NORTH EAST of Melbourne amongst the lush, rolling hills and dales of the Yarra Valley lies the C424.
You may know it as the Gembrook-Launching Place Road but either designation doesn’t quite cover the surprise and delights of this otherwise unknown Victorian C-road.
It is here where last April we found ourselves at the wheel of a McLaren 650S and with several hours to kill.
We were in town for a wedding, at the delightful Swallowfield winery, tucked up a tight, remote dirt road in the middle of a national park, but the hours between wedding reception and post-party gathering at the local pub in Emerald left us with hours to kill.
The wedding was, of course, a highlight. The kind of ceremony that starts in moody, overcast conditions only for the sun to burst through, full of vibrancy, just before the bit where bride and groom say ‘I do’. But when you’ve got a 478kw bright orange Supercar at your disposal the only logical thing was to go easy on the wedding festivities and maximise the potential of an unexpectedly brilliant road.
But what would it be like? That was the $464,000 question.
STARTING on a ridge-line, horizon spread out intermittently in gaps between trees and quaint farm allotments as yet untouched by Melbourne’s suburban sprawl, the C424 suddenly and unexpectedly delves down into a valley amidst the Kurth Kiln Regional Park, a densely forested section that means the significant drop behind the armco on the left is hidden amongst the trees. To our right, a steep climb makes the road feel enclosed, not unlike a street circuit race track, beckoning you to ‘have a go’.
We clink into first on the right-hand paddle and ease away. Since leaving Melbourne that morning, the McLaren had stunned with just how easy it was to drive, moving effortlessly away from the lights and seamless through traffic as we headed East, away from Springvale and the ‘burbs and higher into the mist-covered hills that awaited.
There, the 650 was an old Labrador. Happy to be stoked along, not making a fuss or raising an ear to anything. It was as docile and as happy at 60kph as most rental cars from the nearest Avis.
Yet on the C424, the character changed. Sport button – on a 600-plus horsepower Supercar! – pushed and rear window lowered for maximum aural effect, the car transforms with a violence and a level of performance that at no point ever got old.
To continue the dog metaphor you could say it was like a pitbull, tugging at the leash and desperately trying to break loose and sink it’s teeth into the nearest available dog / person / thing – but that would be doing the car a disservice. At no point on our drive did it ever feel like it would break out of control. Savage? yes. But trained and well heeled when you told it what to do.
Headlights ablaze, the road drops through the valley. It’s significantly darker down here, the enclosed feeling focusing your thoughts only on the road ahead, working out the braking points and allowing the brain to catch up. I seriously have trouble comprehending the way the car gathers speed – my brain is like a dial-up internet connection trying to watch You Tube; constantly buffering, trying to process the information and report back as my hands grab third, then fourth on a short straight as just for a fleeting moment I get Full Throttle.
That surge is addictive, like that wonderful sensation of acceleration you get when you’re in a really powerful, big airliner as it accelerates down a runway. There are faster cars in the world – the newest McLaren is one of them – but at no point was I left feeling that the performance of the 650S wasn’t fast, remarkable, shattering or surprising enough. What must faster feel like?
For a brief moment, I’m flat. Flat in third gear in a McLaren on a wonderful road and an incredible location. Better journalists than I can use their skill to describe it, so I’ll surmise with the one word I uttered, the only word I could manage as my brain tried to buffer the remarkable, visceral information is was being fed. Though unquestionably crude, it remains the only word I know that conveys all of the feelings I had and what I said out loud at the time.
AS we emerge from the gully atop the southern ridge of this great piece of road, senses in overdrive, we pause in Gembrook to take stock. Though it’s only 12 degrees out, it’s agreed that there must be a brief moment on this trip where we roll sans roof.
As we blast back towards the evening meet-up point, wind in the hair and V8 thrum behind, the sun pokes through the clouds as it edges towards the Western horizon, as if to send us on our way at the end of a special day.
LATER, after an enjoyable dinner and banter with the bride and groom at the Emerald pub, we set out for home, retracing our morning steps and down the hill towards the city.
On the Monash freeway the McLaren returns to it’s Labrador roots; cruising quietly in seventh gear, delivering good fuel economy and riding in serene comfort. It’s happy to coax along without a trouble in the world. Two hours ago it blew my mind – such is the capabilities of the car.
On my right a Lotus Exige accelerates past, then slows and draws level, blipping the throttle on a downchange as if urging me on. Oh Please. It’s bait I don’t need to take – his mere four cylinders have no chance against my eight-plus-turbo. After a few moments of taunting he leaves and I remain contented in my Supercar cocoon, safe in the knowledge that there’s unlikely to be anything quicker on the Monash tonight.
After a day hidden amongst the trees and hills of the Yarra Valley, it only seemed logical to finish our day with the 650S with a Melbourne cliche’.
Remarkable fold-away roof lowered, windows down despite the cold, we amble down Chapel Street – basking in all the glory that a bright orange Supercar in Melbourne’s hub of The Other Half can bring.
And it deals with that just as well as the freeway, underground parking, dirt roads and the magic C424 earlier in the day.
This week McLaren took the wraps of the 720S, the 650’s direct replacement and a new evolution in the brands’ Supercar strategy. It promises to be more of everything – faster, quicker through corners and yet more comfortable and more accessible than what has come before it.
It will want to be a hell of car – because to this day that evening with the 650S remains the driving experience of my life.
Good wedding, too.
Thanks to McLaren Melbourne for the loan of the car.
WORDS & IMAGES: Richard Craill