It is, for practical reasons, impossible to be a regular reviewer of cars if you don’t feel comfortable driving them. Not even just comfortable. Confident. It’s probably unhealthy to think you’re Lewis Hamilton, but there’s a sensibility one must possess (or quickly cultivate) that allows you to look at a giant dump truck, or a Bugatti Veyron, or a Cessna-bodied Toyota Van, and think “Yeah, I can drive that.” I have piloted all of the aforementioned vehicles and was therefore completely sure that I’d be able to drive the manual, right-hand drive Ford Puma ST I secured for my first trip to England. I was also sure I’d have no trouble driving on the “wrong” side of the ride. My confidence was, unfortunately, slightly misplaced. The car was easy to drive and the directions were easy to follow. It’s my eyes that didn’t work.
This adventure to England was something of a dream trip. A 40th birthday celebration that would bring me and the family first to Shakespeare’s birthplace and then off to London. The plan was to land at Gatwick, pick up a car, and immediately drive to Stratford-Upon-Avon, some two hours or so to the north. I’ve done the fly-overnight-to-Europe-and-immediately-drive a car bit a number of times with no issue, but always to countries where the car’s wheel is on the left and everyone drives on the right (Frankfurt, Prague, Paris twice).
The sensible way to get to Stratford-Upon-Avon, perched in England’s pastoral West Midlands region, would have been to take a train or a bus. I am nothing if not not sensible. I’d be getting a car.
But what car? It would have to be something I couldn’t get in the United States (no VW Golfs or anything). Obviously, it needed to be interesting to me, but not so interesting that my family would revolt. I’d have one unit of wife, one unit of kid, and enough luggage to last two weeks abroad. I considered a lot of options and landed on what ended up being the best car for the job.
The Ford Puma ST Is A Damn Delight
The base Ford Puma is a weird little vehicle we don’t get. It’s essentially a Ford Fiesta subcompact that, like the universe, has expanded in every direction. Unlike the universe, the Puma prefers to be referred to as an SUV. This would be a small car in the United States, but on the narrow roads of the UK it passes for a family vehicle. The ST version of the car, which I requested, gets a six-speed manual transmission and a 197 horsepower turbo 1.5-liter EcoBoost “Dragon” three-cylinder motor similar to the one in the Ford Bronco Sport.
Ford UK did a tweet about this car back in 2021 and CEO Jim Farley made the comment that he wished the car came to North America:
Wish this came to NA and other markets! https://t.co/QpcXk2zokN— Jim Farley (@jimfarley98) February 16, 2021
I shared the sentiment then and now, having driven it, I’m more convinced than ever this would be a great car to own in America. Would it sell? That’s a tough question. Given we no longer get the Fiesta on which it is/was based, there is no compelling case for bringing it over here other than “Jim likes it.” That’s probably not a good enough reason.
If you live in Europe, though, this thing is a hoot. The Puma ST weighs about 2,700 pounds, has a punchy little three-cylinder motor, a real Quaife mechanical slip differential if you opt for the performance package (definitely do), and can be had with Mean Green paint. Obviously, the only way to get it is with a six-speed manual transmission.
A Good Plan, A Bad Start
I’ve driven a manual in the RHD configuration before and it didn’t faze me. I’m not particularly coordinated, as any of my ultimate frisbee teammates will tell you, and yet piloting a JDM Nissan Skyline GT-R (R32) on a race track wasn’t difficult. If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. And if you can drive a LHD manual, you can drive a RHD manual. It’s quite amazing how easy the brain adapts.
Knowing this wouldn’t be an issue, I asked Adrian Clarke, our resident Brit, if there was anything I should know, and he gave me two good pieces of advice:
- When you get to a roundabout, turn left.
- No one in Britain has a concealed handgun, so enjoy as much Road Rage as you wish.
Being from Texas, that last part seemed significant.
Just to be safe, I visualized the entire drive from Gatwick to Stratford-Upon-Avon using Google Street View. While I didn’t cover each mile, I reviewed all of the turns I’d be making, all of the roundabouts, and the key interchanges. Thankfully, once out of Gatwick it was just a quick left onto the M23 and one merge onto the M40. Once off the M40 it’s a short jaunt on the A46 and I’d be in town. I left for the airport feeling confident, though turning into oncoming traffic with my family was something I was understandably worried about. I insisted on taking a car, so, anything that happened would be doubly my fault.
I don’t sleep well on planes so, rather than take a later flight, I opted for a 7pm-ish departure out of JFK on JetBlue’s new London service. We got held up a little bit at JFK trying to depart (they told us our plane would be too fast and land too early and Gawtick has timed arrivals so they hold you up at your departing airport, which is strange). It was a great flight and the new Airbus A321LR in JetBlue’s configuration is a comfortable way to get across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, I still didn’t get more than a glancing wink of sleep.
Arriving at Gatwick approximately on time, I grabbed a rare caffeine hit in the form of some real British tea and met our delivery driver to get the car. After a little mental gymnastics, I figured out where to put the car seat relative to where I was sitting. I acclimated myself to the interior of the Puma and stuffed the back with gear, which it easily took.
The delivery driver wished us well and off we went from the 4th floor of a Gatwick airport parking garage. As expected, shifting was no problem. Your feet do the same thing and the motion is quite similar, so what’s the big fuss? I assume if you don’t drive stick often this might be an issue for a few seconds, but my daily has a manual so it was super easy.
I usually don’t have an issue in parking garages, as years of driving randomly sized cars require one to get used to constantly shifting car dimensions. The trick, really, is to use your mirrors. You’ll almost never run directly into an obstacle. If you make a mistake, it’ll be behind you more often than not. So I intently tracked my driver-side mirror to make sure I wasn’t running the bulging rear fender into an Opel. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider the left side of the car (which looked clear) and managed to drag the wheels of the car down a long kerb.
“Oh no,” I thought. “I’ve been driving in England for all of 50 yards and I’ve already mucked it up!”
The Two Things I Didn’t Think About It
I sucked it up and followed the path I’d already run on my laptop onto the M23. This was, like shifting, quite easy. I couldn’t unclench my stomach and felt a tang of anxiety about the wheels, but at least I was awake. My daughter, in the back, is impervious to bother and a great traveler so she quickly went to sleep. My wife had a slightly different experience.
Selfishly, I thought so much about driving the car, I didn’t think about what it would be like to be in the front passenger seat. It’s weird! If you’re used to driving on the right side, sitting in the passenger seat is strange. I later tried this in Adrian’s Ferrari and I felt a little uncomfortable, though you do adjust. This was the first thing I didn’t consider.
Fears of being too tired to drive were allayed by the mixture of adrenaline and novelty. I also felt very good about myself for, you know, taking so easily to driving in England. “I’m basically Jason Statham!” was my internal monologue.
The shifter in the Puma ST isn’t exactly a short-throw design, but it felt a lot quicker than the one in my 530i, which is basically a truck. I enjoyed chirping the tires a bit as I approached the M23 and my family only groaned a little.
Merging onto the motorway was straightforward and I eased into the left lane which, in England, is the slow lane. I felt great, but my wife pointed out I was way uncentered in the lane. “No, I’m perfectly in the lane with plenty of room on each side” I insisted. And then I actually looked. Oops.
My Brain Isn’t As Flexible As I Thought
Unless you’re in a McLaren F1, if you’re in a regular car then you are either on the left side or the right side. Centering the car isn’t difficult in your home country because your brain takes the input from your eyes and tells your hands to guide the car slightly to one side or the other to compensate. Years and years and years of driving LHD cars over hundreds of thousands of miles and my brain is fairly decent at staying in a lane (if I’m not too busy talking).
For whatever reason, driving through a roundabout in a backward way was not particularly hard for me. Keeping the car in the center of the lane was surprisingly difficult. My wife constantly would chide me “You’re getting out of the lane” and damned if she wasn’t right. If I didn’t focus intently on keeping the car where it was supposed to be my brain would naturally overcompensate in the wrong direction.
This led to a sudden bout of exhaustion as an hour of deep focus is a bit too much on 90 minutes of sleep over the course of 30 hours. I pulled over to a services (their version of a roadside service station), got another tea and a banana and tried to rouse myself for the last hour of the trip. The little bit of good news is that the wheels and tires were fine. The kerb must have been super low and no damage was done.
The first thing I did when I got in the car was to turn on the lane keep assist, which helped. The biggest change I made, though, was driving in the fast lane, which is all the way to the right. When I was all the way to the left my only reference point was the line in the road, which is hard to discern in traffic. In the fast lane, I had a divider to use as a mental signal that I was starting to drift to the left. I lost this when we got off the motorway and onto a two-lane A-road, but at least there the oncoming traffic was coming towards me and not my passenger.
Ultimately, we arrived and I was able to park the car easily in our little hotel. I was exhausted and the room wasn’t ready, so we wandered out into the village to grab some obscenely rich and delicious British pastries. I’d planned a trip through the Cotswolds in the Puma ST with the family but they were unenthusiastic about the prospect, so I went off on my own little drive so I could enjoy the Puma ST without bothering the other occupants.
After catching the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting some Shakespeare liquor, visiting the Shakespeare birthplace, seeing the other place where Shakespeare used to live, seeing the place where Shakespeare’s wife was born, and buying a bunch of Shakespeare-themed gifts, we left for London. The drive back was easier and my brain, thankfully, adjusted itself. I was also completely awake and it wasn’t raining, which helped. Everyone told me not to drive in London, so I ditched the car at Ford’s garage and kept to buses, tubes, and boats.
I’ll definitely head back and, when I do, I have a long list of cars I want to drive. Now that I know all the things I thought would be hard were easy, and the one thing I didn’t consider would be hard, I think I’ll be better prepared. I kind of fell in love with the double-decker buses and I bet I could drive one of those…
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