Tell someone that you are about to embark on a 2000-mile road trip in a 19-year-old car you paid £1000 for more than two years ago, and they’re likely to question your judgement. Cue Jeremy Clarkson leaning in towards the camera, raising an eyebrow, and uttering those immortal words: ‘What could possibly go wrong?’
Well, in this case, absolutely nothing went wrong. In fact, thanks to the car, this was probably the most comfortable and enjoyable road trip I’ve ever been on.
It was a few months ago that my wife and I first decided we would do a road trip this spring. Road trips used to be a regular part of our lives, growing up as we did in North America, but on the numerous occasions we have visited the continent in the seven years we’ve lived in the United Kingdom, we have always flown to our destinations. Having acquired a few children in the meantime, my wife was concerned that driving round Europe with a young family would prove unpleasant. But I have spent a couple of years ‘training’ the boys for long drives – mostly by taking them out for long drives on Saturdays – and so eventually persuaded her that they would be fine on this kind of trip. We then planned a route that would see us drive through six countries, and spend four nights each in Germany, Italy, and France.
As I mentioned in the previous post, we had discussed the idea of getting another car for the trip, but after some searching, I couldn’t find anything I wanted, and eventually decided just to use the E39. It took a bit of preparation to ensure it was ready for the road trip, but having already logged 22,000 trouble-free miles in the time I’ve owned it, I was confident it would handle the trip with ease.
With the car ready, we set off. Living just forty miles from Hull, we opted to take the ferry across to Zeebrugge, and begin our journey there. It cost little more than it would have to drive to Dover, cross over to Calais, and spend the night in a hotel, and saved the major headache that would have surely been incurred by driving down the A1 and around the M25. What’s more, for our young sons, going on a big boat was a fun adventure. We woke up in the morning refreshed, and ready for the first leg of the journey.
Driving round the continent proved to be easy and enjoyable. With the exception of leaving Strasbourg during rush hour one day, we encountered few instances where traffic was not flowing smoothly. It was interesting to observe the driving characteristics of each country. I had noticed on Twitter a few times people suggesting that the Belgians were not very good drivers, and was surprised to find that to be true. The Italians are aggressive, but oddly polite – if you come up behind a slower car on the Autostrada, they usually make haste to move out of your way. The Germans demonstrate efficiency and exceptional lane discipline, and unfortunately, the Brits largely drive on the continent just like they do at home.
Off the motorways, we found some great roads in each of the countries we stayed in. The area of Germany we visited was filled with rolling hills, and the back roads seemed designed for a lazy afternoon cruise – gentle curves, magnificently smooth, and quiet. Predictably, the Italian Alps turned up with some exceptionally twisty roads up and down the side of the mountains. It was exactly what you’d expect – hairpins, sharp drops, narrow passing zones, and breathtaking scenery. However, it was also tiring to drive, such that by the end, it had lost some of its enjoyment. Alsace rewarded us with some more good roads, striking a great blend of what we had found in both Germany and Italy.
One of the highlights of the drive, of course, was the chance to open the taps on a long, empty stretch of the Autobahn. I remember reading somewhere that the 528i originally topped out at something like 147mph, and was interested to see how close I could get to that. So early in the morning, on our way out of Germany, my wife readied her camera, and I buried my right foot for the first attempt. The car pulled well, and we hit about 137 before I had to brake for traffic. The second attempt was on a slight uphill, and it struggled to hold 130. Finally, on the third attempt, we broke 140, but only just – I think we maybe hit 141 (though my wife didn’t get the snap before I had to let off, hence the photo showing 139).
I’m certain there were a few more mph’s in it had the car not been loaded down with luggage. But considering its age, I was impressed both with how easily it climbed up to speed, and how smooth and planted it still felt deep into triple digits. It was interesting to note a distinct shift in the feel of the car, too. Up to about 120, it still felt like we were just cruising along; it was only past that point that it really started to feel fast. It was as if the car hunkered down and said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’
In addition to storming down the Autobahn, I wanted to make the pilgrimage to the historic Reims-Gueux circuit, and it worked out nicely to stop off there on our way back to Zeebrugge. As well as seeing the old grandstands, it was fun to meet a few fellow enthusiasts and to see some nice cars hanging out there, including a Cayman GT4 and a Caterham. By far the best car there, however, was a Plymouth GTX, which sounded phenomenal roaring down the straight. I’m glad they decided to keep the grandstands up, both as a reminder of and homage to the glory days of French motorsport.
Really, this turned out to be one of the best holidays I have ever had. Driving round Europe proved to be relaxed and easy, and it was a great way to get a taste of different parts of the continent and see a lot of different things. The freedom you have when you drive somewhere allows you to venture beyond the usual tourist spots and immerse yourself in different ways into the landscape and culture of the places you visit, and that really added to the experience of this trip. I don’t want to focus on the non-automotive aspects of it here, but if you want a flavour of what we did, I posted photos on Instagram throughout the trip. Before we knew it, two weeks had passed, and we were queuing to get back on the ferry and sail for Hull again. 2178 miles later, we arrived home.
And what can I say about the 19-year-old car I bought two years ago for £1000? It was brilliant. It did the job without a single complaint. It was a delight to drive. Practically, it was all we needed, happily accommodating our family of four and all our luggage. With the front suspension rebuilt and a new set of tyres, it was smooth and incredibly quiet, and cruised very happily between 70-95mph. And when all was said and done, the onboard computer showed an average of 33.6mpg over the duration of the trip. For a 19-year-old car with a 2.8L straight six, carrying a family of four and all their luggage, I’m not going to complain about that at all. In fact, overall, it performed so well that, even with a boot lid that’s rusting too quickly and a sometimes-frustrating-at-low-speed clutch and gearbox, I’ve gone four weeks now without looking for a replacement on eBay.
So, where to next?