Cape Town - Some people really like black-and-white movies, and Frank Sinatra ‘records’, which they still listen to on vinyl, and comfortable shoes, and slacks. They’re colloquially known as ‘old’ people, and many of them are also into classic cars.
This is why I know I’ll never be old, because the idea of driving some clapped out, dead-format crapbox with tyres no wider than my arm fills me with fear and loathing.
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Every now and then, though, I’m offered what an old person would call a fantastic opportunity to drive a classic car, and it’s the sort of thing – like a kiss from your moustache-mouthed auntie – that’s hard to refuse politely.
‘Had I managed to crash I would’ve halved its number’
In the lead up to the launch of the actually exciting 4C, Alfa Romeo allowed us to drive a collection of its classics, on a track, including the 2000 Sportiva, a car so rare that had I managed to crash I would’ve halved its number.
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That’s not because a lot of them have disappeared, it’s because only two were ever made, back in 1954. We were told that it was powered by a 104kW 2.0-litre engine, weighed just 910kg and was capable of 219km/h. Having driven it, I can accurately estimate that reaching said top speed would have taken about a week, and a driver with testicles the size of Saturn’s moons.
This is partly because we were also told to be careful on the brakes on all the classics we were driving. The average modern car can stop in about 40m from 100km/h, but the 1965 Giulia Sprint GTA, which we would also drive, had a stopping distance of 58m, on a good day. And it was one of the best cars of its time.
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The stopping distance of the Sportiva from that speed had never been reckoned, due to the almost certain loss of life involved. Getting into this invaluable car almost killed one of our more generously proportioned colleagues and required a kind of limbo under the giant, yet skinny, steering wheel, which appeared to be made out of old butter knives that’d been glued together.
Classic car quirks
Once inside, it was almost impossible not to be touched inappropriately by the wheel’s bottom rim, which was pretty much the only enjoyable part of the experience. One quirk shared by each of the classics was the moment when you first stabbed, hopefully, at the brake pedal, only to glance down in the certain fear that you’d pressed the wrong one, so much did it feel like a clutch, or an accelerator.
I guess you could describe the brakes as having plenty of feel, but they certainly lacked any bite, or stopping force. Following a Fiat 500 camera car, it was all we could do not to ram it, helplessly. What a wonderful invention proper brakes must have been.
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As far as cornering goes, imagine wrapping a skipping rope around an enormous fat person, holding both ends and then pushing them down a hill, while you run behind them, attempting to steer.
‘Enjoying myself enormously’
Changes of direction in the Sportiva ranged from the scary to the hilarious, and comic injuries and priceless damage never seemed far away. On the one hand, it struck me that you wouldn’t get many people signing up to try out the dentistry, or surgical, techniques of the 1950s but, as the laps went past, I found myself, alarmingly, enjoying myself enormously.
The fact is, my passenger and I were laughing ourselves stupid as we threw the car into every corner, not quite knowing whether we’d see the other side – tyres squealing, hands working feverishly at the seemingly ineffective steering wheel.
Each gear change was an enormous, yet stupidly enjoyable, challenge as well.
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Would we get a screeching, grinding sound, or would we get a gear, and how many were there exactly, four or five? With the absurdly upright, organ-style pedals, heel-and-toeing was certainly not an option, yet double de-clutching was almost mandatory.
Some of the modern classics, the Sprint GTA in particular, which weighed just 745kg and was the first production car ever to break ten minutes at the Nurburgring, were even more fun.
Sure, driving a classic far is a bit like abandoning a modern A380 to travel overseas strapped to a whale, but there’s a certain whimsical charm, and an enormous amount of good-humoured fun, involved as well. Perhaps I am getting old...
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