Motoring: Back to our routes

Gavin Green joins a race where thrills and spills come at 50mph

Silverstone's grand prix circuit, scene of Damon Hill's and Nigel Mansell's greatest triumphs, Mecca of British motor racing, high-speed showcase for Formula One and home for next month's annual British Grand Prix. The great grandstands that line the circuit were only a fraction full, although the fireproof-suited marshals were there, waving their flags, and there were emergency vehicles on hand in case I lost control at top speed - about 50mph. I tootled on my way, with no more urgency than Postman Pat, around the Theatre of Dreams of British motor sport, Grandpa beside me, plus three small children, Grandma and my wife in the vast back seat of the 1936 limo.

There are no other motor sport events like the Norwich Union RAC Classic Run. None that allow you to drive around Silverstone at whatever speed you like, and with however many passengers your car can carry. And none bigger: the Norwich Union RAC Classic is the world's biggest motoring event. More than 1,600 cars competed in last weekend's rally, from 10 different countries in 119 different makes of car. And there were more than 1,500 winners.

To "win" all you need to do is finish, along whichever route - there are 15 to choose from. Anyone who owns a car more than 20 years old can have a go.

We chose to start at Silverstone, which is also the finish for all competitors. We could have chosen Paris, Dublin, Newport or any of seven other English locations, including Bath, Norwich and Chester. Each goes along a set route, all different, each a scenic period piece, all roads leading to Silverstone.

Our route, of 130 miles, was one of the shortest, a wise precaution, given the inexperience of the crew. It consisted of me (the driver), a novice at the Norwich Union event; Grandpa, who had never navigated in a rally before and had never seen the "tulip" map routes, but sure remembered what it was like to drive Thirties cars; Grandma, who comes from Australia, and was therefore clearly going to be of limited use if we got lost near Lower Shuckburgh or Clifton-upon-Dunsmore; my wife Katharine, who was in charge of controlling the other, younger crew members, Henry, seven, Sebastian, three, and Hugo, eight months. The latter three were instructed, respectively, not to whinge, puke, or badly foul a nappy. They did splendidly. I also fancy that with a crew of seven, we may have had more people in our car than any other competitor, although I've no way of verifying this.

We certainly had one of the biggest cars, a 1936 Vauxhall BXL limousine, powered by a chugging great lump of a six-cylinder engine, and possessed of an enormous back seat. The rear compartment was velour- and carpet- lined and was quite beautifully finished - and proved easily big enough for three children and two adults, as well as a substantial hamper that the kind people at the Vauxhall museum, which owns the car, provided. The rear also featured a vast partition window, to isolate those front seat occupants who, back in the Thirties, would presumably have been "the staff".

Our run got off to a bad start when, owing to the difficulty of readying three children for any early get-away, we were half-an-hour late. In the British GP or RAC rally this would, presumably, be a major problem, but in the Norwich Union the man who sent us on our way merely remarked that we "must have had a good breakfast" before he waved the Union flag at us, and the old Vauxhall chugged on its way. We did one lap of Silverstone at the start, before gently cruising our way through Northamptonshire lanes.

The route was marvellous. If you'd told me I was about to go on a 130- mile scenic drive through Northants, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, I would have said, sure, and we had a great summer holiday in Warsaw last year. But the scenery was continually superb, a reminder of what a staggeringly beautiful country this is on a fine May day. The organisers try to take you down narrow, period roads wherever possible and, apart from the odd incursion into drab post-war suburbia, they succeeded.

We tootled up and down gently rolling hills, the hedgerows full of wildlife and birdsong and gorgeous colours, the high Vauxhall affording us all marvellous views. We never hurried, and had the time to take in the scenery. It was a glorious reminder of what most of England must have been like, before it was bulldozed for speed and efficient agriculture. Much of it is still gorgeous, of course, but you need to get off the wretched motorways or major roads to see it. We encountered little traffic, apart from a few other competitors, most of them going much faster than us. Locals waved cheerfully, enjoying the sight of so many old cars passing their way.

We arrived back at Silverstone, to do another lap of the GP circuit, at just after 4pm - seven hours after starting. We had three scheduled stops, for refreshments and the official stamps on our route book. It was the most enjoyable day's motoring I can remember. Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill may have got more satisfaction from their motor sport, but I can't believe they've ever had this much fun in a car.

Norwich Union, which has sponsored the event since its inception in 1986, is pulling out of next year's rally. Nonetheless the organiser, the RAC Motor Sports Association, says other sponsors are lined up, and the 1998 event will go ahead. For details, contact the RACMSA on 01753 681736. The Vauxhall Heritage Centre in Park Street, Luton, is open to the public one day a year - this year on 15 June, 10am-4pm, admission free.

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