It's official; I'm middle aged.
I turned 40 in September. I'm actually OK about it, no moans and groans from here, but a lovely side-effect was that friends and family came together - I had a lovely party - and as a genuinely unexpected bonus I was given some amazing presents. At 40 you can generally afford to buy a "thing" if you want it, so those presents were experiences of the sort that you wouldn't buy for yourself.
My rather wonderful sister- and brothers-in-law got together and bought me a classic car track experience at U-Drive, based at the old RAF base at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire.
I had to choose three cars out of five - Jag E-Type, Ford Mustang, Austin Healey 3000, Mini Cooper and Aston Martin Vantage - and I went for the first three. Minis are BRILLIANT but I have driven them before, and a '70s Aston just didn't quite excite me as much as the others did.
The Mustang came first.
I wasn't expecting great things, as a drivers car, but I was really keen to grab the opportunity to have a go in one as I doubt I ever will again; they're not exactly common over here. In the context of an airfield it didn't look as big as I expected it too; American cars are big but European cars have caught up fast so I guess even a big '60s muscle car is smaller than a current Mondeo. Nevertheless the view along that big stripy bonnet is quite exciting, and it makes quite a good noise.
I'm quite pleased that my first go at track driving was in an auto; I haven't driven manuals very often in recent years and there's already quite enough to think about at track speeds. Honestly? Really not a very good car. The motoring journalism cliché would be to say that it's fast in a straight line but terrible in corners; this is all true but it also wandered about everywhere when I was trying to drive it in a straight line. A stunningly gorgeous car, beautiful from every angle, that makes an amazing noise and accelerates very hard indeed but is only ever under suggestions, not really control, from its driver. The steering is stupidly heavy. The brakes are over-servoed. It wanders about of its own accord on a straight track. I should have hated it, and I think I would if I ever owned one, but the noise made it all better. A beautiful, ridiculous, stupid, wonderful machine.
When I got out of the Mustang I was directed straight into the Austin Healey 3000. Now this was a revelation. I drove '70s cars a lot when I was younger and I've had the occasional go in older stuff so I thought I knew what to expect; something really physical and tough to drive, probably with pretty sketchy steering and brakes. It wasn't like that at all; the driving position is apparently intended for a T-Rex (In most cars I have to adjust for long legs and short arms but even my arms are too long for a big Healey). Once we got under way though it was just brilliant; now that I think about it this was my first time driving a real sports car and it delivered. The steering was perfectly weighted, the brakes inspired confidence and it handled just like it should; just perfectly precise.
My last drive of the day was in a Jag E-Type; an early '70s 4.3 litre that was restored as a track-day car in 2011.
Let's take a little pause here. Surely every classic car enthusiast wants to drive or own an E-Type; it's one of those very few cars where there just aren't enough to go around.
So what did I think of this one? Well, as a car, it was more spacious than I was expecting. Sitting in the driver's seat... well, what the hell do you think? Looking past three wipers down a bonnet with an aeroplane engine under it; that has to be exciting.
I spent an amazing five minutes with this beast and I felt like a hero, but I probably didn't even begin to discover its abilities. It was always pulling on the leash, wanting to go faster.
At the end of the day we got a passenger ride around the track in a '51 plate Impreza. An amazing experience but I may have felt a little inadequate as a driver afterwards....