Motoring: I'M THE TORQUE OF THE TOWN

Even without a lottery win there is a way to get behind the wheel of a vintage Porsche and live in a mansion for the weekend. Master of self-sacrifice Michael Booth finds out

THERE ARE some woefully short-sighted people who actually choose to pick up their classic cars on arrival at their hotels. They don't know what they're missing. It was fairly late in the evening when we got to the lavish Calcot Manor Hotel, near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, smug as a pair of pin-striped commodity traders in "our" 1983 Porsche 911 convertible. And we couldn't have milked the moment any better.

Timing was the key. By late evening the set-ting sun had daubed the scudding clouds with a Turneresque wash of watery pinks and blues. The Cotswold country lanes offered optimum snakiness for the ground-gobbling Porsche and glistened after a brief shower. As we burbled up the gravel drive I noticed (how my ego sang!) that the hotel restaurant was packed full with a gallery of diners, all with a grandstand view of our arrival. Shallow it may be, but what's the point of having a convertible Porsche for 24 hours if there's no one around to gawp?

My companion and I had been kindly loaned the 911 to enable us to consumer- test a newly launched classic car weekend break package on your behalf. The partnership between classic car hire company Bespokes of Bushey Heath in Hertfordshire and the Pride of Britain group of privately owned hotels currently offers a mouth-watering choice of classic cars from Bespokes' stable, combined with three nights in some of best hotels in the country.

It's certainly pricey, with charges ranging from pounds 1,166 to pounds 2,216, which includes three nights' full board for two people. What's more, you have to pay an extra pounds 235 to experience the choicest cars, like the Ferrari, and another pounds 1,050 for the great- granddaddy of them all, the Daytona (after all, it was once the fastest production car in the world). But you can't put a price on a really good posing opportunity, can you? And they don't come much posier than a Porsche.

A motoring hack who has never driven a 911 is like a chef who can't make Hollandaise sauce or an actor who has never trodden the boards; it's considered a fundamental part of your training. I had never driven one and always felt a bit of a fraud; here was my chance.

You can have your car delivered to your home as well as to the hotel, but I reckoned that the gruelling journey to Bespokes in Bushey Heath on public transport would only make the experience something to cherish all the more, as with those pilgrims who climb sacred mountains on their knees. And I was right. To go from being a victim of Britain's railways to Master of the Universe in one leap is simply life-affirming.

Ferraris, Jags and various beefy British sports cars fill the forecourt at Bespokes, making it well worth a visit just for a look (okay, I know that makes me sound like a proto-trainspotter). Among them squatted our 911, resplendent in a delicate shade of silvery blue.

Martin, the member of staff who explained the quirks of the car (and the 911 has plenty - even the petrol gauge is eccentric, showing 24 full instead of 12), made us feel he was placing his live, pumping heart in our hands for safe-keeping, such was the magnitude of trust involved. He was polite enough to ask my girlfriend if she wanted to be included on the insurance and before I could interject to remind them that there was serious motoring journalism to attend to which wouldn't allow time for that, they'd disappeared upstairs to cope with the complications of her Danish driving license (which, again to his credit, Martin accomplished without fuss).

Long ago I decided, without any actual first-hand experience, that the mythology of the 911 far eclipsed its abilities as an automobile. Why were so many enthusiasts prepared to forgive it the sort of foibles that in any other car would merit a health warning? The 911's pendulous handling, for example - a result of an engine hanging over the rear wheels like a workman's bum over his trousers - is legendary, and compounded the tension I felt as I signed a credit slip for pounds 500 (to be cashed in if there is any damage done). Porsche also gives cars particularly testing clutches, which make for a tentative take-off. My theory is that the designers so detest the typical flashy git Porsche buyer that their revenge is kangaroo-hopping embarrassment if he so much as thinks of cruising with his elbow hanging out of the window.

Although we had been warned that the car's brakes and handling "weren't to modern standards", I found few faults as the miles passed, and that pendulum effect flung us joyously round the corners. At high speed, the light front end made the 911 feel precisely like the dilapidated Beetle I once owned, which would also wander like a shopping trolley above 60mph, but there was no mistaking that beneath the Hugo Boss exterior this is a car with serious intent and far greater performance than any mortal could ever use safely on the open road.

The brave man who gives monied mortals the chance to taste that speed is Mario Budwig, who began Bespokes three years ago to offer long-term leases of classic cars. "The response was tremendous, especially from people who just wanted cars for the weekend, so we began to con- centrate on the shorter-term rentals," he says. "So far the hotel scheme has attracted lots of couples aged between 35 and 45 celebrating anniversaries or birthdays. It's often a surprise, so we've had people in tears when their partners hand them the keys to a Ferrari or Porsche and tell them it's theirs for the weekend. They literally have to sit down and drink a glass of water to calm down. We also expect the hotel scheme to attract businessmen who'll use it as a treat at managers' conferences. We'll bring eight or nine cars along and give them a go in all of them."

Along with a couple of Porsches and Ferraris, the package offers classic Jaguars too. The E-types are bound to be more in demand than ever following the release of the Avengers movie, which features a delicious Wedgwood blue example (watch values soar). But if you've ever entertained fantasies of being Inspector Morse, Magnum, Crockett or Tubbs for a day, the Jaguar MKII, Ferrari 308 and Daytona respectively offer the best chance you're likely to get this side of a Pools win (although psychotherapy might be a cheaper and more long-term solution).

But how does Budwig cope with seeing his precious charges (Bespokes has 70 cars in all) disappear up the road in the hands of complete strangers? "It's fine, really. Obviously we do try to explain to them what to do - the Daytona needs a little more care than your average car - but the sort of customer who is prepared to pay in excess of pounds 1,000 for the weekend is doing it because he really cares for the car. These aren't boy racers. When they take the cars away on Friday night there is a little trepidation, but by Monday they usually come back absolutely beaming."

! For further information and reservations call Bespokes on 0181 421 8686, or the Pride of Britain group on 01264 324400

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