“Smooth as a gravy sandwich!” the broad Geordie accent shouts joyfully across to me from the driver's seat. Brian Johnson, the voice behind classic rock tunes like Highway to Hell and Thunderstruck, is obviously pleased with the results of his mechanics' tinkering.
I'm sitting alongside the lead singer of AC/DC in a classic Austin Mini Cooper, which has been tuned up with a much more powerful engine as well as having been stripped almost to the bone for the sake of saving weight. Roll cage? Check. Cup holder? Err, no.
The Mini is a proper classic car. It has its own character, and this morning it seems to have rolled out of bed on the wrong side. On Brian's warm-up laps it had been coughing and spluttering like a basset hound with the flu.
But the mechanics have fixed it and now we're charging noisily out of the pit lane onto Goodwood Motor Circuit, the mechanical snarling from the four-speed gearbox rising to the pitch of a jet engine in the midst of a colossal racket from the four-cylinder, 120-ish horsepower engine under the bonnet, separated from us only by the Mini's thin metal bulkhead.
Highway to (hearing) hell
Crikey, this thing is quick. The fact that it weighs about as much as a child’s ballet shoe helps, and the net result of that is felt as we arrive at the first corner, which is actually several turns that combine into one long right-hander, at speed. The Mini starts to move around like its back tyres are on tea trays, as Brian fights with the unassisted steering to keep it more or less on line. He's not hanging about, this chap.
I try talking to him but it’s no good. A few shouted exchanges later, I bag a slot with him after he’s been prised away from the track. As it happens, he’s a remarkably polite and affable bloke, always smiling and well aware of his media responsibilities. He keeps his word, and later on we chat by the side of the Mini as it ticks itself cool.
Cars That Rock
After an exchange between Brian’s manager Tarquin Gotch, who, says Brian, is “straight out of a Dickensian novel”, and executives from Back to Back Productions, the singer was offered the chance to front a six-part television series called Cars That Rock.
“I had to pick six iconic cars,” he explains, “and I didn’t want it to be about the cars. I wanted it to be about the people that built them: Ferruccio Lamborghini and the like. I wanted to get behind the story of them; it’s not just a piece of metal.
“They were all geniuses and that’s what I wanted to get across more than anything. And to talk about the passion of driving these cars and the passion of the guys who built them.”
To the 66-year-old rocker’s continuing surprise, the producers gave him free reign to talk about whatever he wanted. “It’ll probably be rambling drivel but I’m sure the photography will make up for that,” he says with a chuckle.
The Cars That Rock teaser that we’d been shown earlier in the day features Brian driving his own Ferrari 458 Italia, spitting computer-generated flames from its wheel arches. With the 458 once having been recalled because they kept setting themselves on fire, I asked whether the irony had hit home. “Of course,” he laughs. “I was laughing me t**s off when I first saw it!”
From Bugatti to Brooklands
There are no lame ducks in the line-up, and when asked about highlights Brian struggles to pick just one.
“Gosh, that’s tough,” he says and shakes his head.
“All of them were just wonderful. Driving a Bugatti 235 through the vineyards of Molsheim took some beating. Driving ‘Tiny’ Tim Birkin’s Bentley on the Brooklands Banking, or what’s left of it, was fantastic.”
Driving Imola, the circuit where Ayrton Senna was killed, in the new Lamborghini Super Trofeo race car is another highlight for him, and it’s that genuine passion for cars that makes Cars That Rock such an engaging prospect. “It was all so much fun, and memorable,” he stresses the last word in particular.
“I’ve tried to get that across to people who are watching, because I am a kid, in a candy shop, just living the dream.”
Just as Brian is given a nudge by a watch-tapping PR agent, I ask him whether he thinks the general passion for cars is still there among the public. “Oh yeah,” he scoffs. “Does Rose Kennedy have a black dress?”
He wanders off, leaving everyone else chuckling amongst themselves. I’ve met and interviewed celebrities like Jenson Button and don’t normally do ‘star-struck’, but what a guy.
Cars That Rock with Brian Johnson airs on Thursdays at 9pm on Quest from May 8, 2014