It was the best of Rovers, it was the worst of Rovers. It took us 3000 miles, silently and safely, wrapped inside an interior sumptuous to the point of silliness. However, it is funny looking and a funny size, the Rover 75, seemingly not much bigger than a Mondeo and not entirely suited to the sort of old Rover pumped-up plushness. In a car of such modest proportions, it was as if a team of surreal burglars had entered your house and rammed a three-piece leather suite, a giant-screen TV, a boss stereo, a highly-polished mahogany sideboard and a load of cream-faced clocks into your small back bedroom.
I was on a mission, driving 1000 miles to a dusty Spanish border town to search for a tin of pate, a rusty tin plate and a knife hidden down the side of a wall, and I had chosen the Rover 75 to do it in. I had chosen this model because I had been to the town once before, in a car that was the 75’s inspiration.
Let me explain. When my wife and I were in our early 20s and poor, we took a package holiday to Spain. Two weeks half board in the Hotel Relax (who says the British have a monopoly on irony), Calella, Costa Brava, travel overnight by coach and all for £65.
Not being able to afford the price of meals at the café stops along the way, we made ourselves several huge packed lunches. We knew from bitter experience that we needed a lot of food, because when we’d been on coach trips before, all the sandwiches were eaten before the coach pulled out of Victoria bus station. In fact, sometimes just the sight of a bus would send us rushing home to build huge doorstoppers which we would gobble even as we made them.
So after a tiring overnight rife, we changed coaches at the Catalan border town of La Jonquera and, astonishingly, there was still some grub left. Slightly fuddled from lack of sleep, I sat down on a wall to finish the last tin of pate, and clumsily knocked the tin, a knife and a metal plate off the other side of the wall, where they landed 12 feet down in an untidy tangle of scrub and cacti. There was no way I could retrieve them, so sadly they were left there.
Some 12 years later my circumstances had changed completely. By then I was a successful comedian and some-time actor working on a movie in the South of France, a big-money remake of The Bride of Frankenstein with a feminist re-reading and the girl out of Flashdance finishing off her acting career for good. The guy playing the monster was kept in the blazing sun and his real skin started to come away with his prosthetic make-up. The cast and crew turned up on set one day to find that the insurers had suspended filming for two weeks and we could all just bugger off on holiday.
I flew home, picked up my wife, my friend Harry and my car, then headed back to Europe. Time being suspended, we tried to reproduce that American two-lane blacktop, drive all day and night, three desperados in a powerful coupe with 1000-mile stares and fear and loathing in their eyes type thing, but in a European style. The trouble with that, though, is that whereas every town you pass in the US is a song title – Houston, New York New York, Tulsa, Abilene – every town in France is a food product: Chantilly Cognac, Nougat…somehow not quite as cinematic.
The carwas right, however: a Buick V8-powered 1970 Rover 3.5-litre P5B Coupe, styled by David Bache, (who later created the Range Rover), and clearly echoed in the Rover 75. Both, for example, feature a thick body softened by full-length chrome strips and chrome door pulls.
Internally, the seats in the 75 are visually identical to the old seats in my P5B – though a hundred times more comfortable – and the wood and leather theme apes the old Rovers Though to my mind, it is improved upon in the new model.
The problem with my old P5 was not the natural materials, but rather the synthetic ones: plastics have come a long way in 30 years. The parcel shelf, for instance, in the Coupe was covered in a brown vinyl whose crude chemical composition barely inhabited this space-time continuum, and the slide-out picnic trays in the rear were coated in a hideous fake wood veneer possibly developed for use of hostess trolleys.
Where 1970 does beat 1999 is on space. Modern car design coddles the inhabitants in dark, small-windowed cells for reasons of security and safety. Also, slender roof pillars on the ‘70s car made looking out of it a lot easier, which some might consider a valuable safety factor. Therefore, in an older motor there is a great deal more room to smoke, see out, drink-drive and impale yourself on sharp bits of metal in a crash.
One boiling day on our drive in the elegant Coupe, we found ourselves in a dusty border town. I looked around. ‘This is La Jonquera,’ I said to my wife in a wondering voice. ‘I wonder if our paté is still here?’
Who cares, she replied. But I walked over to the low wall of the same service station and looked down. Could the knife, the plate and pate possibly still be there? Sure enough at the foot of the wall, rusted and pitted but indomitably still there, was the pate, the knife and the plate – still lying among the cacti. I felt somehow soothed and moved. I felt for a moment that I stood at the still point in a turning world.
I went back to the Rover and got our camera, then leant as far over the wall as possible and shot off a whole roll of film. The people at my local Snappy Snaps place where perplexed to see that my holiday photographs consisted solely of a load of pictures of some rusty garbage at the foot of a wall. When we got back to London I told a few friends about my pate and pretty soon their kids were saying: ‘Daddy, Daddy, can we go and see Alexei’s pate?’
‘Well, we were going to see Monet’s garden at Giverny, thence to Futurscope at Poitiers.’
‘No, Alexei’s mate! Alexei’s pate!’
‘Well, all right then.’
After all, that’s what people want out of a holiday: somewhere to go and something to look at when they get there. My pate performed that function as well as any cathedral, ring of old stones or theme park. So it went on for a few years. I got regular reports and we visited a couple of time ourselves to see that they were still there, the brave trio of the plate, the pate, and the knife.
But then, sometime in the mid ‘90s, the reports stopped. Friends said they had been to La Jonquera and had been unable to locate the petrol station. Being busy at the time, I was unable to investigate, but I resolved to do so at the earliest opportunity. Thus, when I first saw photos of the Rover 75 and recognised its ancestry to the 3.5 P5B, I knew I had to retrace my steps in that car. There was a poetic right ness about it, and , of course CAR would pay for the trip, so that was good, too.
The journey through France was a breeze. Rover trumpets the 75 as the best front-drive car ever, and in my fairly limited experience it is right. I have never driven such a smooth, restful car. It even out-silences and out-wallows the Jaguar S-type, chough there is a trade-off in terms of handling for all this insulation from the outside world: it is not a responsive, throw me about big boy machine by any means.
This comfort was a contrast with the 3.5. You will read of people in the classic car magazines who say ‘My car has never gone wrong, except I had to change a doorknob in 1981, and she’ll cruise comfortably at 90mph all day…’ Yeah right, if you’re on morphine, that is. Old cars can’t compete with new cars, and they go wrong all the time.
Anybody who says it ain’t so is lying.
They do look better, though. I stared a great deal at the 75, and it always looked stumpy, especially compared with the fabulous, perfectly-balanced shape of the P5B, which the art critic Brian Sewell once told me was the best car in the world. To be fair, my doubts about the exterior were not shared by everyone. In a service station in the South of France, I was surrounded by a large group of American priests who had pulled up in a fleet of five or six Renault Espaces. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ said one. ‘That is the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen.’
I let them have a look inside. ‘Hey, check this out Father,’ they said to each other in awe. So I guess God would drive a 75.
Crossing through the Pyrenees, we caught sight of a town called Tourette. We wondered, as Brie cheese is named after the town of Brie and Bordeaux wine is named after the town of Bordeaux, was the syndrome named after the town? We took a detour and spotted this sign in French on the city limits: ‘Welcome to F***ing Tourette. Please Drive F***ing Safely and Don’t Be A C***! (Twin Town Doncaster)’.
We reached La Jonquera at lunchtime on the second day. I had worried that my pate had gone, but the border itself had! You could now pass as easily between France and Spain as you could between Northamptonshire and Warwickshire.
The town had both changed and not changed: its louche, mysterious, dangerous aor had definitely increased. In many places I heard Russian spoke, and a great number of the growling tricks parked on the cracked concrete bore the registrations of Albania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, loaded as they were with mixed cargoes of fireworks and cooking oil, ready to drive through the Pyrenean tunnels. I could see the petrol station where my paté was, now owned by BP, but there was no wall. Maybe it wasn’t the right place. I bought a tin of paté and a plate from a local supermarket, and started asking people if they’d seen similar ones down the side of a wall. For some reason they acted like I was crazy.
A possible explanation occurred in a bar towards late afternoon. A Spaniard sidled up to me and hissed: It doesn’t do to ask many questions in a border town like this, senor. There was a fellow through here last week asking about a missing tin of corned beef. They pulled his body out of arroyo the next morning the next morning so beware.’ Before I could question him, he was gone. Now I was afraid. I bought a hat from a local shop in an effort to blend in, but my questions were still met with hostility.
Some might think that the sight had just been built over, and that people were naturally disturbed at being confronted by a man in a mini sombrero waving canned meat around, but if The X-Files and the internet has taught us anything, it is that the sensible, rational explanations are not to be considered for second. It was clear to me that there was some huge post-Cold War conspiracy running her, concerning abducted tinned goods. I know my paté is out there somewhere.