Since discovering car magazines as a school boy, long road trips have always captured my imagination. I was so gripped by them that after the 1986 summer holidays I lied and told my friends that on one of the days off we’d driven the entire length of the M1. In retrospect, their bemused and uninterested expressions were perfectly understandable. We were, after all, 10 years old and I was seemingly in a club of one embracing automotive geekdom.
Apt though, that on the eve of the Fast And Frugal drive around Britain, that pre-pubescent level of excitement was present once again for the driving team. It might also go some way to explain why we arrived at the Palace of Westminster all sporting short trousers too.
The Fast And Frugal back story’s here, but in brief the premise was to cover approximately 1270 miles of Britain’s roads, starting in London and finishing at Silverstone, in a Toyota GT86 and a Prius Plug-in Hybrid in a sub-24 hour time. Naturally, this was too big a job for one person; my fellow pilots were motoring blogger Tim Hutton, Toyota’s Head of PR and Social Media, Scott Brownlee and Lincoln’s Member of Parliament, Karl McCartney.
Words by Keith WR Jones and Scott Brownlee
Although I was really too busy to take two days out to drive around the country, there was no way I was passing up this opportunity. I too have history where such things are concerned having twice arranged drives from Lands End to John O’Groats with teams from car magazines. With a deep love of cars and long journeys and being familiar with various generations of Prius, I suspected it could spring a surprise.
Karl had been instrumental in ensuring the starting point for Fast And Frugal was particularly special: knowing the route would take us to the parliamentary buildings in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff, it was swiftly arranged for the 24 hour marathon to depart from the grounds of the Palace of Westminster itself.
Security checks on the cars completed, the Prius plugged in to the mains while armed police officers’ questions about the vehicles and driving challenge were answered, we headed out onto the Commons Terrace for pre-drive coffees (yes, still in those shorts), surveying the capital’s landmarks and debating where we might face the biggest challenges on the route.
We arrived a little while after Keith and Karl; we pull up to the bullet-proof vested police officer on the gates to explain that we’re here to meet an MP, charge up our Plug-in Hybrid and drive around Britain non-stop for 24 hours. As the words leaft my mouth I doubted my own sanity but he seemed unperturbed. He later reassuringly confirmed that he’d let us wait inside the Palace’s grounds as he could tell we weren’t terrorists! I think it was the shorts…
The mood was soon lightened by the arrival of Juliette Kilbey, an endurance racing fanatic and frequent Tweeter who had followed the Fast And Frugal story since it was made public. Not only did she distract us with her entertaining tales about Le Mans experiences, she’d generously provided a goodie bag of sustenance to accompany the journey. The power of rich tea finger creams can never be underestimated.
All the chat disguised the fact that time was rapidly eroding and we’d still not shot the pre-drive photos. Shutters clicked repeatedly and images committed to memory card, we nestled into our seats for the next 24 hours: Scott and Tim in the #TeamFrugal Prius, Karl and I in the #TeamFast GT86.
A quick look at the route online the night before had told me it would be a game of two halves; the road north was a long blast up motorway bookended by two big cities, with the final sweep up into the Highlands on the A9, a notoriously fast, license losing A-road. By contrast, the road south was a tight, squiggly line betraying literally hundreds of miles of twisty roads through mountains and valleys. Prius Plug-in would excel in the towns, cruise happily on the motorways but the GT86 was going to be in its element on the switchbacks. Or was it?
As Big Ben started the chime for noon, we eased around the courtyard waiting for the security barrier to drop. Police officers blew their whistles to halt pedestrians by the exit gates and on the first strike of midday, we were off.
Leg 1 – London to Edinburgh
GT86 | 18:50 | 390 miles | 37mpg | 57mph
Prius | 19:00 | 396 miles | 60mpg | 57mph
The first of the six legs was not only the longest but arguably the least interesting, a large proportion of the journey being a long and monotonous cruise north along motorways and dual-carriageways. Before either car could stretch their legs, London’s lunchtime traffic had to be negotiated.
Needless to say, urban environs aren’t typically playgrounds where sports cars are able to demonstrate their talents but the GT86 proved adept at dealing with the cut and thrust of lane changing duels. It’s a dainty coupe with fine all-round visibility, enabling it to be placed accurately and precisely; easily accessible power meant a brisk and rorty motion into a gap was just a flick of the gear lever away. Although the ride quality is necessarily firm, the unevenness of the Edgeware Road’s surface revealed the GT86 was free from harshness that would have us scrabbling the footwells for fillings.
The truly special moment of a lifetime, driving out of the Palace of Westminster as Big Ben chimed above us, did not dawn on me until hours later. At the time I was focused on the rear of the GT86 and determined to travel more than the ten or so miles through the city to the foot of the M1 on pure electric power. Past the Palace and up Park Lane the first route choice presented itself. The sat nav was saying go left, the GT86 seemingly hell bent on going straight. I took the turn and so we lost sight of #TeamFast mere minutes into the 24 hours. Traffic and lights were kind and as we called the others to say we were pulling onto the M1 it became clear that #TeamFrugal were a few minutes ahead, the fuel gauge reading 999mpg (it can’t read any higher). #TeamFrugal’s first objective had been achieved.
It was considerably more serene for #TeamFrugal in the Prius, the economy champion smugly not using a single drop of unleaded as it weaved its way through the traffic, thanks to its 15.5 mile electricity-propelled range. That eerie silence made the Prius’ cabin a surreal environment, floating along making the stop-start traffic a painless experience. As a car to simply jump in to commute to work with a minimum amount of stress, the Prius takes some beating.
Somewhat complicating matters was a detour taken off the agreed route enabling #TeamFrugal to edge ahead, slipping onto the M1 some ten minutes before #TeamFast. This balance had to be redressed – or at least those in the GT86 thought so.
The ascent north along the M1, M18 and A1 proved uneventful save for a pit stop for the Prius (drivers rather than car) which allowed the GT86 to slip into a considerable lead, an advantage compounded by #TeamFrugal pilots going off course again, following the A1 all the way to Edinburgh, rather than wending their way over the Northumberland National Park. That did permit Scott and Tim to experience the natural beauty of the coastline and see Lindisfarne in the near distance but this was a driving challenge, not a ‘Visit Britain’ excursion.
What I hadn’t factored was the “range” of middle-aged bladders, so it was that our first pit stop came long before we needed fuel. Too much time dithering over the snacks in M&S compounded the tactical error and we emerged behind the coupe and having to play catch up.
Our next mistake was navigational. Too busy talking, we missed the turning off the A1 and found ourselves taking the scenic route up the coast north of Newcastle. Frantic satnav fiddling suggested that we’d be better sticking with it than retracing our tracks but we’d be adding extra miles.
Here on those winding, undulating roads, the rain started to fall giving a sense of Spa-Francorchamps to the occasion. The GT86 revelled in the circumstances, gently teasing its rear end outwards as the power was playfully revealed by the throttle. As the fun factor increased, so did confidence in the car’s abilities and speeds rose. Through the bends other vehicles were rapidly reigned in; the 200bhp boxer engine delivering devastating overtaking blows on straights.
As the sun edged closer to the horizon the boundary with Scotland was crossed, nearby buildings constructed of the familiar Borders sandstone signified our arrival. If there was any remaining uncertainty, huge Saltire emblazoned road signs left you in no doubt about where you now were. Rumours Scott was now wearing a kilt were sadly unfounded.
The final 50 miles to Edinburgh felt like it was going to be plain sailing for both cars but for #TeamFast the adventure almost ended unceremoniously. As yet another series of sweeping, blind corners was swiftly dispatched a tractor with the obligatory queue of snarling vehicles was spotted in the distance. As our paths crossed a few bends later, Mr Stereotypical white van man decided he couldn’t possibly be stuck behind the agricultural mobile chicane a moment longer and overtook it. Slowly. On the outside of a bend. Solid, double centre lines ignored.
Our closing speed of 60mph was immediately decimated but that alone wasn’t enough to avoid a head-on collision. Instinctively I jinked to the left to avoid carnage, the precision and delicacy of the GT86 at its most welcome. Someone must have been looking over us: whilst the rest of that stretch was lined with grass banks and trees, the area I manoeuvred into was a semi-asphalted run-off area. Chunks of stone and bitumen were spat out by the rear tyres as we seamlessly rejoined the road; hearts returned from mouths to chest cavities as we ploughed on to Edinburgh.
Arriving in the Scottish capital inevitably meant dealing with slow moving traffic, but as the emphasis was on slow moving rather than jams progress remained positive. Following the satnav’s instructions we soon arrived at the rear of Holyrood, home of the Scottish Parliament. After seven hours, the first stage was complete, the GT86 arriving a few minutes before the Prius.
The run into Edinburgh couldn’t have been easier had we been in a Royal cavalcade with Police outriders. I was sure we had caught #TeamFast, so sure in fact that when just yards from the end I told Tim to ignore the satnav and turn in front of the Scottish Parliament building, convinced my local knowledge was giving me an advantage. Except we were not ahead and not in the right place. By the time we’d done a U-turn and got to the same spot #TeamFast had taken a picture of their car, already posted on twitter, we were behind and chasing them out of our second capital city of the day.
Leg 2 – Edinburgh to Ben Nevis
GT86 | 21:30 | 534 miles | 36mpg | 56mph
Prius | 21:39 | 540 miles | 56mpg | 56mph
The longest slog out of the way, both cars headed west out of Edinburgh, #TeamFrugal initially some 10 minutes adrift after taking their longer route to the Scottish capital. Traffic remained heavy, but importantly was still moving at a steady pace, despite the rubber-necking distractions of this year’s Fringe advertisements and publicity stunts.
Suburban Edinburgh came and went, city streets replaced by dual carriageways and signs marking our imminent crossing of the Forth Road Bridge, the iconic rail crossing’s superstructure clearly visible to our right as dusk loomed. Upon landing on the north bank, the scenery was picture postcard Scotland: green topped mountains, lowlands carpeted in purple heather and babbling rivers trickling along the glacier-carved valleys. Rain slowly began to soak everything, intensifying the environment’s palette as well as the slipperiness of the road.
Here the GT86’s inherent chassis finesse and finely honed handling came to the fore, the coupe gobbling up the miles as it tamed the grandly titled General Wade’s Military Road en route to Fort William. Passing the turn off for Knockhill also seemed to have a positive effect on Scott at the wheel of #TeamFrugal; the Plug-in Prius seemingly unleashing his latent BTCC form.
Determined to make up for my mistakes, I took the Plug-in briskly round the back of the Castle, across the elegant Georgian avenues of Edinburgh New Town and was soon heading west towards the Forth Road Bridge. From there it was a run north, past the assembling BTCC teams at Knockhill, cursing the darkening skies. We were in a race not just against the clock and the GT86 but also to get Tim into the Highlands before dark. He had never been north of Edinburgh before and I wanted him to see the grandeur and beauty of my homeland. Low, dark and rain heavy clouds put paid to that.
As the route turned west and south the roads became quieter, narrower and twistier. Having failed to capitalise on what should have been the Prius-favouring cities and motorways I knuckled down to the challenge of making up time on B-roads. In the dark. And rain.
Tim did not say anything (in shock?) and neither did I as I focused on maintaining momentum through the turns and climbs. Prius isn’t a sports car but neither is it some battery assisted tortoise. Understand its drivetrain and power delivery – in many ways like a turbo with lag as the electric motor and petrol engine come in and out – and it is enjoyable to hustle along, every dab of the brakes adding a bit more charge to the battery for the throttle to utilise.
Subsequently, #TeamFrugal slashed the stopwatch disadvantage by the time refuelling occurred in Fort William under Ben Nevis’ shadow.
Actually, that’s not quite true as the mountain’s sides were just about visible against the sky but its summit was blanketed by cloud. But we knew it was there – and Leg 2 was over.
Leg 3 – Ben Nevis to Scafell Pike
GT86 |02:02 | 784 miles | 35mpg | 56mph
Prius | 02:02 | 790 miles | 53mpg | 56mph
After comparing notes over paper cups of coffee on the fuel station forecourt, the two teams set off in convoy on the descent south. Despite the late hour, the narrow roads still had a fair amount of holiday traffic on them, not least a German-registered coach that seemed happiest straddling the centre line, making overtaking opportunities almost non-existent for miles.
But pass we eventually did: Scott must have been inspired the Senna docufilm, so outstanding was his command of the Prius across the wilds of the west Highlands. Even a brush with nature with a family of deer stood with their hooves inches from the tarmac did little to dent progress.
The roads south out of Fort William are well known to me, especially the bits where you can pass a slower bus, truck or caravan. So although we followed the GT86 out along the banks of Loch Linnhe, by the time we approached Glen Coe I moved ahead and once again showed the pace of the world’s favourite hybrid. And that brush with nature will remain a vivid memory for years to come.
The Western edge of Loch Lomond didn’t take long to navigate, although still relatively traffic laden, it was significantly quieter than it would be during the daytime tourist trail, easing the journey and allowing both cars to remain above the requisite 53mph average to complete the journey on time.
Erskine Bridge crossed and an illuminated Glasgow bypassed, the southbound M74 was soon the venue of Fast And Frugal being joined by fan of epic drives around Britain, Stephen McNaughton, despite the late hour. As we exchanged waves, it was clear Stephen’s C-Class Mercedes had gained some modifications since I saw it last year, by way of some rudimentary Toyota logos covering his three pointed stars. As with Juliette in London, Stephen’s presence was a great reminder of both the power of social networking and how people love being part of a challenge, whatever the goal or level of human endeavour involved.
Scotland was soon behind us as we eased into the English Lake District, heading towards Ambleside with Scafell Pike in the background. Diving off the westbound A66, we soon experienced a return to narrow, winding cross country routes, the GT86’s headlights illuminating the way ahead. Memories of old clips of the Lombard RAC Rally came flashing back as we achieved a some air going flat-over-crest. It really was a wieldy tool, maximising its performance and abilities between the hedgerows, although the #TeamFast Prius held on to its coat tails magnificently.
Soon we were at a standstill in Ambleside by the Bridge House folly, sky black with night wholly enveloping Scafell’s majesty, the air thick with the acrid scent of hot brakes. No doubt about it, both cars had worked hard to keep up the required pace but the effectiveness of the stopping power of the pair was as impressive as their forward motion.
Leg 4 – Scafell Pike to Snowdon
GT86 | 04:42 | 968 miles | 35mpg | 58mph
Prius | 04:45 | 976 miles | 53mpg | 58mph
The tour back to the motorway network was unremarkable save for #TeamFrugal gaining a significant advantage, only stopping in Ambleside for a driver swap, rather than the customary photo opportunity. The M6 was clear except for the night time road trains of articulated lorries delivering supplies to the nation’s supermarkets, permitting brisk progress. For the only time on the whole route both cars managed an hour averaging the national speed limit, thus giving a few minutes of cushion for the overall journey.
Hanging a right into north Wales brought us not only closer to Snowdon but an exchange in positions with the Prius pairing taking a comfort break right at a time when the GT86 could utilise its agility as the roads became more rural and rippling.
The vistas remained sodden, the dominant shade in the dark was slate grey, glistening and shimmering beneath the moonlight. Karl was enjoying himself at the GT86’s wheel, steering using both it and the rear wheels as he opened the throttle exiting the relentless series sharp bends.
Our arrival at Pen-Y-Pass in the deserted youth hostel car park almost seemed to arrive too quickly, but even those few minutes of rest before #TeamFrugal arrived were only just enough to give our eyes time to adjust and pick out Snowdon’s silhouette towering above us.
Tim’s stint has linked the highest peaks of England and Wales, in normal circumstances an epic drive, tonight just another leg on our round Britain tour. Neither of us are normally good passengers, but we both seem to be able to relax as the other drives. We climb the lower slopes of Snowdon to a car park, not quite deserted even at this ungodly hour. We wonder what kind of madmen would be up, seemingly trying to put up a tent in the corner of the car park. Then we remember that we’re wearing shorts and doing a non-stop 24 hour drive.
As Karl and I chat and exchange confectionary, Tim is apparently dancing around the cars firing off a flashgun. Not a solo interpretation of the Olympic opening ceremony, but some very clever and effective photographic lighting. From the GT86, Keith informs us that the satnav predicts four hours to do 170 miles to Cardiff. He urges we get a move on: we’re ahead of schedule, but only just.
Leg 5 – Snowdon to Cardiff
GT86 | 09:36 | 1139 miles | 35mpg | 53mph
Prius | 09:35 | 1145 miles | 53mpg | 53mph
A route through Snowdonia that’s regarded as one of Britain’s most scenic was sadly wasted at night and for the first time since childhood, being a passenger proved troubling for my constitution. Not having suffered motion sickness for many years, the thought of bringing any medicinal remedies hadn’t remotely crossed my mind.
Snowdonia’s roads by their very nature were a routine of point, blast, brake, turn on a repeating loop for mile after mile. While it was positive for progress, it wasn’t something my body could take so our pace backed off, allowing Tim driving the Prius to develop a substantial lead.
Dawn awoke with the immediacy of a light switch being flicked on, the Brecon Beacons magnificent in the morning sun as we passed through the valleys beneath. As the straights lengthened and bends softened #TeamFast began to make decent headway into #TeamFrugal’s lead, the snarl of the GT86’s 2-litre engine echoing off the landscape.
The miles are longer in Wales. They must be. That 170 miles took forever, or seemed like they did, dawn bringing some sense of progress. Although purists will argue the Prius couldn’t have been as much fun over such a picturesque and demanding stint, it was. Our fresher faces and lack of queasiness suggest the more compliant ride quality and the smooth, gearless hybrid transmission was paying dividends after more than three quarters of a day at the wheel.
Entry to Cardiff was surprisingly busy, traffic being much heavier than London’s was as when we left 21 hours earlier but the route to the National Assembly once inside the city’s boundary was one of numerous junctions and roundabouts. Parked up in Cardiff Bay, there was time for a brief contemplation and limb stretch before the final leg to Silverstone could commence.
Leg 6 – Cardiff to Silverstone
GT86 | 11:46 | 1269 miles | 35mpg | 53mph
Prius | 11:45 | 1285 miles | 53mpg | 54mph
The prospect of covering 130 miles in just under two and a half hours seemed a relatively straightforward one, especially as the final leg involved three sections of motorway. Surely, as long as we maximised our time at 70mph, the cross country routes would be fine, wouldn’t they?
We joined the swooping M4 heading eastwards towards the Severn Crossing in good time, being back in England just after 10:00. And then we stopped. At the M4’s junction with the M5 lurked a mile long tailback of traffic that was barely moving. Over 20 minutes were lost for both cars as we gradually eased our way towards the left of the carriageway, traffic being ever so slightly freer flowing in Lane 1.
Pace once again back up, our hopes were raised and the sun shining down on us felt like a good sign. Progress eased as we peeled off the M5 heading towards Oxford but wasn’t particularly slow. The GT86 and Prius ran in convoy behind numerous vans, motorhomes, trucks and the occasional dreaded tractor.
But speed continued to diminish, the satnav pessimistically suggesting that the Silverstone ETA was going to be after midday, meaning the challenge of covering the parliaments and peaks of Britain in under 24 hours was going to snatched from the jaws of victory.
Tim was kind enough to praise my Highland stint into Fort William. Half a day later I’m happy to repay the compliment as he chases across the Oxfordshire countryside. In an echo of the start in London, we decide to take a different route to the GT86, aiming to avoid Oxford. Initial smugness is crushed by heavy traffic, a tractor and narrow village lanes. Then we pop out on the Brackley bypass. Suddenly we know where we are and more importantly know that we can make it in time. The only question is will we beat #TeamFast?
A34 approaching and #TeamFrugal decided to cut its losses, once again going off the chosen path and bypassing Oxford to go a countryside route towards the M40. Initially the occupants of #TeamFast laughed as we immediately hit a fine section of speed-building dual carriageway but it soon came to naught as we hit another tailback. We were 1.7 miles from the M40 junction, a distance that took a miserable 20 minutes to complete. The doom-mongering navigation system screen blinked again suggesting that we’d be at Silverstone at 12:07. We had to get absolutely everything we could from the GT86. And it delivered.
A solitary section of the M40 done and dusted the final stretch along the A43 was all that stood between us and the minute hand reaching noon before we got to Silverstone. Roundabout after roundabout was swiftly dealt with, the GT86’s twin exhausts woofling with vibrating anger as every one of those 200 underbonnet horses galloped towards the finishing line. With every half mile the expected arrival time dropped: surely we were going to do it..?
At 11:45 #TeamFrugal crossed through the main entrance gate to Silverstone, followed less than a minute later by #TeamFast. Both cars had succeeded, the Prius actually covering an additional 16 miles due to its detours.
Slowly we edged our way around to the upper level of the Silverstone Wing, where Anthony Davidson, star driver for Toyota’s World Endurance Championship team driving the Hybrid TS030, was all set to record some corporate filming. He was fresh faced and fit, despite the injuries sustained at Le Mans a few weeks earlier. The four Fast And Frugalers looked like a dishevelled troupe of tramps by comparison.
We did it. Our navigational liberalism saw the Prius Plug-in cover more miles but we made it in time and our economy, as expected, much better. Other than the initial run through London to the M1 in EV mode we had not made any effort to drive economically, often quiet the reverse, yet the Prius Plug-in managed 54mpg, nearly 40% better than the GT86.
So what does that prove? Nothing. We didn’t set out to prove anything other than that it is still possible for a bunch of petrolheads to have fun on an epic drive. It might not have the glamour or fame of Route 66 but our peaks and parliaments route took in the best of Britain. I’m already wondering when, and what in, I’ll do it next.
The GT86 and Prius Plug-in were manoeuvred for a final photo call as the success of our adventure began to dawn upon us.
They might be polar opposites in terms of their conception but both cars proved to be fast and frugal after a gruelling all-day long slog having covered just shy of 1300 miles. And in their own ways, both had demonstrated they were also fun and welcome friends over those 24 hours.
Men and machines in harmony.
All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2012 and © Tim Hutton 2012