The road to Hell
A journey to the Arctic winter in a Fiat 126, in search of the northern lights...
Set free by the polished ice, our little car’s rear wheels jumped suddenly sideways as we crested the rise. Brummy corrected the slide, but as he did the rear-engined Fiat fishtailed enthusiastically back the other way. One more desperate attempt to regain control, and all was lost. Helplessly wedged in the back seat, I looked over my shoulder and watched in horror as we hurtled backwards towards an icy fjord, its dark surface brooding ominously in the half-light.
“Brake!” I yelped.
“I am F**king braking!” Came Brummy’s stoical reply.
We flew off into the night, our speed slowly being scrubbed off, the fjord looming ever closer. Our wheels clipped its bank, nearly spinning us into the depths, and we careered off the road onto the only bit of flat grass for miles. Wheels glissading over the soft snow, the Fiat finally slid to a halt less than twenty feet from the water, and a similar distance from the very solid looking pine trees which had loomed up in our path.
After a few minutes sat in silence, my heart rate dropped sufficiently for me to speak again.
“Right, that’s it. I’m driving.”
Exploring the Arctic winter in a Fiat 126 had seemed a far better idea a few months earlier, when we came up with the plan over a few beers in the Seymour Arms. Earlier that day, I’d became the custodian of a quirky little Fiat 126 Bis, and had found myself taking quite a dislike to it as I drove it home from Wales to Plymouth. In the pub that evening, its fate was discussed, and with perfect drunken logic, we decided that as it was clearly the car from Hell, it had to be driven back to Hell, where it belonged.
Hell is a small village near Trondheim, in Norway.
A week later, we took the blue Fiat up to deepest mid Devon to collect a second 126, which Brummy had found on the internet. It was impossible to miss it as we pulled into the street where it lived. Glaringly yellow, with black flames painted dubiously down its sides, it looked hopelessly out of place in the autumn mist. A previous owner had scrawled ‘Bad Boy’ on the cars bluff front, and ‘no fat chicks’ was painted tastefully on the wings. Clearly the perfect vehicle for an inconspicuous trip to the Arctic! At least it was the earlier, air-cooled model, and so promised to be perfect for the minus fifteen temperatures we anticipated.
Considering the arduous ordeal awaiting them the modifications to the cars were most thorough, consisting of winter tyres and, well, that’s it. And so on Christmas Eve I waved Brummy off in his lairy 126, with plans to meet in Dover on the morning of the 27th.
My phone rang an hour later. It was Brummy.
“Hi there. I’m at Cullumpton services. The yellow peril was on fire, but don’t worry, I’ve put it out.”
“The oil filler cap fell off and hot oil splashed all over the engine. Oh, and the exhaust’s fallen off.”
“Need a hand?”
"If you've nothing better to do."
An hour later, there were two diminutive Fiats at Collumpton services. Brummy had got the oil topped up, and a friendly chap from the AA had replaced the missing exhaust bolts, so we were good to go. We made it another 20 miles up the motorway before my boot flew open, and it had to be held shut by a bungee strap for the rest of the trip. 10 miles further on, the yellow peril started to lose power intermittently, so we pulled in to check it over. Nothing obvious seemed to be wrong.
“Well it looks okay to me. Lets push on and see what happens,” Brummy suggested.
And so we did, for half a mile. Then with a loud bang, foot-long flames shot from the little yellow Fiat’s exhaust, and it coasted to a halt at the side of the road.
“I don’t think it wants to go to Hell,” said Brummy, as his attempts to restart the engine failed.
So out came the towrope, and the two Fiats crawled through the darkness to South Wales. A cup of tea later, we had a look at the recalcitrant fiat. It wouldn’t start, a problem we diagnosed as a faulty condenser. Given it was Christmas Eve, and Santa doesn’t generally have the foresight to bring condensers for ancient Italian cars, we sadly conceded that the yellow peril’s journey was over. With only 150 miles completed, and still another 1500 to go to reach Hell, we were down to one Fiat.
I left South Wales on Boxing Day evening, and headed through the unwelcoming night towards Birmingham to collect Brummy, and Jim, the third member of the team. The temperature was hovering just below zero, and spooky patches of dense fog drifted through the darkness. The plan was to somehow cram the three of us into the sole remaining Fiat, and boldly set course for Hell. I was broken down on the Hard Shoulder within an hour of setting off.
The engine had lost power, and began to splutter and misfire intermittently. The symptoms gradually become worse over the following few miles, until the Fiat begrudgingly ground to a halt. I turned the engine over, but it refused to fire. Pulling my coat on, I prepared to take a look at the motor, but tried to start it one last time before I left the sheltered cabin for the cold night. This time, it spluttered angrily before coming to life.
A few miles down the road, the problem repeated itself. Again, waiting a minute was enough to get the engine coughing into life again. “Carburettor icing.” I said to myself as I pulled away. It made sense. The air was visibly moist and the temperature was hovering around freezing.
As the damp air is drawn through the carburettor, it accelerates which causes a drop in its temperature and chills the exposed metal inside the carburettor to below zero, enabling ice to build up, preventing the engine from running smoothly - or in our case, running at all. When stopped on the hard shoulder, the heat from the engine would melt the ice, enabling it to clear the motor and let us carry on our way.
Three breakdowns later, I arrived at Brummy’s house. We strapped a couple of bags to the roof, piled the rest of our stuff on the back seat, and the three of us climbed aboard and set off to Dover. And promptly broke down again. In an attempt to feed warmer air into the engine, we took off the air filter and ducting to the carb, enabling the engine to draw warmer air from within the engine compartment. This helped a bit and we made it to Dover by 7am, having already visited the hard shoulder seven times in the first 350 miles.
Belgium and Holland were just as cold and damp as England, and our number of breakdowns soon reached double figures. Desperate, we toyed with the idea of buying a cigarette-lighter powered hairdryer to feed warm air to the engine, but none of the service stations seemed to sell such tat. So onwards we spluttered, to Germany.
We spent the night in Dortmund with some German friends, who were deeply confused by our journey.
“Why do you want to drive to Hell? It makes no sense.”
“Because it’s funny. And because we can.”
“But there’s nothing there. Why drive for days to get somewhere there’s nothing to do? “
“Where is the fun in three of you being cramped into that little car for days on end? There is no fun in this.”
“You Germans have absolutely no sense of humour.”
“At least we have common sense.”
Following a heavy night of beers, we headed north, up the autobahn to Denmark. The weather had improved, warming up enough to prevent the carburettor icing problems from reoccurring. On this leg of the journey, I sampled the Fiat’s luxurious rear quarter for the first time. Wedged in by a pile of rucksacks, movement was virtually impossible, and deep-vein-thrombosis seemed a certainty. Soon, all the feeling in my legs was gone; which wasn’t a bad thing as it turned out, as it made the cold less noticeable. It was freezing back there. The trickle of warm air from the heater was only of use to the lucky folks sat up front; the back seat was instead blasted by the continuous stream of freezing air flowing in through the ill-fitting passenger door. The only way to endure the cold was to don a woolly hat and gloves, snuggle deep beneath the sleeping bags we’d brought along, and think warm thoughts. Luckily, the reactions of other road users provided an entertaining distraction from the hardships, ranging from the unbridled enthusiasm of much of Germany’s youth, to the aloofly studied indifference of the more grown-up members of society.
It was dark when we reached Denmark, and following a conference over some very strong, very expensive coffees, we decided to push on through the night to Oslo. The hours that followed were somewhat of a blur. A darkened Denmark left no imprint on our memories as we flew past the interestingly named town of Middelfart, and over the grand suspension bridges which provide a link with Sweden.
In Sweden, the darkened landscape turned snowy, before hiding itself behind patches of dense freezing fog, which slowed our progress to walking pace and froze to our poor cars bodywork. Soon, the bags on the roof were completely encrusted in ice, as was the Fiat’s front end. Fortunately, the ice had the decency to stay out of the carburettor this time, so on we inched, passing through the unmanned Norwegian border at about five in the morning, and reaching Oslo shortly afterwards.
Oslo proved to be just as clean and smart and expensive as you’d expect. After a few optimistic hours trying to sleep cooped up in the Fiat we went for a stroll to stretch our aching legs, before completing the obligatory visit to the Viking museum. After lunch, we hit the road north again. Slushy snow lined the verges and overflowed into the road, but wasn’t thick enough to slow our progress. The Fiat’s efforts at slowing our progress were more successful, however, running on only one cylinder, and stalling if the revs dropped below 1500rpm. As darkness fell, we pulled into Lillehammer, and checked into a hotel before heading out for a much needed drink. The first round came to £18 for the three of us, and the evening just got more painfully expensive from there.
With all of our wallets battered by the experience, we ended up in a local bar, where Jim and I left Brummy chatting to a rather drunk, patriotic Norwegian (“Don’t mention the Euro. I did once, but I think I got away with it”) and headed back to the hotel, which we promptly woke up by firing up the Fiat, to keep some heat in the engine. We then disconnected the battery, and I drunkenly strolled back to our warm hotel room with it tucked under my arm, much to the confusion of the hotel receptionist. Brummy arrived about twenty minutes later, and collapsed face down on his bed, while Jim and I polished off a few beers smuggled over from England.
The following morning, we overcame our smothering hangovers and headed to the fiat, only to find it cocooned in its own personal block of ice. After forcing our way into it, we connected the battery, and were amazed when it actually started. We found the cause of the previous days rough running easily – one of the HT leads had melted onto the hot exhaust, causing it to short out, and preventing one of the cylinders from firing - quite a problem when you only have two cylinders to begin with! A few quick twists of gaffa tape soon solved the problem, and after a stroll around the Olympic village, we carried on north towards our date with Hell, and the New Year.
On the last day of year, Trondheim was deserted. In Norway, the New Year celebrations are a family affair, and so there were no packed bars, no revellers in the streets, and little of the rowdy atmosphere you get in the UK. We parked the Fiat and wandered the surreally deserted city until we found a familiar sight – shaped like a London tube logo, the sign for the ‘Kings Cross’ English pub beckoned us in from the cold streets. We’d found our venue to see out the year, at seven pounds a pint.
New Year’s Day began, predictably, with a hangover. The Fiat was suffering too, and was very reluctant to fire up and complete the remaining ten miles to Hell. But fire up it did, and away we went, pulling into the village 7 days and 1,700 miles since leaving Plymouth. Fortunately, the place was just as deserted as Trondheim had been the previous night, which kept the confused looks to a minimum as we drove the little Fiat onto the station platform for a photo shoot by the famous ‘Hell – Gods Expedition’ sign.
And all because of a drunken conversation in the pub a few months earlier.
After half an hour touring the not-so-extensive sights of Hell, we faced a decision. We had less than four days left in Norway before our ferry left from Bergen, about 400 miles away. We could have drifted down to the port, enjoying the scenery and the extortionate beer at a leisurely pace. However in keeping with the preposterous nature of our journey so far, the sensible option didn’t even get a look in. Beckoning to us from the north was the Arctic Highway, drawing us to strike out through barren mountains and sinuous fjords, and cross the empty tundra in search of the Northern lights.
So northwards we chugged, into a deepening night. As the darkness became complete, an Elk watched us disinterestedly from the side of the road, the Scandinavian cliché completed by a backdrop of forest and mountains.
It was disappointingly cloudy, and intermittent snow showers mocked our foolish progress. The tarmac road gave way to a ploughed and graded surface of ice, the last vestiges of light lingering long enough to inject a beauty into our surroundings. The ice beneath our wheels was surprisingly easy to drive on, and we were able to plod on at around 40mph, thrilled to be heading north, and surprised at how far we’d made it already. Onwards we went, gaining confidence in the Fiat’s ability to reach the Arctic with every mile. And as our confidence increased, so did our speed, until Brummy flew over that sweeping crest next to the looming fjord, and the Fiat bit back, almost spinning us into the icy waters.
Feeling chastened, we continued at a more sedate pace, reaching the town of Mo I Rana – the official start of the Arctic Highway – in time for a predictably expensive dinner. And then we crammed ourselves back into the Fiat, and drove to the Arctic Circle.
The Highway reaches the Arctic Circle on a suitably bleak plain, where the graded ice of the road merges almost imperceptibly into the snowy expanse through which it meanders. We stopped at a sign which read “Polarsirkel-senteret” and took some photos, lit by the few trickles of moonlight which found their way through the overcast.
“Not looking good for the Northern Lights.” Jim commented, speaking for all of us.
As we piled back into the Fiat, I spotted the vaguest green twinkle through a tiny gap in the clouds, just above the horizon. It was the Aurora, pulsating away behind the overcast. We stood and watched for a few minutes, as this tiny patch of sky pulsed occasionally from the infinite rich blue of night, to a green glow as millions of charged ions pummelled the atmosphere hundreds of miles above. My mind extrapolated what it must look like above the clouds, where nature’s most ethereal spectacle was being played out. With a mixture of sadness and awe, I climbed back into the Fiat, resigned to the knowledge that the overcast sky would prevent us from experiencing nature’s most glorious fireworks.
We continued north, through sweeping vistas of plummeting cliffs and perfect mountains, as the cloud thickened above us. The temperature plummeted to minus ten as winter took control of the landscape, and the drifts of snow lining the road became ever higher. And then the clouds were behind us, and the crisp snowscape was painted hauntingly by the full moon. But the elusive Aurora was nowhere to be seen.
The further north we went, the more beautiful the empty landscape became. Flooded by moonlight crystalline in its sharpness, the fjords became more precipitous and foreboding, the mountains reached closer to perfection, and even the star-drenched sky seem to move closer. And then, framed by the long suffering Fiat’s windscreen, a faint emerald curtain draped itself across the sky ahead, and began to shimmer.
We pulled over to watch as the Aurora built in intensity, Hypnotised by its movements. It cascaded across the sky, shimmering playfully then disappearing, before building again with a dignified intensity only nature can produce. Sometimes, rather than sweeping through the skies, it simply hung in the same place for minutes at a time, only to sweep off to another part of the sky without warning.
After watching the awesome spectacle fifteen minutes, the cold overcame us, so we piled back into the Fiat and continued north, stopping every so often when the skies were lit up so stunningly that it seemed disrespectful to drive through the display.
Continuing into the early hours, Brummy and Jim slept while I drove onwards in a state of near euphoria. Hundreds of miles of empty perfection swept past the little Fiat, which a few days earlier had seemed incapable of even leaving the UK. Often, I would stop to photograph yet another glistening mountainscape, or find myself cruising down a perfect valley, the path of the ice-road beneath me being mirrored by the shimmering aurora high above.
Even the Fiat finally felt right. From thinking it the car from Hell a few months previously and cursing its stuttering progress at the start of our journey, it had shown itself to be a car of character. Few other cars could have made the Arctic experience so memorable, and certainly no new car could compare. Its rear engine, rear wheel drive layout was great for traction on the ice, while the fast, light steering made sliding the car around on the throttle an easy joy. In the bitter cold of the Arctic night, I warmed to the pugnacious little Fiat, and its big heart.
Jim took over driving at about five AM and I slept blissfully, buried on the back seat beneath a pile of sleeping bags and down jackets, completely content with the world, as if coaxing the Fiat to the Arctic was the most natural thing in the world to do; my calling in life.
A crisp twilight grew as we pulled into Narvik, a remote port over 100 miles beyond the Arctic Circle. A winter’s day this far north is almost apologetic, consisting of a few dim hours. The sun wouldn’t rise for nearly a month.
Leaving the tired Fiat in the icy streets, we went off in search of coffee. The caffeine break increased our consciousness greatly, but had the opposite effect on the Fiat, which protested at being abandoned in the cold by stubbornly refusing to re-start.
The battery on the Fiat 126 is located in the front bonnet, just behind the grille. During the previous night’s drive, it had been continuously blasted with freezing air, which left it unable to muster enough charge to start the engine. Fortunately, the solution was obvious. Brummy warmed the battery by placing it on his lap, hugging it ardently beneath his fleece jacket, while I cleaned the electrical contacts on the engine. Ten minutes later, the Fiat spluttered into life and we were on our way north to visit the islands of Lofoten and Vesteralen, which rise jewel-like from the ocean, 130 miles beyond the Arctic Circle.
As the light faded from the bewitching landscape of mountain and fjord, we began to retrace our steps south. We had just over two days to cover the 1,000 or so sheet-ice miles to Bergen, from where a ferry would take us back to England. Darkness became complete as we chugged past the now familiar outlines of spectacular mountains, silhouetted against a thousand stars.
As we neared the Arctic Circle, the weather changed, a blizzard demonstrating to us just how lucky we’d been on the long drive north. Driving snow coated the little Fiat as the flapping wipers struggled to clear the windscreen, while the wind buffeted us alarmingly. Our view of the world was reduced to the hypnotic blur of snowflakes warping past us, painted white by our headlights, and a sea of spindrift beneath us, flooding across the road before the wind. Fortunately, our winter tyres kept us moving, so we crawled onwards through the melee, until we found the road closed by the drifting snow.
After a half hour wait, a snowplough arrived to escort us through the blizzard. It cruised along nonchalantly clearing the snow at about 40mph, and we were forced to use every one of the Fiats 26 horsepower just to keep up. But keep up we did, and soon the storm faded, leaving us to cruise down to Trondheim in time for a morning beer at the Kings Cross. The pubs cockney owner was somewhat sceptical of our claimed journey.
“Narvik? Nah. You can’t have been all the way to Narvk and back! And you can’t have seen the lights either. I live here, and I’ve never even seen ‘em.”
After pacifying him with photographic evidence, we carried on south, the car and ourselves now firmly slotted into the routine of cruising slowly through the icy wonderland, day after day. Another night in Lillehammer battered our wallets further, before we set off on the last section of the trip.
The E-16 snaked through the darkness, its sweeping curves rising and falling at the beck of Norway’s never-ending mountains. Maintaining enough traction to keep the overloaded Fiat going on the uphill sections was challenging, often requiring a careful balance of power against clutch, but the hills always seemed to end in the nick of time. The early hours of our last morning in Norway saw us sliding out of the darkness into the otherworldly lighting of the Lᴂrdal Tunnel, the world’s longest. For 15 miles we sliced through the earth, our progress marked by the rhythmic pulsing of the overhead lighting as we passed. At three points along its length, the tunnel builders had widened it to form a cave, which glowed ethereally before the blue floodlights. And then we flew back into the night, sweeping towards the town of Voss, then a few tunnels later, Bergen.
The 24 hour ferry voyage back to the UK rapidly descended into drunken relief that we’d survived the trip, and it was three weary, hung-over people who pulled up to Newcastle passport control.
“Just the two of you in there?” The policewoman asked.
“Nope, three.” Jim replied, tunnelling out from the cocoon of sleeping bags and rucksacks in the back seat.
“Wow, you must be really good friends!” The Policewoman exclaimed.
“We are now!” Brummy shouted back with a grin and a wink, as we regained our passports and clattered triumphantly back onto English soil.