Escaping the norm with Great Escape: Classic car hire for normal people

Getting up at 5am on a Saturday morning is never a plan I enjoy making, but sometimes the thing I’m getting up for more than makes up for the early start.

I had to remind myself of that as I looked out of the window to see that there was no hint of the sun and a surprisingly thick frost on the ground. Stumbling outside, still half-asleep, I found there was also an even more surprising amount of ice.

That didn’t bode well for my day; I was heading to Redditch to drive a number of classic cars, the likes of which I know I can’t afford. Whilst I’d normally be excited about such a proposition, old cars and icy roads are not happy bedfellows.

By the time I’d arrived at Great Escape’s facility and enjoyed a coffee and bacon roll, the weather was looking up. The clouds had cleared, the sun started shining. After a brief welcome by boss Graham Eason, the keys to an Alfa Romeo Spider were handed to me.

I immediately found out it was still very cold and icy, as I left the compound sideways, rear wheels squealing and engine roaring. Still, this day was never going to be subtle.

My co-driver for the day, Yorkshire Times’ Andy Harris, has shared a car with me before ans was aware of my rather enthusiastic driving style, so withheld his screams and instead checked out the thorough route book with maps, directions, emergency contact numbers and even photographs of each junction.

Once we knew where we were headed, attention turned to the Alfa. Relatively modern, this Spider was a Series Four which means the mechanical bits mostly worked and it looked superb, if lacking a little of the charm of the original. Banks of switches on the inside suggested there may be a heater but, after much prodding, pressing, flicking and turning, the only warmth was coming from the expletive laden hot air coming from us both. It’s surely compulsory to have the roof down on a car like this, but the temperatures still started with a minus.

The Alfa flattered to deceive though. A lovely soundtrack from the exhaust didn’t translate in to impressive performance, with a Ford Focus quite easily able to pass us without breaking a sweat. Perhaps it was the weather, but the Alfa failed to steal my heart.

The same can’t be said about the next car, an HMC Mk4. This is a modern continuation of the Austin Healey 3000, with a thumping great Rover 3.9-litre V8 engine dropped under the bonnet. Looking like it’s just stepped out of 1959, you wouldn’t be able to tell this wasn’t an original at a quick glance. You’re left convinced as you slide in to the compact cockpit, feet thrust far to the right while you lean left a little to reach the steering wheel. Ergonomics was a new science in the 50s, seemingly.

It feels reassuringly modern to drive though, with plenty of bite from the front, despite the temperatures, and a balance that meant it was easy to enjoy the winding roads of the Cotswolds. That engine also produced enough power to leave many thick black lines on the tarmac, but I’ll unconvincingly claim that was my co-drivers doing.

Two cars in, it was time for lunch at Hogarth’s Hotel in Knowle, where sumptuous burgers made from at least half a cow were provided while we took the opportunity to warm up after two soft-top cars.

Heading back out, the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow sat in isolation, the Spirit of Ecstasy glinting in the warm sunlight. Keys were soon acquired, and the gloriously smooth behemoth was shown the narrow lanes of the Cotswolds. The barely perceptible wuffle of the engine gave way to a disapproving roar when pressed hard, while the luxuriously comfortable seats isolated the vulgarity of the road. A heater that worked was a novelty following the first two cars, but we were soon left wishing sat-nav had been invented somewhat earlier.

Taking a wrong turn somewhere, we ended up entirely lost, just as the weather started closing in again. Rain, wind and eventually hail left the roads treacherous, leading to the entertaining sight of a classic Rolls-Royce taking corners sideways. A lack of phone signal meant Google Maps was a non-runner, and the clouds meant there was no way of identifying north. Others made the same mistake, so we ended up leading a convoy of the Rolls, an MGB and a Chevrolet Corvette around the Cotswolds until we found a landmark we recognised. At least we kept warm, dry and comfortable.

By now we’re running late, so we jump in the Jaguar Mk2 and head towards Coventry. I’ve driven a few Mk2’s and never really gelled with them, and this one was no different. They invariably look better than they drive, the iconic shape combined with an illustrious history flattering the car. Look at that, as those that watched us pull up at the Transport Museum did. and ignore the knife-edge clutch, dodgy controls and wallowy suspension.

Another coffee and then time for another car, the final one of the day. Almost modern, and almost a classic, the SAAB 900 Turbo is a true 1980s hero. Driving it out of Coventry felt almost ordinary, but then the roads open up in to flowing tree-lined country roads, the sun beginning to set and covering everything in a warm golden light. At that point the turbo spooled up and it burst forwards, maniacally accelerating until you lost your nerve. Corners aren’t its forte, but it managed to entertain us enough on the straight bits.

Pulling back in to Great Escape’s unit, the sun finally disappearing, I realised how much fun the preceding few hours had been. As a car enthusiast, I’d got the chance to drive some epic motors (and Graham has a huge range beyond these five) and drive them properly – these aren’t pampered showpieces intended to appreciate in value, but working cars that people should enjoy.

At £249 for a similar day, with an extra £99 for a passenger, you need to be sure it’s something you want to do, but with everything organised for you, and with breakfast and lunch included, it’s almost cheap. However, for half the price you could just about get a SAAB for the day, carry as many passengers as you can fit in, and have 24 hours to go where you like. Likewise, there are plenty of other classic hire companies that will happily take your money off you and leave you to your own devices.

I guarantee you won’t have as much fun though. Spending a day with a group of like-minded individuals (there were around 40 people and 20 cars on my day) as you make your way along some of the best roads in the country, exchanging tales of woe, disappointment, excitement or success at keeping the car on the road, is something you can’t put a price on.

Well, actually, you can. It’s £249.

Phil Huff

Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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