Naples is a noisy, crowded, dirty city. There’s an underlying tension in the air that leaves you with the impression that something is going to happen at any moment, and it probably won’t be good. There’s not a single car without a dent, including taxis, as there’s a mentality that there’s only one person on the road who matters, and I’ve just driven a 20 year old Lexus LS400 here.
It’s all part of StreetSafari’s Staples2Naples rally, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary. The basic principle is to find a car that is more than 15 years old and costs less than £250. You’re then expected to drive it 1,500 miles to an unwelcoming bankrupt city that appears to be run by criminal gangs, all in the name of fun.
I’ve actually done the Staples2Naples event before, but the rally ended in the beautiful city of Rome that year as the military were driving around Naples in tanks trying to keep some sense of order. That didn’t go well, seemingly.
It all started so well. We’d picked up an ex-Top Gear Lexus LS400 well within budget, painted it orange, added a Confederate flag and 01 on the doors, and turned up in Calais along with around 100 other cars in what was now The General Lee(xus). For a car that’s 20 years old and suffered abuse at the hands of Jeremy Clarkson, it’s a remarkably smooth and refined cruiser.
That’s perfect for the blast to Switzerland. With nothing but miles of French motorway ahead of us, the cruise control was going to come in useful. Just a few miles out of Calais, that failed. We were also told that our brake lights worked brilliantly. Sadly, they worked all the time, whether we were braking or not. This was suddenly going to be a much longer journey.
For others, it would be even longer. One team turned up in a Fiat 126 with a fuel problem that left them able to use only 10 litres of fuel before having to stop and fill up. With torrential rain and storms forecast, the BMW convertible with a roof that wouldn’t go up seemed a less than ideal choice, while the team behind the wheel of a stretched Volvo limo hadn’t necessarily considered the forthcoming Swiss mountain passes.
At least cruise control wouldn’t be an issue on day two, a short drive from the Swiss town of Sarnen to the Italian town of Bormio. That drive involved seven mountain passes and is a test for any vehicle, let alone a sub £250 car over 15 years old. Sure enough, cars stared overheating their engines before overheating their brakes as we made our way through the Alps, visiting Andermatt, Chur and St Moritz.
With some new EBC semi-racing brakes and a new set of Continental Premium Contact tyres on the Lexus, the downhill routes presented no problem while the engine temperatures never wavered on even the steepest climbs. The heat did start getting to the car though, with the gearbox getting rougher and slower while the thin air left the car short of its normal power. Then a new rattle from the engine developed.
For the first time doubts crept in. The next day saw the General Lee(xus) facing the daunting Stelvio pass, but more frightening than the prospect of climbing to the 10,000 foot high peak in a car with new rattles was the start line gathering. There’s always a fancy dress day and this year saw 300 or so Brits, mostly men, dressed up as Wonder Woman. The residents of Bormio had literally no idea what was going on.
Approaching Stelvio, the rattle got worse. Pulled over and bonnet up, the camaraderie of rally goers showed as team after them stopped alongside to help investigate and fix. The solution? Just turn the stereo up. Brilliant. Fortunately Stelvio passed without incident, and then it’s just a long drag to Viterbo and, the next day, Naples, with a brief detour to the beach for a couple of hours. Easy stuff for an old Lexus.
Lexus Europe had been following our journey closely, offering encouragement despite the difficulties. They even arranged a visit to a Toyota dealer in Naples to try and put right the brake light issue, although a lack of parts scuppered that idea. However, if they look after a 20 year old bright orange LS400 like that, imagine what they’ll do for buyers of a new LS 600h or any other model.
All that was left at this stage was the final check in point on the sea front in Naples. The taxi ride from the secure surroundings of the Holiday Inn was more dangerous than anything we’d done in the last few days, while the city got more claustrophobic, more intimidating. Fortunately there was safety in numbers, with the 300 or so rally goers being an intimidating sight. Three hundred people who’d shared an epic drive together celebrating their success, celebrating the survival of their car and celebrating surviving Naples.
That’s what these banger rallies are about, people experiencing something together, making new friendships, sharing stories and mishaps. Reliable or not, sensible or not, it’s ultimately not about the cars, or even the journey. It’s about a shared adventure.