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From Tangiers to Goodwood on one tank of fuel | Thank Frankel it's Friday

14th June 2024
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

There have been many stunts that looked far more mad than this, but when I think of the challenge that was simply the most implausible, I think trying to drive from Africa to England nonstop without refuelling probably takes the biscuit.

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Many activities have been far more dangerous, and others far more headline worthy: standing and saluting out of the side window of a Mini being driven on two wheels at a 45-degree angle. Trying to drive a Porsche 964 Turbo around a speed bowl at over 170mph with just one hand trying to deal with 90 degrees of understeer, because the other was holding the stop watch among them. Yet, I’m thinking of that cross-continent drive now because this weekend marks the tenth anniversary of that particular escapade, though it feels like it was just last year.

The idea came from one Angus Fitton, then a PR manager at Mercedes-Benz in the UK, now boss of all Porsche’s public affairs in the US. Had anyone else mentioned it I’d have thought them mad, or cheating because, to be honest, it could quite easily be done if you drove the car to Bilbao and then put it on a 24-hour ferry ride to Blighty. But Angus wanted it done legitimately, driving the car from Tangiers to Dieppe, then taking the short crossing to Newhaven in time for it to appear at the opening of the 2014 Goodwood Festival of Speed.

The original plan wasn’t to do it non-stop, but once I’d thought about it and realised how much fuel would be used letting the 2.2-litre diesel Mercedes E300 engine (with mild hybrid attached) get stone cold and heating it up again, and considered how much more efficiently we’d be able to travel when everyone else was asleep, it was fairly obvious that we had no choice but to keep going if we were to stand a chance. The fact it made a far better story was by no means lost on me, but it was an entirely incidental consideration.

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And we knew we had to do everything - and I do mean everything - to give ourselves that chance. We were, after all, asking a car you’d be happy to see return 45mpg in normal running manage over 70mpg, and do it for a period of time that was clearly going to exceed 24 hours, across a distance the uncomfortable side of 1200 miles. So, I’d drive alone, and with the air-conditioning off. There was a support car and spare driver because we couldn’t risk exhaustion ruining the attempt, but in the end, he only ended up doing an hour or two at the most because he was having trouble staying awake too.

The day wouldn’t even start in Africa. We slept in Algeciras, then got the ferry to Tangiers in the morning, then had to import the car and find a steep bank so we could tilt it to one side so that a few additional drops of diesel from our jerry can might find its way into the tank. Like I said, we tried everything. We inflated the tyres to the max and even considered taping over the panel gaps, but that felt like cheating.

And so, off we went. My fear was that I’d be ordered to do 30mph or something, but Mercedes’ engineers had looked long and hard at the additional drag of extra speed, and how it was offset by the higher gears it would bring, and concluded that 56mph on the straight and level was the optimal speed. So that’s what I did. For hour after hour after hour. All the way up through Spain and across the border into France. We stopped only when the need for a comfort break became unbearable, we weren’t even delayed by toll booths; the support crew was always ahead, paid for me and begged the attendant to leave the barrier open, which they duly did.

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But we had a deadline. We had to catch a particular ferry if we were to make it to Goodwood on time, and despite all our efforts, it became abundantly clear we were going to miss it. And I couldn’t floor it to make up time because that would simply ensure we missed it by running out of fuel. So, Angus did what Angus does best. He had an idea. And rang the press office of Brittany Ferries, identified a kindred spirit in the same line of work and begged them not to leave without us. I don’t know if they inconvenienced a few hundred passengers by actually delaying the ferry, but what I do know is that they were at the port, waiting for us and I’ve never progressed from shore to ship so fast in my life, before or since.

So, we made it to Goodwood. The car, which did at least 70 miles with the computer range on zero never missed a beat. It did 1,226 miles and averaged just a little less than 75mpg – even if the trip computer claimed it was a little more. Was I pleased to have done it? You bet, but not half so pleased as I was to know I’d never have to do anything like it ever again.

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