July 8th, 2011

Mental rental adventures

If you’re like me, and have long since accepted  that you’ll never feature on the Sunday Times Rich List, then you’re probably not digesting the finer details of the more glamorous road tests on this site to help decide whether your next new purchase will be that Ferrari, Porsche or Maserati. For most of us, simply reading about the antics of those lucky few in Alp bound hypercars offers a much needed dose of escapism.

Even the poorest petrolheads amongst us can appreciate a beautifully framed shot of finely crafted machine set in a jaw-dropping landscape, even if we know deep down that it will never be us behind that wheel. However, with a little imagination, it is possible for even the most cash strapped enthusiast to get a whiff of motoring nirvana, as a group of mates and I have repeatedly proven.

None of my chums or I are likely to become trophy husbands; those who were born with silver spoons in their mouths have long since pawned them. If we are being completely honest, we don’t really like hard work either.

For all these reasons, our fleet on past trips to the ‘ring or some other foreign trackday has always been a rather rag-tag mix of hot hatches, sports cars and tatty track-slags in various stages of fettle. Remember the opening scene of Battlestar Galactica? And while there is always that wonderful childlike excitement in the run up to any trans-European roadtrip, the return leg has invariable been a ball-ache of endless autobahn, French radio and a whining additional passenger wondering how long it will take for the RAC to repatriate their broken pride and joy.

If only there were a quicker, cheaper and risk free way of getting to the best driving roads in Europe. “Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea!” came Rich’s response in broken Michael Caine cockney. Several weeks later came a firmed up plan for a 24 hour dash to Milan, travelling light with Easyjet, Fiat 500 rental cars and a route up through the Stelvio Pass to a rustic B&B for a frosty one. The basic jolly came in for a shade under £100, including the Peroni! It didn’t matter that weren’t in snarling snot-green GT3s. Here were a dozen pals in equally matched cars that couldn’t have been more quintessentially Italian. Sure, you had to flog those 68 horses hard on the way up, but every one of the 48 first gear switchbacks was a hoot.

Although the Fiat 500 was undeniably cute, comfortable and surprisingly well screwed together, the downside of hard driving an urban runabout soon became apparent on the way down Stelvio and over the even the higher Gavia Pass. The 9 inch solid front discs started to fade just as the hairpins got tighter and tighter. Flashing brake lights from the cars in front showed electronic trickery was trying to help out, but it still lead to few brown-trouser moments and a much greater appreciation of our own car’s higher performance set ups.

The Italians clearly hold affection for their new cinquecento and our little convoy of seven black Fiats was often met with cheery waves from the locals. We all took a quiet moment at the top of Gavia Pass just to appreciate in the breathtaking Alpine vista; and as our hire car’s tiny engines ticked cool, we began to laugh at the brilliant simplicity of our inaugural ‘Mental Rental’ mini-adventure.

Three months later another cunning plan was hatched to tag along on a mate’s business trip to Inverness. Trying to rent something quintessentially Scottish was a little trickier since Hertz had stopped using Hillman Imps in 1975. However, my businessman pal Rich had been sweet talking the girl behind the car hire desk on a previous trip a few weeks earlier. A little schmoozing had secured their only Fiat 500 Abarth. Same quirky motor, but now with the ability to really go, and more importantly, really stop! The other chaps hired a mixed bag of low spec euroboxes and we set off for japes across the snow dusted Highlands.

The plan was to drive the epic Applecross Pass as featured on several road tests in the glossiest car mags (you know the ones, where the advertised hand luggage costs more than your first car did). This second trip had much the same formula as before: epic scenery, fantastic company, asthmatic motors. Admittedly the Abarth was a lot more sporting, yet somehow, the quality of the cars didn’t really matter too much. This was just another “Mental Rental” adventure to a far flung corner of blighty for less than the cost of a UK trackday.

Our third foray this summer took us to Monaco and inland to the spectacular alpine roads of Monte Carlo Rally fame. After being cooped up on a plane full of orange skinned über-cougars bound for the Cannes Film Festival, we couldn’t wait to get off and pick up our rentals from Nice airport. It was here that I found myself asking the bemused chap on the desk if we “could possibly hire something French?” These words seemed alien somehow, but trying to rent a locally produced motor is a tradition of these jaunts. After filling in the paperwork (remembering to put a fat tick in the extra damage cover box) the local chap, barely managing to hide a snigger, handed over a dusty set of keys for a grey Renault Twingo. “Et iz une deezul”, he announced, as the rest of the gang behind us nearly wet themselves.

“C’est la vie, très français !” said I with a Gallic shrug, fondly recalling the original frog-eyed version. This poverty spec 2010 model however, looked pretty charmless in comparison to its predecessor, although it did handle well as we darted through the busy city traffic. The 1.5 dCi might only have had a dismal 65 bhp on tap, but it was quite a free revving little beast and it certainly had the edge over the puny petrol powered Fords and Peugeots in our convoy.

Despite our elderly SatNav’s initial mystery tour of the French Riviera we were soon off inland climbing towards the legendary Col de Turini. This was the WRC rally stage made famous in the 60’s by the likes of Paddy Hopkirk and the iconic Mini Cooper S. With twice the power-to-weight, and half the Armco, you have to to admire the nerve of those men who would rag those Works Minis up these very same hairpins in the snow, often dodging obstacles laid in the road by Gauloise smoking saboteurs.

As we hooked the Twingo round endless hairpins the road soon deteriorated. Broken and pot holed tarmac was dotted with fallen scree in places, and as the road narrowed, passing places got further apart.  After crossing the Col dramatic switchbacks gave way to narrow mountainside passes clinging to the granite cliffs. These wound lazily up to medieval walled villages; red bricked and seemingly deserted. In the late afternoon sun the scenery was simply breathtaking.

The next stint took us on to our B&B beyond Col St. Martin. From here the roads became much better as sweeping stretches of smooth tarmac threaded through the Alpine valleys linking several deserted ski resorts. The same monolithic apartment blocks, boarded up nightspots and gaudy cafes were interspersed with a skeleton staff of bored looking workmen. It was all rather weird in a setting so picturesque and remote. (Note to self: Must drop a line to Stephen King regarding my idea for The Shining: Le Sequel).

Next morning we had to revise our original plan which had been to return to Monte Carlo via the Col de la Bonnette, Europe’s highest road at 2802m, made famous by the Tour de France. Unfortunately it had been closed due to recent snowfall so we detoured east over Col de Cayolle at a mere 2326m above sea level. For me this was the highlight of the trip. The route paralleled lush glacial valleys and meandered over a series of stone bridges and waterfalls. We pretty much had the road to ourselves and saw more Alpine Marmots (a funny little creature which my co-driver Rich best described as a sort of cross between an Otter and Sandy Toksvig) than other vehicles. Words cannot really describe the views that met us at the top.

The moment was only slightly marred by our hard pushed Renault’s decision to flash its orange “I surrender” spanners at the restart down the other side. Quiet panic descended in our cockpit as we contemplated how long it would take a Nice based recovery truck to climb the equivalent of Ben Nevis and Snowdon combined through 100km of twisty mountain passes. Luckily, a five minute time-out and several ON/OFF reboots cleared the error code and our plucky little Twingo was off again to Monaco in a cloud of unburnt diesel soot.

After a further hour of fantastic driving following rubble strewn river gorges down to the coast, we eventually leveled off to join the Monaco bound traffic. Lambos, Rollers and Astons became increasingly commonplace as we tried to regroup our rentals somewhere along the GP circuit. After being quickly shooed away by the top hatted doorman at Casino Monte Carlo we eventually met up just after the tunnel near Nouvelle Chicane. Down near the harbour it was surprisingly easy to just pull over onto the famous red and white curbs and watch the city busily preparing Circuit de Monaco’s crash barriers and grandstands.

Michael Schumacher still holds the fastest lap time for the Monaco GP circuit; with an average speed of just over 100 mph he set the bar at 1:14.439. Rich, having relinquishing his driving duties for the day, was now merrily building a mini-Arc de Triomphe from empty Stella cans in the afternoon sun. Over lunch he became increasingly adamant that the rapid trickledown effect of automotive innovation from F1 to ordinary road cars now meant that our Twingo would have similar pace to Schuey’s antiquated 2004 V10 Ferrari. He slurred something about us testing his theory and even rigged up a borrowed V-Box to see what Gs we could pull. Unsurprisingly my lap time was less than impressive, but then the Red Baron was never cut up by swarthy looking playboys in Russian plated Bentleys or held up in traffic due to Bollinger deliveries. Coming into the Grand Hotel hairpin we held back to let the traffic ahead clear before seeing how £10k of the finest French shopping trolley really handled. Sadly, the muffled squeal of an understeering Renault hardly distracted the hotel‘s diners from their condor egg and caviar baps. Probably.

With barely enough time to get some shots of the circuit’s more famous landmarks we had to set off back to Nice airport to drop off our rentals. Despite having driven a hard 200miles, brimming the Twingo back up with Monaco priced Gazole still only cost €43. In fact, the whole jaunt including flights, hotel, car hire and baguettes came to well under £200.

So if you also fancy some stress free, frugal fun on the best driving roads Europe has to offer, here’s a few tips to get you started:

For the cheapest flights look at the low cost carriers and look well ahead. Fly mid-week and out of season, which will not only keep costs down but ensures the roads are relatively quiet when you arrive. Take only hand baggage and make sure you check in online before you get to the airport. Book a car from any of the big companies in increments of 24 hours, and make sure you don’t exceed your allotted time. If you run just 5 minutes over you will be charged for an extra day. Most will not guarantee a particular make or model in the low budget categories, but if you get an early arrival and jog to their rental desk you can usually negotiate for something less dull to drive.

Take the extra “super-duper” damage insurance, or whatever that particular firm calls it. Your car could easily pick up the odd battle scar on these roads. For about £20 extra it’s well worth it, as most rental companies would disagree with my lovely wife’s mistaken belief that scratches and scrapes “add character” to a car. Also make sure you return your vehicle completely full of fuel, and insist on a final invoice before you return the keys to avoid any nasty hidden charges later on.

Planning your Mental Rental adventure is the fun part. If you need inspiration then have a look at ultimatedrives.net which divides the continent into doable chunks of great driving experiences. We also found the biker’s website alpineroads.com was especially helpful for those planning a motoring trip like ours. Google maps is great for itinerary planning, setting up waypoints to regroup at and helping to find the perfect hotel along the way. That’s what we’re already doing in preparation for our next trip. I don’t want to give too much away but it may involve a posse of Dacia Sanderos and 60 miles of little known tarmac looping through the Carpathian Mountains. I can’t wait.

Words: Darryl Sleath

Photos: Omi Hempsall, Rich Duisberg, Darryl Sleath

For more stories like this, check out Darryl’s very entertaining blog: http://sucksqueezebangblow.net/ or follow him on Twitter @S2B2net






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