Magic Moments: Autocar's highlights of 2020

Best moments

It hasn’t been a classic year, but the Autocar team are fortunate to have amazing jobs. Our writers share the best bits we brought you among all the disruption

From (finally) interviewing the notorious Bernie Ecclestone to driving across the ‘Severn Bridge’, these are our writers’ highlights from 2020.

Mark Tisshaw

We hope that Autocar has helped provide you with plenty of light relief and enjoyment in this year of all years. We’ve been producing the magazine from our various homes since the 25 March issue, a process that, without boring you with the technicalities, hasn’t been without its challenges. But neither, it must be said, has it been without reward.

If you will allow the indulgence, this is the right space for me to highlight some of the unsung heroes of Autocar, those who combine the words and pictures we produce into a physical magazine. Without their contribution, there would simply be no Autocar each week; their efforts allow all the highlights you can read of here to be told to you.

So take a bow Sami Shah, Kris Culmer and Darren Jones from the production desk, Sarah Özgul, Rebecca Stevens and Stephen Hopkins from the art desk, as well as picture editor Ben Summerell-Youde and regular freelance subs Peter ‘Chip’ McSean and Tim Dickson. I know every one of you will appreciate their efforts as much as I do.

Jim Holder

“Autocar? That’s nearly as old as I am, isn’t it?”

From that moment on, 30 seconds into introducing myself out of the blue on his phone, I knew that Bernie Ecclestone, a mere 89 to our 125, was always going to be one step ahead.

I’ve always loved Formula 1 and regarded Ecclestone with a mixture of awe and outright fear, such is his reputation for ball-breaking deal-making and old-school opinions.

And while all those negatives may be true (his best answer was when I asked how he deals with enemies, to which he replied, “I take them flowers… Leave them by the grave”), he was engaging, open, funny and serious as required, candidly answering everything from his thoughts on modern F1 to whether he’s a hands-on granddad.

Damn it, I liked him. I’d been invited for an hour and stayed for two. He said I’d be welcome back. I still can’t work out if I’ve called him right or if I’m a sucker – and that, I suspect, is exactly how Bernie likes it.

Steve Cropley

It will be a long time before I forget the joy of Bicester Heritage’s Classic Drive In weekend, during which owners of interesting cars were invited to visit the ‘time warp’ 1920s RAF base in Oxfordshire, now a Mecca both for old cars and for the development of future projects. The offer was either to take part in a simple car-lover’s festival or to join multiple drive-in screenings of classic movies.

Bicester Heritage has a uniquely relaxed way of doing things, based on the fact that there’s an enormous amount of space for parking and exhibitions, a compact sprint track and three separate drive-in screens. The result was an opportunity to forget the cares of the world and revel in the sights of some lovely cars while enjoying the distanced company of like-minded fellows. Touring a hangar full of soon-to-be auctioned Bonhams cars completed the variety. I had to be dragged away.

Matt Saunders

My first job of the year was probably the best: a day spent driving a prototype of the new Aston Martin DBX on some great roads in south Wales – and then some even better gravel rally stages.

You always start off feeling very fortunate indeed to be given the keys to a disguised prototype like this, and then even more so when you’re sitting in it with someone as jovial and interesting as Aston’s dynamics guru, Matt Becker. Matt is just great company, and the way he mixes in really expert explanation while gently ribbing you about your daft misconceptions or slightly iffy driving is always great fun.

The day hit rare heights when we ventured off the asphalt and onto the Walters Arena rally stages. I don’t often get the chance to test cars on loose surfaces, so the way the Aston crew urged me to chuck the priceless DBX around as if it were a rallycross car made me laugh out loud. I can’t imagine many owners doing it – but then thinking like the modern millionaire has always been something of a challenge.

Matt Prior

Rather ironically, 2020 turned into the year of the road trip for me. It has always been my preferred way to get around Europe, but now I can justify taking the extra time for it, because nothing says sweet self-isolation like a vehicle, and in particular the motorbike I love: a 2002 Honda Africa Twin.

So I spent three warm days riding to Lausitz and back, with the launch of the cracking Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series in the middle, plus a go in an E63 on the autobahn, seeing an indicated 186mph. That’s some 78mph more than the speed my bike will go, but even so, it’s the only choice I would have made for the trip. For immediacy and intimacy of responses, for immersion in the journey, nothing comes close to two wheels.

James Attwood

I knew the GP Ice Race would be an event unlike any other from the moment that I arrived in the media centre: a bathroom showroom. I have worked in some unusual places for this job, but filing copy surrounded by a spectacular range of new toilets perhaps topped them all. And things got stranger from there.

Essentially, the GP Ice Race is a miniature Festival of Speed held on a frozen airfield up in the mountains of Austria. It had a range of modern and historic race and rally machinery to rival that seen at the Festival – but without the ultra-slick organisation that Goodwood is known for. The schedule was all over the place, the facilities limited and the tight, icy course less than ideal. It was chaotic and, of course, absolutely brilliant. And best of all, it featured skijoring: timed races between cars towing skiers.

Utterly ludicrous. Utterly brilliant.

Rachel Burgess

Get an empty, muddy quarry, add in a Suzuki Jimny, mix an off-roading expert companion (squire Prior) and voilà: you’ve made a rather brilliant day out. Long have the Jimny’s 4×4 capabilities been applauded, but it wasn’t until I pushed its limits at Tixover Quarry back in January that I discovered the pure joy of the compact SUV. The benefits of low weight and short overhangs more than countered the absence of a locking diff or the high-revving four-pot engine, and the Jimny nailed every challenge I threw at it. I even tried to get it stuck (for the purposes of a ‘How to 4×4’ video, on Autocar’s YouTube channel now), yet at its worst, it failed to climb a tricky hill on a bend but then just ably rolled back down. If you’re looking for driving fun away from the road or race track, there’s little more entertainment to be found than pushing the limits of a Jimny in a quarry

Tom Morgan

Having never before driven a Cayman of any vintage, I don’t think I could have volunteered any faster when the call went out for someone to assist on an upcoming Porsche photoshoot. And I could scarcely believe my luck once it transpired that we would be tailing Andrew Frankel as he decided which of Stuttgart’s latest six-cylinder models was the better driver’s car, even as he asked which keys I would prefer: for the Phyton Green GTS 4.0 or Racing Yellow GT4.

Cue a day in the North Wessex Downs, learning precisely why the ‘entry-level’ Porsche sports car is so highly regarded by enthusiasts. Needless to say, with quiet roads and clear skies, I made sure to take the long way home once we’d reached a verdict. And let’s be honest: you can’t go wrong with either one.

Kris Culmer

Usually I fail to achieve my new year’s resolutions, but this January I was brave and finally visited a ‘pen pal’ of eight years in Belgium. Flying would have been cheaper than driving, but my long-termer was a Mazda 3, which I adored. It had a comfy, heated, low-slung seat, a beautiful interior, a smooth petrol engine and, crucially, a decent stereo. My first ever drive onto the train was as exciting as changing the dials to metric, setting the cruise control to 130kph and inverting my brain, and the two hours there were beautifully traffic-free. I then had a lovely week that made me resolve to return regularly. The return through the wee hours, minimally lit inside and out, was truly an experience. I was lost in my thoughts – until I discovered the M20 was closed, forcing me to enjoy the Mazda’s litheness cross-country. And I will return to Belgium – one day.

Lawrence Allan

Way back in March, I lucked out with what was to be the last industry event pre-lockdown: the UK launch of the Porsche Taycan. In fact, lockdown came into force just a few hours after I handed the keys back. Social distancing measures were already in place by then, but that was fine by me: I got the car to myself for a full afternoon and, given that the handover itself was at Porsche’s Reading HQ, a few miles from my home, I got what every tester dreams of: pretty much unlimited time on a fantastic, well-sighted series of roads I knew like the back of my hand.

Oh, and the Taycan was alright, too. A true game-changer, in fact: more talented than most sports saloons and huge fun to drive, yet usable, comfortable and desirable without being showy. Nailed it.

Simon Davis

I’m not usually too keen on the idea of sacrificing my weekends in the name of work. But when the invitation to fly to Portugal to drive the new Jaguar F-Type R came through, I was more than happy to cancel my plans.

An evening flight landed us in Porto late Friday night, and over the next two days snapper Olgun and I made our way south to Lisbon via the most scenic route possible. The roads and landscapes we took in were simply phenomenal and, unsurprisingly, the car wasn’t too shabby either. After a 6am start on the Sunday, we headed for the hills in search of some dramatic early-morning photoshoot locations, and what we found beggared belief. The twisting mountain roads were incredible enough in themselves, but the views were something else entirely. Olgun’s stunning photography sums it up far better than I ever could.

Andrew Frankel

It seems strange in the year I drove the 986bhp Ferrari SF90 that I should be nominating a car with a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine developing all of 135bhp, but driving something simple, low-power and back-to-basics reminded me what I want most from a car: namely that it’s light, rear-wheel drive, manual and normally aspirated, a configuration more under threat today than ever before. But that’s what Caterham’s Super Seven provides and, for pure driving pleasure, it’s absolutely all I need.

No other road car provides a better feel for the road yet, with a decent hood and a heated windscreen, it’s civilised enough – just – to use and enjoy in almost any weather condition. It reaffirms what Colin Chapman proved over 60 years ago with the original Seven: all the techno-wizardry in the world is a poor substitute for properly configured and truly lightweight design.

Richard Lane

One of the great privileges of this job is that you get to meet heroes in situations where they’re relaxed and free of harassment. So it was when 1984 WRC champion Stig Blomqvist and I found ourselves with nothing but each others’ company for 20 entertaining minutes at Audi’s Neuberg test facility in February. Blomqvist was warm, completely unassuming, very funny and still wryly passionate about the World Rally beasts of yore (“When Timo Mäkinen first saw the Sport Quattro S1, he said we’d need an anti-roll bar between the axles!”). Little did I know this compact 74-year-old Swede would show up at October’s Goodwood Speedweek and emerge victorious in a star-studded St Mary’s Trophy from behind the wheel of an enormous Ford Galaxie. Evidently class – both in terms of Blomqvist the man and Blomqvist the driver – really is permanent.

Damien Smith

Returning to a race track to watch historic Formula 1, Formula 5000, Can-Am cars and many more was special.

Nothing had moved for months because of you-know-what. Now here we were, at beloved Brands Hatch in early July, witnessing the rebirth of our favourite sport and pastime. It was kind of wonderful – and also unsettling. The necessary conditioning to stay away from each other during lockdown made being anywhere other than at home a disconcerting novelty in the summer. But Jonathan Palmer’s Motorsport Vision team had worked hard to instil strict social distancing measures and, this early after lockdown, the crowd barely matched the definition.

Into the autumn, racing would mostly play out behind closed doors as local authorities took an understandably cautious approach to any sporting events. But that day at Brands, for once I quietly blessed the tendency for low-key club motorsport to attract such a ‘niche’ following.

Felix Page

A sunny, mid-week day out on the Brecon Beacons was always going to feel like hitting the jackpot. Piloting a bright-orange Ford Focus ST in pursuit of its bellowing Mustang Bullitt cousin up and down the dips of the stunning A4059 only improved my mood.

Afterwards, I was charged with delivering the Bullitt back to the other side of the Severn Estuary, which meant an opportunity to chase the sunset to the soundtrack of its endangered naturally aspirated V8. The M4 doesn’t look much like Route 66, but a quick pit stop for a burger added some authenticity into my American dream.

Before touching down on home turf, I radioed snapper Max – with whom I was in convoy – to express my awe at driving such a famous car across borders via such a famous structure: the Severn Bridge. “Yeah, very cool mate,” he replied, “but this is the Prince of Wales – the Severn Bridge is off to your left.” A bridge too far, perhaps.


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Source: Autocar

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