We’re standing on a large expanse of asphalt contemplating a small group of cones arranged in a box a little longer than a Ford Focus.
One side of the box is open and the asphalt next to it is covered in lurid black smears of melted rubber. “Basically, you’ve got to pull on that handbrake like you’re taking it home with you,” says Paul Swift, making his famous ‘parallel parking’ stunt sound like a walk in the park.
I’ve come along to Thruxton circuit in Hampshire to join in with one of Paul Swift’s Stunt Driving Experience events, which Paul and his team hold throughout the UK. The idea is to learn the precision driving techniques that lie behind a few key manoeuvres used by stunt drivers, like the famous ‘J-turn’ used by the good guys to escape from the bad guys in the movies.
Another is drifting, but not the usual high-speed, rear-wheel-drive, car-chase variety; instead, we’re going to try low-speed precision drifting in a specially set up front-wheel-drive car. For added fun, I’m going to try hanging out of the passenger window of a Ford Focus being driven on two wheels by Paul (hopefully the two on his side).
The trick that is secretly worrying me most, though, and the one I suspect might inflict most damage on my ego, is that seemingly impossible parallel parking manoeuvre. If you haven’t seen it done, it involves charging towards a parking space between two cars, then handbrake turning into the space with inches to spare.
Instructor Graham Nicholson explains how it’s done: “Build your speed up to about 20mph then declutch and, as you approach the box, turn in on a smooth curve and aim at the centre of the space. Whatever you do, keep off the footbrake.” Sounds easy…
As I coast towards the space, I’m struck by how it appears to diminish in size the closer to it I get. On arrival, I yank the handbrake hard and – amazingly – it almost works, with just one or two minor casualties in the ranks of cones. After another couple of attempts I get a clean result, which teaches me that success is down to finding the right technique, then practising it over and over again. Not sure I’d ever want to swap the cones for real cars, though.
Pulling off a seamless J-turn is slightly harder, even though it doesn’t look it. Mark Jones is instructing on this one and he explains that the trick is to grasp the left-hand side of the wheel with your right hand at the nine o’clock position, build up speed in reverse then, when he calls it, declutch and flick the wheel over through 180deg to the three o’clock position. Do this and the car snaps around viciously, tyres howling. As it comes back into line, the idea is to flick the wheel back to where you started, then select a forward gear in order to make your escape from the bandits without stopping.
Straightening up at precisely the right moment when your head is doing its best to leave your shoulders is tricky, but doing it smoothly is even harder. Jones suggests bracing my arm rigidly to lock the steering wheel and counter the inertia in the road wheels, but that proves to be easier said than done when you’ve got biceps like Minnie Mouse.
So far so good, though. My nemesis, the parallel park, has been banished and the J-turn nailed, so next up is the front-wheel-drive drift car, which I’m struggling to get my head around. Drifting is normally prolonged power oversteer, and conventional wisdom says you must have rear-wheel drive for that.
Swift’s drift car is the same one he uses for driving on two wheels, fitted with a Quaife diff. But what really makes the drifts happen is a pair of plastic tyres on the rear wheels. This time I hop in alongside The Maestro for the demonstration. He drives around a cone as a datum point in first gear and, as speed builds and the rear begins to slide, a quick flick on the steering wheel sets up the drift.
The trick, says Swift, is to keep the speed steady and not work the throttle in order to avoid introducing too many variables. I give it a go and promptly spin; those plastic tyres really do the job, and once the Focus lets go, it’s around like a shot if you don’t catch it. However, with a bit of practice, I find I can hold the drift for a couple of laps. It’s actually a lot of fun and a great way to practise car control in a small space.
We have a go at an autotest around a course of cones in a Focus RS and against the clock. Not my finest hour. I move on to the grand finale: hanging out of the window of Swift’s Focus when it’s on two wheels.
“Once we’re up on two wheels, stand on the side of the passenger footwell and pull yourself up through the window,” he says. “When I say ‘get in’, be quick, because we’ll be coming down.”
Once Swift is doing his stuff and I’m poking out of the passenger window like some kind of unhinged tank commander, it actually feels more natural than sitting down in a car that’s driving along at 45deg.
There’s also an underlying serious side to the day. With cars doing so much for the drivers these days in terms of electronic assistance, it’s a great way of learning what a car really can do and how to control it.
But most of all, it’s good fun trying out some great new driving techniques – and that’s something I can never get enough of.
This article was originally published on 21 January 2017. We’re revisiting some of Autocar’s most popular features to provide entertaining content during these difficult times.