V8Nam – the search begins…

So, in 7 months time, I’m driving from the UK to Vietnam.  That means it’s high time I bought a car; but deciding what car is more complex than it first appears…

The importance of choosing the right vehicle for this sort of road trip is something which cannot be overstated; in many ways, it is just as important as the choice of route when it comes to determining what ‘character’ the trip will take on.  Just like travelling by train engenders a journey with a completely different feel to the same trip undertaken on horseback, so, more subtly, different vehicles give a different feel to a road trip – for instance, a long journey in a Bentley will generate completely different memories, conversations and experiences to one undertaken in a Lotus.

So what form do we want this 3-month journey to take?  Just like the African Porsche Expedition, ‘challenging, unlikely, but ultimately achievable’ sums it up – which means I’m not taking a sensible 4×4.   Therefore a car is required, and so a compromise is in order; one which treads the fine line between sensible and outrageous.  Ideally, we want a car which is trustworthy, but not too trustworthy; is eyecatching, but not garish; unlikely, but not impossible; leftfield, but not downright immature.

Many options have been discussed to great lengths over the past month or so, both over pint glasses, and keyboards (particularly over on Pistonheads.com, link here), and a few frontrunning suggestions have emerged – vehicles which, in my minds eye, would just look ‘right’ on the Kazakh Steppe, or climbing onto the Tibetan Plateau.  Some of these frontrunners I am already familiar with; while others I’ve never really had a close look at. Which brings us to the car I looked at today – the most sensible choice on the shortlist.  A Mercedes SL 500.

The R129 Mercedes SL is a car which takes my back to my youth.  I remember reading issues of Top Gear and Performance Car magazine, where the mighty Merc was pitted against it’s rivals of the day – the Jaguar XJS, Porsche 993/911 and even, in a couple of road tests I vaguely remember, such unlikely competitors as the Aston Martin V8 Volante, Honda NSX, and even a Dodge Viper.  Back then, the SL was a vehicle I respected, but didn’t desire.  I was in awe of its reputed build quality, its status as ‘the last Mercedes built up to a quality level, rather than down to a cost’, and the technology-uber-alles efficiency of it all, but it’s aloof, sombre styling and the way it always lost out against its more focused rivals in the handling tests meant I never actually wanted one.  Not that any of this mattered that much back then, as, having just passed my test, I understeered my way around South Wales in my mum’s Fiat Uno Diesel…

Fast forward to today, when I had a good poke around a Mercedes SL 500 for the first time, judging it from a V8Nam perspective.  Initial impressions were good; it’s still a handsome beast and has aged well.  The interior is a pleasant place to be, if rather lacking in flair and character in comparison to something like a Jag, and the boot is acceptable, if a tad smaller than I’d expected.  The removable hard top provides a perfect platform for a roof tent, and the fact it’s a Merc means that spares should be available absolutely everywhere.  The standard ground clearance isn’t too bad, and looks like it could be increased without too much hassle, while the build quality means the whole car felt like it could drive to Vietnam tomorrow, without a second thought.

And that’s the problem.

I want the journey to be a challenge, but even sitting on a garage forecourt, the big Mercedes feels like it’s way more than a match for a piffling little road trip like V8Nam.  It feels like the safe choice – like it would make the trip without fault; yet its complexity means that if it did somehow develop a proper fault it may prove almost impossible to fix in the middle of nowhere.  Basically, what made it one of the great cars of the ’90s – it’s solidarity and complexity – both, in very different ways, count against it as a choice for V8Nam.  The final negative is that I envisage the perfect car for the trip to have charisma by the skipfull; the Merc falls short of this.  As a companion for three months of travelling, it risks being somewhat dull company.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I haven’t bought the Merc.  I haven’t discounted it completely though, and would still like to have a look at its predecessor, the R107 version.  However while it has started the ball rolling, it is unlikely to be where the ball stops.  There are a few more interesting options out there, which I hope to investigate over the next few days.  The search continues…


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