Old cars are wonderful. At least, they can be. As some enthusiasts prefer not to admit, old cars also tend to be expensive and plain exasperating – and that's even before you try to drive them.
Unfortunately, for every day when a "classic" lives up to the rose-tinted dream, there may be months when the reality is more of a nightmare, involving large sums of money disappearing from your bank account for repairs and storage.
Luckily, there is a cheap and entirely risk-free way to experience olde-worlde motoring. Classic-car hire specialists have sprung up all over Britain, and for a fraction of the true cost of ownership (note that just buying an old car can be financially painless; the hair-tearing and wallet-bashing come later), virtually anyone with a licence can sign on the dotted line and drive off into the sunset in something a bit special.
For instance, courtesy of Summer Wine Classics, I spent a couple of days swanning around in a Jaguar E-type. And it wasn't not just any old E-type; it was one of the very early "flat floor" 3.8 coupés made in 1961, a few months after the model had stunned the world at its Geneva motor show debut.
Summer Wine is based up in Holmfirth in Yorkshire, which shouldn't come as a surprise for those who've seen a certain BBC television series involving three crusty old blokes behaving like children (that's Last of the Summer Wine, not Top Gear). The formalities completed, I had an idyllic drive across the Pennines to Blackpool, where the Jaguar marque was first founded as SS Cars. After a quick photocall outside the original factory, the pilgrimage continued south to Browns Lane, Coventry, where the E was built all those years ago.
The works is now almost deserted and will soon close completely, but for the moment the Heritage Trust collection and archive remain on site, so I was able to drool over some historic cars and check up on the background details of "my" car.
For a long time after the launch, E-types were in very short supply. Most were exported, while the few right-hand-drive examples earmarked for the British market tended to go to privileged customers. From the company records, it was confirmed that I was driving the 91st RHD coupé built, first owned by a personal friend of (Sir) William Lyons and his right-hand man, Lofty England.
Mission complete, we wandered north through the Peak District and back to Holmfirth. In all, 500 miles with no dramas, secure in the knowledge that if anything went wrong it would be someone else's problem, delayed only by people who wanted to gaze at the Jaguar's beauty every time we stopped for sightseeing or fuel. That's what classic motoring should be like, but seldom is.
E-types are the favourite "wish fulfilment" choice, often arranged as presents from loved ones. As the Jaguar ads used to say: "Some day... " Having waited so long to try this iconic machine, those spoiled by the performance and handling of modern cars might feel slightly disappointed. The original road-test 150mph top speed amazed everyone 40 years ago, but the sad fact is that nowadays there are faster diesel family saloons.
Still, if that matters to you, it's better to find out by spending a few hundred quid rather than £25,000. Conversely, driving an immaculate classic from a hire fleet might have the opposite effect, because the apparently similar car you then rush out and buy will probably be nothing like as good. Cue huge expense again!
Of course, you don't have to go for an E-type. Almost anything from an Alfa Romeo to a Zonda is available, although deep pockets will be needed for the latter.
Perhaps the ultimate "try before you buy" experience is Classic Car Hire's Sports Car Day, which involves back-to-back stints behind the wheel of a selection of oldies. Those who want to go fast legally can also take to a racetrack; firms such as Activity Superstore, Red Letter Days and Days To Amaze specialise in this sort of thing, which overlap with the more normal track day and performance driving events offered.
Ten UK companies belong to the Historic and Classic Car Hirers Guild, which aims to provide consistent standards of service while making it easy to locate particular models. At www.hchg.co.uk, you can access a list of all the makes and models available from Guild members, spread around the country from Cornwall to Clackmannanshire.
Prices vary depending on duration of hire, weekday or weekend, and season. About £75 for 24 hours in a MGB is the base rate, rising into the four-figure bracket for the more exotic high-performance models, some of which are (sensibly) taken off the road during the winter. There may also be a mileage charge. In addition, hirers will be required to leave a security deposit, based on the value of the car.
Rest assured that fully comprehensive insurance and breakdown cover are included in the price, but old cars will always be old cars!
Where to go
Bespokes (020-7833 8000; www.bespokes.co.uk); London, Cheshire and Herts
Caledonian Classics (01259 742 476; www.caledonian-classics.co.uk); Scotland
Classic Car Hire (0845 230 8308; www.classiccarhire.co.uk); Yorks and Oxon
Classic Car Garage (0560 047 8379; www.classiccargarage.co.uk); Yorks
Cornwall Classic Car Hire (0845 458 1108; www.cornwallclassiccarhire.co.uk)
Grand Touring Club UK (01449 775 270; www.grandtouringclub.co.uk); Suffolk
Ribble Valley Classic Car Hire (0845 456 5360; www.ribblevalleyclassiccarhire.co.uk); Lancs
Summer Wine Classics (01484 688 244; www.summerwine-classics.co.uk); Yorks
The Open Road (0845 070 5142; www.theopenroad.co.uk); Warks
Timeless Touring (0870 609 1635; www.timeless-touring.com); Wales
Wiltshire Classics (0845 002 0093, www.wiltshireclassics.co.uk)
Activity Superstore (0870 111 8283; www.activitysuperstore.com)
Red Letter Days (0845 640 8000; www.redletterdays.co.uk)
Days to Amaze (0870 240 0635; www.daystoamaze.co.uk)
Historic and Classic Car Hirers Guild (0845 070 5174; www.hchg.co.uk)