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This summer, I went on a memorable journey into the past.
I took to the road in classic 1950s cars,
looking for that long-lost golden age of motoring.
The journey took me from the rugged coast of Cornwall
to the magnificent mountains of Scotland,
in search of the most popular leisure routes of the '50s.
And frankly, they didn't disappoint.
Oh, yes! Oh, extraordinary.
But before I embarked on my vintage motoring odyssey,
there were some challenges to overcome,
Like the fact that I hadn't used a gearstick for decades.
Oh, bugger it!
And that's what this episode is all about.
I suppose you could say this is the story of my road to Britain's Best Drives.
Keep going, keep going. Go, go, go go!
And an occasionally bumpy one it was!
Oh, my gosh!
"Unless the learner has had expert tuition,
"there is always the danger of his unconsciously acquiring bad driving habits."
Before all this began, I led a rather ordinary, you might even say tame motoring life.
I never learned to drive until I was about 40,
simply because I couldn't afford a car before that
and when eventually I learned how to drive,
my cousin in Leicester sold me a second-hand Vauxhall Chevette,
a salesman's car, which had done many thousands of miles,
so it wasn't a hugely reliable car.
But it was a gear car.
I passed my test in a gear car
and I started driving my Vauxhall Chevette.
That was the last gear car that I drove,
which is maybe 28 years ago.
So, now I'm about to drive...
six manual cars of 50 years ago.
which is rather a daunting prospect.
To prepare me for my road trip, the producers said they'd send me on a crash course,
a turn of phrase that I think appealed to their rather warped sense of humour.
I was to go to MIRA, the hush-hush motoring test facility, where they train drivers to
cope with all kinds of challenging terrains and conditions. Oh, joy(!)
And, as usual, the producers were keeping their cards very close to their chests.
Well, it's all very secretive.
They won't tell me what car I'm going to be driving.
I think it's going to come from over here somewhere.
All we can do is wait.
Do you think? No, it couldn't be. Is it?
Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear.
A Vauxhall Chevette!
The man with the challenge of reacquainting me with a manual gearbox
was chief MIRA instructor Peter Randall.
I thought you were gonna bring me something nice.
This is nice! It's what you chose all those years ago, Richard.
-It's a little bit...
The suspension is...
Right, so, if you just start the engine.
OK, let go of the key. That's good, OK.
-It's all flooding back now.
-It sounds wonderful.
-All flooding back to you now.
OK, so, clutch in.
-Yeah. Into gear.
Into first. Ease that clutch out a little bit more.
That's good, that's good, OK, just let that clutch right out.
Inside the cones, we'll follow this white line now. That's it, OK.
This is a bit severe for a first drive.
"Remember the following driving philosophy.
"One, there is an invisible car behind you
"and the invisible driver is watching for your signals.
"Two, the vehicle in front of you has a poster attached to its rear.
"On it are the words 'I am going to stop, can you?'
"Three, everyone on the road, including pedestrians,
"is mentally deficient, therefore it all depends on you."
-We're basically doing a figure of eight.
-But I want you to do is get up enough speed to change into second gear.
Well, because I've never driven in a figure of eight before in my life.
It's rather pleasant.
Like being at the funfair.
-We're cooking with gas now!
Yeah, second, let's go for it! Live dangerous!
Well, we've not hit a cone yet, which is... That's a bonus!
Now we'll reverse back.
-All that way?
-OK, can you see the cones through that mirror?
Oh, whoa, whoa! Don't panic, don't panic.
-A bit more gas.
-I was getting cocky!
My left foot hadn't worked so hard in years.
I was actually getting cramp, but no sympathy from the producers, oh, no!
They decided it was time to practise my hill starts.
OK, Richard, so let's move it up a little bit more, and stop.
Stop, stop, stop, stop. Brake!
This is not fair.
"The start-away, when on a hill, can be a menace to the learner.
"Here is when perfect clutch control can be a boon.
"Under test conditions the vehicle must not slip back,
"not even one inch".
As soon as that handbrake comes off, let the clutch right the way out.
OK, and back off now.
Well, we knew you needed a bit of practice, didn't we?
Cos on some of these routes you may be doing, could be hilly.
Well, I won't be doing it in this bloody car, I tell you.
If I'm doing it in this car, the series is off!
That's great, keep it going Richard. Keep it going. Go, go, go, go.
-I don't know where I'm going.
-Sraight ahead, down the other side.
Wo-ho! Cover the brake, cover the brake.
Yeah, that got you sweating.
I think we'll just turn the heating down, shall we?
Thankfully, it was soon time to say goodbye to that rusty old Chevette
and slip into something a bit more comfortable.
Right, well, wheel spin start. Leave a bit of rubber!
This is a 1950s Jaguar XK150 and my first experience of driving a classic car.
This is a bit better, Peter.
You're happier with this then than the Chevette?
Well, first of all, the seat is much more comfortable.
Much more at home in this car.
-This is you.
-I think it's got a bit of a style to it, as well.
And I think that this would have been the car, you would have had after the Chevette.
Let's just knock it into third gear.
-Which is up there.
-Into third, clutch back in.
But just when I was starting to relax a bit...
What we doing here, Pete?
Well, I thought we'd better introduce you to some low friction surfaces.
Oh, my gosh!
"Another general remark which can be made here
"is to stress the dangers of skidding."
"It has been my privilege to drive with
"some of the finest motorists in Europe.
"Driving with these men in wet or frosty weather, we have frequently
"been passed, especially by women drivers,
"or elderly men who should have known better".
Too much gas is going to cause the rear wheels to spin.
-And that can cause us to lose control, so if we're driving along
here and I accelerate too much, the car may go into a slight...
So when you fell the spin kick in, you take your foot off the gas.
Not completely, we need to just ease the gas back.
What about the brake, are you keeping your...? You're not touching.
I'm not touching the brake at all.
I hit the brakes, we have no steering.
So I must come off the brakes and the steering will return to us and we bring it back in a straight line.
Brake again, off.
-So every time I release the brake, I get my steering back.
-And I can control the car in the right direction.
-I see that.
I don't know why, but Peter didn't ask me to have a go behind the wheel on the skid pan.
The era I was set to return to was of course a very exciting one.
Back in the '50s, our Prime Minister famously told us all that we'd "never had it so good".
As far as motoring was concerned, it seems he may have been right.
"There are now well over 6 million motorists in Britain.
"Though hundreds of thousands take their cars abroad
"for their holidays, the vast majority remain at home.
"They need not be disappointed, for Great Britain
"is inferior to no country.
"Britain, it would seem, has been designed by nature
"for the pleasure of the tourist".
I'm taking a break from my training to find out just why driving in '50s Britain was so very special.
The Heritage Motor Centre in Warwickshire
holds the world's largest collection of historic British cars.
And the curator of this fascinating place is Stephen Laing.
How does motoring essentially differ between now and the '50s?
Well, I think today, motoring is to get from A to B.
And one of the things about the 1950s was that the motorcar was taking off again after the war.
-Motoring was more affordable and people were using them just as a method for a day out or a holiday.
Yes. You used to go out and say, "Let's go for a drive".
Yes, a picnic, a little spell in the countryside.
All very relaxed, unlike maybe today's motoring.
And the motoring WAS the holiday.
It wasn't just the method of getting to your holiday.
Motor industry was really in a boom period in the '50s and that's because
Britain had come out of the austerity of the war.
There'd been rationing and you couldn't get hold of a car.
In the 1950s, it became a seller's market and everybody wanted one of these cars.
Many didn't have one before the war, they maybe learnt to drive in service or that kind of thing,
so it was a really popular thing to have during the 1950s.
Yes, and very exciting. So, presumably in the 1950s, there was much more space in the road?
The roads weren't as crowded as they are today?
Absolutely, in the 1950s about 1 in 20 people owned a car, whereas about 1 in 2 people have a car now.
There was much more space, and driving was a much gentler experience, I guess.
"The byways of Britain are never crowded
"except in a few specially favoured areas such as Cornwall or Devonshire
"at the height of the summer season.
"More often than not, the majority are deserted
"except for the occasional farmer's car or delivery van".
What sort of wage brackets could afford a car in the '50s?
It was still a fairly middle and upper class ownership.
Working class, you could afford it if you saved up, but it was really more of the middle classes,
and those that toured Britain in a motorcar probably would have been at that kind of wage level, really.
-In the 1950s, the motorcar began to look like what we think of a motorcar today.
It was sleeker and also you had the influence from America.
The chrome styling, chrome radiators and wings in, rather than separate wings
and a more carriage-like look from before the war.
Do you, by any chance, have a Vauxhall Chevette in your collection?
-We don't, no.
-Why was that, I wonder?
Well, we don't have room for them all, really.
Right, now I'm in the Heritage Motor Centre car park, and at last,
I'm going to get some time by myself to practise my gears.
So. Let's hope I don't, erm...
Here we go.
First gear... Second gear.
Up to third.
Oh, we're on the open road.
These people passing by here don't realise what danger they're in.
And there's a roundabout coming up!
Oh! I'm going round, oooh! Straight on.
And of course, I've never driven a car and talked to a camera before.
I've driven and spoken to passengers, but it's rather strange having you here.
Although, you don't know you're here, yet.
Yes, a lot of you who are watching this of course, don't realise you're going to watch it yet.
And one day you will see it and one day you will realise the trauma of handling a gear stick.
We're back. And no-one's been killed.
The producers weren't content with me merely mastering a gear stick.
Oh, no. They claimed they wanted me to be able to cope with anything
Britain's Best Drives could throw at me, even if that meant going off-road.
Oh, this is not fair.
This is not fair. How do I get it up there?
Why they want me to go up here, I've no idea.
If doing the best drives of Britain takes me up a hill like this, I'd be very surprised.
Wonderful. Well done, Richard. Brilliant.
Push the water ahead of you. You're a little bit quick.
I see. Gosh.
It even put me in the hands of a living legend.
This is how it all started for me. It's unbelievable, really.
Derek Bell is one of Britain's most successful racing drivers.
A five times winner at Le Mans, he began his racing career in the early '60s,
in the forerunner of this modern Caterham, the Lotus Seven.
This is what racing was like, I mean, this still takes you back to that era.
There's still that feeling of your backside virtually on the road.
You feel every bump. You know exactly what the car's doing at every opportunity.
Derek was to give me a masterclass in driving high-performance cars.
They've made cars so much safer.
I mean in my era, I mean, I sat in the car and the seat was a tank,
with 25 gallons in. There were pontoon tanks either side of my legs and then there was a lap tank.
So I had 70 or 75 gallons of fuel.
-On your lap?
-Over your lap here.
Where the steering column went through and so if you actually happened to go into anything,
it just exploded and that's why it was so awful, the crashes.
-Were you aware of that danger?
-Oh, absolutely, yes.
Yeah, a minute-to-minute drive.
Absolutely. Well, you never thought about it once you were in the car.
Cos, you know, as soon as that flag drops the bullshit stops, we say, but also at the same time,
all you do is concentrate on racing and being as good as you can.
You don't think of the danger.
The most important thing with driving a car is to be smooth.
You've probably noticed I'm not putting, I'm not gripping it like a sort of...ape.
I'm actually quite light-fingered, light-touched on the steering wheel.
-And everything you do, you do smoothly, you break in a nice straight line, you slow it down,
get the right gear, come off the brakes and then turn in the corner and gradually apply the power.
So, you think you're ready to drive this?
Well, I'll only find out with your guidance.
First time in a Ferrari.
You'll take second very early on, it doesn't need a lot of revs,
it's not like your 1½ litre Volkswagen.
-Right, so we can take second about now?
-Yeah. Get second now.
-Of course, I want to look.
-You've got fourth.
-That's all right
-I shouldn't look, should I?
-It's difficult when you've not put your hand on it before.
Take your time. You've gone back to first.
Oh, that's first now.
What a lot of people do is they turn the wheel but they're actually not on the power.
-As you turn the wheel, you need to apply power to tell the car what you're doing.
Just gently turn it, don't brake ever in a corner, just nice gentle turn.
-Don't ever brake on a corner?
No, not unless you're in a hell of a mess.
-You're doing very well.
Well, you've never driven it before and it is a road you don't know.
To drive this with somebody who thinks he knows what he's doing beside you is quite something!
Well, Derek was being very charming, but I'm not sure I'll be following him into Formula One just yet.
Back in the city, the opportunities to put one's foot down are few and far between.
One of the disadvantages of being, shall we say, well known,
is that when you're in a traffic jam,
people have a chance to... recognise you
at close quarters and... talk to you.
I've never actually been asked for an autograph
in a traffic jam,
but I've certainly had a few,
what shall we say,
well-known phrases quoted at me.
I'm battling through the 21st century traffic to an iconic 1950s location
where the producers have promised me a surprise.
The Ace Cafe on London's North Circular was built in 1938.
It was like the original motorway service station, long before motorways had even been invented.
They had a car wash, a showroom, garages, and of course, the cafe and restaurant.
Lovely, thanks very much.
But it was in the 1950s when this place became famous, or should I say infamous, as a hangout for Britain's
emerging rockers who, before the days of speed limits, used to race each other on the road out there.
Break 100 miles an hour and you became one of the feared and revered Ton Up Boys.
On a busy, busy day, this whole car park would be
packed with bikes and across the road, apparently.
They'd park everywhere.
But it wasn't bikes I was there to see,
it was the six 1950s cars that I was going to have to drive all over Britain.
And to be honest with you, I'd been dreading this moment.
After the nasty surprise that was the Vauxhall Chevette, I feared
the producers may have lined up half a dozen rotting old bangers.
Oh, my goodness, it's splendid!
It's a Zodiac. It's an old Zodiac.
Oops, doesn't seem terribly manoeuvrable to me!
Very, very nice.
Oh, here's another one! Here's a... Oh, pretty colour.
Oh, they're coming from all over the place. This is a little Austin.
It seems much more manoeuvrable.
I think they're going to crash.
Lovely, oh, very nice.
Oh, and here's the Morris Estate coming, I think.
Yes. Oh, that was to be expected.
It's a Morris Minor 1,000.
Well, they all look superbly well-kept. Oh, oh!
An open two-seater. It's a Triumph, yes.
Oh, very pretty. Very pretty.
I'm going to take my thermal underwear, just in case.
Oh, oh, look at this.
This is beautiful, it's a Bentley, I think.
It's very stately looking, you know? The sort of car the Queen goes around in.
One, two, three, four, five.
This looks like a camper van!
Er...surely I'm not expected to drive around in that?
Britain's Best Drives in a camper van?
Maybe I'm expected to stay in it as well?
That's a Volkswagen.
I wonder what they're like to drive.
So there they were.
Six cars, each a daunting driving challenge in its own right.
It was time to seek some words of encouragement from their owners and guardians.
Starting with that enormous and frankly terrifying Bentley.
-You're driving the Bentley today?
-That's right. It's a 1952 Mark 6 Bentley,
which is shell grey and Tudor grey.
-It's very smart.
-4½ litre, straight 6.
-And it's easy to drive?
That's the last thing I want to hear!
-Right-hand gear change.
It's got no power steering, no flashing indicators,
it's got no door mirrors, it's got tiny little wing mirrors.
To start it you've got to unlock the system, then you have to switch the system on,
then you have to switch the fuel pump on, then you have to press the starter button,
-having remembered to pull the choke out and set the hand throttle.
I haven't handled a choke for centuries!
-Now's your chance to learn.
-I can't remember what it was for!
-I've got a TR3A Triumph.
-Easier to drive than the Bentley?
Oh, I don't know about that.
She's obviously manual, gearbox.
-And overdrive as well, on second, third and fourth.
-So, you've got additional gears to play with.
-How many gears altogether?
Um, so we've got seven.
Plus reverse gears.
-Seven, gosh! So, can anyone tell me something encouraging about driving vintage cars?
For an automatic car driver, you're going to find it a real challenge.
-You will enjoy it.
-I will enjoy it?
You will definitely enjoy it, I mean, it will be a different experience
-with every single vehicle, but you will enjoy it.
-You've got to slow down to the 1950s pace of life.
I don't mind slowing down. I'm slowing down anyway.
When you realise how many vehicles there were on the road in 1950,
it wasn't difficult to drive a car that wasn't easy too drive in modern conditions.
I remember I used to live on a street, where we used to play football in the street
and every now and again, every half hour they'd say, "Oh, there's a car coming".
That doesn't happen any more.
Well, the rest, as they say, is history.
Those six classic cars led to me to some of
the most gobsmacking views that our nation has to offer.
And introduced me to some absolutely fascinating and very British characters along the way.
-Are there lots of 70-year-old climbers?
-Not very many, no.
95 years and you still haven't run out of ideas?
A lot of people call me a bloody fool, but... and no doubt they are right.
So, despite the occasional crunching,
stalling and hopping..
..something tells me I'm going to miss those old cars.
Ha! But let's not get too carried away.
I don't want those sadistic producers getting ideas about doing it all again.
Well, I ask you, haven't I been through enough?
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
In preparation for a motor journey around Britain, Richard Wilson is put through his paces as he learns how to use a gear stick again, having driven only automatics for the past 30 years.
He drives classic cars, goes off-road, experiences the thrills and spills of the skidpan and gets a lesson in driving high performance cars from five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell.