Car life: Roadtrippin’

I, as you do, like cars. I love to watch races, I love to wrench on cars, I love to photograph them and above all, I love to drive them. Driving a car still feels special to me, even after the hundreds of thousands of kilometres I’ve driven so far. The sheer pleasure of controlling a big powerful machine that stimulates all your senses is still a great feeling. Hearing the engine work, feeling the car through your spine, smelling all the fumes, ‘speaking’ with the car with your hands through the steering wheel. But best of all, it comes in all forms and shapes. Some spirited driving or just cruising around with the windows, or better yet the top down on a beautiful evening? You can do both with just one car.

And because I like driving so much I absolutely love road trips. To paraphrase the famous line from Star Trek: “To boldly go where you’ve never been before”. Instead of flying over a country to your destination I like to drive through it. See the landscape change, enjoy beautiful highways or small mountain roads, just relaxed cruising to my destination while soaking in all the things that you don’t see at airports.

In the last four years since buying my trusty small Japanese car I travelled through a large part of Western Europe with it. I’ve been to Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway and England, just to name a few. I have seen and done things during all those trips I’ll never forget. I met new friends, ate some things I’d never seen before and the stories about those trips are still making me smile.

When a bunch of friends came up with the idea to do a three-stage road trip from The Netherlands to Italy this year I immediately joined in. Most of them are car nuts like me and we quickly came up with a rough outline of the route. We put someone in charge of arranging accommodations, took a few weeks off at our respective workplaces and at a Friday at the end of May we left for our first destination.

And what better way to start then with a visit to the famous Nordschleife? So, after my first visit to it just three weeks earlier I found myself back at those sacred grounds for a few days. And, just like the first time, I really enjoyed myself watching the myriad of cars on the track and I even hitched a few rides in the passenger seat. One lap was extremely special, early on Sunday morning we did a lap on a completely deserted Ring through rain and fog. It’s quite surreal to drive in and out the fog when the elevation changes.

After a few days in Germany we headed for Austria. The land of cheap petrol, Milka chocolate and awesome roads. And of all those roads the B179 is on the most beautiful roads I’ve ever driven. It has long stretches of smooth tarmac and great views interspersed with tight hairpin corners through the mountains. We drove the road in both directions, both in the dark and in broad daylight, and I really enjoyed it both times.

But for me there’s more than just the roads during a trip. I live in one of the flattest countries in the world. In fact we don’t have any mountains in The Netherlands, just a few hills. So, seeing a mountain still feels a bit special to me. And boy, did I see mountains! The forested ones in Germany, the big tough grey ones in Austria with the snow on top and the green mountains and rolling hills of Italy.

And don’t forget the cars. When you drive thousands of kilometres you’ll always end up seeing something special. And I had my fair share this trip. Stopping at a random gas station right behind a rather rare car, something that somehow never happens to me on my daily commute. And for some reason you’ll see more special cars abroad than in your own country. In Germany I got overtaken by a R34 GTR, an Ür-Quattro and a Ferrari 456 in not more than 25 kilometers.

But you can as easily find cars when wandering through small medieval cities with small streets. I turned around the corner in Lasize, Italy and saw a wedding car I never expected to see in Italy. You can spot an old or new Fiat 500 at every corner, but seeing a Mini parked on the shore of Lake Garda was quite a strange sight. It was standing there in the evening light, I couldn’t resist taking some pictures which was quite difficult to do with a huge Italian ice cream in one hand and my heavy camera in the other!

And as a petrol head you can’t go to Italy without paying a visit to the Ferrari museum. Although I’m not a big fan of European cars, Ferrari is a brand that has a special place in my heart. It has made, and still makes, a wide variety of cars but always with a strong focus on performance. And of course every guy of my age had a poster of one of the most famous cars ever build on his bedroom wall when he was young.

And that car, of course, is the Ferrari F40. The very first modern hypercar. This car is, even after 25 years, one of the most beautiful cars I’ve ever seen. Its long elongated shape, with a low roof and flowing lines still make it look modern. And fast, very fast. The successor to the F40, the F50, is parked next to it on the first floor of the museum and it looks very boring and outdated in comparison. And did you notice the absence of fences and other things to keep the visitors away from the cars? You can touch almost every car present in the museum, or watch the butterfly valves in the throttle bodies of a 2010 F1 engine very closely.

The museum is actually quite a strange place. It’s not so much as a museum as a showcase of Ferrari’s technical prowess. It’s quite small, four halls on two floors, but they dedicated an entire hall to its recent successes in F1. All the trophies are displayed along one wall with all the prize-winning cars on a circular display at the other side. Some other F1 cars from the early fifties onwards are scattered throughout the other walls, often parked next to a more modern sibling. It really showcases the advances they make in the last sixty years.

Those advances are very visible here in this museum. When you compare the modern low F1 car with its fifty year old grandparent you immediately notice some differences. Obviously the discovery of ground effect had a huge impact on ride height, and the ever more sophisticated aerodynamic shapes of the cars help you to separate old from new. But what struck me the most was the amount, or lack of, safety measures in those old cars. No seatbelts, no self-sealing fuel tanks, no HANS device, just a big wooden steering wheel to let the driver steer away from trouble. You can’t help but wonder about the size of a driver’s private parts compared to the size of their brains, when you see this.

And when you finally get tired of all those red pieces of awesomeness and leave the museum you have to visit the company right next to it. You can rent a Ferrari there, and even do a few laps on the track if you pay enough money, but they also have one of the best shops with model cars I’ve ever seen. While some of them are insanely expensive, more than 3100 euros for one example, they have a large inventory of more affordable models.

And they offer a wide range of models from every brand you can think of, and then some. Even the special one-offs and race cars from different era’s are for sale, all with incredible details and a quality that impressed me very much. I can’t say I’ve ever seen models of this quality before, especially not in the more affordable price ranges.

Another thing that shook up my opinion about Italians and build quality (you all know what I mean!) was a small car show in Peschiera del Garda called Southern Gardasee. It’s exactly what you think it is, the Italian version of the world-famous VAG-oriented Wörthersee event. It was small, only about 50 cars, but the location was awesome. Have you ever seen a bunch of stanced cars parked in an old fort? And not some slammed rust buckets either, most of the cars were spotless.

We actually visited the event twice, the first time most of the cars hadn’t arrived yet but when we went back that evening it was a lot busier. I was planning on walking around without a camera because I didn’t think I could take decent pictures without a tripod in a fort only lit by moonlight, but two of my friends decided I had to take pictures. So I handed them a flash each with radio triggers, and told them they would be my Voice Activated Light Stands for that evening. Big mistake. After only a couple of shots they discovered how to trigger the flash themselves and how to alter the intensity. I think most of the visitors are still having problems with their eyes. When they started flashing at cars on the road near the fort I decided to get out of there, before some angry carabinieri would ruin our evening.

After a few days of relaxing near the pool and swimming in the ice cold water of Lake Garda we drove back to Holland. When driving over those beautiful roads again I was already thinking about what I would write for this blog. When someone asked me recently about my hobbies I answered, besides some other things, that I really like to go on roadtrips. I said it on a whim and it was meant as a joke, but when I thought about that, I knew I actually wasn’t joking. I love it and I’m already planning the next one. A road trip through Scandinavia this time. And after that? I don’t know yet, but I’m open to suggestions. What do you think would be an awesome country for a road trip?

-Alex Kamsteeg