Richard Wilson Learns to Drive Britain's Best Drives


Richard Wilson Learns to Drive

In preparation for a car trip around Britain, Richard Wilson learns how to use a gearstick again, having driven only automatics for the past 30 years.


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Transcript


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This summer, I went on a memorable journey into the past.

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I took to the road in classic 1950s cars,

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looking for that long-lost golden age of motoring.

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The journey took me from the rugged coast of Cornwall

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to the magnificent mountains of Scotland,

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in search of the most popular leisure routes of the '50s.

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And frankly, they didn't disappoint.

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Oh, yes! Oh, extraordinary.

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But before I embarked on my vintage motoring odyssey,

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there were some challenges to overcome,

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Like the fact that I hadn't used a gearstick for decades.

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Oh, bugger it!

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And that's what this episode is all about.

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I suppose you could say this is the story of my road to Britain's Best Drives.

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Keep going, keep going. Go, go, go go!

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And an occasionally bumpy one it was!

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Oh, my gosh!

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"Unless the learner has had expert tuition,

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"there is always the danger of his unconsciously acquiring bad driving habits."

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Before all this began, I led a rather ordinary, you might even say tame motoring life.

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I never learned to drive until I was about 40,

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simply because I couldn't afford a car before that

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and when eventually I learned how to drive,

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my cousin in Leicester sold me a second-hand Vauxhall Chevette,

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a salesman's car, which had done many thousands of miles,

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so it wasn't a hugely reliable car.

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But it was a gear car.

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I passed my test in a gear car

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and I started driving my Vauxhall Chevette.

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That was the last gear car that I drove,

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which is maybe 28 years ago.

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So, now I'm about to drive...

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six manual cars of 50 years ago.

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which is rather a daunting prospect.

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To prepare me for my road trip, the producers said they'd send me on a crash course,

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a turn of phrase that I think appealed to their rather warped sense of humour.

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I was to go to MIRA, the hush-hush motoring test facility, where they train drivers to

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cope with all kinds of challenging terrains and conditions. Oh, joy(!)

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And, as usual, the producers were keeping their cards very close to their chests.

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Well, it's all very secretive.

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They won't tell me what car I'm going to be driving.

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I think it's going to come from over here somewhere.

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All we can do is wait.

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Do you think? No, it couldn't be. Is it?

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Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear.

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A Vauxhall Chevette!

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The man with the challenge of reacquainting me with a manual gearbox

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was chief MIRA instructor Peter Randall.

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I thought you were gonna bring me something nice.

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This is nice! It's what you chose all those years ago, Richard.

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-Oh!

-It's a little bit...

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The suspension is...

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Right, so, if you just start the engine.

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Like this.

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OK, let go of the key. That's good, OK.

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-It's all flooding back now.

-It sounds wonderful.

-All flooding back to you now.

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OK, so, clutch in.

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-Yeah.

-Yeah. Into gear.

-Into first.

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Into first. Ease that clutch out a little bit more.

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That's good, that's good, OK, just let that clutch right out.

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Inside the cones, we'll follow this white line now. That's it, OK.

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This is a bit severe for a first drive.

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Very gently.

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"Remember the following driving philosophy.

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"One, there is an invisible car behind you

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"and the invisible driver is watching for your signals.

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"Two, the vehicle in front of you has a poster attached to its rear.

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"On it are the words 'I am going to stop, can you?'

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"Three, everyone on the road, including pedestrians,

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"is mentally deficient, therefore it all depends on you."

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-We're basically doing a figure of eight.

-Right.

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-But I want you to do is get up enough speed to change into second gear.

-Oooh! Yes!

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Well, because I've never driven in a figure of eight before in my life.

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It's rather pleasant.

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Like being at the funfair.

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-We're cooking with gas now!

-Oooh! Second?

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Yeah, second, let's go for it! Live dangerous!

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Well, we've not hit a cone yet, which is... That's a bonus!

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Now we'll reverse back.

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-All that way?

-Yes.

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It's miles!

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-OK, can you see the cones through that mirror?

-No.

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Oh, whoa, whoa! Don't panic, don't panic.

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-Yeah. Yeah.

-Ahhh! Oh.

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-Ohh.

-A bit more gas.

-I was getting cocky!

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My left foot hadn't worked so hard in years.

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I was actually getting cramp, but no sympathy from the producers, oh, no!

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They decided it was time to practise my hill starts.

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Sadists.

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OK, Richard, so let's move it up a little bit more, and stop.

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Stop, stop, stop, stop. Brake!

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This is not fair.

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"The start-away, when on a hill, can be a menace to the learner.

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"Here is when perfect clutch control can be a boon.

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"Under test conditions the vehicle must not slip back,

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"not even one inch".

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As soon as that handbrake comes off, let the clutch right the way out.

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OK, and back off now.

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Well, we knew you needed a bit of practice, didn't we?

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Cos on some of these routes you may be doing, could be hilly.

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Well, I won't be doing it in this bloody car, I tell you.

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If I'm doing it in this car, the series is off!

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That's great, keep it going Richard. Keep it going. Go, go, go, go.

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-Ah!

-I don't know where I'm going.

-Sraight ahead, down the other side.

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Wo-ho! Cover the brake, cover the brake.

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Jesus.

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Yeah, that got you sweating.

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I think we'll just turn the heating down, shall we?

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Thankfully, it was soon time to say goodbye to that rusty old Chevette

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and slip into something a bit more comfortable.

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Right, well, wheel spin start. Leave a bit of rubber!

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This is a 1950s Jaguar XK150 and my first experience of driving a classic car.

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This is a bit better, Peter.

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You're happier with this then than the Chevette?

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Well, first of all, the seat is much more comfortable.

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Much more at home in this car.

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-This is you.

-I think it's got a bit of a style to it, as well.

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And I think that this would have been the car, you would have had after the Chevette.

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Yes, possibly.

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Let's just knock it into third gear.

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-Which is up there.

-Into third, clutch back in.

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But just when I was starting to relax a bit...

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What we doing here, Pete?

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Well, I thought we'd better introduce you to some low friction surfaces.

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Oh, my gosh!

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"Another general remark which can be made here

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"is to stress the dangers of skidding."

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Wayhey!

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"It has been my privilege to drive with

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"some of the finest motorists in Europe.

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"Driving with these men in wet or frosty weather, we have frequently

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"been passed, especially by women drivers,

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"or elderly men who should have known better".

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Too much gas is going to cause the rear wheels to spin.

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-Yes.

-And that can cause us to lose control, so if we're driving along

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here and I accelerate too much, the car may go into a slight...

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Yes, yes.

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So when you fell the spin kick in, you take your foot off the gas.

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Not completely, we need to just ease the gas back.

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What about the brake, are you keeping your...? You're not touching.

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I'm not touching the brake at all.

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I hit the brakes, we have no steering.

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So I must come off the brakes and the steering will return to us and we bring it back in a straight line.

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Brake again, off.

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On, off.

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-So every time I release the brake, I get my steering back.

-Yep, yep.

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-And I can control the car in the right direction.

-I see that.

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Woo!

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I don't know why, but Peter didn't ask me to have a go behind the wheel on the skid pan.

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Funny, that.

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The era I was set to return to was of course a very exciting one.

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Back in the '50s, our Prime Minister famously told us all that we'd "never had it so good".

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As far as motoring was concerned, it seems he may have been right.

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"There are now well over 6 million motorists in Britain.

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"Though hundreds of thousands take their cars abroad

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"for their holidays, the vast majority remain at home.

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"They need not be disappointed, for Great Britain

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"is inferior to no country.

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"Britain, it would seem, has been designed by nature

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"for the pleasure of the tourist".

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I'm taking a break from my training to find out just why driving in '50s Britain was so very special.

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The Heritage Motor Centre in Warwickshire

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holds the world's largest collection of historic British cars.

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And the curator of this fascinating place is Stephen Laing.

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How does motoring essentially differ between now and the '50s?

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Well, I think today, motoring is to get from A to B.

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And one of the things about the 1950s was that the motorcar was taking off again after the war.

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-Yeah.

-Motoring was more affordable and people were using them just as a method for a day out or a holiday.

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Yes. You used to go out and say, "Let's go for a drive".

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Yes, a picnic, a little spell in the countryside.

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All very relaxed, unlike maybe today's motoring.

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And the motoring WAS the holiday.

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It wasn't just the method of getting to your holiday.

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Motor industry was really in a boom period in the '50s and that's because

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Britain had come out of the austerity of the war.

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There'd been rationing and you couldn't get hold of a car.

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In the 1950s, it became a seller's market and everybody wanted one of these cars.

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Many didn't have one before the war, they maybe learnt to drive in service or that kind of thing,

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so it was a really popular thing to have during the 1950s.

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Yes, and very exciting. So, presumably in the 1950s, there was much more space in the road?

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The roads weren't as crowded as they are today?

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Absolutely, in the 1950s about 1 in 20 people owned a car, whereas about 1 in 2 people have a car now.

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There was much more space, and driving was a much gentler experience, I guess.

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"The byways of Britain are never crowded

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"except in a few specially favoured areas such as Cornwall or Devonshire

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"at the height of the summer season.

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"More often than not, the majority are deserted

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"except for the occasional farmer's car or delivery van".

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What sort of wage brackets could afford a car in the '50s?

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It was still a fairly middle and upper class ownership.

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Working class, you could afford it if you saved up, but it was really more of the middle classes,

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and those that toured Britain in a motorcar probably would have been at that kind of wage level, really.

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-Yeah.

-In the 1950s, the motorcar began to look like what we think of a motorcar today.

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It was sleeker and also you had the influence from America.

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The chrome styling, chrome radiators and wings in, rather than separate wings

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and a more carriage-like look from before the war.

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Do you, by any chance, have a Vauxhall Chevette in your collection?

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-We don't, no.

-Why was that, I wonder?

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Well, we don't have room for them all, really.

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Right, now I'm in the Heritage Motor Centre car park, and at last,

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I'm going to get some time by myself to practise my gears.

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So. Let's hope I don't, erm...

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..crunch it.

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Here we go.

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First gear... Second gear.

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Not bad.

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Up to third.

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Quite smooth.

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Other motorists.

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Oh, we're on the open road.

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These people passing by here don't realise what danger they're in.

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And there's a roundabout coming up!

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Oh! I'm going round, oooh! Straight on.

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And of course, I've never driven a car and talked to a camera before.

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I've driven and spoken to passengers, but it's rather strange having you here.

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Although, you don't know you're here, yet.

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Yes, a lot of you who are watching this of course, don't realise you're going to watch it yet.

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And one day you will see it and one day you will realise the trauma of handling a gear stick.

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Oops.

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We're back. And no-one's been killed.

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Handbrake on.

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Phew!

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The producers weren't content with me merely mastering a gear stick.

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Oh, no. They claimed they wanted me to be able to cope with anything

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Britain's Best Drives could throw at me, even if that meant going off-road.

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Surely not?

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Oh, this is not fair.

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This is not fair. How do I get it up there?

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Why they want me to go up here, I've no idea.

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If doing the best drives of Britain takes me up a hill like this, I'd be very surprised.

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Vroom! Accelerate.

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Wonderful. Well done, Richard. Brilliant.

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Push the water ahead of you. You're a little bit quick.

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I see. Gosh.

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It even put me in the hands of a living legend.

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This is how it all started for me. It's unbelievable, really.

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Derek Bell is one of Britain's most successful racing drivers.

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A five times winner at Le Mans, he began his racing career in the early '60s,

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in the forerunner of this modern Caterham, the Lotus Seven.

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This is what racing was like, I mean, this still takes you back to that era.

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There's still that feeling of your backside virtually on the road.

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You feel every bump. You know exactly what the car's doing at every opportunity.

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Derek was to give me a masterclass in driving high-performance cars.

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They've made cars so much safer.

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I mean in my era, I mean, I sat in the car and the seat was a tank,

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with 25 gallons in. There were pontoon tanks either side of my legs and then there was a lap tank.

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So I had 70 or 75 gallons of fuel.

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-On your lap?

-Over your lap here.

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Where the steering column went through and so if you actually happened to go into anything,

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it just exploded and that's why it was so awful, the crashes.

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-Were you aware of that danger?

-Oh, absolutely, yes.

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Yeah, a minute-to-minute drive.

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Absolutely. Well, you never thought about it once you were in the car.

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Cos, you know, as soon as that flag drops the bullshit stops, we say, but also at the same time,

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all you do is concentrate on racing and being as good as you can.

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You don't think of the danger.

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The most important thing with driving a car is to be smooth.

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You've probably noticed I'm not putting, I'm not gripping it like a sort of...ape.

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I'm actually quite light-fingered, light-touched on the steering wheel.

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-Yeah.

-And everything you do, you do smoothly, you break in a nice straight line, you slow it down,

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get the right gear, come off the brakes and then turn in the corner and gradually apply the power.

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So, you think you're ready to drive this?

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Well, I'll only find out with your guidance.

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First time in a Ferrari.

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Probably, possibly.

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You'll take second very early on, it doesn't need a lot of revs,

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it's not like your 1½ litre Volkswagen.

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-Right, so we can take second about now?

-Yeah. Get second now.

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-Of course, I want to look.

-You've got fourth.

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-That's all right

-I shouldn't look, should I?

-It's difficult when you've not put your hand on it before.

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Take your time. You've gone back to first.

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Oh, that's first now.

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What a lot of people do is they turn the wheel but they're actually not on the power.

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-As you turn the wheel, you need to apply power to tell the car what you're doing.

-Right.

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Just gently turn it, don't brake ever in a corner, just nice gentle turn.

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-That's it...

-Don't ever brake on a corner?

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No, not unless you're in a hell of a mess.

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-You're doing very well.

-Am I?

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Well, you've never driven it before and it is a road you don't know.

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To drive this with somebody who thinks he knows what he's doing beside you is quite something!

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Well, Derek was being very charming, but I'm not sure I'll be following him into Formula One just yet.

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Back in the city, the opportunities to put one's foot down are few and far between.

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One of the disadvantages of being, shall we say, well known,

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is that when you're in a traffic jam,

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people have a chance to... recognise you

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at close quarters and... talk to you.

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I've never actually been asked for an autograph

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in a traffic jam,

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but I've certainly had a few,

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what shall we say,

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well-known phrases quoted at me.

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I'm battling through the 21st century traffic to an iconic 1950s location

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where the producers have promised me a surprise.

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The Ace Cafe on London's North Circular was built in 1938.

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It was like the original motorway service station, long before motorways had even been invented.

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They had a car wash, a showroom, garages, and of course, the cafe and restaurant.

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Lovely, thanks very much.

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But it was in the 1950s when this place became famous, or should I say infamous, as a hangout for Britain's

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emerging rockers who, before the days of speed limits, used to race each other on the road out there.

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Break 100 miles an hour and you became one of the feared and revered Ton Up Boys.

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On a busy, busy day, this whole car park would be

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packed with bikes and across the road, apparently.

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They'd park everywhere.

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But it wasn't bikes I was there to see,

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it was the six 1950s cars that I was going to have to drive all over Britain.

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And to be honest with you, I'd been dreading this moment.

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After the nasty surprise that was the Vauxhall Chevette, I feared

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the producers may have lined up half a dozen rotting old bangers.

0:22:560:23:01

Oh!

0:23:030:23:05

Oh, my goodness, it's splendid!

0:23:050:23:07

It's a Zodiac. It's an old Zodiac.

0:23:110:23:15

Oops, doesn't seem terribly manoeuvrable to me!

0:23:170:23:21

Very, very nice.

0:23:210:23:24

Oh, here's another one! Here's a... Oh, pretty colour.

0:23:240:23:28

Oh, they're coming from all over the place. This is a little Austin.

0:23:280:23:31

It seems much more manoeuvrable.

0:23:340:23:38

I think they're going to crash.

0:23:390:23:41

Lovely, oh, very nice.

0:23:410:23:45

Oh, and here's the Morris Estate coming, I think.

0:23:450:23:49

Yes. Oh, that was to be expected.

0:23:490:23:52

It's a Morris Minor 1,000.

0:23:520:23:54

A Traveller.

0:23:540:23:57

Well, they all look superbly well-kept. Oh, oh!

0:23:570:24:02

An open two-seater. It's a Triumph, yes.

0:24:020:24:07

Oh, very pretty. Very pretty.

0:24:070:24:11

I'm going to take my thermal underwear, just in case.

0:24:140:24:17

Oh, oh, look at this.

0:24:170:24:19

This is beautiful, it's a Bentley, I think.

0:24:190:24:23

It's very stately looking, you know? The sort of car the Queen goes around in.

0:24:230:24:29

One, two, three, four, five.

0:24:290:24:33

So there's...oh!

0:24:330:24:37

This looks like a camper van!

0:24:370:24:39

Er...surely I'm not expected to drive around in that?

0:24:390:24:44

Britain's Best Drives in a camper van?

0:24:450:24:48

Maybe I'm expected to stay in it as well?

0:24:480:24:50

That's a Volkswagen.

0:24:500:24:52

I wonder what they're like to drive.

0:24:530:24:56

So there they were.

0:24:590:25:00

Six cars, each a daunting driving challenge in its own right.

0:25:000:25:06

It was time to seek some words of encouragement from their owners and guardians.

0:25:060:25:10

Starting with that enormous and frankly terrifying Bentley.

0:25:100:25:15

-You're driving the Bentley today?

-That's right. It's a 1952 Mark 6 Bentley,

0:25:190:25:23

which is shell grey and Tudor grey.

0:25:230:25:27

-It's very smart.

-4½ litre, straight 6.

0:25:270:25:31

-And it's easy to drive?

-No.

0:25:310:25:32

That's the last thing I want to hear!

0:25:340:25:37

-Right-hand gear change.

-I know.

0:25:370:25:39

It's got no power steering, no flashing indicators,

0:25:390:25:43

it's got no door mirrors, it's got tiny little wing mirrors.

0:25:430:25:47

To start it you've got to unlock the system, then you have to switch the system on,

0:25:470:25:51

then you have to switch the fuel pump on, then you have to press the starter button,

0:25:510:25:56

-having remembered to pull the choke out and set the hand throttle.

-Choke!

0:25:560:26:00

I haven't handled a choke for centuries!

0:26:000:26:04

-Now's your chance to learn.

-I can't remember what it was for!

0:26:040:26:08

-I've got a TR3A Triumph.

-Easier to drive than the Bentley?

0:26:090:26:14

Oh, I don't know about that.

0:26:140:26:17

She's obviously manual, gearbox.

0:26:170:26:20

-And overdrive as well, on second, third and fourth.

-Right.

0:26:200:26:24

-So, you've got additional gears to play with.

-How many gears altogether?

0:26:240:26:28

Um, so we've got seven.

0:26:280:26:30

Plus reverse gears.

0:26:300:26:32

-Seven, gosh! So, can anyone tell me something encouraging about driving vintage cars?

-Afraid not.

0:26:320:26:39

For an automatic car driver, you're going to find it a real challenge.

0:26:390:26:43

-You will enjoy it.

-I will enjoy it?

0:26:430:26:45

You will definitely enjoy it, I mean, it will be a different experience

0:26:450:26:49

-with every single vehicle, but you will enjoy it.

-You've got to slow down to the 1950s pace of life.

0:26:490:26:54

I don't mind slowing down. I'm slowing down anyway.

0:26:540:26:58

When you realise how many vehicles there were on the road in 1950,

0:26:580:27:03

it wasn't difficult to drive a car that wasn't easy too drive in modern conditions.

0:27:030:27:07

I remember I used to live on a street, where we used to play football in the street

0:27:070:27:13

and every now and again, every half hour they'd say, "Oh, there's a car coming".

0:27:130:27:17

That doesn't happen any more.

0:27:170:27:18

Well, the rest, as they say, is history.

0:27:230:27:26

Those six classic cars led to me to some of

0:27:260:27:28

the most gobsmacking views that our nation has to offer.

0:27:280:27:33

Beautiful, beautiful.

0:27:330:27:36

Oh, wonderful!

0:27:360:27:38

Bloody lovely!

0:27:390:27:41

And introduced me to some absolutely fascinating and very British characters along the way.

0:27:420:27:47

-Are there lots of 70-year-old climbers?

-Not very many, no.

0:27:470:27:52

95 years and you still haven't run out of ideas?

0:27:540:27:57

A lot of people call me a bloody fool, but... and no doubt they are right.

0:27:570:28:02

So, despite the occasional crunching,

0:28:040:28:07

stalling and hopping..

0:28:070:28:09

..something tells me I'm going to miss those old cars.

0:28:110:28:16

Ha! But let's not get too carried away.

0:28:160:28:20

I don't want those sadistic producers getting ideas about doing it all again.

0:28:200:28:27

Well, I ask you, haven't I been through enough?

0:28:270:28:30

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:410:28:44

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:440:28:47

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.


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