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The Road is Life!

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OK, despite the meteorological evidence out there, it is the height of summer. And the height of summer is the time of the Road Trip. For any dyed-in-the-wool lover of cars, there is no better way to pay homage to the Holy Month of August than to jump into your ride of choice and head for the horizon.

So, in honour of this time when the automotive shackles come off and you reach out to the further reaches of road-going possibility, we have put together a thread of features to highlight the best things about being out of the workaday realities of existence and heading out on the road.

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No road trip, for example, could be complete without the perfect playlist. We have selected, from a straw poll of the Influx devotees, some of the most essential tunes to keep the motorway tripping through peripheral vision and the landscape opening up around you.

If you’re just about to set off on the big adventure, we’ve selected our top ten cinematic road trips. The road has been mythologized by film makers since the dawn of the moving image, from Vanishing Point to Easy Rider and beyond. We respectfully present some on-screen action that will inspire you to take your trip further.

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And while we’re on the subject of road trippin’, who better to evoke the essential creativity of being behind the wheel than King of the Beats and Holy Goof of the Road Neal Cassady. Jack Kerouac’s wing man is bought to you by in-house artist Paul Willoughby and Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey.

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Thinking about the purchase of the ultimate road trip vehicle? Then check out Mickey G and Justine’s classic Canterbury Conversion Transit Camper. Never was a road-wagon more suited to experiential discovery. And never was an affordable vehicle more suited to nurturing and appreciation than one of the truly classic retro campers.

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For pure unadulterated adventure, take a look at the selection of tales from Influx scribes Rich Beach, Ben Oliver and Michael Fordham, who have used their hard-earned press cards as magic carpets in miniature, little tickets to the back and beyond of automotive adventure that tell us something serious about the road as metaphor for the best things in life.

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Probably more road miles have been travelled in the VW camper than any other road-going ride meanwhile: and we take a look at the evolution of this classic – from utopian family vehicle to Extreme Sports icon and everything in between.

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The Road is Life: Influx brings you some tales from the fringes….

Top Ten Road Movies

We think these are the best road movies ever made. Disagree? Then let us know...

Two Lane Blacktop

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James Taylor (yes that one) and Dennis Wilson (from the Beach Boys) and a tricked out sleeper of a 55 Chevy. Put them together and you have the coolest road movie ever.

National Lampoon’s European Vacation

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Chevy Chase and family cross the Old Continent as the perfect approximation of the American güber. A classic of comedic errors.



Duel

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Spielberg's first feature and a terrifying ode to sustained road rage.

Thelma and Louise

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In the top ten because girls love it. And so do we.

Easy Rider

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Definitive Americana with Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda.

Little Miss Sunshine

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Sweet, succinct and features a killer VW camper. What's not to like?

Motorcycle Diaries

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The reason Che Guevara is an icoc of revoution is because he knew how to live a true road trip.

Mad Max

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Classic Aussie apocalyptica before Mel Gibson went weird.

Sideways

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Two men of a certain age get on the road to taste fine wine and have menopausal misadventures. The Saab 900 convertible reflects the washed-up nature of the main characters. Elegant and touching.

Vanishing Point

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Extreme GTO-pedalling in the mode of the sexually promiscious seventies.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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Depp as Hunter S Thompson into the Dantean inferno of Vegas. On Acid.

Feel free to tell us your additions to the list...

Gonzo! Three tales from the road

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BUILT FOR SPEED
Breathless to Bogota in a battered old Dodge.

I never realised what a nutter she was. Sure, before we went to Colombia, I should have taken the hint. There was the midnight madness of a cross-London spank in her convertible Twinspark Alfa after the meeting where we discussed the trip, after all. Then, when her interest in all things automotive was made plain to me by the fact that her father raced with Stirling Moss, and her middle name was Hawthorn. All I know is that I shouldn’t have let the photographer drive the most dangerous road in the world. With me in the passenger seat.

Cartagena to Bogota: it had a ring to it. We’d spent the majority of the budget on extended our stay in the National Park up north. A one-way flight back to the Capital was super expensive and the flight path passed dangerously close to the war-wracked hills of Colombia’s central massif. The bus journey up there had been horrific. So, the only thing left was to borrow a motor. The Photographer had a mate down in Bogota who wanted to take delivery of the old clunker , so that was it. Thing is, I’d left my driving licence at home, so therefore, she told me I shouldn’t drive. It’s a laughable contradiction. To be insured comprehensively in Colombia can be likened to being swaddled by a 2 ply continental duvet from Argos at the South Pole, and feeling smug about it.

The two things I remember about this road trip from hell are the treacle thick sensation of fear and the pounding, relentless Salsa that emitted from the speakers of the old wreck. Colombians know nothing about traffic engineering. Road laws are non-existent, and the cops are of course more dangerous than the milita that control the countryside. The two lane highways were a testament therefore to the exuberance of the Colombia temperament and the anarchy that the cocaine economy had bestowed upon its people.

The Photographer was a certified nutcase behind the wheel, though I have to admit, she was rather skilled if ragged in her style. At first I was all for it, the dick and run and jerk and madness of it seemed to fit the surroundings. She’d intersperse her manic jigging to the local rhythms with anecdotes automotive and generally debauched. It was only into the twelfth hour of the trip when the tropical night closed in and the paucity of working head lamps in the nation-state of Colombia began to be all too apparent.

It came to a head when The Photographer insisted on picking up a couple of hitch hikers we met at a midnight road side stop. The two narcotourists from the leafier sides of Surrey and Lincolnshire respectively had been on it for three months solid, all the way up from Cuziosco, via a Yage session communing with spirit guides in the Venezuelan bush, and had lately been shored up in the prettier parts of Caribbean Colombia. Sweaty and mind-bruised to a man and reeking of chemicals and unwashed clothes, they insisted on encouraging The Photographer to race every lampless artic and wobbly wheeled dumper truck to every narrow bridge and around every blind corner that long, viscous night.

By the time we arrived in Bogota my nerves were shot, and I wanted, almost craved _ a serious smashup to wake the photographer from her insane dependence on forward trajectory. Passing the suburbs to the north of the city we saw a dead body rotting in a layby. The cadaver of the middle aged man had on his yellow T-shirt a black logo. BUILT FOR SPEED, it read.

by Michael Fordham

Russian Roulette:
A Cab Through Moscow

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The New Russia might have chosen a better ambassador than the taxi driver who collected me from the airport in rare, intense sunshine and heat. The trip would take me straight through the heart of this extraordinary place; it was my first visit, and it wasn’t starting well.

His Ford Focus estate was so trashed the bootlid was jammed shut and we had to fold the rear seats down to load the bags into the boot. Inside, he had a knuckleduster taped to the dash, a knife stabbed into the door trim and a hammer under the seat. There was a picture of a soldier taped to the rear view mirror (brother? Boyfriend? Army buddy killed by the Chechens?) and once we were underway he rolled up his sleeves, trouser legs and the body of his shirt to reveal some horrific scarring, which he proceeded to scratch vigorously for the hour and half it took to get to the centre of the town, a journey lengthened by regular pauses to shout at women by the roadside, and a novel driving technique in which he slowed to 20mph when the road was clear, but weaved at insane speeds through traffic like a crackhead on the run in Police Camera Action. It was the single most terrifying taxi ride I will ever have, but bailing on the well-armed Scratchy and getting lost in this alien city of ten million just wasn’t an option.

In those brief periods when my eyes weren’t tight shut with fear I marvelled at Moscow. The Russians might have come late to capitalism but they’ve embraced it with extraordinary enthusiasm. The billboards here are bigger than anywhere else; we drove past one for BMW next to the Kremlin on the Moscow River that covered an acre and a half and featured all four M-cars suspended on their sides as if they’re racing across it.

Russia’s car boom – and subsequent bust - has brought chronic congestion and parking shortages to this city of 10 million. It is so cold in winter (minus 20 is normal, but they often see minus 35) that Muscovites start their cars and leave them running for an hour before they need to drive. There is an underclass of ancient Ladas, vast, square Volgas, more modern but utterly unremarkable Lada hatches and plenty of Chinese models too, including the infamous Chery QQ, a direct rip-off of the Daewoo Matiz. The bulk of the cars competing with our cab were your standard international small hatch or saloon – Toyotas, Hyundais, Fords and Renaults. But there are probably more high-end cars on the streets here than in any other European city I’ve been to, London excepted, though most of the Bentleys there are driven by Russians anyway. Government officials treat themselves to long black S-classes, A8s and 7-series with discreet blue lights on top, and in that one taxi ride I clocked half a dozen Maybachs, three Murcielagos and my first F430 Scuderia.

Moscow’s roads are a wet dream for those militant motorists’-rights nutjobs you hear on British radio phone-ins; fourteen lanes across in places, with no congestion charge, gas at 50p per litre and virtually no cyclists. But if the police see the slightest infringement they’ll stop you and expect a bribe. There’s an unofficial but well-understood price list, pegged at about half the official fine. Russian motorists are well advised not to protest; one drivers’–rights activist wound up in hospital for a month with severe head injuries.

If only they’d stopped Scratchy, I’d have happily paid his fine, and got another cab. He got me there physically intact, but mentally scarred. I didn’t offer a tip.

by Ben Oliver

Loebmania!

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“Don’t you mean merde?” grumbled James, the photographer. Busy fiddling with his cameras in the passenger seat, he hadn’t seen the blue Ford Focus with ‘Gendarmarie’ along its side. That other French word meant police but spelt trouble. The enemy was sat at the side of the motorway on a dusty side road, a speed gun aimed squarely at us, poking out of the driver’s window.

“No, you’re right, it is merde.”
We had only left Calais half an hour earlier and had 500 miles to get to Valence. The Monte Carlo Rally was getting underway and we didn’t need any hold-ups on this 8-hour drive.

Five minutes later and the Focus cop car was on our tail but hanging back. Normally, passing a speed trap in France in an English-plated car would automatically warrant trouble, or at least the raping of an English wallet. But on this trip our ride of choice threw the Gendarme into a world of confusion. We were in a modified Citroen C4. The car belonged to Citroen’s UK press office and was such an accurate replica of Sebastien Loeb’s rally car, we had been causing a right stir since we entered France.

“I had no idea Loeb was so popular” James said.
Since hitting France we had been mobbed at one petrol station, chased by cars with phone cameras waving out the windows and were now being followed by a cop car. Ten minutes of tailing and the police over took and sat in front of us for another five minutes.

Just as we approached a turn off towards a péage booth, the blue lights went on and we were signalled to follow. As we stopped the driver called another officer over from a police station by the edge of the péage. A spikey blonde-haired cop bounced towards us, his wide eyes fixated on the car. He was an amateur rally driver – the first of many we were to meet.

While the young wannabe Loeb looked around the car, the driver showed me my speed on the gun. I had been caught doing 142kph; the limit is 130. “Too fast” he said. Oh bugger, here we go… “Can you take picture please?” Huh?! The chubby lead copper handed me his pocket camera and positioned himself next to the C4 where his exuberant sidekick already stood, wearing a cheesy grin. Fine. We snapped away. They got on their knees and studied the exhaust system, not for legalities but as enthusiasts. We were safe. A few hand shakes and we were on our way. We were driving the ultimate get-out-of-jail –card.

After a weekend of driving where no-one else was allowed, fending off middle-aged female rally fans who wanted to marry Loeb, and a swift police escort up the to the start of the Col de Turini stage, we began our 4-hour trip north. Beaune was our overnight stop before our dash to Calais the following morning.

We were making good time back to Calais. About one song on the iPod later and we barrelled past a speed trap: a camera on a tripod in a layby with a cop car sitting a few metres back from it.

“Merde!!” (again). Thinking we were better off maintaining speed to the next rest area, signposted ahead, and hide, we didn’t slow down, assuming it would take them a while to catch up. We hadn’t considered these speed traps mean a chase car sits further up the road and is radioed by the first.

As we spotted the second Gendarmerie waiting up ahead, our hearts sank. But before I could lift off the gas, it happened again. The uniformed driver, already informed by the first car about us, stuck his upper body out of the window and punched his fist in the air in our honour, before clapping with both hands. We had fooled them and they didn’t care how quick we were going. In fact they saluted our pace. Well, we had just won the rally again.
“Holy shit! Thank God for that,” blurted James.
“No,” I said. “Thank Loeb”

“Same thing over here.”

by Rich Beach

Road Trip Playlist

These are our top 20 tunes for a roadtrip. What tunes make your long distance drives go a little quicker? Leave a comment and let us know...

Tame Impala1. Half Full Glass of Wine: Tame Impalas
Driving Indie Blues Rock you'll recognise from the TV. Directional and rocking.
 
 

Betty Harris
2. There's a Break in the Road: Betty Harris
Down and dirty funk perfect for laying down rubber.
 
 

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3. Mr Big: Free
Elliptical shifting from the Spinal Tap tribute band from the early seventies.
 
 

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4. Driving South: Stone Roses
Manc attitude par excellence with pounding riffs from the Monkey Men.
 
 

Kraftwerk

5. Autobahn: Kraftwerk
Glorious misanthropy from the centre of Euro dystopia.
 
 
 

Bobby Fuller Four

6. I fought the Law: The Bobby Fuller Four
Original Rebel Music: let the desert winds blow!
 
 

Davie Allan and the Arrows

7. Left turn on arrow only: Davie Allan and the Arrows
Obscure and burning strings straight out of the Lost Highway.
 
 
 

Foo Fighters

8. Learn to Fly: Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl and co bring you a contemporary classic that sounds better than sex on the car radio.
 
 
 

Chuck Berry

9. Johnny B Goode: Chuck Berry
Essential roots rock meant for swift cruisin'.
 
 
 

The Wipeouts

10. Dead Man's Curve: The Wipeouts
A dispatch from the beginnings of street racing culture.
 
 
 

Beach Boys

11. Shut Down: The Beach Boys
Leave the Noseriders alone chaps. Stick to the four to the floor.
 
 
 

Leftfield

12. Phat Planet: Leftfield
A tick and a tock. Put the pedal to the metal!
 
 
 

Upsetters

13. Live Injection: The Upsetters
A downshift and a change of pace that still goes with the flow.
 
 
 

AC/DC

14. Highway to Hell: AC/DC
Nod your head and flash the steer's horns on the highway, baby.
 
 
 

Muse

15. Plug In Baby: Muse
Contemporary roughness for the blacktop in our time.
 
 
 

Blur

16. Song 2: Blur
Whoo-Hoo indeed.
 
 
 

Tom Robinson

17. 2-4-6-8 Motorway: Tom Robinson
Perennial dad rock that evokes the British Leyland vehicle of your imagination.
 
 
 

Johnny Jenkins

18. Down the road I go: Johnny Jenkins
Dirty harp-driven blues from the southland.
 
 
 

Eddie Cochran

19. Something Else: Eddie Cochran
He died in a Ford Consul in Chippenham. What a rocker!
 
 
 

Ricky Valance

20. Shaking All Over: Ricky Valance
We end with a slick rocking classic.
 
 
 

VW Transporter: Evolution of the Legend

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I bought my left hand drive, 1968 VW camper for £100. When we picked it up, the vendor gave us a nod and a wink while he showed us the dodgy MOT. "Make sure you pump the brakes, lads," he said brightly with a wave as we roared off down the road, happy as a couple of hippies on their way to Woodstock.

He wasn't lying. In fact, what you had to do to stop the thing was to pump the brakes three times. On the third pump, the offside front drum brake locked up violently, causing the steering wheel to tug violently to the left (mercifuly, away from the oncoming English traffic.

Still, we didn't mind. We initially bought the thing to transport our KX 250 motocrosser to and from the Thames-side wasteground we would ruin on summer nights and sunday mornings – but pretty soon we had sprayed the rusted blue coachwork with ridiculous colourful flowers, had patched up the gaping holes in floorpan and the sills and our group of friends were using it for weekend long jaunts in the discos that littered the Essex coast, where wave-your-hands-in-the air dancefloor debauchery would be followed by hilarious rides home down the A13, where we would try to judge the dual carriageway traffic signals at the constant thrum of fifty (the bus had a stopping distance roughly approximate to that of a supertanker fully loaded with Brent Crude.)

It was desperately dangerous and highly illegal, but that van's personality remains burned into the consciousness of all of us that experienced the hard yards we accomplished in it.

And that's why the VW van remains such an iconic steed. A vehicle originally desinged with European family utopia in mind has been re-imagined by three or four generations of road-happy riders – from card carrying hippies to Observer-reading families, taking in extreme sportsers, AA engineers, medics, rangers and rapscallions along the way.

It might be that the Split Screen classics will always be the most sought after, but the new generation of California campers and Sportline crewcabs are some of the most practical, reliable and desirable multi-use vehicles ever to be designed.

But the abiding memory of that old rust bucket remains its rock solid reliability. After one particularly rancid, snowbound winter back in the day, when the old warhorse had spent three months entombed in snow drifts and ice, I thought I'd step out to see if she would start. That beautiful March morning, just one turn of the key was enough to send the air-cooled engined coughing and wheezing into life. It sent a feeling of possibility shivering through me. And that's why you love the VW Transporter.

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Neal Cassady: Saint of the Holy Road

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After the second world war, things changed fast in America. Legions of middle-class families abandoned the big cities and built comfortable lives in the suburbs. Few individuals seem prepared to break the chrome-clad, dollar-stamped mould. But one that did was Neal Cassady.

And ironically he sought freedom in two things as American as cherry pie: the road and the automobile.

Cassady’s 1940s exploits with cars have been immortalised in Jack Kerouac’s classic novel, On The Road, whose hero, Dean Moriarty, is a thinly disguised portrait of a working-class kid from Denver. Cassady was later recruited to drive writer Ken Kesey and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ bus, ‘Further’. That day-glo painted 1939 International Harvester, as recorded in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, took off around America’s west coast in the mid-sixties introducing the world to the then-legal LSD insurgency. It was fitting: a man considered to be a central inspiration of the hippy movement had won himself a place behind the wheel of its primary automotive symbol.

He has been remembered as spontaneity itself and never more so than when he was behind the wheel. “When you went riding with him,” said Jerry Garcia of the Merry Pranksters’ house band, The Grateful Dead, “it was to be afraid as you could be, to be in fear for your life. You’d be racing around San Francisco at 50 or 60 miles per hour, up and down those streets with blind corners everywhere and he’d cut around them in the wrong lane and make insane moves in the most intense traffic situations. He could see round corners. And while he was doing this he’d be talking to everyone in the car at once and dialling in the radio and fumbling with a roach.”

Kerouac used the frantic kinesis of his road-buddy as an extended metaphor: “The most fantastic parking lot attendant in the world, Cassady could back a car 40 miles an hour into a tight squeeze and stop at the wall, jump out, race among fenders, leap into another car, circle it 50 miles an hour into a narrow space, back swiftly into a tight spot, snap the car to a stop so that you could see it bounce as he flies out, then clear to the ticket shack, sprinting like a track star, ticket in hand, leap into a newly arrived car before the owner’s half out, start the car with the door flapping and roar off to the next available spot, arc, pop in, brake, out, run; working like that without pause eight hours a night - in greasy wino pants with a frayed fur-lined jacket and beat shoes that flap.”

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Cassady’s art was his life, which made it all the more poignant that he was remembered primarily as a driver. Neal ended up rejecting his literary depiction, that of a sexually ferocious, motormouthed überhuman who could hold three conversations at once, orgasm 20 times a day and predict the serial number of a hidden dollar bill up to the 10th digit. Wavy Gravy, one of the Pranksters in chief, summed up the tragedy that was the Cassady myth: “All along the roadside you see the charred remains of people who, in a effort to emulate Cassady, burned themselves out. And we’re not talking about 10 or 20 people here, we’re talking about the hundreds, perhaps thousands who read On The Road and wanted nothing more than to be Neal Cassady.”

In 1968 at the age of 41, Cassady died after collapsing by the side of a Mexican railroad track following an amphetamine-and acid-fuelled final performance. Amongst the last acts was a series of drunken midnight speed runs in a Lotus Elan. According to Ken Kesey who was there that night, Cassady’s last words were “sixtyfour thousand, nine hundred and twenty eight”. Apparently he had been counting ties in the aforementioned railroad track that cold night whilst attempting to reach the next town.

Who knows what legends would have been written if the man in the driving seat of a generation hadn’t finally run out of gas?

The Canterbury Conversion

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Mickey Gibbons has only lived with his1971 Ford Transit MK1 Canterbury Conversion for two years - but already its personality is burned into his hearts and minds. "Her name is Susan, Mickey tells me as we prepare to pull away into a North Essex countryside yellowing with ripening wheat, "The name just seemed to fit. It's definitely a feminine vehicle, but is also quite practical. The name Susan seemed to say that to me."

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Giving names to vehicles is a notoriously polarising piece of anthropomorphism. But if any vehicle on the road had a personality to which you could ascribe human attributes, it would be this pretty camper.

"The thing I love about it is the fact that so many other people love it," Says the graphic artist. As he shows me the original plug, a tiny, forty year old plug that came with the van. "You could do a social history of England just through this van. We've just been up to Scotland and back in her, and everyone we met had a story about their old Transit Van, or their old Transit camper. There's something about them that inspires a very real kind of devotion and affection."

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The camper is almost completely original, with the leather strapped top box and modular furniture that came out of the Kent factory back in the time of the Ted Heath Government. The only thing that isn't is the two litre 'PInto' ford engine, a reliable bit of Dagneham engineering that propelled the two of them to the Western Isles of Scotland and back to the Essex countryside they call home. " It was a 1400 mile roundtrip, and we only had one little incident with what the man called an 'Ignition electronic amplifier'." Half a day's delay and eighty quid in parts and labour, and the sailed off into the distance unharrassed. "She's got a 50 mile per hour maximum cruising speed, so we still managed to get 25 MPG." Mickey is obviously a proud partner of the Canterbury.

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Driving a forty year old van is a physical experience. Mickey shows amazing aptitude, throwing the Trannie in and around the tight, undulating lanes around Manningtree with aplomb. It's all about flirting with the gearbox, reading the road ahead and teasing the lower gears in and out of corners. "When I get in a new car, I'm always amazed at how little you have to do!" he says, as we pull out from some stationary traffic and some blokes in a Mercedes Vito pipe up without being asked. "No power steering that one, mate!"

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"The thing is with new cars is that they are so boring, Mickey tells me, as we pull back in to the driveway and fire up the stove for a cup of tea. "They have no personality and are still really expensive to buy and run. We can get out on the road with this van and the journey becomes the destination."

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