Driving the General Lee

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I had always wanted to drive a good ole Detroit muscle car.

Any from the Golden Age in the mid-to-late sixties would have done, but by preference a second generation Dodge Charger R/T: Bill Hickman’s car in Bullitt, Vin Diesel’s in Fast and Furious and the real star of The Dukes of Hazzard, the General Lee.

Warner Brothers had a fleet of twenty-odd General Lees for the 2005 movie, but some were just shells and many were trashed in filming. Aside from wrecks, there are apparently three survivors. I got the chance to drive one of them on a circuit.

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It was parked in the pits, dwarfing a modern Camaro. The ’69 Charger is a great big brute of a car: seventeen feet by six and a half, as long and as wide as a builder’s van, but with a seven-litre V8 under what I suppose I ought to call the hood.

The driver’s door closed with an undamped clunk. (At least it was not welded shut.) The black vinyl interior was as battered and bruised as you would expect in a car built back in the year that Nixon was inaugurated, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Marvin Gaye Heard it through the Grapevine. It had the faint smell of old oil and unburned petrol which seems always to cling to classic cars.

There were big austere gauges, ringed with chrome, for speed and RPM, a row of smaller ones for fuel, battery charge, oil temperature and pressure, and a few clunky rocker switches for lights and wipers and such like. There was only a lap belt; and the steering wheel was a thin-rimmed wooden thing with three alloy spokes and a big fat boss in the middle. Health and safety had not yet been invented in 1969.

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I pressed the brake pedal experimentally and it sank to the floor as if air had got into the system, but that was apparently normal. The steering wheel rocked a couple of inches in either direction before it thought about telling the roadwheels. That was normal, as well.

At idle speed, the General Lee krob-krob-krobbed like a fighter plane from the Second World War. I clicked the gear selector into Drive and moved out onto the track and the V8 snarled and settled into a staccato growl.

The General lurched into the first corner and drifted across to the other side of the track as a drunk might weave home from a late-night bar. It handled the way that a motorboat handles, but I ought to have expected that. Even in Bullitt, with a professional stunt driver at the wheel, the Charger tumbled round corners with all the finesse of a barrel which has bounced off the back of a truck.

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But then I was on the kind of straight which muscle cars were built for and buried the accelerator into the carpet and the General surged forward with the angry roar of a sorely provoked V8 – an awesome sound. Driving it hard on the straight was like surfing down stairs: exhilarating but tempered by the growing worry about what to do when you get to the end.

I braked hard coming into the corner, earlier than I would in a modern car but later than I ought to have done, and it slowed at its leisure and I managed not to lock up the wheels (it doesn’t even have disc brakes, let alone ABS), then flung it towards the apex with a wobble and screech and let it ride across the track and lumber through the chicane.

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With each lap, I got a little more confident, learned when to brake and how hard, when to floor it, when to ease off, and how to roll with the weight shift. I got used to the way that it wallowed into corners and stumbled out, wobbling like a fat man promenading down the Las Vegas Strip. It would be terrifying to drive it fast on the roads – at any rate, on narrow, twisty European roads – but it was a lot of fun on a circuit once I knew what to expect, and even more fun to accelerate down the straights, and oh my God the sound!

Then, eventually, I had to give it back and reluctantly walked away.

© Richard Senior 2016

24 Hours in Paris

I arrived in Paris in the afternoon off the TGV from Bern.

I had seen the sights on previous trips and wandered, now, as I might in London with no itinerary and no real aim, just enjoying the amble through the daily life of one of the world’s great cities. I walked down Rue Volney, hung a left into Rue des Capucines, then a right and down through Place Vendome to the Jardin des Tuileries and along the right bank to the Tower.

I crossed there and backtracked along the left bank and went to the Musée d’Orsay, where I stayed until they turned people out. I love the old Beaux-Arts station building, and the Manets, the Monets, the Van Goghs, the Cézannes, and Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette and Caillebotte’s Raboteurs de Parquet, which I had prints of on my wall as a student.

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I stopped for dinner at a bistro busy with a garrulous after-work crowd. There were old cycle racing posters and desilvered mirrors on the walls, and hams and saucisson hanging over the counter, and a short menu of bistro staples. I ordered one of those salads the French do so well, with a nice mix of leaves and walnuts tossed in a vinaigrette, topped with slivers of hard, sharp cheese and greedy slices of Bayonne ham, and followed that with crispy, gelatinous pieds de cochon swilled down with a carafe of red.

I had arranged to have lunch the next day with a local girl whom I knew when she lived in London, but she cried off and I had the day to myself. I was out early and walked by a different route down to the river and crossed Pont Neuf over the prow of Ile de la Cité into the old bohemian quarter to look for the places which Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.

When I had done with Hemingway, I walked back up to Place de la Concorde where I had seen the Gallardo Spyder the day before with “Drive it for 89€” on the side. I guessed there would be more to it than that, but no. Show them your licence, pay them the money and sign to confirm that you have not been drinking or smoking, and it is yours for the next twenty minutes.

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I prodded the starter button and blipped the throttle and the V10 roared, and the guy directed me on a route through town which took in the big sights but avoided the worst of the traffic. Alongside the river, top down, the engine snarling behind me, then – as invited – into a tunnel and burying the accelerator in the carpet. The Gallardo streaked forward, the howling V10 reverberated off the walls of the tunnel and a motorbike in the right-hand lane was sucked back instantly into the distant past. Out into daylight, then through another tunnel, foot down again, then up to the Place de l’Étoile and down the Champs-Élysées, back to where I started.

I had just enough time, then, for a quick lunch at a bistro on the way to my hotel. It was an old, wood-panelled place with black and white photos of a bygone Paris on the walls. The husband and wife team who ran it seemed to know most of the customers well. She stayed at their tables to chat after taking their orders; he interposed now and then from the bar across the room.

Rillettes, a bavette of beef with shallot sauce and fries, a glass of red, a bottle of water and an espresso for the price of a pizza and Coke in London. I love the democratic food culture in France. Focussed women in designer suits sat a table away from bantering men in paint-spattered overalls – unthinkable in the class-bound, proudly unequal UK.

I grabbed my bags and took a bus to the Gare du Nord for the Eurostar home. The neighbourhood was no smarter than it had been when I was last there, ten years before, and I had arrived late at night and had to walk round drunks sprawled across the pavements, but it felt marginally safer in daylight.

© Richard Senior 2015

Seeing Berlin by Trabant

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A man in the old East Germany went to the showroom to buy a Trabant.

Come back in thirteen years,” the salesman said, “it’ll be ready for you then”.

“Can we make it the afternoon?”

“Certainly, comrade. But why?”

“The plumber’s coming in the morning.”

The VEB Sachsenring Trabant was a gift for anti-communist propaganda. It looked like something from a 1950’s cartoon and had an engine better suited to a lawnmower: 600cc, 26 brake horse, 0-60 on seven day’s notice. It was not really made of cardboard, as rumoured in the West, but some panels were made of a plastic reinforced with old wool and other sweepings-up. It appears in most lists of the worst cars ever built.

I had always wanted to drive one.

I was in Berlin and poking about near Checkpoint Charlie when I happened on an outfit which ran self-drive Trabant tours.

Mine had been pimped up with a soft top conversation, electric windows and a metallic pink paintjob. But it still had the skinny original wheels, and the little engine was standard. It was as Spartan inside as a race car. The speedo went up to 140kph, which was as ambitious as any of the DDR’s production targets.  Next to it was what might have been a rev counter, but did not seem to do very much.

There was a hefty rocker switch for the lights and a few knobs which I think were just there to fill space. A flimsy stalk protruded from the steering column: up and down to indicate and forward for the horn, which worked one time in four. There was a sturdier lever on the other side for the gear change: forward and down for first, then up for second, back and down for third and up for fourth.

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I knew that the engine was two-stroke, but I still laughed when I started it up and it ring-ting-tinged like a moped. Then a cloud of blue smoke engulfed me. The gearbox growled and struggled against me as I tried to wrestle it into first, but I overcame it with the sort of brute force the Stasi might have used on a prisoner.

There were six of us in convoy, following a guide who called out instructions on a one-way radio as we made for Potsdamer Platz. It was the Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of the Weimar Republic, but was all but levelled in World War II, then bisected by the Wall and left as a vacant plot. Now it is ringed by skyscrapers designed by an aristocracy of architects. It was busy with commuters on their way home when we ring-ting-tinged past; and in my pink Trabant with the roof down and my arm draped over the door, I hammed the self-satisfied look of the bankers you see snarling round in Ferraris. They looked at me as if I was being serious.

We drove on towards the Brandenburg gate, a symbol of partition, then of reunification, now gorgeously lit with video projections for the Festival of Lights.

As we headed towards and over the river, some of the Trabants got stuck at the traffic lights and Audis and Volkswagens slipped in between them, incongruous as bungling spies. “We have some capitalist cars in our convoy,” the guide warned over the radio.

He set off from the lights and turned left across traffic, and I slammed it into first, then second and scuttled across after him and forced a corpulent Mercedes to stop. PARRRRP! went his big bourgeois horn. Neep-neep went mine in response.

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We stopped and got out on Unter den Linden to look at the light shows on the cathedral, university and opera; then set off again, heading deep into the old East Berlin. We screamed through Alexanderplatz, past the TV tower, and on past the East Side Gallery, through Friedrichshain with its legendary nightlife.

I had fought my way up to fourth gear by then, and with my foot flat down and the engine howling, I must have been doing at least 30. Yet I was having more fun than I have had in much faster, pricier cars.

We met another Trabant tour going the other way and everyone waved and cheered and neep-neeped at once. It might have been a scene from a propaganda film in the days of the DDR.

(c) Richard Senior 2014