To make matters far worse, too, I’d had the insane idea of doing it non-stop. It wouldn’t make a damn of difference to whether the car made it, but it gave us something to focus upon. I wanted to drive solo, but the problem was not the 1200-plus miles but the projected drive time, which, with contingencies, approached 30 hours. So for safety’s sake, we took a professional relief driver, too.
All I’ll say about importing a car into north Africa is that it’s something I’ll be spending the next few weeks trying to forget. In my naivety, I thought that we could drive off the ferry, top the car up, turn around and catch the same ferry back.
Suffice to say that by the time we finally arrived back in Algeciras, we’d already been up for 11 hours and burned every second of wriggle room in the schedule, plus an hour that we simply didn’t have.
Some sensible chap suggested that we abandoned the time element, and the only reason I said no was that I was mentally unable to quit before we started. So four hours behind schedule, our convoy of the E-class and two support vehicles full of camera and film crews turned dejectedly north.
Read the full Mercedes-Benz E-class review
I’d had to decide how ‘real’ I wanted this test to be; after all, we could have fitted a vast auxiliary fuel tank and proved nothing. We could also have driven at 30mph, reduced the truck-driving population of western Europe to apoplexy and produced a similarly meaningless result.
Taping up the panel gaps seemed like artificial interference, too, as did folding in the door mirrors and using special tyres. So we used the usual tyre issued on the basic 17-inch rim, which is covered by low-rolling-resistance rubber as standard. But I did think it fair to turn off the air-con and use a car that had already covered over 10,000 miles, the point at which this engine reaches peak efficiency. All luggage went in other vehicles.
The hardest decision was whether to drive alone or in company. But not even I could ignore the fact that a passenger added up to kilos that the car didn’t need to carry, so in addition to this being a hot and exhausting journey, it was now looking like a pretty lonely one, too.
We’d already discovered that the best blend of speed and economy needed both to reach the UK without refuelling and catch our ferry was achieved at 51mph, the lowest speed at which the car would hold top gear on the level. Driving through Europe in the certain knowledge that we wouldn’t get nicked was another complete novelty of the trip.
Three hours in, I made a mistake that made me want to quit there and then. Already feeling I’d earned eight hours in a comfortable bed, I zoomed out the navigation map to show both our start and our finish. And so far as I could see, the car hadn’t actually moved. I could have cried.
The next challenge was conquering stultifying boredom. There is more to economy driving than simply setting the cruise control, sitting back and waiting until you get there, but after a few hours the process becomes second nature and not very interesting.
Worse, all the things that I’d usually do to keep myself alert were off the menu. I couldn’t turn the car into an ice box, or lower the windows and blast air through the cabin, because both would have had an adverse effect on fuel consumption. And I certainly couldn’t blast up to some unpublishable speed to coax a trickle of adrenalin through the arteries.
Nor could I even dose myself to the eyeballs with caffeinated drinks, because caffeine is a diuretic, and I hope you’ll not be too disappointed to learn that I draw the line of civilisation some distance this side of answering calls of nature in the car. So that would have meant more stops, using fuel and time that we simply did not have.
Watch the Mercedes-Benz C-class in action in our video review
Salvation from the tedium came from all seven hours of Alan Partridge’s autobiography, time in which anyone in the least self-conscious about making strange noises in public will be glad to have been by themselves.
By nightfall, we were roughly parallel with Madrid and I was properly tired. So an hour before I reckoned I’d have had enough, I sent the support cars ahead to refuel and attend to their personal needs before I arrived. This meant that by the time I swept – correction, crawled – into the services, Mick, my intrepid relief driver, was ready and waiting. I fell out, then he jumped in and headed off, the E300 stationary for less than a minute.
In that first stint, the computer reckoned it had done 76.4mpg and, if right, we remained in with a shout. I tried not to dwell on the fact that all such devices lie and that there were mountains between us and France.
I was back behind the wheel by 3am and past the Pyrenees and into France by daybreak. We knew Bordeaux would be bad, and because of the delays caused by our African adventure, we’d be hitting it during the worst of the morning rush. But in fact we were hardly held up at all.
Perhaps a touch worryingly, I don’t remember much about most of France as we motored north past Tours and Le Mans. At every péage, the support team would pay for the E300, so no time was lost running around the car to reach the booth. The fuel consumption looked good, solid as a rock at 76.4mpg. The time did not.
With about three hours to go, it became clear that unless we did something, we were going to miss the boat. So I raised the cruising speed to a recklessly exhilarating 57mph while the crew called Brittany Ferries and begged them to wait for as long as they could. Once more, the team went ahead to clear a way through the port and advise of traffic hold-ups.
There was none. Through a combination of luck with the traffic and just a bit of determination, we managed to throw ourselves on to the back of the ferry. There were even a couple of cars behind us. As for the fuel, the reserve light came on as the car disappeared into the bowels of the boat.
Six hours later, it emerged to dispatch the 22 miles to our final destination at the Goodwood Festival of Speed without delay. Forty-two hours after leaving Algeciras to catch a ferry to Morocco and 26 hours and 23 minutes of driving time since we brimmed the tank in Tangiers, our 1223-mile journey was over.
The trip computer still said 76.4mpg, although, once brimmed, we discovered that the true consumption had been 73.6mpg. I’d have been impressed if a Smart had done as much, but for a 150mph car weighing two tonnes laden, such numbers are astonishing.
The E300 had ridden beautifully throughout, and with more comfortable seats and a trip computer capable of predicting arrival times based on how the car was being driven, it would have been perfect for such a trip.
What did we prove? To be honest, Africa to the UK on a single tank was simply an engaging headline, a hook for a less eye-catching but altogether more important fact.
The real story here is that we shifted almost 2000kg of car almost 2000km at an average speed of 46mph on just 75 litres of fuel. As adverts for the electrically assisted internal combustion engine go, you are unlikely to find a better one.
Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below: