Mostly, my job of being a freelance writer involves nothing more exciting than sitting in front of a laptop. I have a phone to hand, plenty of reference material and an eager mind. And tea.
From time to time, I’m lucky enough to get to drive cars and here comes the biggest challenge. There often isn’t time to spend more than an hour or so with a car, and is that really long enough to form firm conclusions? This is especially true of sports cars, where you very rarely get long enough to really test the car – doing so on public roads is not really recommended, and is certainly not safe.
Take my own Citroen XM for example. I maintain that for enjoying yourself on public roads, it’s one of the best cars out there. Sure, it’s 110bhp is rather less than the 1001bhp of a Bugatti Veyron, but (and I welcome the chance to prove this), I reckon the Veyron is absolutely no fun at all on the tortuously twisty terrain of mid-Wales. It’s simply too big, and you can’t use even 20% of the potential before you’re having to brake for the next bend. It must be infuriating.
But I’ve driven over 12,000 miles in the XM now, so I’ve come to know it very well. I have discovered that it’ll grip far harder than I have any wish to explore really, and I utterly know what to expect when cornering quickly. Not much steering feedback, great turn-in and a clichéd corner-on-rails experience. Yet, if you jumped behind the wheel for a quick drive of a few miles, I reckon you’d find it pretty underwhelming. Comfortable, certainly, but you might wonder what the fuss is about.
When I drove a Porsche 911 last year, for an upcoming feature in German Classics magazine, I therefore had quite a challenge. Here is a car with a terrifying reputation, and here was me having only ever driven a 911 on a race track (and that was a far grippier 997 version) wondering how I’d get on. You’ll have to read the magazine to find out more – on sale 15th January 2016 – but you’ll note that I’m not dead as I write this, so you’re safe to assume I survived the experience.
I clocked up fewer than 100 miles in that Porsche though, and even then I was covering more ground than I’m often able to. Certainly, it was enough to get a good enough impression for a magazine feature, but I still maintain that you need a good 1000 miles in a car to really stand a chance of understanding it as a daily proposition.
Take Pete Sparrow’s Citroen Ami for instance. I’ve raved about it before, because it is remarkable fun, but would I feel quite so merry about it after 1000 miles? Would the noise just get on my nerves? I feel the same about his BMW-engined 2CV as well. Fun for a bit, but would I get tired with it?
To return to the XM, I think you could drive one for the first time and frankly be a bit bored. It’s through constant ownership that I’ve discovered just how incredible the handling is. I’ve been able to push it far harder than I’d feel happy to do in anyone else’s car – which is another problem. I am emphatically not Top Gear and I’m not happy driving someone else’s car like I’d drive my own. Even in the BMW-engined 2CV, I wasn’t pushing it (even on track) as hard as I dared because I didn’t want to break it (nor cause an issue on a race track about to hold a 24-hour race! Pressure!).
As well as trying to form impressions about a car, I’m also often having to think about photography, and that’s very distracting. I often need to find a good venue, need to consider light conditions and then actually have to get the camera out and get snapping. Trying to do all this at once, especially when you don’t know the area, well it can be surprisingly hard work! Sure, that’s a first world problem if ever there was one, but I’d like you to understand just how much work goes into a feature like this. It certainly isn’t just a jolly! Hopefully, you enjoy the results.
German Classics goes on sale 15th January 2016 and is edited by Ian Seabrook. On sale in all good newsagents, or available HERE.