Three Mini Coopers, 1,700 miles, four days and no doors blown off. ShortList’s Howard Calvert, along with two other ‘chinless wonders’, recreates the Michael Caine classic
“Er, there’s been a slight change of plan with your Italian Job road trip,” says my editor. “You can’t pick up the Minis in Italy any more. They’ll be delivered here, to the office, instead. But it’s only a few extra miles, right?” I stare at my fellow travel companions, deputy editor Gershon Portnoi and art director Kevin Fay. To say that anticipation levels were high about this trip would be an understatement. The brief? Fly to Italy, pick up three Mini Coopers and seek out some of the filming locations from The Italian Job.
A jaunt through Turin’s narrow, traffic-filled streets, followed by a journey along twisty roads that would test The Stig’s mettle. We may even be able to career down some steps if one of us takes a disastrous wrong turn. The climax of the trip would be an expedition up Mount Belvedere to locate the spot where the coach, complete with gold, Michael Caine, Benny Hill and the other robbers, famously teeters over the edge of the cliff. There’d be pizza, fine wine, ice cream, maybe a glass or two of grappa and a chance to bond with my colleagues (largely via walkie talkies), all from the confines of the air-conditioned, Driving Anthems-filled interior of the latest limited-edition Mini Cooper.
And then our editor broke the news about the trip extension. By a mere 1,500 miles. In four days. We Google the route and peer at the E15 and E35 dual carriageways, winding their way from Calais to Strasbourg in the west of France. This is going to call for some driving gloves…
ROAD TO NOWHERE
The first thing I learn about my travel companions is that Kevin loves to drive in shorts. As the sun blazes, Gershon and I instantly regret not wearing ours. We test the walkie talkies via the traditional range of handles and terminology (“Can I get a 10-36, Shorty?” “Roger that”), and head out of London as the “chinless wonders that will get you out of Turin faster than anyone else on four wheels” – me in the red car, Gershon in white and Kevin in blue. A team. Unstoppable. Ten miles in I realise my lights are on. Full-beam.
After exiting the Eurotunnel, the words of Charlie Croker flash into my mind: “Just remember this: in this country, they drive on the wrong side of the road.” It’s obvious the others are keen to put the cars to the test, whereas my driving skills – which have been compared by friends to a pensioner’s – are clearly going to be stretched as I immediately fall to the rear. However, the car is unlike anything I’ve driven before. It hits 105mph without me realising, and a button marked ‘Sport’ glints next to the gear stick. I decide to save it for the winding roads of the Alps.
The other problem is navigation. We only have two satnavs between the three of us. Mine welcomes me with the message: “Your maps are now 63 months old and 52 per cent are out of date.” We are now depending on Kevin ‘The Stig’ for direction, so have to stay close. And he isn’t shy of pushing the car to its limit (he is flashed by a speed camera, for the first time, within four hours of driving).
By 3pm, we decide it’s time for lunch. “There’s a Le Boeuf au Jardin coming up,” crackles Kevin over the walkie talkie. “Sounds good,” I reply, slowly translating with my sub-GCSE French. ‘The Beef Garden’? Our hopes for a culinary feast are high as we see a waitress carving a huge leg of ham. But as we eat a stark realisation hits us: the ham is 80 per cent fat and in a powerful mustard gravy. We head back to our cars hungry, still with five hours to our destination: Basel, Switzerland.
What feels like days later, we check into our hotel and stumble into the first restaurant we find, serving that authentic Swiss speciality, tapas. After discussing our cars (Gershon: “I get so much joy from making the voice activated radio work”), we realise we’ve clocked up 550 miles, and have a similar amount to cover tomorrow. We quickly finish our chorizo and turn in.
After a breakfast consisting largely of Swiss cheese (when in Rome…), we are back in the cars by 9am. I pick up a handful of Toblerones for the journey, slightly worried it may trigger some kind of Alan Partridge-esque addiction. Kevin has been out to buy window cleaning spray and a cloth. He spends a large amount of the rest of the trip polishing our windscreens, like one of those men at traffic lights.
Driving on your own is a strange experience. Most people, apart from long-distance lorry drivers, avoid it. But after a while (about 200 miles), your thoughts drift into a Zen-like state. As budding philosopher Gershon admits, “I do enjoy a good drive and a think.”
As we travel south through Switzerland, the scenery becomes an increasingly dangerous distraction. Snowcapped mountains rise up behind petrol stations as we climb towards the Grand St Bernard Pass. The turns in the road become more hairpin-like, and I decide it is time to press the ‘Sport’ button. I grip the wheel, expecting some kind of nitrous boost. What actually happens is that the engine becomes slightly noisier.
Three hours of unforgettable driving later, we’re in Turin, relieved to discover that, although busy, the traffic is nowhere near the levels of gridlock in the film. After consuming a huge pizza, we ask a few locals about The Italian Job. We draw blank stares. Only our hotel receptionist shows recognition.
“I saw it when it came out, but it was not very big here,” he says. This explains why no one has given our Minis a friendly beep. He shows me some key locations on a map. I ask him where they blew the bloody doors off. He looks at me obliviously. I fold up my map.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
Up early again the next day, we locate the Piazza San Carlo, the scene of the huge jam in the film. The square is now closed to traffic, but Kevin wants us to park in it for a shot. Minutes after driving in, two traffic wardens approach. Despite our Michael Caine impressions, they move us on. We locate the Piazza Palazzo di Citra, where the ambush on the security van took place. We have time for one picture before a policeman ejects us. We decide Turin is too well-policed, and journey instead to the scene of that finale.
The drive up Belvedere is spectacular. A narrow road ascends the mountain through tiny alpine villages, over a dam and across a lake, around hairpins with flimsy barriers, until we reach 2,600m above sea level. Then, as our petrol gauges start to flash ‘Range: 30km’ (“We could freewheel down,” I suggest), we find the spot.
We carefully manoeuvre our Minis to where the coach hung off. As we exit the cars grinning, a group of 15 passing Italian cyclists start shouting “The Italian Job” at us. They pull up and, after some coaching, we get them to say “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” in unison. Success.
We can’t hang around for long; we have to drive back over the Grand St Bernard Pass to our hotel in Basel. We make it over the Pass as sun sets which, after the sights that day, seems almost as standard as driving between junctions five and nine of the M25.
We leave early the next morning for the final leg and stop only once, giving Kevin and Gershon a chance to move my car behind a van as I buy a coffee. My panic as I gape at the empty parking space induces hysterics in both of them. As we exit the Eurotunnel and head our separate ways, I momentarily feel lost without my Mini cohorts. I bite into a Toblerone, and decide I’ll happily take this ending over the one in the film.
Take the trip
Get there: Only one car will do: Mini.co.uk. You’ll also need Eurotunnel.com.
Get out of the car: Aside from what we crammed into four days, you can also visit the Chiesa della Gran Madre di Dio, which boasts the church steps the Minis drive down, and The Palavela Torino (Palavelatorino.it), the building the Minis drive on to the roof of to outmanoeuvre the police. It now houses an ice rink.
(Main image: All Star)