Greetings readers! If you follow me on social media, you’ll notice that my accounts went dark over the past three weeks. That’s because I hijacked the RFD Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts to bring you highlights from my exploits driving across Europe over the last few weeks. So if you follow the RFD accounts (which you should!) you already saw dozens of gratuitous automotive
pornography photographs from Austria, Italy, France, Monaco, Switzerland and Germany. This is the kick-off article, the first of many, where I will share my thoughts about driving in Europe, a culture seemingly built around cars (screw the train!) and provide in-depth looks some of the best automotive museums in the world. But first, for anyone planning a trip to experience some automotive nirvana, what is it like driving there? I had a series of meetings set up in various parts of the continent, and instead of taking short plane trips from place to place or hauling my bags around a train station, I drove. Here are the eight things I learned driving in Europe.
1. It is intimidating at first.
Driving in any foreign country can be intimidating, but driving on a continent known for fast moving traffic and a lack of attention to the rules-of-the-road is a bit more so. Just trying to leave the Munich airport rental garage in the Toyota Verso that Hertz loaned us was a challenge. “Ausfhart” (which is pronounced just like it sounds) means “exit” and is the only way to get out of a parking garage or to take an exit off a highway. But from a language perspective, that’s about all you need to know. The highway system in every country was labeled with consistent road signage, most of which should be familiar to US drivers. The others you get used to over time, just keep a look out for the big circle outlined in red. That either means “do not enter” or in some Italian cities may indicate a “zona traffico limitato” area where your vehicle is on camera immediately as you enter and your tag number had better damn well be on the list. It’s basically akin to our “local traffic only” but with actual fines. Opt for an international cellular and data plan (you can add them for a specific period of time) and use a navigation app like Waze or Google Maps to get around, since some streets are either barely labeled or the road sign will just list the city you are heading towards vs. the road name. You’ll eventually appreciate hearing “at the roundabout, take the 3rd exit towards Milan”. So getting around is easy, even on Italian back-roads. Just be prepared to keep your right foot down. More on that in a moment.
2. The Italians are as crazy as you heard, mostly.
That aforementioned moment is now, Italians drive fast. All the time. The Italian granny heel-to-toe’ing her Fiat Panda behind you will be annoyed that you won’t drive fast on the tight stretch of road in Tuscany. She’s been there her whole life and is annoyed that your rental car with “D” on the euro plate is slowing her down. The rumors about completely disregarding traffic laws isn’t really true though. Speed limits aside, I didn’t find the Italians to have a wanton disregard for the rules of road. Unless they were on a scooter. That part comes later though and was quite infuriating. So if you drive in Italy, be prepared to move expeditiously or pull off and let them pass. Otherwise you might get an Alfa up your tailpipe. France moved a bit slower around the Riviera, as did Switzerland around the Alps. Germany was bonkers. See #8 below.
3. Germans drive German cars.
That sounds like a no-brainier, but I was quite struck by how nationalistic Germans are when it comes to purchasing cars. There is nothing like this in the US that I know of, perhaps a few areas around Detroit, but that’s it. I saw some Fords, some French fare, a few Toyotas, and everything else was German. Everyone drives a VW, BMW, Audi, or Mercedes Benz. Everyone. Which is why you can get the tiny Audi A1 and Mercedes A-Class in Europe, there is a market for them. They don’t all necessarily come with leather and lots of gadgets like our German lux-cars do, and most of them are manual and diesel.
4. Lane discipline is amazing.
I was five minutes into my drive home from Dulles International Airport last night when I lamented how well Europeans practice lane discipline. Stuck behind someone driving 50 in a 55 in the left lane, I immediately reminisced about how 99% of European drivers practice lane discipline (the practice of using the left lane to pass and moving over to the right when you are done, or need to slow for an ausfhart). I’ll cover the autobahn at the end of this article, but suffice to say, you should not linger in the left hand lane in any of the countries I visited other than to pass. Passing on the right side will result in a very upset European. On one stretch of the Italian Autostrada, I came up behind a slow moving Citroën in the middle of three lanes. The left lane was full of German wagons moving quickly so I went around him on the right. As I went by him, he started to speed up and I could see his arms flailing in my rear view mirror. I kept my foot down and my diesel Toyota pulled away, but it was clear that he wasn’t happy about my maneuver. I only had to do it one additional time, this time in Germany, where that slow mover magically found his gas pedal as I passed as well. Do it if it is the safest option, but be prepared for the driver to get annoyed. There is honestly a culture of respect when it comes to driving in Europe, people respect the fact that you may want to go faster than they do, regardless of speed limits, and they will quickly move over. Nobody got road rage when you advanced up behind them rapidly, they just did the right thing and got out of the way.
5. Exotics are plentiful, depending on where you are.
I’ll admit, I expected to be knee deep in Ferraris and Lamborghinis as soon as I entered Italy near the Brenner Pass. That wasn’t entirely true. Around the Venice area, I didn’t see any, although supercars are notoriously difficult to drive in the water. In the Tuscany region, I saw a couple of older Ferraris, a 308 and a 456, roll through town in the Chianti region. Naturally, as we went North towards Maranello things changed quite a bit. You can sit downtown near the Ferrari factory and just watch them fly by or queue up at stop lights. As you’ll read about in the upcoming Ferrari Factory and Museum feature article, the folks from Fiorano test every car on the street. So you’ll have up to 80 KM on the clock of your factory ordered Ferrari, and you’ll like it. There are also lots of “exotic car driving experiences” in and around the area, which makes up quite a few of the sightings. Same for the Bologna region, I saw numerous Aventadors and Huracans out for testing runs, still wearing protective plastic on their newly built bodies. I was struck by the financial disparity between the supercar companies and the residents in around the two regions, which are both primarily agriculture and industrial. I wondered aloud if the residents appreciate what is produced near their home or perhaps have some disdain for the excess of it all.
Speaking of excess, there’s Monaco. I quote the brilliant scribe, William Smith “Hundred thousand dollar cars, everybody got em”. In and around the main Monte Carlo casino, you’ll be treated to numerous high end cars parked around the circle and driving through. Even a 458 Italia stopped traffic at one point as it was valet parked. The 20-something female driver may have helped on that one though. Just under an hour away, Cannes was a similar experience. The upscale Hotel Martinez had numerous high end exotics parked outside at any given moment, including a Bugatti Veyron, which the only one I saw on the trip. Switzerland and Germany were similar to each other, I saw the occasional Italian exotic, but nothing too extreme. Switzerland, particularly in the Interlaken and Zurich areas had very diverse cars, including old American muscle cars, which provide quite the contrasting looks and sounds next to small European cars.
6. Everyone drives a manual diesel wagon.
Well not everyone, but almost everyone. From the initial walk through the Hertz lot in Munich (where they tried to stick me with a Ford Transit van) to the 5000 KM that was logged on our diesel Toyota, it was clear that most people drive a manual, diesel wagon or hatchback. Some were even brown. t’s so cliched, I assumed it may not be true. But for those who are wondering, it’s incredibly true. What will it take for more Americans to go this route? Higher gas prices I assume, plus a more comparably priced diesel fuel in the states. The Toyota operated like a normal petrol car, the 6spd hatch certainly wasn’t the slowest thing on the road and the automatic start/stop feature required it to have a fairly smooth start-up, which it did. Mostly.
7. Two wheels very bad.
Scooters. I fucking hate scooters after three weeks in Europe. Not all scooters, but Italian and French scooters most certainly. Between the Lake Como area of Italy and the French Riviera, if I don’t get passed on a curve by a scooter dodging oncoming traffic again for awhile, it will be just fine with me. Those guys are obnoxious, I get that they can lane split and get through the tight, slow moving, roads full of tourists, but it’s dangerous. Plus, while you sit and revel in the fact that you are the first one at a stoplight, you all of a sudden hear the sound of angry mosquitoes coming up behind, beside, and then in front of you. My start-stop feature seemed to anger them, the noise of the engine starting back up normally got me an angry leer. I’m not sure how supercar owners survive, other than by taking their cars out on the incredibly fast highways.
8. The autobahn is still incredibly fast.
Seriously, it’s fast. If you’ve heard the same rumors I have here in the states, you’ll think that perhaps there are but a few stretches left in Germany with no speed limit. The naysayers, who I now question whether or not have been to Deutschland, will say that the traffic is too heavy to really go fast. That is all bullshit. Sure, there are speed limits in some stretches of the autobahn, and Germans obey them, but then you’ll see a sign like the one to the right, with a number crossed out, you had better move over unless you think you can hang. And hang you will have to, as soon as that sign is visible, gas pedals are planted to the floor and and triple digit miles-per-hour come up fast. I was pleased to reach nearly 200 KPH in my econocar, which is around 124 MPH. That was in 6th gear and likely maxed out either the power or aero (or both) of our Verso. I was passed by BMWs and Mercedes going probably 20-30 MPH faster than that, if not more. You truly spend 30% of your time looking in your mirrors to make sure you have enough time to pass before the headlights you see a few KM away are on top of you. Regardless, it is quite an experience to see fast cars flying by you as your car buffets from the wind they are displacing. It’s hard not to smile but perhaps wish you are in something faster.
So in summary, if you get the chance to drive around Europe, do it. Skip the train, skip the airport and rent a car. Even your small diesel hatchback will be great fun carving through Italian b-roads or covering hundreds of kilometers of highway (I’m sticking to the metric system by the way, I’ll be ahead of the curve when we switch). It is a bit intimidating, but it’s an experience of a lifetime. Here are some bonus pics from my car sightings, behold the weird and wonderful.
All photos by the author
(Except the speed limit sign, that’s from Squarespace.)