Columns Roy Lanchester

A Christmas drive, with Roy Lanchester

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The well-moistened car journalist recalls an especially memorable festive journey from two decades ago

Christmas is almost with us and for many of you that will mean some arduous road trip to a far-flung part of the country in order to spend the festive period with family or friends. Mercifully this does not apply to me as I have neither of those things outside of the Harrogate area thanks to increasing amounts of death, divorce and disagreement. Instead, I will be happily warming up a delicious Bernard Matthews turkey cylinder, popping on some Auntie Bessie’s roasties and firing up my trademark ‘fast track’ carrot and sprout preparation method by popping a handful of each veg into the kettle I borrowed from my hotel room on the Peugeot Bipper launch in 2008 and repeatedly setting it to boil. Bliss!

Thoughts of a long yuletide journey, however, cause me to cast my mind back to the heady days of 1998 and a memorably tricky trip I made in the then-new Rover 75. Our story begins in late November ’98 and a casual phone call with Tim Horsewater of The Reading Century, the chief topic of which was when and how much I should apologise to the other guests on the recent Daewoo Matiz event at Rawnston House in Gribbing. Tim’s good-natured suggestions were ‘soon’ and ‘a lot’, both of which I rebuffed, as most of them had been in bed by the time the main incident occurred and, if anything, it was the hotel staff who deserved an apology which, I pointed out, they had already received, at least as much as I could while struggling for breath before the ambulance/police arrived. Anyway, we agreed to disagree on this matter and were wrapping up the conversation when Tim casually mentioned that he had just taken receipt of that year’s hamper from the PR department at Citroen, well-known in the industry at the time as the Rolls-Royce of Christmas gifts (unlike the Christmas gift from Rolls-Royce themselves which was nothing more than a card, despite the amount they charge for their cars, the stingy gits!). I was a little puzzled that I had yet to receive my own Citroen hamper but assumed it was en route with its mouth-watering contents of many fine wines, soft cheeses and sleeves of luxury biscuits. Très bon, as they like to say among people the editor has asked me not to call Frogs!

Three weeks passed and I was on my final press rotation of ’98, the Mitsubishi Colt Space Star UK launch at Colbeck Hall near Cirencester, when it became apparent that all the other attendees had duly received a sizeable wicker box of bounty from Citroen yet I, seemingly alone, had not. This was, of course, a source of grave concern and upon returning home I placed an urgent telephone call to the PR man at Citroen to alert him to this oversight. A laid-back chap at the best of times, I was troubled by his lack of concern at an apparent and important gap in his hamper list and made this abundantly clear to him. “It’s the 23rd and there’s no way we could get one out to you now I’m afraid,” he mumbled, unapologetically. “Besides, I’ve only got one spare which I was going to divide with the team here before we finish up tomorrow. You’re welcome to pop to the office in Slough and pick it up if you like…”

Luckily for yours truly I had just received my Christmas press car, which was a shiny metallic blue example of the new-for-’98 Rover 75, fitted with the acclaimed 2-litre diesel engine. Thanks to Bosch (as in, ‘fuel injection systems’ and indeed ‘the’) this refined unit promised class-leading economy and, allied to the 75’s smooth-as-silk ride, would make this the ideal carriage in which to whisk myself from Harrogate to Slough to claim what was rightfully mine before some PR door-opener snaffled all the good cheese.

So it was that on Thursday 24 December I rose at an ungodly hour and by 10am was on the road towards Christmas deliciousness, by which I mean the A661 to the A1 to the M18 to the M1. Suffice to say, on the twisty segments of my path to the motorway the Rover cornered as if on rails while the oil burning motor pulled like a train yet drank like a nun before settling down to an even cruise on the m-way and, a mere four hours later, I stepped from its luxurious and well-appointed interior feeling as fresh as a proverbial bunch of daisies! I remember at the time thinking that this car was a sure-fire hit and hoping that BMW didn’t torpedo everything as usual by selling the company to some Birmingham business idiots in 2000, which of course they did!

Displaying an idleness for which the PR profession is sadly known, the Citroen chap was attempting to leave for the day when I arrived at his headquarters, even though it was only 2:30pm on Christmas Eve! “I can’t believe you’re actually here,” he spluttered, leading me up to his office with a tone I found a little too resentful. Happily, his equally lazy “team” were still packing up their “things” and I was able to insist he made them put all the items back in the thoughtlessly discarded hamper and, with everything accounted for (save for a small jar of chutney which I strongly suspect the PR honcho himself had selfishly pocketed), I was able to get him to carry it to the 75 and hit the road. Next stop, Harrogate!

Suffice to say, the Rover once again proved itself to be the consummate frugal cruiser but even this class-leading compact executive car could not do anything about the weather which became increasingly hostile, culminating in heavy flurries of snow as I re-entered God’s own county, increasing in intensity as the 75 and I merged smoothly onto the A1, bathed in the soft lighting of the Rover’s classically styled instrumentation. My reverie couldn’t last as the poor weather caused this legendary road to grind to a halt and I went from, in the words of Chris Rea, “driving home for Christmas” to, also in the words of Chris Rea, “the road to hell” (and indeed Hull, if you turned onto the M62 at junction 33).

As we crawled along in an ever-heavier blizzard I knew my only option was to deploy my local knowledge, get off the A1 and take the cross country route back to Harrogate, which I did by tugging on the Rover’s luxurious steering wheel at Bramham and pointing its noble, chrome-grilled prow at where the horizon would be if I had been able to see it which, thanks to the extremely heavy snowfall, I could not. In many ways this gives a clue as to what happened next, somewhere near Follifoot, as extremely poor visibility caused a momentary loss of sight regarding the direction of the road which, it later turned out, turned a sharp left hand bend though at the time the car and I did not.

The field in which we came to rest was large and snowy and unfortunately not best placed to show off the talents of the Rover’s excellent chassis, especially as one of the wheels appeared to have become less than attached to the rest of the car. Worse yet, in such white out conditions it was impossible to gain my bearings and I decided the safest course of action was to remain in the car, especially as I was impressed to discover that the engine was still working, though it was unable to propel the car in any meaningful way or without a loud grinding sound. Also in my favour, I had stopped only an hour or so earlier and filled up with diesel with the intention of sending the receipt to Rover and/or Citroen to be compensated for my inconvenience. With my sudden change in circumstances the main thing was, I could afford to sit out this situation until the snow storm cleared as I had a heater to keep me warm and the hazard warning lights to attract help. Little would I guess that even these would be of no use in this remote spot. Nor, I should add, could I rely on my newly-acquired mobile, a cutting edge Nokia ‘banana’ phone, so-called not because it made me ‘bunged up’ ‘down there’ but because of its shape, though this had no benefit to its ability to find a signal in a blizzard on Christmas Eve. No, I was stuck there in the pitch dark and by the time the Rover’s elegant central dashboard clock read 9pm I realised this situation called for drastic measures and I was forced to open the precious Citroen hamper. How lucky I was that I had secured it not in the boot but on the back seat, retained in place by two of the Rover’s three standard-fit inertia reel rear seat belts, enabling me to make a start on its contents without having to set foot outside into the unforgiving storm. I began with a robust Brie and some delightfully crispy crackers, accompanied by an acceptable Châteauneuf-du-Pape which I had managed to open by punching the cork through with my house keys. Shortly afterwards, with no sign of help and the weather too cold and dangerous to venture outside, even in my trusty Peugeot Rallye Sport anorak, I had to move on to a small game pie, and then some more cheese, and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, and some biscuits before acknowledging the passing of midnight with a well-timed belt of port and a tray of mince pies and then some brandy. You often hear so-called “outdoors” experts on television claiming that survival is a matter of ingenuity and improvisation and this was certainly true for me, in particular the moment I realised the undrinkably warm whites from the hamper could be salvaged by the simple expedient of gingerly opening the Rover’s door and placing them in the snow outside for a short while. Hey presto! Agreeably chilled Chardonnay, followed by Camembert and crackers, a small cake and a sleep, after which I awoke to daylight, chunks of Pont-l’Évêque, some more Côtes du Rhône and macaroons, the rest of the port, more cheese, and then a handful of hot chocolate powder since I fancied something else sweet and had polished off all of the biscuits.

Truly I had made the best of a tricky situation and in many ways I was rather disappointed when, just as it was going dark and I was seeking out the Queen’s speech on the Rover’s wireless, a local farmer came by in his Land Rover to extract me and the mostly empty hamper from the field. As for that trusty Rover 75, I have no idea. A week or so later I remembered to telephone the Rover press department to tell them roughly where the car had come to rest but the person I spoke to was only covering over the Christmas and new year period and I’m not sure the message ever got through to the right people. Who knows, perhaps the car is still there as a monument to this excellent machine and indeed to one of the most enjoyable Christmas days I have ever spent. Sadly, Rover went bust a mere seven years later and Citroen stopped sending out hampers in the early 2000s which is why I had to take the wine I’m currently drinking from a recent SEAT launch for God’s sake. How times change! Happy Christmas!

Roy Lanchester is motoring correspondent for Office Furniture Digest and founder of the blog Over The Limit with Roy Lanchester.  His book, How To Be A Motoring Journalist, is still on sale.