I went back in my Elise to a place we would once meet. On odd weekday evenings, in particular, word would go around and we’d all just arrive without anyone having actually organised anything. No mobiles, then. Those were the best times. The Sky Plaza Hotel is an inner-city multi-storey carpark with an empty hotel on top. We’d park up neatly in bays, poke about under bonnets and tell tall stories. There was no entry barrier and seemingly no-one else would park here. There were cleaner, safer and cheaper alternatives nearby. The hotel started with grand ambitions before passing through owners hands increasingly quickly, once hosting a UFO convention, then becoming a hostel, before being burned out and sadly vandalised. The lifts have never worked. The stairs are down the outside of the building inside a steel cage, with a button that may let you out at ground level. Even the pigeons are edgy. No-one used this place and it became our occasional hang out for a while before we found proper jobs, bought houses, got married, moved away and generally grew up. I miss those times. We would drive to the top and back to the bottom to ensure there was no-one about (there never was), then run an unofficial hill climb from bottom to top. At the top you’d chalk your time on the wall near the empty hotel, coasting back down. No digital timing then, no digital anything much, in fact. Just your word that it had taken so many seconds to sprint from the bottom, eight floors of tight spiral, our own urban hill climb in a forgotten Midlands city.

The cars we drove as kids were mostly performance oddities that you could buy on an apprentice plasterers wage, a record store assistance’s money, or squaddie’s meagre earnings. My mate was a labourer and best paid of all. He had a chalky white Vauxhall Belmont GLSi, a “baby Lotus Carlton”. It was an ex-company car and stank of fags and taught us about understeer. I worked at Kwik-Save. The Manager let us take three items of our choice at the end of every shift as way of thanking us for not stealing anything. The tills weren’t automated, the checkout girls (it was always girls) had to remember the prices of everything. But this is about cars. I had a 1.2 litre Vauxhall Chevette. Some did slightly better; a Lotus Excel that I suspected belonged to someone’s Dad, a gold BMW E21 323i, a Peugeot 505 GTi and a Fiat 131 Supermirafiori. “That’s like a regular Mirafiori” explained a mate, helpfully, “only better”. We didn’t know much, only that we liked driving fast. Mk2 Jaguars were near-worthless and nowhere near as fast as you hoped, old-fashioned auto’s slurring away like the engine was making a drunken phone call to the diff’. Back then there seemed to be a much wider choice of makes and models. One wideboy got hold of a Matra Bagheera which went well, another had an Austin 3-Litre which he claimed was basically a Rolls-Royce. Why has this useless info stuck with me after so many years, yet I struggle to remember my own kid’s birthdays? French and Italian cars always seemed exotic to me. Perhaps the cold, wet concrete backdrop brought their character to life. Anything with a Gordini stripe, Bertone badge or Abarth scorpion seemed otherworldly. Some homebrew ‘Lotus’ Cortina came. I don’t remember who went the fastest but I do remember someone turning up with a 1.9 litre Peugeot 205 GTi with Dimma bits on and not having to lie about their time. It was around then that we all drifted off (metaphorically, not literally).


I started with the Chevette and stayed with British things for a while, before going German, and then Swedish and now, back to British. My first proper job resulted in my doing some work on the tub which became the Elise and I vowed to buy one, someday. And here it is. It’s a twenty year old design but, to my eyes, anyway, still looks futuristic and focussed like nothing else on the road. It’s compact and incredibly light. You know this already, right, but I can’t stop talking about it. I took it back to the East Midlands equivalent of the West Midlands’s Shelsley Walsh, the Sky Plaza Hotel. The young me would have been astounded by the Elise. The young me would have quickly crashed it, quickly. The old me is a moocher, not a racer, but it’s hard not to think about setting one last time, for old time’s sake. I have a comfortable life now, but I wish I had realised that time is more important than money much sooner than this. The lives of those old friends went in different directions. Paul rode a Ducati into a skip. Jim went to America and joined a band. Austin 3-Litre man made it in IT and lives with his face in his phone. Wayne went to prison for rather a long time. José died from a brain tumour. He always was wired differently. He was the first person I heard complain about RHD Mk1 Golf GTi brakes. He was quick up, and very slow back down. This feels like an overly self-indulgent thing to write but things could have turned out worse for me. My best mate bought a caravan. Tonight I’m here on my own and for the first time in decades.

Some things have not changed. The smell of piss, for example, and the pigeon muck. The logos on the litter has changed but the cleanliness of the city has not. It’s still a carpark. The owner, who has clearly never set foot here, describes it online as “one of the UK’s most spectacular cities”. Distant Police sirens sound different now, the smell of weed replaces the blue hazey fug of polluting old engines, but the same atmosphere abounds. It has always been a carpark, apart from the time it caught fire, and the time the Police closed it due to gunmen on the loose. I’m here to set a time. There’s a barrier now and as it jerks upwards and, in an incredibly tenuous link to something far more exotic, it makes me think of the Nordschleife and a Touristenfahrt lap. 90p for an hour’s trip up and down memory lane. First, an inspection drive. The sport exhaust on an old K series sounds good round here. Am I a yobbo? It’s a tight spiral, with a very short straight, then up again. Better drivers than me could probably set the steering angle at one fixed point and not change the whole way up. I recall an Opel Monza’s steering lock coming on and the car nosing into the wall once. We laughed, but it was a long way down. When did you last see a Monza? It’s empty now, completely empty.

I coast back to the bottom, do a heavy three point turn (visibility is crap, even with those Metro mirrors on stalks), and click the stopwatch to start my run. I pull off in first and straight into second. This car is violently quick off the mark and I go around and up, around and up, and the lights of the city whizz by. All in second gear. I try not to brake. I recall Schumacher once saying anyone can go fast, it’s the slowing down that takes skill. I’m more Luca Badoer – perennial trier with a large, bare trophy cabinet. Sorry I don’t have any F1 references more modern than that. This is my race now. I noisily charge up my ‘hillclimb’, as fast as I dare. Am I as irritating as the modern German hatchbacks popping and farting in the retail park nearby? Am I any better? Do I care? Over the line (an expansion gap in the concrete floor) to finish. I park and leave the car in gear, thinking about sticking pads to hot discs but, in reality, I barely braked on the way up and this car never got near any limits. Walking over to the post that once recorded our times I chalk up my modest effort. Underneath my chalk is graffiti, under the graffiti is anti-vandal paint past it’s best, and under that perhaps is a record of the fun we once had here. Today, I am the champion of the Sky Plaza Hotel hillclimb.

Pics (c) Rich Duisberg.

PS – Click this link and buy books I’ve written. Ta x

About The Author

Rich Duisberg

Rich Duisberg* has had work published in Classic & Sportscar, Practical Performance Car, Modern Mini, Banzai, MogMag, Evo, GT Porsche, Complete Kit Car, Absolute Lotus, Alternative Cars, Classic Retro Modern, and elsewhere. Rich often appears on CBS’s XCAR and Carfection channels, and Motors TV, plus JayEmm on Cars, enthusing about historic motoring. His latest book (find his work on Amazon) was described by SniffPetrol as "hilarious", although he was also threatened with legal action by elderly DJ Tim Westwood. In his Midlands man cave is a 1972 Fiat 500, a Lotus Elise, a BMW barge and a vintage Royal Enfield pushbike. Previous machines of interest include an Mk1 MX5 (owned for 14 years!), an Alfa GTV6, a Porsche 968 and a Sinclair C5. The Metro (right) was bought for an experiment, and abandoned in Africa. "I am not getting in a car with him" -  said Le Mans winner, Derek Bell. *A nom-de-plume inspired by the BBC's League of Gentlemen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.