Hitting the roads to heaven
THANKS to Britain's drink-driving laws and hopeless rural bus services, most people now live in ghastly suburbs, centimetres from their next-door neighbours and never more than 200 metres from a speed bump and a traffic jam.
Their cars are expensive to buy and to run, environmentally unfriendly and, even if they can hurl themselves along at 240kph, the coned-off roads will not allow it. Nor will the speed bumps. Nor will the sheer volume of traffic.
Today, in suburban Britain, the car is something in which to listen to the radio while crawling along at 6kph. The days when it could even half-heartedly be thought of as something romantic are dead.
That may be how it feels to you, but, call me old Mr Fortunate Trousers, I beg to differ. Motoring today is every bit as romantic as it ever was. Have you, for instance, driven from Loch Lomond to Fort William via Glen Coe in late September in a big, powerful Jaguar? No? Well, then.
You don't need a 12-cylinder engine, either. The single best drive I can recall is through the eucalyptus forests of central Portugal in a 1.0-litre Toyota Starlet.
P. J. O'Rourke once said the fastest car in the world was a hire car, and after that huge thrash up the most intestinal road I had ever found, I would have to agree. Although my speed never once rose above 64kph - the straights just weren't long enough - it never dipped much below 48 either, even on the astonishing hairpin bends.
On a rather slower note, I once took a Jeep Wrangler over the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and although it took two days to cover 35km - it was a bit bumpy - I can safely say it was a drive that would go with me to my grave.
It was after this particular excursion that I began to wonder if there was such a thing as the ultimate drive, a drive where the car, the road, the weather, even the music on the stereo was perfect.
I came close, oddly enough, in England a few years ago, when, on a golden-brown sort of autumnal day, I took an Aston Martin Virage by the scruff of its thick-set neck, jammed some Elgar in the CD and set about Staffordshire.
Over the Blithfield reservoir, with the huge engine bellowing out that V8 song and Nimrod at full volume, I thought I was there, but there was a corner at the far end of the bridge and well, Virages just did not like corners that much. So, only a brief moment of perfection.
Earlier this year, I came close again while driving a Ford Probe around Arizona. The dawn was purple and Monument Valley looked eerie, but the temptation to give that fine car some stick down that dead-straight piece of road was tempered by the knowledge that highway patrolmen in the more remote Navajo Indian settlements had little else to do at 6 am than hide behind big sandstone pillars with ray guns. So we did 88 and I was bored.
There is only one country in the world where you can find motoring nirvana. In Britain, there are too many caravans and old people doing 6kph in old Chevettes. In America, there are too many policemen with guns. In Germany, there are too many Germans, and elsewhere the roads just aren't good enough.
In Italy, though, you can fly through a village at 140kph and the locals will cheer. You can scream past a police van at 240kph and they will lean out of the sliding door to urge you on. I know this because it happened once when I was in a Sierra Cosworth in Sicily.
Italian roads, too, are some of the best in the world, smooth, well laid-out and, thanks to the mountains, filled to overflowing with the necessary dips and brows. Then there is the weather, the scenery and the general feeling of content Italy seems to bring.
Plus of course, when it comes to cars, Italy has the rest of the world licked. They may break down and rust and all the switches have been bolted on upside down by somebody who has just had a row with his wife, but they are Fun To Drive.
The little Cinquecento may only cost $67,000 and it may be built in Poland, but its Italianness is obvious the first time you try to go round a bend at 80: it makes it.
The Alfa Romeo 155 is slow and noisy, but it looks a million dollars and it has a love of life that you will not find in a thousand Nissans. The big cars, too, and the Alfa 164 in particular, can run rings round those Teutonic lumps of tin that seem to think they have the market for keen drivers all wrapped up.
But why settle for cars like these when Italy makes the best driver's car in the world? The Ultimate Driving Machine is not German, it's from Maranello and it's called the Ferrari F355.
Earlier this year, that car gave me pretty close to two hours of total driver satisfaction. It was a cool 40-odd degrees Celsius outside and the sun beat down on what, in the winter, is a ski resort. The run up from Modena to the Alpine border town of Aosta had been a hoot, but now there was the promise of big fun on the way down.
With the 40-valve V8 singing tenor and the tyres providing a soprano accompaniment, there was no need for the stereo. And though the scenery was undeniably spectacular, its benefit was only of subliminal use. Every single fibre of my body was concentrated on keeping this $994,000 car on the grey bit.
Prod the throttle just a touch too vigorously on the way out of a bend and the tyres slide, but it's so easy to get them back on the straight and narrow again, and then you can get that wonderful engine to wail again. Heaven.
I stopped once for coffee, took in some rays, calmed down and stared at what must surely be the best-looking Ferrari of them all. The locals smiled and grunted, pleased I had brought a deity to their town.
The World's top 10 trips 1. Ferrari F355 from Modena to Aosta, Italy.
2. Toyota Starlet through hair-raising hairpins in the eucalyptus forests of central Portugal.
3. Ford Probe through Monument Valley, Arizona.
4. Jeep Wrangler over the Sierra Nevada mountains, California.
5. Aston Martin Virage over the Blithfield reservoir, Staffordshire.
6. A Jaguar XJ12 from Loch Lomond to Fort William, along the A82 through Glen Coe. The only disappointment is reaching Fort William.
7. A Sierra Cosworth from Palermo to Taormina. You can do 240kph without worrying the police, and there is a view of Mount Etna at the end.
8. A Peugeot 106 XSi heading south from Carcassonne along the D118 and through the foothills of the French Pyrenees.
9. A Mercedes SL from Miami to Key West. Tiny islands linked by a spectacular bridge.
10. A Hindustani Ambassador (India's version of the Morris Oxford) through Calcutta, where drivers trust to religion rather than brakes.