My understanding of the classic car world could be described as entry level at best. It begins with the classing system. I assume that if it comes with colour-coordinated driving gloves and requires a checklist to start it, you can class it as a classic. Apparently not. Antique means it was built somewhere between 1880 and 1930. The pre-war, war and post-war classifications speak for themselves. Then we have classic from the late-50s to mid-80s. Having probably given one era too many years, I fully expect the Bristol owners club to organise a very slow picket outside my apartment, ending with a drive for scones somewhere.
Ok, let’s give the idea that classic cars are tweedy a backseat for a second. If I asked you to choose between a 2013 Jaguar XKR convertible and a 1963 E-Type, any sane person would opt for the E-Type, a marque which is regarded as the world’s most aesthetically pleasing car.
Classic, or ‘retro’ for the hipster-brigade, is cool. Very, very cool. Sadly I don’t have the garage space or the readies to catapult myself into the classic car fraternity by purchasing a piece of motoring history. What I do know is that Britain used to be the head of the class when it came to motoring ecstasy. Aston Martin, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, McLaren, Morgan, Rolls Royce – the list goes on. In 1937, Britain provided 15 percent of the world’s vehicle exports. By 1950, we produced 50 percent. Now, do you suppose that’s because of our general cheery disposition and ability to sell to our colonies, or because we made bloody good cars?
Given my inability to purchase a marque, I spent some weeks trying to find a hire company that offered classic car hire to the average Joe. I assumed that I wouldn’t need to prove that I attended public school and had previous motoring prowess. For those of you that ask me on a semi-regular basis, no, I didn’t go to a public school, this is just how words sound when they are pronounced properly. The French enjoy the vowels so much, sometimes they give them a little hat. Use the vowels, people.
The lack of a personal recommendation for a classic car hire firm resulted in the most basic of searches: Google, sadly. The more the digital era takes grip, the less I am able to secure a personal word-of-mouth recommendation from a confidant. Perhaps, however, this time, I would be the person to seek out a reputable firm and become the introducer.
Based in Warwickshire, between Stratford upon Avon and Warwick, The Open Road Classic Car Hire has been making the best and brightest of our automotive past available since 1997. As one of the longest established classic car hire companies in the country, it had the sort of pedigree that The Review covets. The possibilities are endless – weddings, birthdays, family reunions – and I am not talking about hiring for the bride, groom, or person of celebration. Rather arriving yourself in effortless style.
‘Head-turning’ takes on a new meaning when driving a piece of automotive history. Given that classic cars are now thought of as a sound investment opportunity, it also makes sense to consider hiring a marque before you part with a queen’s ransom.
I gave my choice ample consideration: The Open Road has a Ford Mustang Fastback and Convertible, E-Type, MGB Roadster, Morris Minor Convertible Saloon and Traveller, Triumph Stag and TR6 and Caterham Super 7. It also has modern classics like the Porsche 911, Aston Martin DB7 and Jaguar XK8. With limited knowledge of the market, I engaged the input from Oliver Smith, our motoring editor. One word came back over email: Healey.
The Austin Healey 3000 is indeed a British marque, built between 1958 and 67, and is the best known of the ‘big’ Healey models. The slimline bodywork was made by Jensen Motors and then assembled at the BMC Abingdon works. Yes, in Britain. The car was built and assembled in Britain. That alone should have you hankering for a drive.
Our model was a 1963 Austin Healey 3000 MKIIA sports convertible in sapphire blue over silver grey. The interior was in light blue leather with contrast dark blue piping and dark blue carpets. It was a vision. Classic car motoring needn’t be a throwback to the dark ages. The hood is erectable in seconds rather than minutes and it comes complete with wind-up windows. You won’t need a heater; the engine block keeps you toasty warm, especially in the passenger seat.
This model Healey is particularly rare, as it is one of only 455 right-hand drive BJ7 models built for the UK market. You are most definitely in good company with this Healy, having been used in a Crew Clothing shoot in 2006, and a write up in Classics Monthly. The day rate for the Healey is £295, and seven-day hire is £1475.
As I drove up to meet Tony, the master of ceremonies, at The Open Road, I had a feeling of trepidation and excitement. My driving experience of classics is an Allard M1 and a Jaguar XK140. These, however, were a few hours here and there. It wasn’t like I had lived with a marque for a prolonged period of time. I was driving up in the office pool car, my least favourite car, and one that doesn’t warrant mentioning the name of. “What would he think?” I thought to myself. Surely I would be expected to arrive with a transporter of classic cars, just to prove I had the lineage. No, not at all. The Open Road is there to provide you with an experience available to all who want it. You don’t need any special paperwork, or knowledge of the history of the combustion engine, just a desire to drive a classic.
I made it clear to Tony that my knowledge of driving classics was limited, so he took the time to carefully explain the starting procedures and what each of the 70s-style switches controlled. The Healey is a car built for a generation of drivers that were taught to drive a vehicle, manage engine and gear control, and understand how to not get blindsided, not answer a list of benign questions and reverse park in a cul-de-sac. There were therefore some basics, such as how to manage the gears, as the Healy has no synchromesh in first. This means that the goal of approaching a roundabout or lights is to allow the car to roll in second, rather than coming to a complete stop.
I was always taught by my uncle John that a good driver should anticipate the road conditions and traffic and should not need to brake sharply or come to a complete halt, unless completely necessarily. Even my grandmother proudly informed me that she could double declutch. “Instead of pushing the clutch in once and shifting directly into another gear,” she said “the driver first engages the transmission in neutral before shifting to the next gear. The clutch is pressed and released with each change”. I looked at her blankly for a moment before nodding, completely perplexed.
It isn’t really that hard, but the Healy also has enough torque to pull away from a slow roll in second.
Having taken a sterling short course from Tony, covering clutching, engine management, switches, oil pressure, indicating, and putting the roof up, I was ready for the Open Road. Don’t recoil at the prospect of driving a classic; once you understand the controls, it is like driving anything. It just takes a good teacher – like Tony.
The following week was like a motoring renaissance for me. I drove the Healy to The Court House Manor in the Cotswolds for a weekend of fishing and shooting, and the sheer power of the classic car must be seen to be believed. I genuinely could have talked my way through the gates of any country club or into the arms of any female that happened upon me and the Healy.
Driving a classic car has obvious charm, but with the sun beating down, the roof off and the open road ahead, it has become one of life’s pleasures for me. One of the unspoken rules that you will miss: British classic car drivers come out on the weekend, so many people will throw you a gesture in their cars as they pass. Nod back or wave; they don’t know it isn’t yours. Also, people will approach you at the petrol pump, in the street, and anywhere else you arrive with the Healy. They will ask you about the car. If you want to play it off as your own, hope they are not enthusiasts. Some people asked me questions I knew the answers to from Tony’s brief sheet. Some asked me questions that only the chief engineer that designed the marque would know. My advice: avail yourself of the truth quickly and explain that the car is hired and that they too can loan the vehicle from the chaps at The Open Road.
The experience was so much fun. We are already considering which marque to hire next time.
Here are some golden rules. The experience of driving and running a classic is not to be missed. Take the time to drive her somewhere in old England, though – you will appreciate a classic against a period backdrop. If the sun is out, the roof is down – no exceptions. You can cut into traffic without the fear of a horn being beeped. If someone decides to pull out in front of you on a stretch of motorway, take it with good grace – they are appreciating the car. Take the time to check the tyres and oil pressure before leaving and make sure you warm her up for a bit first. Finally, invest in some good driving gloves and sunglasses – the car makes an effortless impression and deserves to have you return the favour.