Chevrolet Corvette: Brooklands to Brighton on single-track roads
Tuesday, 30 June 2020 ()
Quintessential America meets quintessential England
Corvettes are built for wide highways, so we said goodbye to the outgoing C7 with a trek down some of England's narrowest lanes
This is going to be a most pleasant day. I have been tasked with the challenge of driving from the Brooklands motor museum in Weybridge to Brighton without using a motorway and preferably not using a dual carriageway. “Is it still possible,” asked the editor, “to enjoy driving on Britain’s congested roads?” It most certainly is. A couple of weeks ago, I joined some friends on a navigational rally around the Surrey hills followed by a pleasant lunch. It helped that I was driving an Alpine A110, but it would have been a wonderful day out in a Morris Minor.
*Mid-engined Chevrolet Corvette C8 Stingray arrives with 495bhp V8*
It’s going to help a great deal that today we are driving a brand new Corvette Grand Sport. The car has been loaned by Ian Allan Motors of Virginia Water who, as you have probably seen from their advertisements in the print version of Autocar, are the sole UK supplier of Corvettes and Camaros. More to the point, the Corvette has now been replaced by a new mid-engined C8 model and only a handful of EU type-approved cars are left. Allan has taken the immensely bold step of buying up 60 Corvettes and Camaros so that UK enthusiasts won’t go short. Including, on a temporary basis at least, this one.
So let’s get cracking. Lovely weather but a few showers forecasted. Kevin Hurl at Ian Allan Motors had a red Grand Sport coupé lined up for us but someone bought it last week so he’s registered another Grand Sport from his secret stash. It’s red, it’s automatic and it’s a convertible. And he doesn’t want it back for several days. Goodwin is in his element.
Not only did I grow up in Surrey but I was a motorbike courier based in Guildford for a year, so the Brooklands to Brighton route is right in my manor. I’m certainly not going to mess about with the car’s sat-nav and I probably won’t bother with the paper map that I’ve brought along.
Our managing editor, Damien Smith, told me about a trip he’d done from Surrey to Williams’ headquarters near Wantage that inspired this feature. “I only,” he boasted proudly, “used a very short bit of dual carriageway.” I shall do better than that. I’m determined to not use an inch.
By the time we’ve collected the Corvette and got to Brooklands, we are in the middle of what I call ‘the 10 o’clock sweet spot’. Van drivers are still loading up and mummies have dropped the kids off at school and have now put the X5 away and decamped to the coffee shop. And if you think I’m being sexist, come to Weybridge.
The Corvette Grand Sport is wide, but the standard Stingray is actually two inches narrower than a Jaguar F-Type. Unlike the C6 model that we ran for one long-term test many years ago, it has straight edges on the top of its front wings so that it’s not too difficult to place on the road. Just as well because my route has taken us directly to some very narrow roads.
We’ve crossed the A3 at Cobham and have run virtually parallel to it through the village of Ockham and then past the old Tyrrell Formula 1 factory. It’s now the home of an Italian cake decorations company. The buildings are as they were and even the old woodshed where Ken started it all is kept in perfect condition. Hard to imagine that a world championship-winning team was run from this small yard.
Past another local motoring landmark, Bell & Colvill, the Lotus dealers in East Horsley. Bobby Bell and Martin Colvill often used to have one of their classics in the showroom – a GT40 or BRM P160, perhaps – so this is another one of my regular haunts. I also went for a job in their service department in the 1980s but fortunately didn’t get it.
We’re now on the route of the Olympic cycling road race and it’s surprising that we’re not surrounded by retired men in Lycra. You get a view right across to London from the high ground up here, including the Shard.
The entry-level Corvette is the Stingray, and like this Grand Sport it’s powered by a naturally aspirated version of the classic Chevrolet small-block pushrod V8 that produces 466bhp. The most powerful ’Vette is the Z06, which uses a 659bhp supercharged version of the same engine. More money, more weight and a few tenths knocked off the 0-60mph time, with a top speed of 193mph against our car’s 180mph. All meaningless figures. What matters is the emotional appeal of cars like this and the sense of occasion.
We’re now in the chocolate-box village of Shere, busy as usual with ramblers. A pub called The William Bray has the builders in and here we have another connection with Tyrrell: the landlord used to be ex-Tyrrell driver Julian Bailey. I once saw a band play here that had Eddie Jordan on the drums.
We’re on single-track lanes here, cut into the Surrey hills with steep banks and passing places. In a big car like the Corvette, you simply have to think ahead and be relaxed, happy to give way. I had a massive moment on these roads in a Beetle when I was a teenager. The brakes went and I had to use the handbrake and bounce the car off the earth embankments to try to slow it down.
Past Eric Clapton’s house in Ewhurst, where you can sometimes spot the guitar god emerging in a Ferrari, and into Cranleigh. From here, we head towards Dunsfold and a village called Loxwood. The roads are now single carriageway, of course, much wider and ’Vette-sized.
We bandy big horsepower figures about so casually these days that 466bhp doesn’t sound that much. And perhaps it isn’t compared with the big-hitter AMGs and BMW M cars that have power outputs starting with a 6, but the Corvette feels extremely quick. Partly because it isn’t that heavy. The Grand Sport tips the scales at 1562kg, which makes Jaguar’s 1720kg F-Type SVR look very heavy. The other reason why the Corvette feels so fast is because of the way the V8 delivers its power and the sound it makes doing it. This old-school pushrod motor sounds even better than Ford’s Mustang V8.
We cross the A272 just after Loxwood, a road favoured by bikers. It’s busier than it used to be and in many places it’s dangerous to go fast. We’re heading south still, aiming to nudge eastwards to cross the A23 and enter Brighton via Ditchling Beacon. I think I might have to get the map out because I’m worried about accidentally finding myself on a dual carriageway.
A reader recently wrote to Autocar in response to the debate about intelligent speed assistance systems being mandatory. He wrote that he didn’t realise driving fast was a qualification to be a car enthusiast. Although I’ve always loved speed, that comment hit home with me. Speed is just a part of the passion for driving and not an obligatory one. Anyway, times have changed and going very fast is simply not an option.
Talking of speed, I wonder if winding our way through lanes is any quicker than taking the M25 and M23 to Brighton. It’s hard to say because motorway traffic is so unpredictable. That three-lane route should be quicker, but the M23 is being converted to the idiotic concept of a ‘smart motorway’ so is often clogged.
As expected, I’ve had to use the road atlas. Henfield, Hurstpierpoint and into Ditchling village. The Corvette struggles with the mini roundabout in the middle of the village and I’m given some hard stares but generally this bright red sports car is attracting admiring glances.
I can see the logic in putting the engine between the wheels in the new Corvette. Younger enthusiasts consider sports cars to be mid-engined, whereas my generation grew up lusting after Daytonas, Cobras and V8 Vantages. But will a Corvette still be a Corvette if it’s mid-engined? I’m not sure. It’s 99% certain that the C8 will be built in right-hand drive and that means it will be on the radar of many new customers, especially as it’s likely to be somewhat of a bargain.
As is the current Corvette. It certainly is in America, but even after the sterling/dollar exchange rate has done its damage, the Grand Sport convertible costs £90,510. It seriously undercuts the 911 and the Stingray does so by an even greater margin (its price starts a few quid south of 70 grand). Start talking about servicing costs and replacement parts prices, and the ’Vette enters a different league of affordability.
I’ve been up Ditchling Beacon on a bicycle and thought I was going to have a heart attack. It’s rather more relaxing behind the wheel of the Corvette. From the top, it’s a short squirt across open roads before we drop down into Brighton the back way.
We’ve done it – not a millimetre of dual carriageway covered. In a car that oozes character and doesn’t have to be driven fast to be enjoyed. As I’ve been saying for some years, enjoying cars is still very much possible: you just have to make an effort to do so.
*Three great Corvettes*
*1963 Split Window: *Considered by many to be the most beautiful of all Corvettes, the split-window coupé was only made in 1963. It was the first year of the C2 generation and featured independent rear suspension. It was also the first use of the ‘Sting Ray’ name. A fuel-injected engine was an option and so was electronic ignition.
*1967 L88:* The L88 option was a 427-cubic-inch engine with aluminium cylinder heads. Officially rated at 430bhp but was reckoned in reality to produce more than 550bhp. Only 20 L88 Corvettes were built in 1967 (production stopped at the end of 1969). Today, a 1967 L88 Corvette will fetch upwards of $3.5 million (£2.8m) at auction.
*1990 ZR1:* The only Corvette to be built with an overhead cam engine. The ZR1’s quad cam motor was designed by Lotus and built by Mercury Marine. Today this 170mph car commands prices north of £30,000.
*Three great single-carriageway roads*
*The Fosse Way:* This Roman road originally ran from Lincoln to Exeter, but today the best bits for driving run between Leicester and Cirencester. My best drive along it was actually a ride on a Ducati in the company of former MotoGP racers Niall Mackenzie and Jamie Whitham.
*Buttertubs Pass, Simonstone to Thwaite, Yorkshire Dales:* The Yorkshire Dales is one of my favourite areas on the planet and this road is a cracker. It is challenging and demands great attention. You need to be very aware of cyclists who love this road (it was part of the Tour de France route in 2014) – and, besides, if you go fast, you’ll miss the views.
*Cheddar Gorge, B3135, Ashwick to Cheddar:* I love driving through the gorge. It doesn’t take long and it’s not a quick road, but it emphasises the point that the UK has something of everything when it comes to great driving roads. In other words, you don’t have to head to Switzerland to experience driving between towering granite cliffs.
This article was originally published on 19 July 2019. We're revisiting some of Autocar's most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.
*Mid-engined Chevrolet Corvette C8 Stingray arrives with 495bhp V8*
*The North American cars that Europeans loved*
*Used car buying guide: Chevrolet Corvette C3*
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