On a fine mid-summer day, on a car launch, in Italy, all was well with the world. I was sharing a test car with a chum, we were enjoying a natter about the event, our impressions of the car – a Fiat – and life in general. We had just left behind us an enjoyably dynamic and scenic section of road route and joined a surprisingly empty autostrada for the last part of the drive back to launch HQ. Then it happened.
Engine power suddenly drained away, and there was no choice other than to veer the car to the right and coast onto the hard shoulder. A quick glance at the fuel gauge confirmed what we already knew, that there was plenty of diesel in the tank. It wasn’t a fuel shortage problem. So what was it? Diagnosing the cause of breakdown was beyond our mutual abilities. We motoring writers may know rather a lot about cars, but we’re not qualified mechanics, and whatever was wrong was beyond our skill set to solve. This was also before the days of mobile phones, and in a mountainous part of Italy where they probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.
So, no choice but to await help, and happily it arrived quickly. Colleagues in another of the launch’s test cars appeared in the distance and we eagerly flagged them down. Locking our stranded vehicle, we jumped into the back of theirs, and bagged a welcome lift to the event venue to let our hosts know where to locate the car.
Oh dear. When we told them what had happened, the blood drained from their faces, and the welcoming smiles turned to aghast looks. Apparently that particular stretch of autostrada was renowned both for mysterious breakdowns and for the rapid disappearance of any vehicle unfortunate enough to be left there, magicked away by predatory criminal low-loaders reputed to patrol the area. A blizzard of activity followed, during which launch personnel rushed off to retrieve the errant car. Alas, on arrival at the section of hard shoulder where we had left it, there was only empty tarmac.
That was an event memorable for all the wrong reasons. The car wasn’t especially smile-worthy either. But back then, any Fiat Group launch was usually something a bit special. Mighty Fiat carried a lot of clout in its native Italy and had the power and influence to lay on some pretty memorable experiences for its international guests attending car launch events.
Want to showcase your new model to a cynical bunch of seen-it-all car hacks? Make both them and the car feel special by choosing an excitingly twisty single-track road to show off the vehicle’s dynamics. Then close the road to all other traffic. Officially. With local police on hand to enforce the closure. Next, do the same on a stretch of autostrada. Close it to all other traffic for that day, then wave the journos in their test cars onto their own private temporary test track. Speed limit? What speed limit!
Admittedly I have also driven on a closed section of motorway here in the UK, but the circumstances were somewhat different. It was the Surrey section of the M25, the final piece of it that completed its 122-miles loop around London. Before it had its official public opening, we filmed a group car test for Top Gear on a stretch of about-to-be-M25 near Leatherhead. That felt very special, and a proud memory whenever I drive the same stretch.
But perhaps my favourite memory of driving somewhere special was the time we crossed an empty desert in southern Egypt. There was no road for much of the way, just hard flat sand with a wide open view for miles ahead. It was a thrillingly unusual place to experience, and at a rapid pace! It was a Peugeot event and at a time when their car launches were always adventurous.
Alas, too adventurous for some. An intrepid colleague decided that such a vast empty place deserved a novel approach. He closed his eyes, kept them closed and put his foot down. The thrill!
A couple of miles ahead, in the middle of that huge emptiness, there was just one very large rock. Yes, you’ve guessed it.