Photos by Nick Graziano
To people that love to drive there is nothing better than being on an empty wide-open road where you can create your own rules on speed and which lane to drive in. It is a thrill that many car enthusiasts will only be able to experience in their dreams as those kinds of roads are as rare as finding a 1971 convertible Hemi ‘Cuda. Although, when you find yourself lost in Wales it becomes surprisingly easy (minus the ‘Cuda).
When I enrolled in the MA Automotive Journalism program at Coventry University in England, I assumed that there might be an opportunity to test drive a car or two, not go to a launch of a new car, which I would get to drive through England and Wales, after only a few weeks of lectures.
The seven of us in the program took off for Liverpool, which was actually exciting to me since I grew up in Liverpool, N.Y. There we would attend the launch of the new Vauxhall Corsa at the Titanic Hotel, where Vauxhall put all of the journalists for a free overnight stay. The seven of us instantly realized we picked the right career when we opened the door to our gigantic five star hotel room. You could take all of my college dorm rooms, as well as my room at home and they still wouldn’t fill these hotel rooms. You could drive a tractor trailer through the alley way between the rooms. My favourite bit was on the TV it said “Welcome to the Titanic Hotel Nick Graziano.”
Our first night in the massive Rum factory turned hotel, we were brought to the large event room and welcomed by two of the new Vauxhall Corsas, a bar, pool tables and other various forms of entertainment. But being the car nerd I am, I made a beeline past everything straight to the cars. Vauxhall is owned by General Motors and the majority of their cars look like leftover Saturns and designs that didn’t cut it with Chevrolet or Buick. But this new generation Corsa is completely redesigned and has a fresh, original design that is completely new to GM.
On first impression, it is a good looking car with some nice design features, but only after inspecting the car from top to bottom do you get a decent impression before driving it. First three plans of attack: feel the clutch, see how well it shifts and then take a look under the bonnet (or hood for my American friends). The last of which turned out to be a bigger challenge than I expected, mostly because of my American ignorance. Since all of the driver’s instruments are on the right side of the car you would probably expect the hood latch would be as well. Like me, you would be wrong. It is on the left side of the car. Must be fun for UK mechanics that either has to walk around the car to open the bonnet or get the shifter jammed up their arm pits as they reach across the car.
As I looked under the bonnet I became instantly gratified that I will never have to work on one of these cars. Like any new car the motor is crammed into the engine compartment surrounded by wires, hoses and useless plastic. The most disturbing part however was the location of the alternator, crammed deep behind the motor with no exit from the top and most likely an impossible exit from the bottom. The majority of you will never have to deal with it and probably could care less about all of this and just want to hear about getting lost in Wales, so have fun with this future Vauxhall mechanics and now I digress.
After looking over every part of the car, we were given a quick presentation about the car and then a nice dinner. Most of it I didn’t like, but it looked like food that would be pricey if you were to order it yourself, so I pushed some of it down fighting back a disgusted face. After talking with some of the PR people for a while we all headed off to each of our personal mansions for a good night sleep with high anticipation for driving the Corsas the next day. (I may be the first person to admit having high anticipation for driving a Vauxhall Corsa in print)
We woke to a nice free breakfast, which included the best waffle I have ever had. Then after a quick talk of where we would be going we were partnered up, handed a guide book and the keys to our own Corsa. I was partnered with my classmate, Jan, and after taking a few pictures of the car we headed off with Jan first at the wheel and I giving directions from the guide book. It felt like we were a rally team with Jan focusing on driving and I would be calling out left and right turns. But I quickly realized why I should just stick to driving as I completely butchered the first direction and had us making circles around Liverpool. After 20 minutes or so we finally got back on the right track and were off to our first coffee stop in Wales.
After a little over halfway, Jan and I switched and I finally got to live a dream of driving a right hand drive car on the left side of the road. I proudly drove away with ease and became accustomed to driving on the opposite side quite quickly. Although I did tend to drive a little close to the left at times, but it was something I got over after about 200 miles of driving later on.
We were the last ones to reach the café and had to quickly get back to driving. This time I was given a 1.0 litre three cylinder Corsa to drive as the last one was a 1.4 litre. Surprisingly though the 1.0 litre drove much better and had more pep than the 1.4 litre. And when I say it had more pep I only mean it struggled to gain more speed at 60 mph rather than 55.
This time around I partnered with my other classmate Eric, who is actually another American, as we planned on filming some of the trip and I would try and act like I was on Top Gear. I may be no Jeremy Clarkson, but I’m coming for youTop Gear USA.
We didn’t follow the guide at first as we stopped back at one of the first routes to get some pictures of the large valley open road and sheep. There has to be more sheep than people in Wales because they are everywhere. I actually passed a Walmart in Wales and I will guarantee there are sheep in there in some fashion. But after we had enough of the sheep and their endless amount of sheep droppings everywhere, we got back to the route with me driving and Eric navigating. Along the way we drove through some amazing valleys and mountain sides that looked like the shooting locations for Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, so we had to stop and take more pictures while more sheep watched. By this time we are already far behind everybody and got a call asking where we are. So we focused on just following the guide and not stopping.
As we were driving we got a couple more calls checking in on where we were and the concern from the Vauxhall PR people seemed to grow as after a while of driving they weren’t really sure where we were. Eric and I weren’t really concerned because he was giving me clear direction after direction and I never drove off course. That all changed after about a couple hours of driving when the Vauxhall people called us back and told us we were following the wrong directions. The joy of going on a free cruise through Wales turned into a single four letter word. (You can use your imagination)
Luckily the Vauxhall people put an iPhone in every car and we were able to use navigation system on it. So where we thought we were close to getting back, we actually had a four hour drive to go with a train to catch in only a few hours. The cameras went away, radio turned off and now the real rally began.
We got stuck behind everything from slow cars, a bus on single lane roads to a truck pulling a trailer full of sheep or what smelled like a trailer full of just sheep crap. But around the slow points of the trip came gifts from God. The navigation must have known we were petrol heads because it took us through of some of the greatest driving roads you can imagine. Miles long, two lane wide, no speed cameras (I hope) and completely empty. Aside from actually racing it was one of the best driving experiences. The little Corsa handled the roads surprisingly quite well and if you are imagining a car ripping down straightaways and crushing apexes at high speeds, don’t forget we are talking about a 1.0 litre three cylinder car here. So take your vision and divide it by 100. None the less is was a fun experience and what actually happened on those roads is between Eric and I and the sheep watching. Which a number of times I had to stop for those sheep crossing the road.
But while we were given the gift from God, the Devil decided to join the party as the navigation brought us to a route that can only be described as the creepy forest from the Harry Potter movies. There was no more road, just grass and dirt on a single lane with trees centimetres from both side mirrors. I carefully made my way through the forest and around tight corners, but then we approached the Corsa’s worst enemy: a hill. It seemed like it didn’t matter what gear you put the car in it would always struggle up a hill and now we had to deal with one that had no asphalt on it. And with Wales being Wales, it obviously rained earlier so now the grass and dirt are nice and wet. In second gear I carefully worked my way up the hill quickly, but about half way up the car stalled out. Then before I could coast back down and try again a Fiat Panda pulled up behind us and didn’t seem too keen on backing up for us. So I started it back up, put it in first gear and tried to drive up the rest of the hill, but now all I got was wheelspin. By this point that four letter word has reappeared a few times. I seriously thought we were going to be stuck in this evil forest where you could barely even see daylight, so there was no way we could explain to the Vauxhall people where we were.
Before making the call for help I tried one more time being very gentle on the clutch and gas, finally creeping our way up the hill at about one mile an hour. At the top we could see the exit and an actual road, but the fun didn’t end there. It could have just been my own imagination by this point, but as we were reaching the exit, it looked like a scene from any sci-fi movie where the open for the exit got smaller the closer you get to it. By this point I was going to get out of this forest no matter what, so I held the steering wheel as straight as possible and aimed for the exit letting whatever happen, happen. Like in any sci-fi movie though, the hero always makes the gap without a scratch. You’re welcome Vauxhall.
After making it out of hell, cue a driving montage of driving through small towns and cruising back on the roadways and waiting in traffic to finally make it back to the hotel. There were a couple other exciting moments along the way as many of the roads barely fit two cars on it and in the oncoming lane was a massive tractor with its right side wheels taking up just about my whole lane. Eric and I pretty much saw death heading right at us with no escape, so I had to about put the car into the wall on my left to avoid death by a giant tractor in Wales. We brought the car back in one piece though with no scratches or problems. It definitely was the dirtiest car to come back. I like to think we just gave it a proper test drive through all of the elements. Besides having one of the most uncomfortable seats and non-existence ergonomics the car performed well and got great mileage. We drove about 200 miles or so for about five hours straight and the gas was just under half a tank.
We knew we had one more obstacle to face when we got back as all of the other Corsa’s were loaded on the truck ready to go. To our surprise however the Vauxhall people didn’t really care, they even bought us a drink when we got back. By this time we had completely missed our train by about an hour, but the Vauxhall people gave us money for a taxi to get to the train station and reimbursed us on our train tickets.
What seemed like was going to be a disastrous day, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If it wasn’t for getting lost we would have never found those amazing roads and got to see all of the extra great scenery we got to see. Even though that one forest road was like driving through hell it helped round out a movie like road trip. I know every test drive won’t be like this and I probably won’t get invited to many if I go for a joyride on each one, but I can’t think of a better welcoming to the experience of what being an automotive journalist is like. (Other than driving a P1 or something) But if I asked anyone if I could do what I did on the test drive they would probably tell me to keep dreaming. So to mark off a number of life dreams in one test drive, I’d say it is already well worth the trip to England to study automotive journalism.