Taking the grand tour

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Published on 4 April 2024 by Andrew Owen (12 minutes)

From the mid 1600s until the mid 1800s, the Grand Tour was a trip through Europe (featuring Italy) undertaken by wealthy young men from high society. It piqued in the era of neoclassicism and died out with the advent of the railroad. The term was revived in the 1950s to describe touring cars designed to cover long distances at high speed in comfort. As motoring journalist Jason Camissa is keen to point out, today every car is effectively a grand tourer. Although I would argue that a GT should be front-engined, rear-wheel drive, with two seats plus two occasional seats (2+2) and enough room in the trunk for a trip from Coventry to Turin.

In the 1960s, when Britain still had a car industry, there were over fifty automotive companies based in Coventry. But for the most desirable cars, design was handled by famous Italian coach builders such as Bertone, Ghia, Pininfarina, Touring and Zagato, or individual designers such as Giovanni Michelotti. Growing up where and when I did, I had a toy Aston Martin DB5. I would have liked to own the real thing. But even without the film connection, the technically superior DB6 is still well out of my price range. So I started looking for an alternative British-built, Italian-styled 2+2 with a straight six engine (natuerally balanced and thus smooth running). This led me to the MGC (Pininfarina) and the Triumph GT6 (Michelotti).

Technically, a sports car is a two-seat roadster (no fixed roof). Triumph put a fiberglass fastback on the Spitfire (like the Mustang, named after a plane) to race at Le Mans. It came 13th overall and won its class in 1965, beating the Alpine A110. When it decided to turn it into a production GT with a metal roof in 1966, it found the four-cylinder engine wasn’t powerful enough, and so it gave it a six cylinder from the Triumph 2000 saloon. The body had been designed by Michelotti in Turin four years earlier. In 1968 the MkII (GT6+ in the US) was introduced with a vastly improved rear suspension. It did 0 to 60 mph in 10 seconds and had a top speed of 109 mph. By comparison, the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO 250 did 0-60mph in 14.1 seconds, although it had a much higher top speed of 175 mph.

The O in GTO is for ‘omologato’ which means homologation. In other words, it was built to race in a production car class, specifically Group 3 Grand Touring Car Racing. It won its class in the International Championship for GT Manufacturers in 1962, 1963, and 1964. But just 39 GTOs were built compared to more than 40,000 GT6s, over 12,000 of which were the more desirable MkII model. Of course, you could buy a 250 GTO replica, but then you’d have ruined a perfectly good Datsun 240Z (a classic in its own right). And you’d be driving around in the equivalent of a plastic bag with Louis Vuitton written on it in permanent marker. Another advantage the GT6 has over other alternatives is the availability of parts (aside from the gearbox). British Motor Heritage stocks a wide range of new parts made using the original jigs.

The 250 GTO is the classic grand tourer; the car you would drive across the Alps to Italy in if you had $20 million burning a hole in your pocket, life cover, nerves of steel, an understanding partner who was also a mechanic, no children, and a spare 250 GTO. Or you could spend between $5,000 to $15,000 on a Triumph GT6+. It may not be a Ferrari, but it has the GT pedigree. It has been described as the “poor man’s E Type” after the Jaguar XK-E that Enzo Ferrari himself described as “the most beautiful car in the world”. So I settled on the GT6. I wanted a yellow MkII, but I found a white MkI. Except it was never ready to purchase. I don’t think the garage liked the idea of me driving it from Coventry to Turin. So I ended up buying a Toyota 86 (Scion FR-S) instead.

Following on from my attempt to compare the GT6 to the 250 GTO, I will now attempt to compare the 86 to the Ferrari California. Just as the GT6 has half the cylinders of the 250 GTO, the 86 has half the cylinders of the California. However, it has a lot more in common than the previous comparison. The dimensions are not wildly different. The displacement per cylinder, compression ratios and specific output are quite close. Of course, the California has about two and a half times the power and torque, but that means you are less likely to wrap it around a tree. Ok, so driving a Toyota doesn’t give quite the same bragging rights as driving a Ferrari, but you look a lot less foolish stuck in traffic in the former. It is worth noting that the California was not popular with Ferrari aficionados. But it evolved into the Roma, which many see as a return to classic Ferrari styling.

For the readers who are not car bores who’ve made it this far, you will now be rewarded with some hot takes. The E-Type’s nose is too long. The most beautiful car in the world is the Miura (the first supercar; a mid-engined two-seater). Aside from being a little taller, the 86 has similar dimensions. The second most beautiful car in the world is the Toyota 2000GT (which the original 86 is styled after, and also a joint development by another Japanese company). The DB5’s claimed top speed of 143 mph (which the 86 can do) was a lie. The 2017 Alpine A110 is too expensive. The best car Porsche made was the Cayman (until it replaced the six cylinder with a four cylinder). The Mustang is not a sports car, it’s a sports sedan (like the BMW M3). All turbos lag. Classic cars are stylish, but horrible to live with; long road trips require air con and cruise control.

As you’ve probably guessed, much of this so far has been a justification of the notion that I have bought the right car (for me). After you’ve bought the right car (for you), you may be tempted to modify it. My extensive research has led me to conclude that any performance modifications you make to a vehicle will make it worse on the road. The only exception is ultra-high performance tires. They’ll increase road noise, but you can offset it with sound deadening material. Other modifications I’ve made include a short radio antenna, a space-saver spare tire, dash and rear cameras, rubber storage bin mats, and a stereo with wireless CarPlay. I also carry an air compressor and a torch.

Europe probably has the best rail network in the world. But a car gives you the freedom to get off the beaten track and explore. You might consider renting, but in my experience it’s cheaper to take your own vehicle, especially if you’re crossing countries. You’ll need to make sure you have all the legally required provisions in your car for each jurisdiction. This can include spare lamps, breath alcohol tests, reflective vests for each passenger, a first aid kit, a hazard warning triangle, a spare tire and a fire extinguisher (I recommend the ultra-compact no-mess Element). Also make sure to carry your driver license, an international driver permit (if required) and your vehicle registration document. If you’re visiting major cities, you may need an emissions sticker. These are issued by individual countries and prices can vary. I found the cheapest way to get the German one was to order it from Berlin. Make sure you have car and health insurance for the countries you’re visiting. And then you’re all set.

But where should you go? A decade ago I took the car on the train through the Channel Tunnel to France and drove along the Swiss border, through the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy and on to Turin. I stayed during the two weeks when the locals are away at the beach and parking is free. It’s not a tourist destination, but it’s worth a visit. It’s the home of Fiat and Juventus, and Ferrero Rocher (maker of Nutella) is in nearby Alba. Among its many museums is the best motor museum I’ve ever seen. And its architecture and countryside are beautiful. Food and drink are inexpensive and delicious.

Another journey I can recommend is Cherbourg to Nantes by way of Le Mans. French freeway services are the best in the world. And the toll roads are smooth and quiet. It’s worth getting a Bip&Go tag, especially if you have a right-hand drive car. This route takes in the regional nature park Normandy-Maine and there are plenty of villages to explore along the way. There’s lots to do in Nantes, including some great beaches a relatively short drive away, but my highlight was Les Machines de L’île, an artistic cultural project based in the old covered buildings of the former shipyard.

This time last year I drove from France through Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg. I would recommend Brussels and Luxembourg for weekend breaks, but they are also perfect stopping off points on a longer trip. My highlight in the Netherlands was returning to the seaside resort of Scheveningen that I last visited as crew in a tall ship. I also recommend the Nemo science museum in Amsterdam. I visited Saarbrücken (a French-German border town) which I remembered from my school French textbooks. But I stayed on the French side in the pleasant little town of Forbach. I also visited Parc Asterix which is infinitely superior to Disneyland Paris.

In Germany, I learned that Toyota didn’t lie about the top speed of the 86. But driving at 143 mph is tiring, even on the weekend, when trucks are banned from the autobahn. You have to constantly think miles ahead about what the rest of the traffic is going to do, and keep an eye out for restricted speed zones. I much prefer travelling at 80 mph with cruise control on French toll roads. However, I had a great time in Germany, meeting up with people I’d worked with remotely on various retro projects. The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly Trier, Germany’s oldest city, home of Karl Marx and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in the first century BCE, its Roman remains are mostly intact and its German architecture also somehow survived allied bombing in the 1940s.

Of course, as a devoted car bore, I had to go to Stuttgart to visit the Porsche and Mercedes-Benz museums. Contrary to what they’d have you believe, the car was invented by Siegfried Marcus. But if you can get past the redactive history, they are both worth a visit. The Mercedes museum is the better of the two and the more family friendly. It has a much wider array of vehicles and they actually let kids climb in some of the commercial vehicles. It also has Princess Diana’s SL500 that she was forced to replace with a Jaguar after she was pilloried in the British press for driving a German car. Now most of the surviving British car marques are German. Except for Jaguar, which is Indian.

Previously I’ve driven almost 20,000 miles around Australia. It’s a big country and you really do need a car to see it. But a lot of it is just open country as far as the eye can see. I’d like to do a road trip to the capitals of 48 states of America. But I feel like that should be done in a Ford F150 truck with a gun rack (empty) and West Virginia plates. As much as I am a fan of the electric car, it’s still not quite as convenient as a petrol car for touring. I don’t ever plan to sell my 86 and if I’m forced to I will convert it to electric to keep driving it. But there are a few more road trips I’d like to do before then. In particular I want to do two separate trips from Santander. One east along the French border and one west through Portugal. In summary, wherever you choose to go, bon voyage!

  Triumph GT6 MkII Ferrari 250GTO
Wheelbase 83 in 94.4 in
Track front 49 in 53.2 in
Track rear 49 in 53.1 in
Length 143 in 173.2 in
Width 57 in 65.9 in
Height 47 in 47 in
Length:wheelbase ratio 1.72 1.83
Kerb weight 1905 lb 2094 lb
Fuel capacity 11.7 US Gal 35.1 US Gal
Bore x stroke 2.94 in x 2.99 in 2.87 in x 2.31 in
Cylinders inline-six V12 in 60 degree V
Displacement 121.925 cu in 180.203 cu in
Type overhead valves single overhead cam
Compression ratio 9.25:1 9.70:1
Fuel system 2 ST carbs 6 Weber 38 DCN carbs
Maximum power 104 bhp @ 5300 rpm 296 bhp @ 7500 rpm
Specific output 0.85 bhp/cu in 1.64 bhp/cu in
Maximum torque 117 ft-lb @ 3000 rpm 217ft-lb @ 5500 rpm
BMEP 145 psi 181.5 psi
Bore/stroke ratio 0.98 1.24
Unitary capacity 333 cc per cylinder 246.08 cc per cylinder
  Toyota 86 Ferrari California
Wheelbase 101 in 105 in
Track front 60 in 64.2 in
Track rear 61 in 63.2 in
Length 166.7 in 179.6 in
Width 69.9 in 75.1 in
Height 50.6 in 52 in
Length:wheelbase ratio 1.72 1.83
Kerb weight 3682 lb 3825 lb
Fuel capacity 13.2 US Gal 20.6 US Gal
Bore x stroke 3.39 in x 3.39 in 3.7 in x 3.05 in
Cylinders boxer 4 V8 in 90 degree V
Displacement 121.93 cu in 262.22 cu in
Type double overhead cam double overhead cam
Compression ratio 12.5:1 12.2:1
Fuel system direct petrol injection direct petrol injection
Maximum power 197 bhp @ 7000 rpm 483 bhp @ 7750 rpm
Specific output 1.62 bhp/cu in 1.84 bhp/cu in
Maximum torque 151 ft-lb @ 6500 rpm 372ft-lb @ 5000 rpm
BMEP 187 psi 214.2 psi
Bore/stroke ratio 1 1.21
Unitary capacity 499.5 cc per cylinder 537.13 cc per cylinder