My enthusiasm for the humble Vauxhall Astra is reignited every time I escape the city and let it loose on Scotland’s open roads. Those moments don’t come around too often but, in mid-February, a window of opportunity opened and I carpéd the diem. Or rather, the noctem. Storm Doris was closing in on the UK, threatening to kibosh plans to visit my folks in the remote West Highlands. In a freak moment of spontaneity, at 11pm, in the calmness that descended before the storm, I chucked an assortment of kit into the car and made a run for it.
Aside from the obvious dangers of driving in a storm, there was a high risk of road closures if I waited until the next day. I had two major bridge crossings and huge swathes of open, high-altitude landscape to traverse. Even in the best conditions the journey would take around five hours. If I was going to beat the weather I couldn’t hang around.
And it was dark.
Outside the city, with absolutely no ambient or street lighting, visibility is reduced to barely a few feet ahead. The tiny patch of road rolling into the headlight beam is all you have to work with. On narrow, winding roads, with wing-mirror-munching rocks on one side, and ice-cold lochs on the other, the act of passing oncoming vehicles requires nerves of granite and more than a little faith. Is the vehicle behind those blinding, un-dipped headlights another Astra, or an 18-wheeled juggernaut ?
The disorienting effect of total darkness plays tricks with your mind as roads, familiar in daylight, become completely unfathomable by night. The occasional light from another car gives only teasing clues to the road ahead. In some places car headlights are spotted vast distances away, giving a false impression of the route. But, on the plus side, the low volume of traffic after midnight means the Astra can charge along at 60mph for mile upon mile upon mile.
The first sign of trouble came at Tyndrum. Generously described as a hamlet, Tyndrum marks a fork in the road – one route leads West to Oban, the other, North into Glencoe. It’s also where the first snow gates appear on my route and it would only be a matter of time before the impending weather-bomb forced them closed. Juxtaposed into this dark rural scene were bright flood and flashing amber lights, lines of traffic cones and a fleet of construction lorries. The acrid smell of hot tar penetrated the Astra’s cabin as I joined the queue of cars, waiting on the surfaceless side of the road for a convoy vehicle to lead us passed an army of nocturnal road-builders.
With it being just a single degree above freezing outside, I didn’t envy those guys, bathing in the steam billowing from the newly laid road surface on the next lane. As soon as the convoy-truck pulled over, the cars ahead peeled off onto the Oban road while I powered North-ward, passing the snow gates to begin the long ascent to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. This is an extraordinary stretch of road. Long, fast and open, then tight and twisty. The Astra was in its element.
And then the noise started. A wheel bearing? Left-hand bends are accompanied by a shrill moan from the near-side of the car, while right-handers keep her quiet. Not much I can do about it at 1am. At 70,000 miles old, my Astra can be excused a few little squeaks and creaks, but I’ll get it seen to before the return journey, all being well. The quick fix, of course, is to turn the radio up, and enjoy the unhindered run into Fort William. It’s still dry. Still calm. I’ll risk a cup of tea.
A flask of hot water is an invaluable resource on a long journey at night. While the big cities boast 24-hour supermarkets and drive-through restaurants, out here in the sticks all is quiet. Ft William is a decent sized town, but a far cry from the likes of Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Tea and biscuits devoured, the race was on again. So, too, was the rain.
With the storm brewing, I had the highest part of the journey to tackle. If the snow beat me to Glen Garry I’d be stranded. Not missing a beat, the Astra swept along brilliantly, keeping me engaged in the drive, sashaying through the bends by Loch Lochy and across the Caledonian Canal. The squealing noise had gone, which was especially merciful as so too had the radio reception. I was focused entirely on keeping ahead of Storm Doris. The mist descended while I climbed the hill from Invermorriston to Glen Garry. No chance of a view from the world-famous viewpoint overlooking Loch Garry in this darkness. But what I could see up here was just as staggering.
Hundreds of deer had made their way to the relative warmth of the roadside. The first fleeting sight of a young doe, dining on the verge, triggered a drop in pace just in time to avoid ploughing into a family of the beasts flashing through the headlight beams. The regal frame of a Stag, looking every bit the Monarch of the Glen, brought me to a halt on the otherwise deserted road, but before I could grab my camera the animal leapt into the darkness. This became a recurring theme on the next leg of the journey passing Claunie and Glen Shiel. If you ever thought deer were endangered, think again.
By 4am I was getting tired. The final obstacle, the Skye Bridge, was the only thing standing between me and a much-needed break. These days, it seems like it just takes a stiff breeze to have it closed so there was no chance it would stay open for Doris. I pushed on passed Eilean Donan Castle with the wind buffeting the car, the wipers sloshing sleet from the windscreen. I had passed many gritting lorries on the route but thankfully none were heading North. We were making storming progress, my Astra and I.
Crossing onto Skye was a defining moment on the journey. Whatever Storm Doris could bring now, I was passed the last major closure point. I pulled into a car park in Broadford, parked up and hunkered down for an hour’s kip. I was glad for the wooly hat and fleece blanket I had chucked into the car earlier but an extra pair of socks would have been useful. Having said that, the 1.7-Litre diesel generator up front helps keep the worst of the chill off. A waste of fuel? Hardly. The Astra Diesel is pretty frugal. I had left Glasgow with just half a tank and by Broadford there was still no need to top up. For a ten year old car to still be averaging 48-50mpg is not bad going.
Feeling more alert after a snooze, I got back on the road for the final hour of the journey. If you’ve never driven on Skye, on quiet roads you’ve missed one of the most spectacular driving experiences out there. Carving through the Cuillin Mountains, sweeping along loch-sides, constant changes of direction and elevation – all the enjoyment normally reserved for a racing circuit is right there on the open road. But you must have your wits about you.
And a great car.
When we talk about a car’s “handling”, it sometimes comes across as a very vague concept. We mean the way the car responds to the terrain, and how it reacts to changes in speed or direction. Well engineered cars feel like a natural extension of the driver’s body, following the road almost telepathically, always in the right place at the right time at the right speed. Some cars never quite manage to find a good mix, while others might only find a sweet spot when the fuel level reaches a certain level and the weight distribution around the car is, momentarily, perfect. But even after ten years of use and abuse, this Vauxhall Astra is still one of the best cars I’ve driven on these roads. It becomes obvious on a drive like this that the production team at Ellesmere Port have been gifted with buckets of talent which they each inject into the pressed metal and rubber that becomes one of Britain’s most popular cars.
The recent news of PSA Group’s take-over of GM’s European operations means Vauxhall itself faces a stormy road ahead. The French car maker, which owns the Peugeot and Citroën brands, pulled out of UK car manufacturing in 2006, when it closed the historic Ryton factory near Coventry. I can only hope that Vauxhall’s new owners recognise the astonishing work of the talented staff at the plants in Ellesmere Port and Luton. They are the folk who helped me beat the storm.