Moonlighting as a van driver has Seen Jethro Noble reconnect with the pursuit of driving happiness. He thinks we should all stop chasing the perfect drive, car or road, and just be more present behind the wheel.
When I was younger, years before adult life was even a blot on the horizon and cars were merely Mum and Dad’s transport, I used to zip about on a three-wheeled off-road go-kart. Two wheels at the front, a chunky one at the back, a flaky rubber steering wheel and an endlessly grinning Jethro in the middle. This was before I even realised that I would be driving an actual car one day, as it is inconceivable for a five-year-old that would be possible, despite all the adult reassurance that you will one day join them on the road.
I loved that Go kart. It was heavy, cumbersome and while not as fast or agile as some of the other options on the market, it would go anywhere my legs could pedal it and was strong enough to cope with all the curbs I launched it off. Endless toppling over taught me that children’s trikes don’t take any prisoners when you take liberties with cornering speed, and the long-levered hand brake was my first lesson in oversteer. In many ways, those early experiences of sliding, apex-clipping and downhill speed lay the foundations for the car-obsessed brain that I find myself with today.
Early on, I wasn’t interested in cars as something to behold. Of course, I would read magazines cover to cover and watch repeat episodes of TopGear whenever I could, but it was only to imagine myself driving them. Jeremy would slide a BMW M3 around Hammerhead, and then I would go out on my trike or my bike and try to recreate the drift with a fist full of rear brake, and then find the steepest hill I could to try and replicate the speed. Only in the latter half of my life have I become an enormous consumer of car trivia and media, and have started to be interested in aesthetics too.
Nowadays, I can find fun in driving pretty much anything, and I put it down to my childhood. It’s easy to get sucked into the notion that anything this side of a 911 GT3 won’t be any good around a circuit, and you need at least 300 horsepower and a trick differential to entertain on a good B road, but that is completely false, and I have a strong argument to back that statement up. However, I am not going to be the one to tell you that I had more fun in my old Volvo than I do in my Clio 182, but it was very close, and it was a different kind of fun.
In the big compliant Swede, you can barrel down bumpy roads with a smoothness that a hunkered-down hot hatch can only dream of while sustaining momentum on poorly repaired rural roads. It was rarely bothered by surface water or a slithery patch of mud, left as evidence of local farm activity. It was far from fast so you could drive it flat out everywhere, and with rally-style eBay mud flaps hanging out behind the chunky tyres, there were occasions where it made you feel like a comically low-budget Tom Trana.
Before last summer, my view on what you could have fun driving stopped sharply at vans. Ungainly, top-heavy things with a driving position that would put you on the roof of most sporty cars, they couldn’t possibly be entertaining. However, I spent my summer last year in a job that involved driving a variety of vans to do deliveries, and I was pleasantly surprised on more than one count.
The first big surprise is just how good the gearbox is in an old Vauxhall combo van. The one that looks like a Corsa with an enormous forehead. This thing was accurate, had a lovely weight to it and a deliciously short throw. You could shift from second to third faster and smoother in one of those than anything else I’ve ever driven, and I include an MB6 Civic in that. Even the bigger vans could be entertaining. A new Peugeot Expert has a similarly accurate gearbox but also has wonderful, direct steering and a pointy front end that makes it a genuine joy to pivot around a hairpin.
Obviously, you’re not going to attack the road looking like a pound shop Postman Pat, sans Jess, but the ingredients are there for a good time. Don’t even get me started on the petrol Peugeot Partner. Chef’s kiss. We all need to lower our expectations sometimes and be open-minded to having fun in what is, on paper at least, not fun at all. You might just find yourself adapting your driving style, brushing over the facts and just enjoying driving something that most would turn their nose up at.
The point here is that it is easy to get sucked into the modern press, with glossy pages and 4K video coverage of the latest unobtainable Porsche GT product, but as is always the way, the most fun car on the planet is the one that you can get into and go and drive. If all else fails, there are a lot of cheap cars out there that have good handbrakes, and we all know how useful they can be. Ask yourself this: if you were offered one last tank of fuel to be emptied by either a hired Citroen C1 along a winding Italian coast road, or doing laps of central London in a Ferrari 812 Superfast on a Saturday afternoon, which would you pick? I know what I’d choose, and it sure doesn’t have a massive hulking V12.