I don’t know how Inspector Morse managed it. Not only did he have to solve murders, he was also driving a bus. Well, technically it was a Jaguar MKII, but when I get behind the steering wheel it feels like a bus. The steering wheel is bigger, looser and slimmer than anything I’ve driven before, while the gear stick is shorter and stubbier. Am I safe to be let out on the roads of Clackmananshire and drive this gorgeous classic car?
Fortunately – or unfortunately – Alex Stewart thinks I am. It’s his car, so if he’s prepared to trust me with it, I’ll trust his judgement in return. As with all the classic cars that he rents from his rural base near Dollar, not far from Stirling, he takes the would-be drivers out on a test run first.
Alex drives the classy green Jag for a mile or so to a handy layby, then goes over the controls and the quirks, before letting you drive it back to the guesthouse that he also runs with his wife Tanya. On the basis of that, Alex decides whether the driver will be OK, or maybe needs a longer lesson.
‘We do get a lot of car-park dings,’ he tells me. ‘That’s the main problem. People just aren’t used to the size of them, and the fact that you have less mobility than with more modern cars.’
Just to cheer me up he tells me the tale of the French driver who, straight off a flight from Paris, got 500 yards down the road and then tried to go round a roundabout the wrong way. He smashed Alex’s most popular classic car rental, his E-Type Jaguar. ‘He was used to driving a Land Rover,’ Alex says. ‘The car was a total write-off and I had it booked out the next week! Now we have a little clear plastic diagram in the top corner of each windshield on how to negotiate roundabouts if you’re coming from a left-hand drive country. The E-type is the bucket-list car. Everyone had an E-type – Jackie Stewart, George Best – and that’s the one we rent out most, followed by the Austin Healey and the Morgan 4/4.’
We’d driven the beautiful bright red Morgan (above) – the only hand-built car still made in Britain – that morning, on a circular drive through the Perthshire countryside to Crieff. There it started raining gently, so we stopped to put the hood up, a manoeuvre that requires a knowledge of origami combined with the ability to fold a map up again properly. We were now dry but slightly cramped, like two people sharing a one-man tent. We drove along the shores of Loch Earn, where the sun came out, so we stopped in Lochearnhead to take the hood down again.
Alex had been right about the hood. ‘Driving through Glen Coe in a convertible is an amazing experience,’ he’d told us. ‘In a convertible you can smell things like the heather, the wild garlic. In a regular saloon you’re cut off from all that. With the hood down you’re out in the open, enjoying the fresh air.’
Changing between 1st and 2nd gears was a challenge on this car, as indeed was simply getting in and out. As a six-footer, this time it took origami of the body to get my legs under the steering wheel and my bum on the seat. Still, it was well worth it as we sped through woodland and along country lanes, and collected admiring glances from people in the street.
‘Foreigners think the Scots are the friendliest people in the world,’ Alex had told us. ‘They always come up and start talking to you – but it’s the cars that attract them!’
As well as the Morgan and two Jags, Alex also owns a 1966 Austin Healey, a Triumph TR6, a Triumph Stag, a 1974 MGB Roadster, a Caterham Super Seven and, in prosaic contrast, a VW camper van.
However, it was Inspector Morse’s Jaguar that I was investigating in the afternoon. It was a large car, and a whole other experience. The steering wheel was twice the size of the Morgan’s, and the walnut dashboard was a delight. The gears frequently refused to cooperate, making the kind of sound you would probably get if you poked a four-legged jaguar with a sharp stick.
All in all, the experience of driving the two cars, though challenging, was both fun and a useful exercise. It made you think about your own driving habits, as these classic cars were much less forgiving than modern ones. You had to make sure you were in the right gear, at the right speed, when going round corners as correcting any errors took longer. No power steering meant taking care where you parked, so you could get out again.
Back at the guesthouse, I delivered the Jaguar safely back to Alex with no car park dings and no unfortunate encounters with roundabouts. However, I have to admit that the best sound I heard all day was going back into the guesthouse and hearing Tanya say, ‘Would you like a gin and tonic?’
Details of Alex Stewart’s car collection and rental rates can be found on his website: http://www.caledonianclassics.co.uk
For information about the guesthouse, Kennels Cottage visit http://www.guesthousescotland.co.uk
Note that you can stay at the guesthouse without renting a car, and you can rent a car without staying at the guesthouse.