It’s impossible for me to write about the adventures of one day earlier this month, without at least acknowledging the happenings of the last year. At 227 days, Ireland has had the longest national lockdown in the world. 119 days of those days constituted the longest consecutive period of lockdown anywhere in the world to boot. It clearly hasn’t been a great past 12 months.
This story isn’t about Covid-19, thankfully. It’s about the pure, unadulterated thrill of adventure from behind the wheel of a capable, mechanically propelled vehicle. It’s about the kind of adventure I spent 227 days dreaming of.
So many times I lost myself in planning this trip via the curious reality of Google Maps’ Street View. I always knew that the first proper trip would be limited within the confines of Ireland, giving me some 70,273km² (27,133mi²) of land to explore. Naturally, the original plan involved Project Habu, but when an opportunity arose to drive something a little bit different in the form of an Alpine A110, it was hard to resist.
Full disclosure: this isn’t an advertisement or paid endorsement by Alpine of any sort. Alpine agreed to the vehicle loan in exchange for the use of some of the photographs captured on this adventure for their social media channels.
I don’t doubt that the R wouldn’t have been capable on this trip (I probably could have carried more gear, at the very least), but the opportunity to tick a few items off my automotive bucket list was just too tempting. This would be my first drive in an Alpine, my first drive in a French performance machine, and my first significant amount of time behind the wheel of a mid-engined sports car.
The Alpine A110 is one of a rare breed of recent homages to a cult classic, in that it successfully encompasses not just the design of the original, but the ethos too. While the engine has migrated a little further forward than it was in the 1961 to 1977 A110, the new car’s focus remains as a lightweight package where the ultimate goal is driver enjoyment and engagement above all else.
It doesn’t hurt to have the heritage of being one of the first manufacturer international rally champions behind you, either.
Having settled on a simple route plan, I left my home in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains and headed across the south side of Dublin City towards the south harbour wall at Poolbeg.
The A110’s diminutive size made it ideal for navigating traffic and narrow side streets. In areas where the pointlessly large SUVs of Dublin’s prosperous D4 district need to slow to a crawl to squeeze through, the A110 sailed through with ease, exploiting gaps that others just cannot.
I was immediately warming to it.
This is the lighthouse at Poolbeg, first built in 1767, which incidentally makes it nine years older than the United States. It’s one of Ireland’s most easterly points, with just the Irish Sea beyond it and the next landfall being North Wales. There are points which are more easterly, albeit not by much.
At the parking area here, looking south, you can see the rise of the Dublin and Wicklow mountains and the distinctive point of the Great Sugarloaf. The roads which wind their way to, through and around these mountains are special, but they’re also roads I drive on a regular basis. Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes.
With nothing but water to the east, roads I know a little bit too well to the south, and not wanting to cross an international border to the north, it left me with one satisfactory direction: west.
Despite Ireland’s small size, I can’t recall ever purposely driving from one coast to the other, for no other reason than I can. Surely, that’s the best reason of all?
With everything packed and to hand, I left Poolbeg for Dublin’s quays and onwards west towards Galway.
While it might not be able to display its full potential on these city streets, the A110 was well within its comfort zone. You could easily daily drive one of these without any difficulty. It’s small on the outside, but is impressively roomy inside. Getting in and out of the cabin is also straightforward, and doesn’t require any gymnastic ability or public humiliation.
In traffic, it does feel strange looking at the underside of door mirrors, mind you.
There were multiple route options available to me, and while the idea of avoiding the motorway for the entire journey was one I toyed with, I know that the reality of driving on the ‘old’ national roads is just as mundane and also much slower. As a way of justifying this to myself, I was happy to take a little bit of pain on the motorway early in the day, in order to play on real roads sooner and for much longer.
This part of the day wasn’t exactly excruciating either. With some good podcasts and music on the go (recently I’ve been enjoying a WWII podcast series titled We Have Ways of Making You Talk) and a surprisingly impressive fuel consumption of not far off 40mpg (33mpg US), progress was easy.
There was a motorway exit onto another motorway, and another exit in quick succession which led me onto the road towards Kinvarra in southwest County Galway. Now the real driving could commence.
The karst landscape which makes up the area known as Burren (derived from the Irish Boireann, or ‘Rocky Place’) is a fascinating one. Between the large areas of inhospitable limestone rock lie areas of incredibly fertile and nutrient-rich soil. It’s a perfect metaphor for the strong but caring people who live all around here.
This isn’t cosmopolitan Dublin, which I find to be slowly losing its identity courtesy of trendy but soulless international chains which can be found anywhere in the world. This is the kind of place where people leave their cars running with the driver’s door open as they visit a friend or drop into a shop. It’s where strangers are greeted with a warm suspicion. Locals know you’re from out of town, but they’ll still treat you with a level of warmth and caring that you’re probably not deserving of, anyway.
This is the Ireland which I adore.
I guess this is as good a time as any to properly introduce the A110.
Its headline performance figures of 249hp and 320Nm (236lb-ft) are meaningless; the only number that matters is the vehicle’s fully-fuelled kerb weight of 1,098kg (2,420lb). Why? Power is relative, and you can only use so much at any one time. However, that low weight figure is advantageous everywhere you drive. With little doubt – and I’m fully aware that I’m late to the A110 party here – this is the best driving car I’ve ever experienced. Although my experience is limited, the A110 really is sublime.
The road from Ballyvaughan which runs past Fanore skirts the coastline as close as is possible without getting wet. One minute the mountains of Connemara are across the water on the horizon, the next you’re looking out across the Atlantic Ocean towards the Arann Islands. As is customary for Ireland, the road is narrow, but this wasn’t a problem for the A110 which doesn’t even come close to filling its own lane.
With the 1.8-litre turbocharged motor doing its thing just over my shoulder, I was fully immersed in the experience. I was all in.
The A110 is a car which epitomises that old adage of being an extension of the driver. A cliché maybe, but it’s accurate. From the moment you drop behind the wheel, you’re immediately familiar with the size of the car and the location of each wheel. You never find yourself glancing in the passenger side mirror to gauge your distance from the road’s edge.
There’s no manual gearbox option, which Alpine has justified by working out that the 7-speed double clutch offered works out lighter than the manual, once all the associated linkages, extra pedal etc. are considered. In this instance, it’s fine. Actually, it’s better than fine; it’s a damn good transmission that is perfectly suited to the character of the car. The A110 is so engaging otherwise, and not once did I miss the lift, dip and shift of a manual.
The road continues around Black Head, a place associated with the start of the Battle of the Atlantic when just hours after the commencement of World War II, a German U-30 U-boat torpedoed and sunk the cruise liner SS Athenia off the coast. Some 430 passengers were rescued by a Norwegian cargo ship which was guided back into Galway via this point.
Unsurprisingly for a car which weighs just over a tonne ready to party, there isn’t a whole lot inside that isn’t essential to its functionality. It doesn’t feel sparse, but you do feel slightly guilty about bringing anything unnecessary along for the journey.
The mountains of Connemara as seen to the north of Poulsallagh in County Clare.
Onwards, I continued along the coast…
With the Cliffs of Moher in the distance, I was forced to turn inland, rejoining the more often used N67, taking us past places like Lisdoonvarna, Lahinch and Spanish Point.
I had one destination in mind, and was keen to get to it before the sun dropped behind the Atlantic horizon.
Despite being a national route, the way the road meanders through the country is something special. The speed limit here often feels like a dare, as opposed to any sort of limitation. With a lack of tour buses – which typically occupy these roads as rolling roadblocks – I had the rare (and perhaps never to be experienced again) pleasure of enjoying them in a special sort of way.
On the road for the guts of six hours at this stage, and not having had a single human interaction during this time (nothing to do with Covid, I’m just anti-social), I was acutely aware of how reinvigorating this drive was.
With little ceremony, I finally reached my ultimate destination of the Kilkee Cliffs. South of the renowned Cliffs of Moher, the Kilkee Cliffs offer equally impressive views, but without the hectic flow of tourists. On this day, all I had was the A110’s engine cooling ticks and associated smells for company.
This is one of my favourite places in the world.
I could do nothing but appreciate the moment.
While wandering around the cliffs taking photographs, I felt like I had been recharged from a mental perspective. I don’t think I had ever truly and fully appreciated the ability to travel freely in order to what I love to do before. What’s that they say about you don’t miss something until it’s gone?
Of course, the company for this particular trip wasn’t exactly bad either. The A110 is such a remarkable car; it has the exact right amount of everything, and nothing it doesn’t need. In fact, it’s probably what it doesn’t have that makes it so special.
While the engine doesn’t make a tremendous amount of power, as a whole the A110 allows you to use all of its best attributes at any given moment. Its ability to change direction and make even mundane sections of road exciting is truly spectacular.
The A110 is a car that encourages you to try to find its limits. The feedback it provides is extraordinary, but rather than having any electronic safety devices interfere, the car’s sheer capability is enough to keep you on the black stuff. There’s decades of engineering expertise here to take care of you.
As I started to find my way back towards civilisation, I got to thinking about how I pity those driving soulless SUVs and other transport appliances; vehicles to designed and built to do the bare minimum of human transport with no frills. Owners of those vehicles have absolutely no idea how much they’re missing out on, or how their commute could exhilarate them rather than torture.
Although the Alpine wasn’t in dire need of fuel (its economy is another one of its impressive abilities), I figured topping up before the long drive back to Dublin was a wise choice. Arriving into a rural service station unsurprisingly attracted the attention of some of the locals, including the owner of an immaculate Ford Cortina.
A great conversation was had between people who could happily appreciate both cars for all of their individual merits. The absolute joy of speaking with real world car people – in the real world.
My homeward journey continued. Somehow I’d managed to avoid the showers all day, despite watching the rain fall from a distance on numerous occasions.
From Clare to Limerick and back on the cheater motorway route towards Dublin, there wasn’t a part of this day that I didn’t enjoy.
If there’s one thing I could take away from the road trip, it’s how lucky we are to exist in an age with such incredible methods of transport. Sure, there have been dark times recently, but the sun is rising again on tomorrow and all of the possibilities that it brings with it.
Plan your next road trip now, and don’t make it your last.
Amazing words and amazing photos! I wonder how do you take those rolling shots from behind the wheel. Are those handheld? What about settings? (I always struggle to take them from the passenger side)
Sitting there reading about your trip I found my self asking how little I could take with me and leave, thinking about what's important to hold onto and what can I let go of and just have it as a memory.
Man you have definitely captured the moment especially with the A110
And the shots are top notch too!
Amazing story and photos! I really love the back half of this car. I feel like a lot of manufacturers struggle to get that shape right when there's no flat trunk to break it up, but they really nailed it with this.
I miss the empty roads of covid circa this time last year. I live next to a busy freeway and would hear gangs of cars racing up and down it like the police didn't exist. Road trips to my favorite twisty roads were actually worth it. Fast forward to now, and the roads are back to being congested with bugpeople. Subwoofers play together in this cacophonous rumble. The twisty roads are just paved pathways for boomers to sightseeing pacification. I miss covid.
The triumph of this car is the interior and packaging (alfa 4c better chassis/design, lotus better engine/model, ND Miata/cayman/boxster better overall, etc) - impressive weight given two trunks and proper, digital features. Still... This is one of the last real sports cars, rare company, not another wannabe GT3 "stradale" or another suv/sedan making noises and being good at 0-60. Perfect for an EV-izing world.
To me, this is one of your best articles yet. The car, the journey, the wild beauty of Ireland and amazing images. Fantastic work Paddy.
Properly excellent article, this made my Monday morning in the office that little bit less dire. I would love to plan a road trip but an E36 drift car, held together with hopes and dreams is not my idea of a relaxing drive haha
Can I ask, how do you grab snaps such as the car in the petrol station? Nozzle hanging out of the car! If I did that, I'm sure I would be blasted in front of the entire forecourt via the loud speaker!
Amazing article and what a car this is to do such a trip in.
Simply wonderful writing from Paddy, i can feel and literally "enjoy" every word and picture. simply wonderful
Utter dreamcar; love it