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Feature

First published: 28th October 2016

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Feature

Halloween: Our team’s scariest experiences in cars

Given what follows, you may well be shocked that some of us have actually made it this far through life, but we’ll make just one plea: don’t have nightmares.

First published: 28th October 2016
Our Editorial team may struggle to narrow down their favourite times in cars, but as it’s Halloween, we’ve decided to ask them about the darker times, the times they might well rather forget. And, from crashes to frightening passenger rides and near-death experiences, it’s all here.

Given what follows, you may well be shocked that some of us have actually made it this far through life, but we’ll make just one plea: don’t have nightmares.
1970s Mini
May Starey: Mini mayhem
While swinging my way around some lovely Surrey country roads in my little ‘70s Mini, unbeknown to me the cardboard protective cover for the battery in the boot had slid off and the metal petrol can (yes, these were the days of metal petrol cans) had slid over onto the battery, causing it to short out.

This resulted in a lot of popping, hissing and banging; oh, and a bit of battery acid flying up from the boot.

This was followed very quickly by an emergency stop and a sprint away from the car. Well, truth be told, my passenger was out and running before I had actually stopped the car. Yes, I did switch the engine off.

Luckily, the emergency stop removed the petrol can from the battery, so no massive explosion followed. Even so, it took a while and a phone call or two before we plucked up the courage to go back to the car.

God knows what passing road users made of seeing a bright yellow mini abandoned in the middle of a country lane, but I don’t recall thinking about anyone else's safety.
McLaren 570S
Ivan Aistrop: McLaren masochism
The day had started so well. A sunny morning in Portugal, on the launch of the brand new McLaren 570S, and I'd just spent the last 90 minutes or so threading this wonderfully fast and engaging performance car through a long series of very challenging, but also very enjoyable, mountain switchbacks.

And then, we switched drivers.

I'd never previously met the guy McLaren had paired me with. And, when he mentioned the name of the website he worked for, no bells rang. Ironically, that in itself should've set bells of another sort ringing.

When riding shotgun in a car as fast as the 570S, you really want to know the person next to you has two things: a reasonable amount of experience with high-performance machinery, and a level head. As it turned out, my driving partner had neither.

His experience with cars of any sort was incredibly limited. He’d held a valid licence for several years, he told me cheerily, but living in a big city, he had no cause to drive on a regular basis. As such, he’d only ever driven two cars since passing his test – his mum’s Kia, and a Corsa that he’d rented on holiday some years before. Yet somehow, here he was, at the helm of a 562bhp monster, with me in the passenger seat.

This would’ve been less of an issue, had he accepted his limited level of experience and driven the car with a corresponding amount of caution. However, having previously seen what sort of pace the car was capable of in my hands, he seemed determined to match it. He even asked for tips on how to get through the bends faster. I must confess, my answer may have contained one or two porkies designed to slow him down. Fibbing isn’t usually my style, but on this occasion, I felt reasonably justified.

With a moist brow and white knuckles, I counted down every passing kilometre of that journey on the sat-nav until we finally made it back to the drop-off point; thankfully, in one piece. Nowadays, when attending car launches, I tend to steer clear of unfamiliar faces. Not because I’m aloof or unsociable, but because I value my safety.
Kawasaki GT 750
Pete Tullin: Dual-carriageway danger
Hands-up, I’m a total control freak, but bizarrely, I’m also a bit of a fatalist, especially when it comes to motoring. Because, no matter how well I think I drive, I know my wellbeing is totally dependent on other road users.

The incident that really banged home this message happened one winter’s night when travelling down the A31 in Hampshire on my trusty old Kawasaki GT 750.

Crouched over a freezing cold fuel tank and spurred on by the thought of a steaming plate of mince and tatties, I was startled from my hunger pangs by a pair of headlights heading in my direction.

I wouldn’t have considered this a problem, were it not for the fact that the A31 is a dual-carriageway.
As I hammered on the anchors and dived hard left with every fibre of my being, a Honda Jazz flew past my right foot peg with millimetres to spare.

Coming to an abrupt halt in a mercifully convenient layby, I craned my neck in disbelief, only to observe the same Jazz come to an abrupt halt, followed by a hastily constructed three-point-turn, before driving back past me totally oblivious to my existence.

Laugh? I nearly passed my fags around.

Rachael Hogg: Motorway madness
The M4 westbound out of London is not usually a place for speed. I have spent many an evening crawling along at 10mph, if that. However, one very cold winter evening last year, after leaving work later than usual, although the motorway wasn’t exactly car-free, I managed to get my speed up to 70mph.

I was in the outside lane, when the front driver’s side tyre blew out, and my Ford Puma lurched violently towards the central reservation. Somehow, I managed to remember not to brake hard, and steered firmly enough to get the car across two lanes of traffic and onto the hard shoulder.

Slightly shaken, I called my roadside assistance, which didn’t turn up to rescue me for nearly three hours. Zero degrees, with no gloves, no scarf and a thin coat does not make for a pleasant way to spend an evening, especially when you’re stood in some spiky bushes on the M4 in the dark.

Apparently I’d hit some debris on the road, so the blow-out was pretty unavoidable, but it’s always good to check your tyres regularly.
Andy Pringle: Raucous rallying
The mere fact that I was about to be driven in a Proton rally car should have set some alarm bells ringing. Instead, my brain told me the most frightening thing was the early hour. On the upside, I was somewhere in the middle of Wales, watching the early morning mist clear to reveal some of Britain’s most stunning scenery.

Unfortunately, what it also revealed was a Malaysian rally driver who – my hosts cheerfully informed me – had just stepped off an overnight flight. I also seem to remember this was his first time in Europe, and his first time driving on a British rally stage.

I – his first passenger – raised an anxious eyebrow, but what really worried me was that he was shivering in the unaccustomed cold and trying to counteract vicious jet-lag with a life-threatening diet of caffeine and nicotine. And, when I say ‘life-threatening’, I mean it was my life he was threatening.

You see, naïve young man that I was back then, I assumed he would take his first few runs round the practice stage gently. You know, get to know the terrain, the car, the levels of grip, that kind of thing. But, no. He went at it in full attack mode from the off, and I was terrified.

To the best of my knowledge, he had precious little idea where he was going – and no English to ask anyone, anyway. All I remember is a lot of noise, a lot of vibration, and seeing a succession of gates, fences and walls approaching my side window at some speed, before Mr Singh casually caught the drifting car, straightened everything up and buried the throttle pedal to hurl the car on to the next bit of unfamiliar countryside.

Every few yards, the driver and car seemed to perform feats that defied several laws of physics. And, yes, with hindsight, it was an awesome display of driving from a true professional. At the time, all my brain could do was to worry about whether I’d nominated a next of kin.

I’m not saying the experience scarred me, but it was a while before I plucked up the courage to go to Wales again, and, to this day, I don’t think I’ve been in a Proton since.
Jon Quirk: Saloon strike
My scariest car-related incident involves wrapping a Peugeot 406 Executive around a tree. Anybody who has driven one of these mid-90s French saloons may thank me, but I’ll blame unbridled stupidity, a lack of skill, and a youthful sense of immortality on this one.

In damp conditions, I took a corner far too quickly and lifted off the throttle with the same delicacy you’d imagine a boxer applies to buttercream piping. Before I knew it, the rear wheels had lost traction and the back of the car was trying to overtake the front.

This would be my first (and unwanted) experience of ‘lift-off oversteer’, which could have been salvaged with a blend of counter-steering and throttle. Instead, I panicked, slammed on the anchors and headed straight for the nearest elm tree. I learnt then that crashing is important, mainly because it introduces you to a concept you never wish to revisit.

Yet, that wasn’t the scary bit. I had to call my dad moments afterwards to tell him it was his Peugeot 406 Executive saloon that I’d just wrapped around a tree…
Peugeot 106
Paul Bond: Slippery supermini
People have become obsessed by 4x4s in recent years – and normally I’d be the first to say that for road driving, a big SUV is surplus to requirements. Still, there are some exceptions, as I nearly discovered to my cost during the heavy winter snowstorms that hit Britain in January 2013.

The mission was simple: ferry a faithful family pet from London to my Aunt’s in Edinburgh. The vehicle? A clapped-out old Peugeot 106.

The first leg went fine, but on my way back down the A1, the snow (and visibility) grew worse and worse. I was determined to keep going, but after hitting a patch of ice buried under the snow with skinny fairly worn tyres, the whole car pirouetted gracefully across three lanes of traffic, before coming to a gentle stop, facing backwards, on the hard shoulder.

Breathing hard, with my heart-pounding in my ears, but also remarkably unscathed, I then decided that perhaps it might just be a better idea to hole up somewhere and wait for the weather to improve. Still, at least the dog wasn’t in the car at the same time, so there were no witnesses!