3 days, 950 miles and 5 supercars: My European adventure

I had a destination: the Geneva Motor Show.

There were two ways I could arrive in Geneva, the picturesque Swiss city nestled in the snow-capped Alps that's renowned for its high-end chocolatiers and luxury watch makers.

Flying would be the easiest and most direct route. And boring, cramped and prosaic.

Or I could drive 950 miles from England to Switzerland — a three-day journey that would take me through five countries, scenic countryside and postcard-perfect villages where few, if any, locals spoke English.

The decision was simple. I would drive.

My companions on this European tour were five fellow journalists, a small team of McLaren employees and five brand-new supercars.

We spent seven to eight hours a day navigating strange and distant roads in low-slung (and occasionally uncomfortable) supercars that really belonged on a race track. I faced constant temptation to push the speedometer needle, especially on Germany’s Autobahn, where cars of all shapes and sizes travel at warp speeds. I was a slave to the car’s GPS, forced to quickly decipher signs in foreign languages. The rules of the road were learned on the go.

The final destination: the Geneva Motor Show, an annual highlight on the automotive show calendar for thousands of journalists. But how many would experience the Euro Tunnel beforehand? Or stop for margarita pizza in Germany?

The trip began in earnest on Friday, March 1. To drive a McLaren supercar for three continuous days was one part of the journey. Understanding where these exotic beauties are conceived and built was a necessary pit stop.

Amanda McLaren, the only child of McLaren racing team founder Bruce McLaren, greeted my fellow journalists and me at the automaker’s avant-garde headquarters in Woking, Surrey, England. Her family cut financial ties to the company in the mid-1970s, a few years after Bruce was killed testing one of his racing prototypes.

Amanda was 4 years old when her father died. She still carries on his racing legacy, though in her own way as a McLaren brand ambassador. Amanda enthusiastically shared everything she knew about her father’s ambitions and short-lived yet prodigious career.

McLaren told her family’s story against a backdrop of championship-winning McLarens driven by some of the best race car drivers in the world — James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna — all neatly parked on the lobby floor. These race cars, like McLaren herself, have their own backstories and serve as a reminder of how Bruce’s company has forever changed the industry (McLaren was the first to pioneer lightweight carbon fiber in its vehicles, now a standard practice). She took us to the factory floor, where men and women punctiliously assembled these six-figure supercars for owners across the globe.

The history lesson concluded and it was time to rev our engines. The route would take us to the Euro Tunnel, the underwater passage connecting England and France. The five McLarens -- in a spectrum of different colors -- set off, mastering each roundabout and creating a vivid spectacle on Woking’s suburban roads.

About an hour later immigration officers at the tunnel’s entrance stamped our passports. We then waited patiently for our turn to board the high-speed shuttle. As a unit, the McLarens were spellbinding; the cars, with their dihedral doors spread open like wings, looked as if they were about to fly. Other train passengers got out of their vehicles to see the supercars up close. The excitement emanating from these strangers was palpable and contagious.

The tunnel excursion lasted 35 minutes and France welcomed us with gridlock.

At twilight we crossed into Belgium, stopping briefly to refuel and stock up on chocolate (when in Belgium!). Our stay in the country would prove too short; the next day demanded at least seven hours of driving and an early start.

Some of the villages we traversed in Belgium seemed like they belonged in a fairy tale. I committed them to memory, promising myself I’d return one day to explore. One quaint town had a particularly powerful effect on me. Seconds after parking on the street a swarm of teenage boys surrounded the car, staring at it in disbelief. They then turned their gaze on me, wondering, wide-eyed, if I was truly the driver. Their language was foreign but I could tell they were impressed. It was bracing to witness the real-time creation of new McLaren fans.

A car enthusiast cannot leave Belgium without making a pilgrimage to Spa Francorchamps, the storied home of the Belgian Grand Prix. The course is also where McLaren won its first Formula One race in 1968 -- with Bruce McLaren at the wheel. The track was closed for winter but I still got to sneak a peek through the fence.

Germany proved the most challenging country. The Autobahn was intimidating for a first-timer. I am certain I reached speeds that would have put me in jail in the U.S. But with the speedometer set to kilometers, not miles, I talked myself out of doing the math. The roundabouts were more aggressive and formidable; sometimes I wished that McLarens came equipped with those pesky blind spot warnings that have become ubiquitous in everyday cars.

I also learned something else: McLarens’ low center of gravity and unique doors make for complications at toll booths. I had to shut the engine off at one point and exit the vehicle to grab a ticket, only to panic moments later when my 720S would not start despite repeated attempts. I watched in the rear view mirror as the line of cars grew longer behind me. Then, suddenly, the car returned from the dead with a sneaky key maneuver.

“Sensor problem,” my co-pilot said with a shrug.

The final leg of the journey was the most memorable. To cross the Alps we had to first tackle Germany’s Black Forest, a mountain range in the southwest part of the country. Home to the cuckoo clock and Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, the area is named for its 100-mile stretch of dense pine trees. The car was ready for each twist and bend and the challenging switchbacks we encountered was no match for my McLaren.

There were times, however, when a tour bus would interrupt my flow. A popular vacation destination, skiers flock to the area's slopes and I could actually see them in action from the road. Other times I would purposely slow down, knowing that the faster I drove the sooner my road trip would come to a close.

I crossed the border into Switzerland and stopped in Basel to sit at an outdoor cafe, blending in with the locals who were soaking up the unseasonably warm weather. Everywhere I went, people seemed drawn to the McLaren like a magnet.

Pulling up to the hotel in Geneva was bittersweet. It had been a long journey. Exhausting at times but always exciting. Sometimes now I peer out my bedroom window, hoping to see a McLaren waiting for me in the driveway.

I am ready for another adventure.

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