Friends reunited: Testing cars in the ’80s and ’90s was one part fun, two parts frightening

by Nik Berg
23 August 2022 6 min read
Friends reunited: Testing cars in the ’80s and ’90s was one part fun, two parts frightening
Berg does his best impression of William Woollard. Photos: Matt Kimberley

My first proper job in 1989 mostly involved shuttling cars between the central London offices of Auto Express and a distant bomb-site car park as the magazine’s editorial assistant, before I moved on to a jet set lifestyle of international car launches on Top Gear Magazine, peppered with long days on location, constantly cleaning cars, and hours and hours circulating the Millbrook high speed test track or skidding around for cornering shots.

There were long lunches, longer roadtrips – all expenses paid, no less – and, later, some truly memorable moments, rallying a Toyota Prius before anyone else had competed in a hybrid car, and taking on the role as The Stig, when the Top Gear television people found themselves short of a pro-driver for filming duties.

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It was indeed a RAD time to be alive and as I strolled through the 2022 RADwood ranks, the memories came flooding back faster than a twin turbo Supra. Here are a few, prompted by the generous drivers and their cars who helped transport me – and hundreds of other show goers – back to two memorable decades.

Vauxhall Calibra Turbo 4×4

Vauxhall Calibra Turbo 4x4

My dream job came with a big caveat: insurance. As I started at the age of 19 I was too young to drive a lot of the more powerful cars, but I did get to experience them from the passenger seat. The Calibra Turbo 4×4 is one I won’t forget, thanks to the magazine’s deranged art director who deployed every one of the car’s 200 horses along the B-roads of Sussex on the way to a photoshoot at, ahem, speeds the editor won’t let me share here. It was the fastest I’d ever travelled and when I saw the immaculate example on display inside the hanger at Bicester Heritage I had a fearsome flashback.

Lotus Elan M100

Lotus Elan M100 at RADwood

For about five years at both Auto Express and, later, Top Gear, I sat next to Andy Wilman (who, as producer, would go on revamp telly’s top car show with Clarkson, Hammond and May). In 1991 I was invited to his (sadly doomed) engagement party at a pub on the river Thames, but I spent most of the time hooning around the streets of South London in the new front-wheel drive, turbocharged Lotus Elan, having persuaded the road test editor to part with the keys.

I spied at least two Elans at RADwood and although I can’t remember Andy’s fiancé’s name, I do still vividly recall how well the Elan’s trick front suspension contained torque steer.

Peugeot 106 Rallye

Peugeot 106 Rallye

Two years later I was News Editor of the newly-launched Top Gear magazine, even though, as a monthly, our news was usually rather old. It did mean I got to go on a lot of car launches for our First Steer section, and the combined Peugeot 306 GTi-6 and 106 Rallye event was a cracker. The driving route was an Alpine extravaganza and with the aid of photographer Martin Morrell I came home with a classic cornering pic.

The Rallye was captured mid-way through a hairpin, front wheels in the opposing direction to travel and the inside rear cocked high in the air. The small stone barrier and massive drop served to emphasise the drama and, back in the office won high praise from Clarkson. “Now that’s how you do a cornering shot!” said the tall telly man. I hope that the owners of the two Rallyes I saw at RADwood are still getting as much fun out of the car as I did.

Fiat Coupé 20v Turbo

Fiat Coupe 20v Turbo at RADwood

Half-way through another hairpin, somewhere above Nice, I found myself face-to-face with a different photographer. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten his name, but I do know that he’d previously been shooting in a war zone and was clearly an adrenalin junkie because, without warning, he had undone his seatbelt and climbed out of the little Fiat Coupé to photograph me through the windscreen.

Despite being based on a humble Tipo the Coupé was extremely quick, as I was in the process of discovering, so this was quite disconcerting – although perhaps not quite as disconcerting as my pose with the bright yellow Coupé in the hangar area at RADwood.

Subaru SVX, Alpine A610 and Mazda RX-7 FD

Subaru SVX Radwood

All three of these quirky sports cars came in during the same week for a group test and I spotted at least one example of each at RADwood. Although I didn’t attend the photoshoot which saw them nearly drowned on Pendine Sands in Wales, I did drive them all. I didn’t really get the Subaru, but loved the Mazda and the Alpine. At least until it rolled away of its own accord when the weird handbrake didn’t do its job. Note to Alpine owners – always leave it in gear.

Renault Clio Williams

Renault Clio Williams

This is another story of brake failure, but in this case it was 100 per cent operator error. I’d been testing the Clio Williams back-to-back to with the standard Clio 16v, hopping in between them all day. That evening I was off to play Sega Rally at an arcade in North London (how RAD!) and, taking the greasy looping slip road off the North Circular road the Williams began to run wide.

First, I lifted off the throttle hoping for a bit of oversteer to tighten the radius and when that failed I, well, panicked somewhat and hit the brakes. The front wheels locked and in the time it took me to remember that ABS was removed for the original Williams I slid into the kerb and scraped one of its gold Speedline wheels. The lovely Williams on display (our Hagerty Bull Market star) looked like it had thankfully never suffered such an ordeal.

Fiat Barchetta

Fiat Barchetta

In a three-way test between the new MGF, the Fiat Barchetta and the Mazda MX-5 NB I favoured the Mazda, Tiff Needell preferred the Fiat and the editor overruled us both giving the win to the plucky Brit. However, the main reason our test at Bruntingthorpe stays with me is because of the Barchetta’s ridiculous hood latch design which required you to insert the rather lovely key into the door pillar to release it.

Just as we were preparing to head home, someone closed the door, breaking the key and leaving us stranded. A call to Fiat’s PR department was met with the classic line “I don’t care if you’re the Queen of Sheba, it’s Friday night and I’m going home.” Eventually the skills of the AA got us going again. The Barchetta entered in the Show N Shine had been converted to right-hand drive, so it’s not just the AA that shows ingenuity.

Porsche 928

Porsche 928

It was the last hurrah for the Porsche 928. The GTS packed 350bhp and a manual gearbox. It was another car that I didn’t quite gel with at the time. The ride seemed too firm for a GT, while the clutch and gearbox were quite hard work, so it wasn’t the most delightful thing to row through the gears. However, I did rather enjoy the delicious donuts I cooked up one evening with a pal from Brands Hatch. Looking at the 928 in the Show N Shine I feel ashamed to have treated one so badly.

Toyota Supra

Toyota Supra

There are only two occasions when my driving has elicited applause. Once, while exiting a roundabout in a yellow Volvo 850R with the front tyres vaporising, and the other was in a Toyota Supra. I’d gone for an early morning drive down the A303 and, as I prepared to head back, I was a little over-enthusiastic with the throttle turning into the slip road. The rear stepped out, I counter-steered and kept my foot in as I passed a walker with a dog by the side of the road. He clapped enthusiastically, but his hound was less impressed. My applause goes to the two immaculate white Supras in the RADwood car park.

Honda Fireblade

Honda Fireblade

Top Gear was, of course, a car magazine, but we also dabbled in two-wheelers from time to time. I got my licence and wobbled about for a few years until the editor thought I could survive a motorcycle launch. Not just any motorcycle launch, mind, but the new Honda Fireblade. At the Estoril Grand Prix circuit. With “Rocket” Ron Haslam as an instructor.

As it happened this baptism of fire was just what I needed and, after coaching from Ron and goading from the assembled bike journalists, I got my knee down for the first time ever, and returned to the office feeling like a hero. Which is probably exactly how the owner of the ‘Blade at RADwood feels every single day.

Sega Rally

SEGA Rally

The arcade at RADwood was hugely popular, with Daytona USA, Outrun, Super Hang On and Sega Rally drawing the crowds. In the mid 1990s Jeremy Clarkson’s wife bought him a proper ex-arcade two-player machine for his birthday one year and, at his Oxfordshire “Telly Towers” home, drivers from the local race teams would often turn up for a go.

One day I happened to be there with Richard Burns so of course I challenged him to a race. Let’s just say it was as one-sided as you’d expect from the man who would become the 2001 World Rally Champion.

Read more

Truly EXA-llent: RADwood returns with the best in ’80s and ’90s cars
Your Classics: George Brett’s Honda Motocompo is a tiny, rad ride

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  • George Urban says:

    Regarding the Barchetta, a horrible situation to find yourself in – but I have to say my sympathy is somewhat limited. What exactly is ridiculous about the design of the boot release lever (for that’s what it is)? Its location? The way it operates? It’s really just a latch, which happens to be lockable for security reasons.
    The key is not required to open the boot, only to lock/unlock the latch (if desired).
    To do this, you insert the key, turn it, and remove it from the lock. I’m wondering if the person who did this also tends to leave their keys in the door lock after they unlocked their car…?
    (BTW, the hood compartment release lever doesn’t have a lock.)

  • Mark Robinson says:

    Nick, that Fiat PR quote sounds so like Peter Newton. Please say it was Peter!

  • JPS says:

    The article is incorrect the fiat coupe pictured is a 16v turbo not a 20v turbo

    • Antony Ingram says:

      Hello JPS, the picture is solely to illustrate the Coupe in a general sense, since that is what the author tested back in the day.

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