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A trip through Scotland in the latest #BMW-7-Series to visit the historic Machrihanish Airbase.
David Finlay takes the latest 740Ld #xDrive for a nostalgic drive through Scotland to visit the site of an unlikely 7 Series-based record attempt in the 1980s. Words and photography: David Finlay.
In a straight line, Machrihanish is 65 miles from the centre of Glasgow, or ‘just round the corner’ as those of us who live in the west of Scotland would say, but if you think this means you can get from one to the other by car in an hour or so you can forget it. The most efficient route involves travelling through Argyll, which has so many lochs that its coastline is longer than that of France. Not one of them has a bridge over it so, unless you’re prepared to wait for ferries the best option is to drive round them all, racking up over 140 miles in the process.
It’s worth the trouble. Within half an hour of leaving the city you’re driving up the west bank of Loch Lomond where, even on a dull day, the scenery is such as to render non-locals slack-jawed. At Tarbet, where the A82 becomes the A83, you veer away towards the Rest And Be Thankful, bypassing a narrow track which was once a venue for a round of the British Hillclimb Championship, later a rally stage, and still used even now by rally drivers wanting to brush up on their Tarmac technique in the occasional Test On The Rest events. More prosaically, it also serves as a relief road when the A83 is blocked by increasingly frequent landslides.
Feel free at this point to stop in the car park, gaze back down the glen and grab some refreshments at the burger van, but don’t get too excited about stories that the latter is operated by Dario Franchitti’s uncle. It used to be but it was taken over a few years ago by a chap called John Mather, who is splendid company and has an admirable policy about how much bacon there should be in a bacon roll.
You’ll spend a long time after this swooping through bends on the banks of Loch Fyne until you reach Tarbert. (Yes, I know – lots of places in Scotland have names like this). The road then goes briefly cross-country across the top of the Kintyre peninsula before reaching the Atlantic coast. The scenery here is arguably the best yet, depending on your personal preference, and certainly the broadest.
To your right are the distant islands of Jura and Islay (pronounced eye-lah) and the much closer Gigha (pronounced gee-ah). As sea views go, this one is quite splendid, but it stands in contrast to the fact that you’re now in rich farming country. It rains a lot round here, so the grass is very lush, contributing to the area’s deservedly high reputation for dairy produce.
If you like, you can dart off to the left every so often and explore charming little lanes, though you’ll have to be prepared to reverse for long distances back to the nearest passing place so you can make room for farm traffic. You may prefer to keep the flow going as the A83 swoops southwards through tiny villages with varying levels of pronunciation difficulty such as Tayinloan, Glenbarr, Muasdale and Bellochantuy.
This is probably the better option if, as I am, you’re driving a #BMW-740Ld-xDrive-M-Sport Nearly as wide as some of the smaller lanes, it’s much more suitable for the main road itself, progressing elegantly through the hundreds of sweeping curves and not feeling out of place on any of the much rarer tight ones even though it’s more than 17 feet long.
My favourite of the three driving modes is Eco Pro. It gives you various fuel-saving possibilities (contributing to fuel economy of well over 40mpg on this run) and forces you into the Comfort setting for engine and gearbox response, which is my favourite anyway because I think Sport is a little too excitable. Within Eco Pro, however, you can select Sport for the steering and damping, and that’s what I do. For me, this setting suits Kintyre better.
The ‘capital’ of Kintyre is Campbeltown, the fourth largest town in Argyll with a population of 4852 (according to the most recent census taken in 2011). A century ago, it had one of the highest per capita incomes in the whole of the UK, thanks to the success of its farming, fishing, shipbuilding and whisky industries, and while it no longer thrives to anything like this extent you can still see signs of the glory days, particularly in the design of some of the more spectacular houses.
The former mining village of Machrihanish, a short drive to the west over mostly straight roads, isn’t short of architectural splendour either, particularly on the outskirts across the road from the internationally famous golf course. On his first visit here in the late 1870s, Scottish golfer Old Tom Morris exclaimed, ‘The Almighty had golf in his eye when he made this place,’ and since he had already won the Open Championship four times before he arrived I think we can safely take his word for it. The first hole is regarded in some circles as being one of the most difficult anywhere in the world because a careless tee shot can send your ball flying into the Atlantic, never to be seen again. I don’t know much about golf, but I’m pretty sure this is not a cause for celebration.
This is by no means the only claim to fame Machrihanish can boast of. In 1906 a local transmitting station was at one end of the first successful two-way transatlantic radio broadcast, exchanging Morse code signals with an identical one in Massachusetts, though the mast collapsed later that year before the service became commercially useful.
Then there’s the airfield. Formerly known as RAF Machrihanish, it was used for military purposes on and off from the First World War onwards and was still under Ministry of Defence responsibility until 2012, when it was sold to the Machrihanish Airbase Community Company (MACC).
Part of the 10,003ft main runway is still used for small planes taking passengers to and from Glasgow, but the rest of the site now has many other purposes including a business park, a conference centre and it’s home to a very popular single-venue Tarmac rally.
Furthermore, in recent years there have been sturdy efforts to have it named as the UK’s first spaceport. If this happens, Machrihanish airfield will suddenly become far better known than it has ever been before. Even now, it’s more famous than you probably realise. You may be aware of a successful 1985 Hollywood film called White Nights, which had a formidable cast including Gregory Hines, Helen Mirren, Isabella Rossellini, future Bond Girl Maryam d’Abo and ballet dancer turned actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Further unnecessary detail: Lionel Ritchie’s song Say You, Say Me was written specifically for it, and went on to become a US number one hit.) Early in the film, Baryshnikov’s character is unfortunate enough to be in a Boeing 747 when it crash lands in Siberia. It would be quite common, and indeed understandable, for this scene to be faked, but it wasn’t, except for the fact that the studio saved money by buying an older Boeing and converting it to look like a 747. According to Malcolm McMillan, MACC’s Business Development Manager, the crash itself was genuine, and performed at Machrihanish by an Irish stunt pilot who cheerfully stepped unharmed out of the wreckage to collect his no doubt considerable fee. Malcolm tells me about this during a pleasant chat after I arrive unannounced at his office and tell him the real reason I’ve brought the 740Ld here. This, you see, is more than just an enjoyable run to a gorgeous part of the world in a lovely car. It’s also, in a sense, a pilgrimage.
I first visited Machrihanish in December 1988 to report on, of all things, an attempt on the UK rooftop ski speed record. The car used was a #BMW-745i-E23 , a turbocharged version of the recently discontinued 732i. The 745i of this era wasn’t sold in the UK because the turbo required engine bay space already taken up by the steering column on right-hand drive models, but a Glasgow-based company called AVA Turbos imported one and prepared it for circuit racing in the hands of the very experienced Iain Gardner. AVA was co-owned by Alan Clark, whose brother Norman was a successful downhill speed skier. It seemed perfectly reasonable for the 745i to be given a roof rack and a set of skis and taken to Machrinhanish, where Norman would climb aboard and hang on while Alan drove it flat-out down the main runway.
Norman seemed quite placid about the whole thing, but there were risks. In particular, it was vitally important for him to maintain the tuck position. If he didn’t, one arm would fly backwards in the wind, followed almost immediately by the other arm and then the rest of him. The first Alan thing knew about it would be the sound of his brother’s crash helmet shattering the rear window. Rather him than me…
On its first and only run the BMW went hurtling through the speed trap at 141.5mph, comfortably beating the existing record. The Clarks were happy, but knew they could go quicker. The speed trap had been set up very conservatively; it could be moved many yards further down the runway and still leave room for Alan to brake the car gently to a standstill.
The car’s sponsor, who owned a building company in Glasgow, was more cautious. The team, he said, had achieved its goal. Rather than put Norman in any more danger, he suggested packing up right then and treating everyone present to lunch in Campbeltown.
No one had any objection to this, not least because by this time our bodies were starting to protest at being subjected to midwinter Kintyre weather. We weren’t quite finished, though. Since it was impractical to have another car running alongside the 745i during the record run, it had not been possible to take decent pictures, so we had to mock them up.
Alan and Norman went down the runway twice more at a modest 60mph, accompanied by me driving my parents’ Peugeot 309 with a couple of photographers hanging out of the passenger side windows. For Norman, this was no fun at all. He was in much less danger, but holding the tuck position for more than twice as long while experiencing a wind chill factor of ‘get me out of here’ was extremely uncomfortable. The 141.5mph run, he told us later, was the easy bit.
Malcolm McMillan kindly allows me to take the 740Ld on to the main runway for a nostalgic photo shoot. The eastern section is now blocked off for commercial flights but I park on a section where the 745i had started to build up speed on its way to making history and gaze down towards where there was once, for a couple of hours, a carefully set up speed trap. This is the view the Clark brothers had on that perishingly cold day nearly 28 years ago. I envy them both to some extent, but I envy Alan far more than I do Norman.
Satisfied with the experience, and grateful to Malcolm for his help, I fire up the 740Ld again and head back to a more densely populated area of Scotland. The drive home is every bit as delightful as the drive here was.
It seemed perfectly reasonable for the 745i to be given a roof rack and a set of skis and taken to Machrinhanish where Norman would climb aboard and hang on.
The road then goes cross-country across the top of the Kintyre peninsula before reaching the Atlantic coast. The scenery here is arguably the best yet.Stream item published successfully. Item will now be visible on your stream.