Dateline: Thuringia, summer 2038. Internal combustion engines have been phased out across the EU for almost a decade now. However, their use has not been eliminated entirely and much as one can still ride a pony and trap or a stream train, one can still enjoy the petrol-driven experience.
Thuringia is one of Germany’s many attractive regions, famous for the Thuringian Forest, JS Bach’s birthplace, fine mustard and sausages. Another reason to go is the possibility to enjoy five days of driving classic cars from the Eisenach Automobile Museum hire fleet.
Visitors can book one of 2400 cars from the museum’s collection which naturally has a wide variety of German cars but also an excellent range of marques from across Europe (except Britain, alas). Prices are reasonable and compare well to the cost of hiring a standard electrically-powered saloon, MPV or movular-50 from the main hire companies though, naturally the petrol, adds somewhat to the bill.
We arrived on a bright and sunny July morning and were greeted by the friendly staff at the reception centre where we had a breakfast buffet and watched an information film about how to drive an ICE car. Older readers will find much of the guidance superfluous but for many younger visitors it’s essential to be acquainted with the methods required to engage gears, how to refuel and how to interpret the vintage road signs concerning recommended speeds and so on.
For me the biggest challenge lay in choosing the car. For various reasons, guests are only allowed one car for their five-day visit (and one must not leave the Thuringia vintage car reserve). Some of the collection are used infrequently so preparations are time-consuming. It makes less sense to prepare, say, three cars for a five-day tour than one. That means one is forced to carefully pick for a visit. In our household the debate raged for days.
Ideally, I’d have picked an Opel Speedster (later series) for one day, a Citroen XM for the second day and a Volvo 760 GLE for the rest of the time. However, both practicality and the museum’s finite collection led me to choose a Lancia Flavia berlina and I have to say the choice proved to be very satisfying indeed. The Thuringian Forest has hills and winding, winding roads. What better car than a 1960s Lancia, surely a child of the mountains?
It has a delicious flat-four engine of considerable engineering merit, yes, but one with plenty of low-down torque. All the better to manage the 0-40 kmph corners that abound hereabouts. The stopping abilities derive from all-round disc-brakes and here the comparison with modern regenerative brakes is very favourable. These ones have feel and bite effectively. Not for a long time has stopping been so much fun. The Flavia’s front-wheel drive, in tandem with superbly communicative steering, make the low-to-medium speed touring a pleasure. With only five-speeds, the ratios are easy to remember if you are accustomed only to automatic transmission.
For this writer, the Lancia’s interior and exterior style are a delight and even if the car wasn’t the engineering landmark it plainly is, the refinement and attention to detail manifested throughout would more than compensate. That’s why it came first in my final, final list of cars (Fiat 130 saloon, Mercedes 220 and Mazda Luce). At the time the car competed with the upper-middle offerings: the BMW Neue Klasse cars, the Triumph 2000 and the Alfa Romeo 1750/2000 Berlina, for example. All of them have their own appeal but the Lancia is simply a delightful blend of roadholding, tactile pleasure and aesthetic stimulation – no mean feat when compared to its excellent peers.
All in all, we covered 600 kilometres in the five days we spent in Thuringia, finishing back in Eisenach to reluctantly return the Flavia (booked solidly until September, note). Reflecting on the experience, it is has reminded me that even if current cars are safe and efficient, they are incredibly lacking in terms of identity and you can’t actually do anything but sit in them.
I happened to choose a front-wheel drive, four-cylinder boxer-engined car but the other potential drives from the Lancia’s cohort differ so wildly that I would have found these also to be rewarding and distinctive cars to experience. The Flavia also performed very well on the reliability and comfort front – not bad for a car into its eighth decade. So, for visitors used to fail-free electric cars they need not worry about break-downs. Just remember to refuel when that orange light starts flashing!
As we sat back in the comfortable cabin of the night-train to Madrid, we looked forward to next year’s visit. What car will we choose? What car will we choose?
[Note: the museum accepts petrol allowance credits from the EU member states, Scotland and Wales. Visitors from England and N. Ireland must pay for fuel in advance via bank transfer, must deposit passports and must carry a full international ICE level six driver’s licence.]
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