Driving in London just for fun is as sensible as rollerblading on the autobahn. Enlisting a young fresh-off-the-boat Yank to indulge in such folly should be a felony. Yet there I was, strapped behind a steering wheel located where the glove box should be, with a carload of norteamericanos who had entrusted me with their sightseeing and their lives. As an avid reader of British car magazines who watched BBC documentaries on PBS, I convinced myself that I possessed the knowledge required for such an undertaking. I'd already shown courage under fire, surviving several days as a pedestrian on these streets without being hit, not even once. All we needed now was more petrol, and a bank loan to pay for it.
The driving truths Americans hold to be self-evident are nowhere to be found in the Land of Hope and Glory. English traffic engineers appear blissfully unaware of grid systems and four-way stops. Using street names to navigate can only lead to despair. Someone saw fit to bolt all those placards to the sides of buildings, out of eyeshot where they wouldn’t spoil the view.
You couldn’t design a street plan like this without a hangover and a sense of humor. That centuries-old monument dedicated to King Somebodyoranother commands your immediate attention. As luck would have it, it’s in the middle of the road, and we’re heading straight for it. This marble relic has no patience for ambiguity. Choose sides. Left or right. NOW. No wonder we’ve been driving only ten minutes, and we’re already lost.
No matter. Losing your bearings doesn’t get much better than this. Stateside rental cars of that era were often shaped like soap bars and didn’t smell nearly as good. But in Old Blighty, even a mundane family saloon like this Ford Sierra could connect with your inner Schumacher.
For a kid raised on Tempos and Festivas, this shade of blue oval was nothing short of a revelation. The 1.6-liter mill wound out in ways that would have left many a bulkier Detroit four-banger for dead. The dash displayed Teutonic earnestness, controls placed where they should be. The shifter was nimble, albeit a bit awkward to an unfamiliar left hand. (Slam your customary shifting hand against the car door enough times, and you figure things out eventually.) While the passengers gawked at old buildings, my heel and toe enjoyed a workout on the roundabouts. This $4 gas was worth every pence.
Urban architecture gave way to suburbia, then to rolling verdant countryside as we barreled southward through Surrey toward West Sussex. The tourist office was kind enough to quarantine the English rain, replacing it with a glorious, warm sun. We’re not in Kansas anymore, and they’ve got the blacktop to prove it: tidy, properly paved tarmac, an invitation to dance. A Crown Vic would have been left flummoxed, but the Sierra remains composed, a willing partner for sharing this music.
We happen upon Arundel, a village known for a well-preserved castle doing double-duty as a tourist trap attraction and family home. (Note to self: Life in a drafty old house with a cover charge is overrated.) At the local café, my order of breakfast tea at 2PM was scandalous enough to unravel decades of Anglo-American diplomacy. At least we still had the car.
Back on the highway, I acquired a newfound appreciation for yellow paint. In the New World, we use it to separate opposing traffic from unplanned encounters. The Brits, however, reserve this shade to demarcate their omnipresent parking restrictions, preferring white striping for virtually everything else. Seemed like a harmless cultural difference, until a large lorry began playing chicken with us in what I could have sworn was my passing lane. With the aid of divine intervention, I hastily found fourth gear, redline and a slot on the left, barely avoiding a nasty rendezvous. One life down, eight to go.
Thankfully, the motorway spared us from further overtaking trauma. The limit was allegedly 70 mph, yet the natives took no notice. The speediest traffic easily surpassed the century mark, as slower members of the species respectfully dived out of the way. I had stumbled upon an exotic land where turn signals, courtesy and lane discipline were ways of life. As the lights of London loomed ahead on the M4, I prayed that I could be granted citizenship and a parking space.
But alas, that England is one for the history books. The new Cool Britannia is choking on the gristle of speed cameras, more speed cameras, congestion charges and $8 diesel. At this rate, it’s a matter of time before the Brits will have to pay just to think about driving.
Living in the past is looking like a better bet. It’s much faster there, and I can almost afford it.