How to enjoy winter driving...

Now that the mercury has officially dipped below freezing, there is surely no better time to talk about convertible motoring. Not in this country, of course. Oh no. In Europe, where the temperature's still comfortably in the teens and the driving is easy.

A few years back I took my old 911 to Switzerland. The return journey began at Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland at 7.30am. By 3pm, we were five hundred odd miles north at the ferry terminal in Calais, having taken a leisurely fuel+food stop and a one-hour detour through some Moselle villages.

No special driving skills were required. All I did was sit there and follow the superb roads at a decent but safe pace. In 1500 miles or so of Continental motoring, the score was as follows: speed cameras spotted, one; threats of violence against the person, nil; traffic holdups, nil.

The nearest thing to an incident that I saw in the whole trip was a Renault Kangoo tipped on its side blocking one lane of a two-lane French autoroute. In Britain, that would have resulted in an 8-hour delay, a 20-mile tailback and the cancellation of all police leave within a 50-mile radius. In France, the police presence was one blue van on the hard shoulder, one gendarme sweeping up some broken glass and a second gendarme standing by, whistling a few selections from Edith Piaf's repertoire. Meantime, passing traffic did just that. It passed. No fuss, no drama, no reduction in speed.

The very next day, I had to drive into suburban London. The three-mile trip along roads that were apparently being deliberately constricted by the local authorities took 45 minutes and was pure hell.

The main problem with Continental motoring these days is not in the driving, which remains a joy despite the gradual disappearance of limit-free roads. It's the getting there.

Cross-channel operators have been cosily fleecing Brits for many years now. It more or less started the day after the Channel Tunnel cranked up its fares from around £100 return to nearer £300.

After the ferry operators had bravely matched these bold new Chunnel prices, they then threw in longer journey times for good measure, so not only were you paying more, you were getting a reduced service.

A purser with whom I shared a pre-breakfast rum on board one of these glitzed-up scows, the MV Beyoncé I think it was called, admitted to me that every cross-channel operator could easily get their tubs from Dover to Calais in half an hour, just as they used to, but then there wouldn't be enough time to empty every traveller's pocket in the amusingly entitled 'duty-free shop'.

For four years from 2004 to 2008, an outfit called SpeedFerries operated a car-only service between Dover and Boulogne off the back of a decommissioned troop transporter. It did what it said on the tin, covering the once-popular D-B route in a shorter time than every other operator was taking to do the shorter Calais trip, and a lot less expensively too. It was an excellent service until it was bullied out of existence by the other operators, whose dubious tactics included 'forgetting' to vacate vital berths in time for the arrival of the SpeedFerries boat.

Of course, to get your Euro-motoring kicks you could always fly somewhere and then rent a car, but this is fraught with danger and hidden costs, especially if you try to do it on the cheap and end up paying through the nose to be rescued from your misery by one of the global rental outfits. Plus, your Euro-choice is nowhere near as interesting as that on offer in (say) the US.

Again, things used to be better. Cat-Seven was a Chantilly-based outfit that rented out a Caterham Super Seven to anybody willing to stump up a 2,000 euro deposit plus 550 euro a day. For that, you got a Cat-Seven bod riding shotgun and giving directions so you could give maximum concentration to the essential task of frightening him half to death. After a gourmet lunch, you would switch seats with the Cat-Seven guy and become the giggling frightenee.

Sadly, the Cat-Seven enterprise seems to have withered and died. Perhaps clients destroyed the fleet in the first week, or maybe there weren't enough renters willing to put their hairdos at risk. Tom Waits once said that there's nothing wrong with anybody's looks that a hundred dollars wouldn't fix, but not everybody agrees with that these days.

Two things need to happen for the fun to come back into motoring. One, a new SpeedFerries needs to come along to facilitate Euro-jaunts and keep the other lot honest. And two, somebody needs to invent some sort of convertible head protection that doesn't look annoyingly like a roof. And that isn't a hat.

[Motorway photo: Highways England]


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Comments (41) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Hugh Jarse 13 Dec 2017

    Definitely a cartel operating cross channel.
    A good read ta!

  • jagnet 13 Dec 2017

    Dover to Calais in 30 minutes easily? Wouldn't that require a minimum speed of over 40 knots, which seems a little optimistic for anything but the very fastest ferries.

    We normally travel to Dunkirk with DFDS and have never paid more than £100 return and certainly nowhere near £300. A couple of hours on the ferry is a nice way to relax and stretch your legs after the drive to the port and before continuing onwards, which is one reason we prefer the ferry to the Channel Tunnel.

    I have absolutely no idea what the point of that articles is or what it has to do with winter driving, or anything for that matter beyond having a moan about how things used to be better. So driving on the continent is more pleasurable than driving into suburban London - ok, I think most of us already worked that one out. I wouldn't describe all driving over there a joy though - the Brussels ring road immediately springs to mind.

  • Alucidnation 13 Dec 2017


  • Turbobanana 13 Dec 2017

    The article seems to have been written in response to a different title.

    There are some valid points, though:

    - driving in Europe certainly is better than in the UK. I normally find myself stuck in a jam within minutes of hitting the M20, after days of lightly-trafficked Autoroutes / Autostradas / Autobahnen
    - crossings aren't as expensive as the poorly-researched article makes out: we recently (October) did a 2-day return trip on the Chunnel for £60
    - things are only likely to get worse with Brexit. Already I'm noticing a change in the way French Customs view the Brits, and I have to say I don't blame them. We (the nation) voted to leave* yet we still expect to be treated the same by European neighbours. I feel for the businesses in Northern France (and further afield for that matter) who rely on the British Euro for a living.

    • I didn't.

  • TooMany2cvs 13 Dec 2017

    Hard to see how the "trad" ferry operators could have blockaded SpeedFerries from their berths, since they left Dover from the old hoverport (separate to the main ferry port), and went to Boulogne (separate from Calais).

    The big problem with the SpeedFerries cat was that it hid, crying, at the first sign of anything too wobbly. Several times, I got to Dover to find that the cat was having a milky cocoa and a hug, and I needed to buy a new last-minute ticket for "the pirates", who promptly rubbed their hands with glea at the sight of a desperate wallet.

    When they went tits, I still had half a "multi-buy" 10-crossing pre-pay.

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