This week I doubled the number of countries outside of the US in which I’ve driven a car.
Previously, I had driven in Canada and New Zealand. Canada doesn’t really count. Sorry to sound like a bigoted American, but the experience was no different than driving in the US. New Zealand was a much different story, since they drive on the opposite side of the road.
This trip I added Austria and Germany to the list.
As I’ve mentioned, I spent this week working with Antonio. He flew up for Uwe’s wedding and we drove down to Italy to do a Greenlight+ project. His flight back was at 06:00 Saturday morning, so we needed to leave Vipiteno and get him back to Germany Friday night. Considering that it was at least six hours and we were leaving at 16:00, I offered to drive so he could relax and maybe sleep.
Plus, I would get to drive on the autobahn.
Antonio drove for the first hour, getting us out of Italy and halfway through Austria. The weather was grey and wet, and as we climbed into higher elevations it started to snow.
Before we left, I asked for a few CDRs to burn some music. For some reason that escapes me, modern car manufacturers are still reluctant to put an AUX jack in their stereos. With so many people carrying portable music devices and being able to play music from a phone, you would think this would be a common practice. The reason I bring this up is that Antonio surprised me several years ago by breaking into song. This isn’t unusual for an Italian, but the song he was singing was “Supper’s Ready” by Genesis. It’s over 23 minutes long.
So that is how I found myself riding through the Austrian Alps in the snow while listening to that prog-rock classic “A Lamb Lies Down on Broadway“. Antonio also had to suffer through me singing along with James Taylor on his “Greatest Hits” album – one that I know every lyric, pause and breath having listened to it endlessly in high school.
Anyway, we were lucky that we left early enough that the temperature was above freezing and nothing was sticking on the roads.
When we crossed into Germany, I was finally driving on the fabled German highway without speed limits. This had almost mythical significance to me, as at one time in my life I was really into cars, so much so that I read Autoweek, and my friend John and I used to race to the mailbox so that we could read the Satch Carlson column.
Note: For those of you who have never heard of Satch Carlson, he is one of the best auto sports writers I’ve ever read. I would literally choke from laughing so hard at his stories. Unfortunately, he was involved in a scandal involving one of his students, and he pretty much disappeared after that. There is still an ancient website that is worth checking out if you want to see what was cool in websites 20 years ago.
Back to the autobahn. The experience did not live up to my expectations.
First, you have to understand that in most places the autobahn is two lanes. The right lane is where the trucks are, and they have a legal top speed of 80 kph. The left lane is where you can pass and go as fast as you want.
Or should a say “as fast as you can”. I wanted to go a lot faster.
Second, I was in a rented Mercedes A160. The car I usually drive is a supercharged C230, which is much faster than this car, so moving from the right lane to the left was not without a little risk.
If you look up the “0 to 60 mph” specification for the A160, Mercedes has written in the word “yes”.
Often I’d move over to pass only to see a set of headlights magically appear in my rearview mirror, prompting me to get back over as quickly as possible to avoid getting squashed. I swear some of those headlights were tinted blue.
Third, around the time we got to Ulm (birthplace of Albert Einstein) the amount of traffic had increased greatly and we were all forced to slow down. By Stuttgart, it was “stop and go”, or should I say “stop and go like hell”. There was a lot of construction, and coupled with the weekend traffic it was pretty high stress.
The way I dealt with it was the way I deal with any unusual situation in which I find myself. I find someone who looks like they know what they are doing and mimic them. So I’d get behind a car and do what they did – speed up when they sped, move over when they moved. Worked pretty well as long as I could keep up.
Finally, once the traffic started to thin, there were these road projects that would cause the entire highway to shift over to the left. Southbound traffic was limited to two lanes, while we took over the shoulder and one of their lanes. Separating our leftmost lane from theirs was a little temporary wall that stood about two feet high and looked like you could push it over with a finger. It was only as wide as the line drawn on the road, which meant that you were always perilously close to the oncoming cars as well as not having much room between that wall and the cars on your right. Seriously, the A160 is not a big car but at times it felt like I was driving a Winnebago. I wouldn’t have felt much more comfortable on a motorcycle.
Anyway, according to the GPS, Antonio had hit a top speed of 169 kph on the way down, so I was determined to top that. After driving for about a mile on a nice, flat stretch of highway with the pedal completely pressed to the floor, I managed a measly 170 kph, or a little over 105 mph. I was hoping to hit at least 200 kph, which is close to the highest speed I’ve ever driven (and that was on a motorcycle), but unless I was going to get a head start coming down a mountain with a decent tail wind, it wasn’t going to happen in an A160.