The six-foot-plus, heavily-bearded truck driver, with shoulders so wide they wouldn’t have looked out of place in an American Football match, lumbered over the Finnish petrol station forecourt, eyes just narrow slits against the gale force wind and driving snow, and peered down at me in the cabin: “Are you mad?”
But don’t worry; this was no threatening demonstration of road rage or hostility. It was genuine curiosity. Surrounded by monster lorries and SUVs, with darkness falling, a road surface treacherous to walk on let alone drive, I was sitting in a Mazda MX-5 with the roof down. Oh … and it was minus-28 degrees!
“Possibly,” I replied. “But it’s fun.”
That “fun” had started with the alarm going off at 5am for a 6am start. The challenge? Driving 537 miles through Norway, Finland and Sweden from our base at Honningsvag, a few kilometres from the Nordkapp (North Cape), the most northerly European point accessible by car. Except … for us in was inaccessible.
The plan had been to visit the dramatic Nordkapp the previous evening at 7pm. But just as we were about to leave the hotel, news came through that the local authorities had closed the road because the snowplough couldn’t get through. Ominous.
Pity, because the Nordkapp is a spectacular bleak and lonely spot which ends with a dramatic 300-metre cliff which falls to the Arctic Ocean below. And there’s no solid land mass between you and the North Pole. In fact, you’re closer to the North Pole than Oslo.
It was clear looking out the window, the weather had indeed closed in. So it was an unscheduled early night.
Breakfasting next morning at 5.45am: news update. And it shattered any thoughts that the drive south to Lulea in northern Sweden would resemble anything like a “tourist jaunt”. The single, solitary road which leads south from Honningsvag had been blocked by a ‘significant’ avalanche the previous evening.
The destructive nature of an avalanche depositing tons of snow and ice on the road I was due to drive in an MX-5 sent more shivers down my spine than the freezing weather. But hey; no one said this was going to be easy … as the disclaimer I’d signed the previous evening highlighted.
So, as crews battled to clear the road, which by now had been closed for nine hours, I fired up the MX-5 and headed out to get a feel for the car on the frozen, snow-covered roads.
It’s 30 years since the iconic soft-top was developed in the sun-baked heat of California, and clearly designed for warm, summer days. Since its launch in 1989, more than one million models of the small, two-seat sportscar have been sold. Drawing inspiration from the Lotus Elan of the Sixties, the MX-5 is, and always will be, rear-wheel drive.
But surely it’s been modified for the trip through the Arctic Circle, I hear you ask?
Of course not. Yes, the MX-5 has been given a minor update for 2019, including a more powerful 2.0-litre engine which now has 182bhp, and which comes as standard with a limited-slip differential between the rear wheels. And while my car had been fitted with winter tyres sprinkled with steel studs, mounted on gorgeous, optional, BBS alloy wheels, that was the sole concession to the conditions.
Back at base, and safe in the knowledge the car handled the treacherous icy Arctic conditions as if it were sauntering cross-country on your favourite B-road on a sunny Sunday afternoon back in the UK, we had an update. We’d leave the hotel at 9.30am and join the convoy — led by a snowplough — at 10am. This would take us through the nearly four-mile tunnel before hitting the sinuous coastal road which had been blocked by the avalanche.
By now the overnight storm had given way to cloudless blue skies. And as I’d pledged to drive as far as possible with the roof down in order to experience the frigid savagery of the Arctic, it was duly unclipped and folded back in a simple, single action.
Sat nav read 537 miles, with a scheduled arrival in Lulea of 21h08. It was going to be a long day.
And already it was cold: -20 degrees. But we Scots are a hardy bunch. Heated sports seats on; heater at 24 degrees and blowing to face and feet; wrapped up top and bottom with thermals under normal clothes; snug-fitting, thick Helly Hansen jacket; Haglofs gloves and beanie hat … and we were off.
Once clear of the avalanche zone, and with no other cars in sight for miles, we quickly established a fast-moving two-car convoy through the spectacular Norwegian wilderness. I’ve honestly never seen skycapes or formations like it. It was stunning.
From never-ending straight stretches which disappeared inland towards the horizon, we’d suddenly find ourselves back on long sweeping bends as the road wound its way down the coast flanked by an inky-black sea topped by white horses as the wind whipped across the surface.
Back inland, that wind continued whizzing spindrift across the surface of the Tarmac, at times making it difficult to see the other MX-5 100 yards ahead. After two hours, we’d covered just 53 miles, and our ETA had slipped to 21h35.
But now we were clear of the coast we could again take full advantage of the majestic, fast-flowing road which swept through the tree-lined snow-covered slopes which rolled down from the surrounding mountains. And all the time heading south into the low, dazzling bright sunshine reflecting directly back up off the icy road surface.
Bypassing the centre of Alta, one of Norway’s northwest ports popular with cruise liners searching for the Northern Lights, we headed south-east on the E45 towards Kautikeino before crossing into Finland.
Dusk falls early in the Arctic Circle, but it lasts for around 90 minutes, creating an eery light which further enhanced the dramatic frozen waterfalls punctuating the route.
Just after half-distance we stopped to refuel, and with darkness now closing in, we committed to charge on; roof still down. An hour later, as near-blizzard conditions — a combination of freshly-falling snow and spindrift being blown across the road from the fields — threatened to mask any definition of the road ahead, we finally succumbed and pulled the roof up.
Of course, 15 minutes later I had to stop again: I still had my big jacket, gloves and hat on. Twit! Braving the elements, I nipped out and was able to tuck the jacket into the boot, which has enough space for two decent-sized squashy bags, sufficient for two for a weekend away.
The final blast to Lulea (on the Gulf of Bothnia, where the local industries are steel-making and Facebook servers … yes, honestly!) was surreal. Surrounded by pitch black skies, contrasting directly with the dazzling white snow illuminated by the piercing LED headlights, it was as if we had our own private Swedish rally stage.
Sure it demanded total concentration, but it was sheer delight: slide, catch, slide, catch, and all the time with the willing 2.0-litre engine barking with joy as I blipped the throttle on downshifts.
After a couple more hours of exhilarating driving we finally pulled off the snow-covered highways and headed into the city, where the white stuff continued to fall and the roads were hard-packed ice.
Remember that lorry driver in Finland? He explained it would normally take “at least two days” for him to complete the drive from Honningsvag to Lulea. Arriving at 8pm, we had done it in 10 hours, in a rear-wheel drive, open-topped sportscar.
Mad? Maybe. But boy, we’d had a truly unforgettable day. We proved the little MX-5 can cut it in the most demanding of conditions, and even laughs in the face of an avalanche. Bet they didn’t think that when they were designing the car in sunny California.