To Milan, for a curious challenge in which I attempt to drive a Volvo all the way back to Marlow on a single tank of diesel. It is all very Top Gear, on a far smaller budget – just me, the comedian Rufus Hound and a South African cameraman who has never been to Europe before. There was a little pre-chat from some technical boffin who went on about torque and revs and stuff that I'm not much interested in. "How fast can we go and still potentially make it?" I asked him. "If you keep it at a steady 70 you should be all right," was his reply. This came as a relief, as I'd had a sneaking suspicion that it was going to have to be something like 42mph.
Off we set. I was looking forward to showing our cameraman some of the delights of Italy, but we were in Switzerland before you could say tagliatelle. There we kept spotting members of the Swiss army, lounging about smoking and drinking coffee. Military-style haircuts were clearly not de rigueur. Most of them were dead ringers for the Freak Brothers, and wouldn't have gone amiss in mid-70s San Francisco. Admirable as the Swiss army surely is, I couldn't help wonder whether they were a bit pointless? I'd long heard the rumours about all the Alpine tunnels being mined and ready to blow up should somebody decide to invade. It seems such a simple plan and so effective that it's probably true. Ten or so explosions, and the country goes into lockdown.
On we drove, and we were soon into France driving along the German border. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed that the inhabitants became visibly more corpulent the nearer we came to Strasbourg – the site of the European Parliament.
Fuel consumption, meanwhile, was not looking as good as it should have done. I'd been driving most of the first leg and had got into a minor altercation with an angry Swiss in a Kia. This had resulted in both of us doing considerably more than 70 through most of the country until we eventually lost him somewhere near Zurich.
We arrived at our halfway point in Metz with a little less than half a tank. Confidence, however, was high, especially after a fabulous five-course meal and a good night's sleep. I let Rufus drive the next day, as he seemed to be far calmer at the wheel and less sensitive to supposed slights from foreign drivers. We drove through endless prairieland, as our South African called it. He was keen to experience a typical French eaterie so we pulled into a hideous chain restaurant called "Buffalo Grill" where all the staff were forced to dress as cowboys and the manager introduced himself as "Le Sheriff".
"This is what culinary France has turned into," I told the visibly shocked cameraman. Americanisation is nearly complete. A Red Indian lady brought us the bill. We rounded up our wagons and rode on. At Calais, we drove on to the train. This completely freaked out our South African who kept looking out of the window muttering "so this is going under the sea... extraordinary."
Fuel consumption was back on track, and it was all looking good until we hit the M25 and a nine-mile traffic jam. We turned off, and crawled through the countryside towards Marlow. Things were getting very tense and we had to turn off the radio, the lights, and film inside the vehicle using the head-torch that I never travel without. Three miles from the finish, the dash display indicated that we were out of diesel. The engine, fortunately had not yet received this message and we coasted on fumes for the last bit. We made it. If we hadn't eaten so much in Metz it would have been a lot easier, but where's the fun in that?Reuse content