle up. At this moment, all I can think of is my old driving instructor’s voice in my head saying “Check handbrake is on, check you are in neutral gear, start the engine, take first gear, look all round the car for pedestrians and other vehicle…….”.
By the time I’m down the road and arriving at the first roundabout I am reciting “Mirror. Signal. Manoeuvre” to myself. I am trying too hard to be Mr Text Book Motorist and even with 360 bhp under my right foot, I feel slightly paranoid that I’ll be overtaken by the first granny who comes sailing along in her well kept beige Mini Metro. That’s the initial effect of having a traffic policeman sitting next to you.
...it ain't a driving test
We take the slip road north onto the M1. Seeing a gap in the traffic I position the car to join and give a firm burst of acceleration. Stuart gleefully comments on the car’s power and tells me not to hang back but drive how I do normally; this is after all not a driving test. I start to relax.
30 minutes later we arrive at the driver training centre at Tockwith. Tockwith used to be a WW II training base for Halifax bomber pilots and consequently has long runways there. After signing in at the office, we head off to a deserted runway furnished with traffic cones.
Stuart explains to me that we are going to get a feel for the Tuscan’s handling. I take the car in 2nd gear at around 20 mph up the nearside of the runway and turn hard right to make a 180 degree manoeuvre around a cone. No problem. I then do the same down the other side of the runway and around another cone. “OK, now lets use some more power and build that speed up”, says Stuart, “After all, you won’t be taking bends on country roads at 20 mph will you?”
We make successive loops up and down the runway. In 3rd gear I make a hard right turn at around 60 mph, the rear wheels start to squeal. Faster and faster we go time and again until the screeching from the tyres gets longer and louder. The car starts to slide until we are travelling sideways. I feel amazed that the car can turn so hard at speed before losing grip.
When the breakaway point is reached, I can ‘normally’ get the car back under control with concentration. I say ‘normally’ as once or twice the car did spin off. Stuart explained that this was because of the way I was using the steering wheel and allowing my arms to cross; a natural reaction and a panic response. At low driving speeds it is easy to ‘shuffle’ the wheel from hand to hand smoothly and appear to be in control. Driving on the limit demands it be done this way to maintain control.
To expand on the steering control, Stuart sets up a slalom course with the cones. Again, I would take the car up the runway and increase the speed through the cones until the Tuscan started to slide around. With concentration and smoothly feeding the wheel from hand to hand I could keep the car more balanced and get through the slalom smoother and faster. Another run deliberately using my now ‘old style’ of steering had the car going all over the place. There was the comparison between methods proving one was definitely superior to the other. Lesson learned, memorised, practised and taken away.
On the Skids
Next, onto the skid pan. The management at Tockwith looked at me as if I had two heads when I said we were taking the Tuscan onto it. “Have you seen our skid pan?” the gentleman asked. “Eh, no.” I replied. “Well, you won’t be wanting to take your nice clean car onto it Sir, unless you want it well undersealed!”. “There’s an oily Volvo waiting for you there with some overalls. See you later”.
We arrived at the skid pan – and it was very oily. Not to mention the sprinkler system spraying water on top. With clean overalls donned we climbed into a RWD Volvo that had remarkably little rust on it for its age.
Stuart buckled up beside me and we were off. Even gentle acceleration had the car sliding around – at only 5 mph (although the Volvo’s speedo occasionally registered 120 mph – who said Tuscan speedos were unreliable?).
After countless clockwise laps of the circuit, I was getting dizzy. Time to do some anti-clockwise laps to try and unwind the dizziness. Tricky, very tricky. I had to be so fast on the steering that I was regularly winding the wheel from full lock to full lock – and even then I wanted some more lock that the car just could not provide! The steering technique that Stuart had showed me on the runway was being put into practice – good and proper. With time I was powersliding the car around sideways. It was a great feeling to master the balance between steering and throttle and with successive laps I was getting better at positioning the car and making it behave as I wished.
With overalls off and a quick check for oil on our clothes we jumped into the oil free, cream coloured cockpit of the Tuscan. Thank goodness for sacrificial Volvos. We had covered the car handling physics off of public roads at Tockwith and I had practiced some new techniques. Now it was time to take this knowledge and experience onto the open roads and make use of it. We said ‘goodbye’ to the staff at Tockwith and headed East onto some lovely countryside B roads.
On the Road
Stuart’s experience as a police officer was immediately apparent. Even sitting in the passenger seat he was saying things like “OK, you can overtake when the white and silver cars coming towards you have passed.”
I was thinking, “I’ve seen the white car and now I can see the silver – how did he see them before me? Does he have radar or Extra Sensory Perception? ”. I counted my observational skills as being quite good – but Stuart’s commentary took this to a new and higher level.
The most important priority Stuart rammed home was SAFETY. Reading the road ahead right up into the far distance on the horizon heightens observation and gives time to make a plan. I was encouraged to straddle the white line to increase my view of the road and open the view up as much as possible. A lot of the time I was on the other side of the road when approaching left hand bends. This gave an earlier view down the road through bends allowing very high speeds to be maintained where safe. Of course if there was oncoming traffic, there was plenty of time to move back over to the left without any drama.
After a couple of hours hard driving I was taking the Tuscan around bends with speeds that previously I would not have dared to. Quickly, calmly, smoothly whilst always maintaining a safety margin.
The Tuscan was coming into its own and absolutely lapping it up. Stuart referred to the Tuscan as “She” all the time and was shouting enthusiastic comments as if being the voice of the car. “Look at that view down the road. Move over to the right. Get the view. Look at that. Its like a book being opened. Lovely view. Look at that bend, no one coming. Come on! Let’s go!”
Go go go!
With no further encouragement required and already being in the right position and right gear, the throttle would be squeezed hard and applauded by the Tuscan’s thunderous note. The car would sit nicely when the power was applied at the right moment and go! I was at last understanding the unrealised potential TVRs have and getting to use it to the full. It was an experience that I can liken to playing a musical instrument. After much practice, the cracked and wobbly wrong notes get replaced by correct tuneful ones, and then you can string them together and play a piece. Before you know it, you can play music. Today was the automotive equivalent of Beethoven’s 1812.
Late afternoon – by now we had clocked up nearly 200 miles of very fast driving on a variety of routes but mostly nice country B roads. We stopped for a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. The break from driving allowed us to talk more fully about what I had learned and also get some tips on motorway driving where advanced observation is equally important. Unfortunately, you cannot count on other drivers being alert and Stuart recounted tales of sitting behind traffic with blue lights and siren all going – only for the car in front not to notice him, even at night!
After half an hour it was time to mount our steed once again and set off back to base. With the intensity of concentration I was now feeling more than a little tired and joined other traffic on the country roads driving at their pace.
After a few miles I had recomposed myself and thought “Hang on a minute. I’m driving along in other traffic, but I don’t have to.” I was just driving along in a convoy like every one else. I made the conscious decision to get the last bit out of the day and show Stuart what I had learned. Within moments I had overtaken all the cars in front of me and the caravan that was ahead of the queue. No danger. No drama. Quickly, but more importantly, safely.
I had open road ahead of me again to enjoy and I felt amazed at the opportunities granted to me by virtue of the car’s performance and handling. Stuart likens this to now being a ‘player’ and no longer a ‘spectator’.
The Advanced TVR Handling Course from Ride Drive is just one of the courses they offer TVR owners nationally. The quality of the courses is acknowledged by A Manning insurance who will grant discounts for those who have taken them. It may seem like a lot of money – but compared to the value of your car and more importantly your life, it really is peanuts – especially for the extra enjoyment you will derive from your car.
The best performance enhancement you can get for your TVR may not be de-catting your exhaust or rechipping the ECU – ironically, it will probably be fine tuning the nut that holds the steering wheel. I’d like to thank Ride Drive for and in particular Stuart for his infectious enthusiasm maintained through out the day.
Bryan Lister (Tus 373)