France | Germany | Italy

A Car Enthusiast’s Road Trip

What Was Your First Love?

I bought my first car when I was 15, before I could even get my driver’s license. It was a 1977 Austin Mini that I paid $400 for. The floor was rusted, the heater didn’t work, the 998cc engine was well past its prime – but I loved it.

I spent hours washing and waxing it, and before I could legally drive on the street I would drive it up and down the driveway of my house.

Classic cars and traveling are huge passions of mine, and so after selling my business I decided to combine the two and set out on a car enthusiast’s road trip across Europe.

A Photographic Tour of Paris

When I travel, I try to avoid visiting the popular tourist attractions. I find that they are usually crowded and less spectacular than what is shown in the travel brochures. Instead I prefer to wander the city and soak in the atmosphere as I explore on foot with my camera.

Since I had a few days to spare before starting my road trip, I contacted Elena from Better Travel Photos to book a photo tour of Paris. Elena turned out to be a fantastic tour guide and it was an incredibly fun way of seeing different parts of the city. Plus, I learned a lot from her about how to improve my photography skills.

Nürburgring: Track of Legends

Built in the 1920s, the Nurburging has become a popular testing ground for competitive manufacturers, all of whom are looking to prove that their cars can lap the famous North Loop the fastest. The Nordschleife, as it’s known in German, consists of 154 corners, 300 meters of elevation changes and is 20km of flat-out fun!

The great thing about Nürburgring is that, outside of scheduled events, it’s open to the public, and anyone with a few Euros and the willingness to test their driving skills can have a go at it.

I was keen to experience it myself, but rather than risk pushing the limits of my rental car, I contacted the team at RSR Nurburg who provided me with a fully race-equipped car, along with an instructor for the day.

I had a somewhat vague understanding of the course from having played Gran Turismo on the PS4, but what I didn’t expect was the elevation changes and the bumps on the road. In the game, everything is smooth, but once strapped into the seat of my race-prepped Alfa Romero I could feel every bump and kerb of the track.

I also didn’t expect how many other cars there would be. I kept having to check my rear view mirror to make sure I wasn’t holding anyone up. I didn’t have to worry too much, as all the other drivers were very professional in dealing with a newbie to the track. Though, I must say, as a guy who loves his cars, it is a little embarrassing to look in your rear-view mirror and see a line of go-fast cars all waiting patiently for an opportunity to pass you.

After a few laps, I felt that I was getting the hang of it and thought that I was doing better at picking the correct racing line until my German instructor pointed out, in his matter of fact way, that I was “two meters away from ze apex”.

Driving the Nurburgring was a huge checkbox on my bucket list, and the experience was more exhilarating than I could have ever imagined. I am envious of the car and bike fans who live close by, and who have easy access to this amazing racetrack.


Tough Competition in Stuttgart

After handing the keys back to my instructor, it was time to head south to Stuttgart and visit the first two automobile museums of my trip.

Opened in 2006, the Mercedes Museum offers a fascinating look into the 130-year history of the German marque. The museum is divided into nine floors and houses over 160 vehicles divided into various themes dating back through the long history of the brand.

I was actually surprised at how busy the museum was, and in talking to some of the other visitors, I found out that most weren’t car fanatics at all. In fact, many people I talked to were interested in learning about the business history of Mercedes-Benz and the role the company played at each moment in history.

I even met one gentleman who had no interest in the cars or business but was there to photograph the UNStudio designed building.

Across town lay the Porsche Museum, and while it was smaller than the Mercedes Museum, the building and cars on display were equally impressive. It was interesting to read about the history of Porsche. Today, they are known for their sports cars, but the very first model was actually an electric car, perhaps demonstrating how far ahead of his time Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was.

While both museums are an obvious draw for car enthusiasts, I think they can be also entertaining for anyone interested in the history of these two companies, both of which have played an important role in shaping many different industries.

Much Ado about Munich

Heading south, the drive from Stuttgart to Munich was simply fantastic. With the Bavarian Alps ever in the distance, the road cut through the beautiful green hills, taking in long sweeping corners, climbing and dipping through forests, villages and cities alike; the Germans really do know how to build great roads!

Like the two previous museums, the BMW Welt is set in a massive, architectural wonder that looked more like a spaceship than a car museum. The museum showcased historic originals, old classics, and ultra modern concepts, as well as a huge collection of motorcycles.

While the museum was interesting, and I enjoyed seeing all the old classics on display, it wasn’t the main reason why I came to Munich.

For some years now, BMW has offered a service called ‘BMW on Demand’ where you can rent cars from their current lineup. Rentals can be hourly, or even daily, and designed to give a prospective buyer an idea of what owning that particular model would be like. I have no desire to buy a modern BMW, but tucked away in a remote office park is BMW Group Classic, which is also part of the ‘BMW on Demand’ service.

BMW Classic offers a number of historic cars and motorcycles for rent and being an E30 M3 owner, I had my heart set on the BMW Z1.

Produced in very limited numbers in the late 80s early 90s as a design concept, the BMW Z1 is one of the most unique cars to ever come from BMW’s production line.

The most eye-catching part of the design is the doors, which drop down into the body of the car, rather than those that swing out. This gives the car a very low slung appearance and it’s something I’ve wanted to drive for a very long time.

The unofficial rumor is that the Z1 was designed by motorcycle enthusiasts that wanted to build a car which gave the driver the same feeling as riding a motorbike. With the convertible-top down and the doors lowered, it’s tempting to lean out of the side of the car as you drive around corners.

Unfortunately, there would be no knee-down driving for me, as it was raining the day I went to pick up the car. I kept checking the weather app on my phone, hoping for a break, but by the time I picked up the car, it was raining even harder. With visibility limited, my dream of driving the Z1 on the roads around Munich was reduced to driving around a roundabout in an office complex.

However, about halfway through the day, as I was waiting at a traffic light, the weather Gods shone down on me, and there was a break in the rain. I quickly jumped out, put the roof down and triumphantly lowered the doors!

I blasted down the road, the spray soaking my side, but I didn’t care; I was living the dream! Kinda… It was all fun and games, until ten minutes later when the heavens opened up once again and I had to jump out to replace the roof and doors. Sadly I put the doors back up and returned the car back to BMW.

I’ve since learned BMW Classic has moved out of their warehouse and into a proper museum next to the BMW Welt. As well as having new digs they have expanded the range of classic cars available, which means that a trip back to Munich is a must-do in the future.

A Slow Drive in Italy

Leaving the rain, classic cars, and beer halls of Munich behind, I once again pointed my rental car south, this time into the mountains of northern Italy. To say the scenery and the roads were stunning would be a huge understatement. The Alpine passes were amazing, and open up a world of twists and turns, dark pine forests and incredible views over the peaks. I drove into the clouds, and out the other side again, making my way down the twistier, smaller mountain roads, all the way to Lake Garda.

Lake Garda is the more relaxed, quieter sister of the popular Lake Como, which after numerous city stops, was just what I was looking for in order to unwind. I had originally planned to take a boat out onto the lake, however, the weather foiled my plans once again! The day I was set to sail, the wind had gotten up and was too fierce to head out.

Determined to find something to do I turned to Google where I discovered Slow Drive, a classic car rental shop that rents cars for scenic, leisurely drives around the lake.

From Morgans to Alfa Romeos, MGs to VWs, Slow Drive has a wide range of classics to choose from. Having always been a fan of open top, low-slung sports cars, I chose a British Racing Green Triumph Spitfire MK II.

After a bit of paperwork, and a quick check of the car, they handed me the keys, a pair of driving gloves, a pair of sunglasses for the girlfriend, and a map, complete with various routes around the lake and into the mountains.

Fortunately for us, the sun was out and it was perfect weather as we cruised through the tiny Italian villages, into the mountain passes, and through the tunnels that run alongside the lake. The very same tunnels that were used in the opening car chase scene in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

The movie may have sucked but driving around Lake Garda was absolutely fantastic! Rolling through the Italian towns and villages, I could almost imagine that I was taking part in the legendary Mille Miglia race.

I couldn’t help but think that it is the unexpected things that happen while you’re traveling that really make lasting memories, and a day that had started off with disappointment ended up being one of the highlights of the entire trip!

Striking Gold in Lucerne

From Lake Garda, we drove to the Swiss town of Lucerne and Mount Pilatus, home to the steepest cogwheel railway in the world.

We decided to opt for the Golden Round Trip tickets that included a boat ride across a mountain lake, a ride on the cogwheel railway that takes you to the summit of Mount Pilatus, and finally a gondola ride back down again.

The highlight of the day had to be the train ride up to the top of the mountain, chugging through quiet green pastures full of cows, craggy boulder fields and, eventually, to the peak. The cloud cover was low that day, and as we pushed through the clouds we were treated to a spectacular site of clear blue skies, vast mountain peaks, and visibility for miles and miles.

We ended the day with a delicious lunch, and a nice, crisp golden beer while enjoying the stunning view from atop the mountain.

Mulhouse Madness

With a population of under 100,000 people, Mulhouse is hardly a bustling city, and to be honest, there’s very little to do. In fact, it’s unlikely that anyone ever visits this tiny town on the border between France and Germany, except if you are a fan of Bugatti Motorcars.

I dropped the girlfriend off in Zurich to do some shopping and drove up to Mulhouse to check out two of the coolest museums I’ve ever visited.

The origins of the Cité de l’Automobile is somewhat fascinating. It was originally a private collection of Bugatti Motorcars put together by the Schlumpf brothers who ran a hugely successful textile mill. Over the years, they indulged in their automotive obsession by secretly buying old cars and storing them in an unused part of the mill.

As textile business began to slump, debt piled up and after months without pay, the Schlumpfs’ workers became angry. They eventually broke into the mill and, to their amazement, discovered the secret stash of cars. To “encourage” the brothers to pay their workers, they set fire to one of the cars and sent the photos to the brothers.

As the textile industry shifted to Asia, the Schlumpf brothers abandoned their prized car collection and fled to Switzerland. The textile union then opened the secret museum to the public, using the profits to recover their losses. Eventually, the whole collection was sold to the National Automobile Museum Association, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nowadays, the museum houses over 500 cars in three main sections. The Bugattis are still prominent to the collection and are housed in their own section. I was a little surprised that I could get so close to the three Bugatti Royale’s that they have on display. Not very often do I get to be this close to a car that is worth over $10 million.

I still had some time before I had to pick up the girlfriend, so I drove over to what has to be the coolest train museum in the world!

The Cité du Train is one of the ten largest railway museums in the world and provides an amazing interactive experience for any railway fans.

The first thing you’ll notice when you walk into the main area is the sound. The museum has done a fantastic job of recreating the ambiance of a bustling train station. Train noises play quietly in the background, while announcements call out, and whistles blow every now and then.

You even catch the hubbub of a crowd! The exhibits themselves were also great, with a huge number of engines on display. You could explore the Orient express, or hop aboard one of the oldest steam trains on earth while video screens in the windows make it look like the scenery outside is whizzing on by! It’s this small attention to detail that I loved about the Cité du Train.

Easing Off the Gas

After a fun day in Mulhouse, it was time to hit the road one last time and head back to Paris. The thing I absolutely love about visiting Europe is the ability to see and experience so many different things in such a small area.

What had begun as an exploration of car museums had turned into a journey of unexpected surprises. I enjoyed learning about all the different modes of transport around the world, from cogwheel railways to rickety old steam trains. I also learned that, while driving fast is exhilarating, sometimes it takes a slow drive to really enjoy the world around you.