Two days and 1200 miles in Britain’s best driver’s car on Britain’s best driving roads. Andrew Frankel goes for a drive. Because he can
Andrew Frankel Autocar
4 January 2014

We all like driving, otherwise your eyes and my words would not be meeting on this page now.

But how often do you go for a drive? The difference between driving and going for a drive is profound. Given our common passion you have thought we’d all be out there, driving for the sake of driving. But that’s not what happens: every drive is compromised, usually by the destination. The hard facts are that you are here and it is there. These are immovable parameters within which you must work.

What if you woke up one morning and just drove and not just for a few hours but a couple of days? What if driving became not the means, but the end? Where would you go?I thought I knew. We needed a car and as the Porsche 911 GT3 is our current Britain’s Best Driver’s Car champion, that choice was not difficult.

But we also needed a route. This was the delicious bit. To keep it relevant, the only limit to this plan would be the shores of Great Britain. Upon that canvas I could doodle any damn journey I chose, taking in the roads of England, Wales and Scotland over which I’d most enjoyed driving cars during 25 years in this job.

As most journeys tend to, this one started at home. I live in the Wye Valley where if you drive west from London is where the good roads start. Parked outside my shed with my old Peugeot, older Land Rover and ancient Fiat peering down upon it, I fondly imagined startled gasps of French, English and Italian as my blue collar accumulation of antediluvian wreckage beheld the young German nobleman in their midst.

Wingman would be Autocar staff photographer Stuart Price, picked not just for his talent with a camera, but his tolerance of the kind of driving I have in mind. He’s done 200 miles just to get here, so now it’s already lunchtime on day one, and our journey has yet to commence. On the plus side, Stu is lovingly constructing a tuna and Quavers sandwich: if he can stomach that, he has nothing to fear from my driving.

Where to go? I thought about the west country, but few memorable drives have come on those roads, fewer still since a blanket speed limit was draped over Dartmoor. So we go west to objective one at Black Mountain, probably the single most challenging road in Wales.

I’d not say the road from Brynamman to Llangadog is perfectly for the GT3 – its narrowness makes it a more Caterham-friendly facility, but the Porsche still flings itself at the mountain with monumental conviction. There’s no time to relax here: huge boulders line the road that can – and have – ripped entire suspension assemblies off cars conducted by drivers greedy for more than their fair share of apex.

But armed with a precision instrument and taking care only to drive what you can see, it presents an inspiring challenge. Of all the roads for which we are heading, this presents the toughest intellectual challenge. You might not whoop with joy at its conclusion, but that quiet glow is no less satisfying for that.

We fill for the first time in Llandovery and at just 3.30pm, the light is already failing. Photo shoots usually stop around now at this time of year, but this is not a shoot: it’s a drive during which we’re taking some shots to prove we did it. Besides I love driving in the dark: roads you think you know well become strange and new as your journey through the night takes on an altogether more intrepid quality.

So we hammer north, up the wonderful A483 to Beulah and then the B4358 to Newbridge-on-Wye. The A470 from there to Rhayader is fast, but the B4518 from there to Llanidoes and on to Llanbynmair is simply epic. Narrow, quick, full of crests and cambers its surfaces are made variable by the ingredients of both its tarmac and stomach contents of the livestock that frequently passes this way.

I’ve worked out the best configuration for the GT3: shockers on soft, gearbox in sport, exhaust left quiet, all safety nets disengaged. On this road an old GT3 would be a handful: you’d need to be in the right gear and mindful of its desire to understeer. The new car is not like this: both physically and mentally it asks a lot less of its driver, though whether that comes at the price of providing less pleasure in return is one of the questions I’m here to answer. We rejoin the A470, head up to Dolgellau and then turn north again on the A494 to Lake Bala.

Turn left from Bala town itself on the A4212 and you will drive through the best corner in Britain. Not the fastest, or toughest, just the best – an endless, wide open left through which there’s time to load the GT3’s Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres to the limit and then ease on and off the throttle to see how it addresses the road. It adjusts its attitude as if your foot were literally pulling and pushing the nose toward and away from the apex. Clearly beside himself with admiration for my talent, Stu is staring at the stars and propounding a theory of the universe that can only be the product of a brain too long exposed to a diet of tuna and Quavers.

Soon my hidden agenda is revealed. Living in Wales as I do, I know that when it comes to heroically awful Christmas decorations, this country is in a league of one, which is why I have chosen to drive from its south to north coast under cover of night. In Blaenau our efforts are rewarded by a single dwelling whose illuminations are almost certainly visible from space, let from the A470.

I’d like to stay but time is pressing and Snowdonia is waiting. At Betws-y-coed we turn left to Capel Curig and left again onto the A4086 and over the magnificent Llanberis Pass. In most cars you tend to adopt higher gears as confidence builds, but not this one: because the engine is so mighty between 5000-7000rpm, you need to teach yourself to use all 9000rpm that this extraordinary motor provides. My only complaint is the choice of ratios. First and second are two low, with too long a gap to third. Fourth, fifth and sixth are too high, especially since 7th is geared low enough to ensure maximum speed occurs at peak power.

At Bangor we take the A55 east, stopping only in Llandudno when Stuart’s lustings for an irradiated steak and kidney pudding become insatiable; but in Rhyl we need more fuel. This tank is far too small for this kind of work. It’s past 10.00pm now but I have neither the time nor inclination to stop. The radio insists we’re heading into the worst weather the north of England and Scotland have seen in years, but I figure if we don’t sleep until Glasgow 280 miles away, by the time we wake up, it will have passed. I say ‘we’ - Stu announces he’s going to have to have a snooze, shuts his eyes and wakes up four hours later in Scotland.

In the meantime I’ve taken the A55, M53 and M56 to the M6 north and crossed the Lake District in the dead of night. In fact despite the beauty of the scenery, the actual driving to be done past Windermere and up past Ullswater pales beside what we’ve seen in Wales. From Penrith to Carlisle then through the borders I take the line of least resistance until lured by the Holiday Inn Express in Hamilton at 2.00am.

Four hours later we emerge to find Glasgow apparently under water. For tyres with the word ‘race’ written on their sidewalls, the Dunlops are remarkably good in these conditions and despite wind speeds of 70mph or more, the low, wide GT3 barely notices the gusts. Somewhere up a nearby mountain, one hits 140mph. Every few miles we find some van, lorry or other vehicle that’s been blown onto its side and each time I have to remind myself how it got that way.

By Loch Lomond the worst of the weather has gone, but it has left behind a trail of destruction that has felled thousands of trees, cut electricity to entire communities and caused at least one fatality. We try the west shore but are turned around before Tarbet; the east is no better so we end up on the coast in Helensburgh where the route north is also blocked. The plan had always been to get to Fort William then turn up the A82 to Port Augustus on one of the most beautiful roads in Europe. I’d even fondly entertained hopes of getting to Ullapool because it is where I’d live if all I ever had to do in life was drive.

But the weather has other plans. Faced with spending the rest of this feature providing you with an in depth analysis of a GT3 motor’s idling strategy or heading south once more, we exercise the only option we have. We fuel up – again – and turn around.

Quantum mechanics, string theory and what really goes on at Pine Gap in Australia are just some of the wide and diverse range of topics postulated by my valiant and now entirely refreshed co-driver as we head back over the border. We are fortunate in this currently United Kingdom that despite its population density you can drive such a great distance, hit a dead end and still have so many other outstanding roads on which to play. I am fortunate to have such an original thinker by my side.

My target is clear: the moorland of North Yorkshire is accessible by taking the A66 East from Penrith to Scotch Corner. From there we should head south on the A1 but I’m bored so instead thread my way freehand across to the A19, then up the A172 to Stokesley and across to Castleton. Here commences my favourite single road certainly in England and probably Great Britain.

The route south across Castleton Ridge and Blakey Ridge to Kirkbymoorside is even more of a challenge for a car than its driver. What’s needed here is body control: an ability to maintain ride height whatever the road throws at you. The approaches are slushy and slippery and the light is fading again, but once on top of the moor, the GT3 is in the environment for which it was born.

I’ve driven McLarens, Ferraris and, most recently, a Mercedes SLS Black Series across this road, but I’ve never known it devoured like this. The impregnable poise, whip-crack gear shifts and bewildering grip are enough to reduce even Stu to awe-struck silence. More fuel is taken in Kirkbymoorside as night descends again. But we’re not done yet. Not quite at least.

It’s dark as we hit the A1, M18 and M1 south but at Chesterfield we veer to the right and head out across the Pennines again, into the Peak District, the last great wilderness of our trip. We overnight in Buxton. With its proud claim to be England’s highest market town it seems fitting that it’s here that Stuart introduces me to the dubious delights of combining England’s two favourite foods. However bad curry and chips sounds, it tastes worse.

Waking up at dawn it hits me. My insides have spent most of the night wrestling Buxton’s finest Balti into some semblance of submission, but for the first time on the trip, I am truly tired. There’s a thin veil of snow on the roof the GT3 and for just a moment I’m ashamed to say I’d have chosen my bed over its thin, black carbon fibre bucket.

One crank of the motor blows such unworthy thoughts to dust. It turns out the GT3 is one of those rare sports cars you don’t have to drive fast to enjoy. It’s a special car just to be with, even if you just drive it slowly through the morning commute.

Or over the Cat & Fiddle pass to Macclesfield. Even in dry weather this is reputedly Britain’s most dangerous road, but in ice and slush and snow, in a GT3 on summer tyres, it is lethal. One substantial slither, too far and fast for the ESP to catch, is enough to make me take the shortest route possible to lower ground and head for home. When we get back, the trip says we’d done a little over 1200 miles in a little less than 25 hours driving.

Not much is it? An average of just 50mph. I once covered almost double that distance in 24 hours in a 90bhp Ford Mondeo. But it is enough: enough to confirm the greatness of the GT3 and its worthiness as the next in a long and illustrious line. Is it more fun than the car it replaces? Probably not; but if like me you believe a car’s enjoyment is defined by how much fun it is to drive multiplied by how often you feel inclined to drive it, over a lifetime it would be the more satisfying car to own.

More importantly, those 1200 miles showed that most people who live on this land mass are never actually that far from truly great driving roads. Overpopulated though this island is, for the length, breadth, quality and sheer accessibility of its best roads, if all you want to do is drive, this is still one of the best places on earth to do it.

Our Verdict

Porsche 911 GT3

Latest 911 GT3 is big and brutal; despite this Porsche has made it faster, more responsive and more user-friendly than ever

Join the debate

Comments
2

haz

5 January 2014
I cant believe you get paid to do this! Can I have your job please?

Out of interest, did the electric steering get in the way of your enjoyment at any point during the 1200 miles? For country roads, isn't something with more feedback like an Alfa 4C or Aston Martin Vantage more fun? (forgetting the awesome engine in the GT3)

6 January 2014
No smart-arsed criticisms or petty-minded jealousy from me: just thanks for a great piece of writing. The car, the journey, the idea all made me smile.

Cheers & Happy New Year.

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Lexus LC500
    Car review
    20 October 2017
    Futuristic Lexus LC coupé mixes the latest technology with an old-school atmospheric V8
  • Maserati Levante S GranSport
    First Drive
    20 October 2017
    Get ready to trade in your diesels: Maserati’s luxury SUV finally gets the engine it’s always needed
  • Jaguar XF Sportbrake TDV6
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The handsome Jaguar XF Sportbrake exhibits all the hallmarks that makes the saloon great, and with the silky smooth diesel V6 makes it a compelling choice
  • Volkswagen T-Roc TDI
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    Volkswagen's new compact crossover has the looks, the engineering and the build quality to be a resounding success, but not with this diesel engine
  • BMW M550i
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The all-paw M550i is a fast, effortless mile-muncher, but there's a reason why it won't be sold in the UK