A Geezers’ Grand Prix: 1,000 miles of rough road in a ’39 Chevy.
Coming down the Mendocino coastal range on a one-and-a-half-lane semipaved road dropping 2,700 feet from Buck Peak to Point Arena, the brakes gave out. They’d been soft for a couple of days, but now the pedal went to the floor at 70 miles an hour. On one side, ready to swallow an over-steer spinout, was a hungry ravine. On the other side, set for smacking an under-steer slide, was an angry wall of rock. In the middle was oncoming truck traffic. My co-driver, unflappable Detroit investment banker Fred Schroeder, closed the little plastic lipon his Starbuck’s cup-never a good sign. And I was driving a priceless item of automotive history.• The modified 1939 Chevrolet coupe had belonged to Juan Manuel Fangio, greatest of all Grand Prix drivers. This was the last extant example of the Chevys in which Fangio got his start during the 1940s. They were built by his genius mechanic brother, Toto. Juan Manuel ran them in the Carreteras, the incomparably punishing South American long-distance road races. One course went from Buenos Aires across the Bolivian Andes to Lima, Peru, and back-10,000 kilometers, mostly on dirt and gravel. Surely I could make it ten miles to Point Arena. Best not to think about the two solid axles, the leaf-spring suspension, the yard-long clutch throw, school bus steering wheel, no power anything and mechanicals old enough to get IRA disbursements without tax penalties. • But the spirit of Fangio was with me, he who won five world driver’s championships after the age of 40. Or, more likely, the spirit of Fangio was with his car. The Chevy went down the mountain with adult authority–no toddler body roll, no childish darting into the middle of the road, no infant squeal of tires. It just went–down switchbacks as tangled as life itself, down grades as precipitous as the known alternative. Meanwhile the unskilled driver was yanking the tiller 360 degrees hand-over-hand, pounding the chassis to find brake pressure with one foot and pumping up revs with the other, crashing into second and then first looking for a little anchorage from an engine with its tachometer punching redline and blasts and backfires exploding from its exhaust pipes. But the Chevy itself was blissfully calm. And it elevated me into a state of sweaty tranquility. The machine, the pavement (though I wished there were more of it) and I became one, serene and focused. I was keenly aware, yet indifferent to the woes of the material world, some of which were coming straight at me overloaded with hay bales. I got us to Point Arena in perfect unity of being and nothingness; also in one piece. The Fangio Chevy emptied my mind like no Zen that D. T. Suzuki ever heard of. Of course it would have emptied my wallet, too, if I’d put it in a ditch. I have discovered the middle-aged, comfortably off, overfed male’s path to spiritual enlightenment. And the secret is driving vintage automobiles real fast. The path–the Tao, if you will–is the California Mille, a four-day, 1,000-mile, all-out classic car run across the valleys, over the mountains and along the coastlines on the most spectacular back roads in Northern California. No dumpy ashrams are visited. No tedious meditation is practiced. No trite Prayers of Jabez are heard. (Although there’s plenty of praying: “Lord, don’t let me go over the cliff!”) The California Mille was established 11 years ago by San Francisco auto enthusiast Martin Swig. It commemorates the Mille Miglia, raced from 1927 to 1957 through the middle of Italy at astonishing speeds in equally astonishing Italian traffic: Brescia-Rome-Brescia. To qualify for the California version, a car must have been eligible to compete in the original. Swig and his friends decided to found their Mille “Before,” Martin says, “some jerks got the idea first.” In other words, Martin wanted an event in which ex-president Clinton could not enter his dumb Mustang. The California Mille starting line is Nob Hill, with the drivers flagged away from the forecourt of the splendid Fairmont Hotel. Did I mention that I also discovered Truth, Wisdom and Beauty for the middle-aged male at the California Mille? Especially beauty. We fellows in our most expansive years of life (“Honey, the cleaner shrank these khakis”) don’t get much credit for artistic sensitivity. We fall asleep during the ballet. At gallery openings we head for the bar to make friends with José and see if he’s got anything better than lukewarm white wine. But gaze upon the starters’ grid at the Mille, and see the finely honed aesthetics of curmudgeonly guys. Looks like a million dollars–in some cases, literally. There were the ten Ferraris, a prancing-horse Augean stable of them (but sparkling clean)–lustrous Barchetta, radiant Berlinetta, resplendent 375MM Spyder driven to victory at the Nurburgring by Alberto Ascari. Of Jaguars, a whole cathouse was on hand–SS100, XK120s, a C-Type, the XKSS progenitor (aesthetes take note) of the E that sits in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. AC Ace Bristols appeared, the most graceful sports car of the 1950s, with bodywork later to be borrowed by the Shelby Ford Cobra. Mercedes 300SLs worked their sturdy Teutonic charms, especially that Lorelei of price, the Gullwing Coupe, which has lured many a man into Chapter 11. Porsche 356s and Speedsters hunkered, pretty as poison gumdrops. And Porsche Spyders, too. If looks could kill (and with James Dean they did)….There was an Aston Martin DBR2 showing compound curves beyond the dreams of Frank Gehry, and a gill-slitted Maserati 200SI that could star in Jaws V if anyone were idiot enough to put it in the water. Plus dozens of other ravishing cars, 72 all told, an orgy of vehicular pulchritude, including la dolce vita of Alfa Romeos with their labially suggestive grilles, culminating in a Zagato 1900 double-bubble silhouette coupe. Bless you, Anita Ekberg. But why the appeal of old cars? Aren’t there beautiful new cars to be driven? Perhaps. But modern automobiles are filled with electronic weasel works and the mice mazes of computerhood. We old guys can’t understand them. And when it comes to contemporary beauties that we can’t understand, we have our wives. Fabulous wives, I may say, many of them along as co-drivers and one, Esta Swig, in her own Alfa Romeo 1900.
Then came Truth. Moment of same, to be precise, when I had to drive one of these things. My worst experience with the Fangio Chevy was getting it up a barely cable-car-climbable California Street from the Fairmont’s garage to the starting line. The friction point on the clutch pedal is so far out from the floorboards that my left knee was waving in the air like a Balinese dancer’s. There’s no hand brake. The engine runs grumpy when cold and gas has to be kept on, but to heel-toe between the brake pedal and the accelerator would require the shoe size of a Yeti. I stalled in traffic. The Chevy has a floor-mounted starter button. I now needed not one but two more feet than I was born with. And when I did get restarted, frying clutch smoke billowed behind me.The green flag dropped. I was off into the whimsical downtown motoring of San Francisco’s eccentric population. The Chevy is right-hand drive, per the rules of the road in pre-war Argentina. It came equipped with two playing card-sized mirrors clipped on the windshield pillars, but I had broken one off already by opening the driver’s-side door wide enough to get my duck-shaped self into the little canvas rally seat. (Oh, gosh, was that the very mirror that Fangio looked into and saw… Yow! Taillights! I’m in the wrong lane!) The shift lever, on my extra-clumsy left side, is goal post-length with first-down distances between gears. A change into second put my fist into the passenger’s lap for an untoward intimacy with Fred Schroeder. Going to third I bashed the instruments, which, except for the tach, were wonky anyhow because of a last-minute conversion from a 6-volt to a 12-volt battery. Fourth, and I whacked myself in the… Blippity-blip went the turn signal. It’s not self-canceling and thus had been indicating, for blocks, that, besides being in the wrong lane, I intended to plow into a row of parked cars. And so forth in a swivet across the Golden Gate, through Marin County and into the Sonoma Valley, where, finally, there were gridlock-free curves and bends. I began to feel a little confidence in my hulking ride. It over-towered the lithe elegance of fellow competitors, outsized even a 1928 4.5-liter LeMans Bentley and a massive 1955 Chrysler C-300. But the Chevy had qualities to equal its heft. It tracked like a train through the esses, and nothing Amtraky about the ride. We went over to the Napa Valley and up, being passed by Ferraris and their ilk to be sure, but I was getting faster. In the tight turns near Clearlake I found I could keep pace with Miles Collier, who was driving a Cunningham C-1, the prototype of Briggs Cunningham’s brilliant sports/racers of the 1950s, and the only C-1 in existence. Then I noticed that Mr. Collier and his wife were wearing panama hats that stuck, without fluttering, above the brim of their windshield. They were not, maybe, really pushing the C-1. “I think we’re going about 35,” said Fred Schroeder. I made my first pass–on not quite a blind curve, but a very near-sighted one. There was power enough and to spare from the Chevy’s Blue Flame Six, but the effortless business of driving that we daydream our way through in a new car was effort-intensive in 1939. Even the gas pedal required an emphatic shove. It made me appreciate the esteem in which a good wheelman was held by 1930s gangsters–not to be compared to the Crip or Blood finger-steering a Lexus in a drive-by shooting today. On the arcs and crescents east into the Sacramento Valley I hooked in behind Max Hobson in his 1931 Chrysler LeMans roadster. This, on its vermicelli-narrow tires, is even more of a handful than a ’39 Chevrolet. I couldn’t keep up. But it wasn’t really my fault. My age cohort isn’t slowing its pace going down the road. Or going to the bathroom either. There’s a distinctive rhythm to midlife male high-speed driving–55 minutes of to-hell-with-the-brake-lights and five minutes in the weeds beside the highway. At the drivers’ meeting before the Mille, Martin Swig suggested a signal for us to give to other participants if we stopped because we needed a urologist rather than a mechanic. The route looped west into the mountains on roads as grueling as going to work for a living. Being temporary chief executive of the Fangio Chevy, I had panicky decisions to make at each crossroad, disastrous wrong turns lurking on every side, crookedness coming at me seemingly from all directions, peaks and dips of NASDAQ dimensions to survive, deadlines to meet. (What’s the line through that curve? Don’t get dead.) I was actually living in the metaphors used for business life. And I was feeling the fear businessmen my age actually feel-about the absurd trust that the world puts in us. We trade the stocks and bonds on Wall Street, run the Federal Reserve, control the IMF. And my situation was even worse. David E. Davis, Jr., founder of Automobile magazine and dean of American automotive journalism, had loaned me this car. He was friends with Juan Fangio. When dying in 1995, Fangio asked the trustees of the Centro Technólogico-Cultural y Museo del Automovilismo Juan Manuel Fangio to give the Chevy to Davis. When he went to Argentina to accept the gift, Toto himself drove the car right into the museum’s lobby. Davis has spent a phone number restoring it. And now Davis, who was somewhere behind me in a magnificent Mark IX Jaguar, would see his dreams dashed to pieces–no figure of speech–at the bottom of a canyon. But we graying fiftysomethings get up and go into the office anyway and manage the bazillion-dollar portfolios whether we’re frightened or not. Or, in this case, we clamber back behind the wheel after a quick break. (Thumbs-up for a call of nature!) And we hardly ever let on that risking other people’s money is nine tenths of the fun.
Fred took over when we returned to I-5 in the valley. And we had a problem. We could only go 75. At 80 a violent shudder set in. Something to do with worn rear shocks and spring harmonics we said to each other with the usual guy capacity, when talking guy talk, to blow more smoke than’s been inhaled. Anyway, steering wasn’t affected and the Chevy stayed straight. But we were dice in a backgammon cup. There was only one thing to do–drive at 100. The shudder subsided. Truckers, low-riders and dads ferrying Cub Scout-packed minivans gave us the full bladder signal as we passed everything in sight.At Red Bluff we turned east into the Cascade Range on logging roads picketed by stands of enormous pines. Navigation, hitherto handled with aplomb by Fred, fell to pieces under me. “Turn right at the big tree!” I shouted. “The other big tree! Not that big tree! This big tree! Look out! You’re headed right for…a big tree!” “Maybe you’d better drive,” said Fred. And he relinquished the controls just in time for the long northwest run up the Hat Creek Valley, where there were enough twists in the road to keep me from going 100, and pride wouldn’t let me dip below 80. We arrived at the Best Western in the town of Mt. Shasta… “Shaken, not stirred,” Fred told the bartender. We had driven 446 miles on the first day. Most of the aging machinery had survived, and all of the aging drivers. A banquet was spread. The wisdom of hoary gearheads was exchanged. And don’t think that we lack it. Juan Fangio made a toast in 1986 to a sport “based on permanent values of manliness, bravery, mobility and honesty.” Who but a veteran car nut would think to include the cardinal virtue mobility in his list of ideals? Although most of the wisdom I heard that night in Mt. Shasta was along other lines. “Always,” said the sage next to me, “walk a mile in another man’s shoes. You’re a mile away, and you’ve got his shoes.” Deeply dined, with healths thoroughly pledged, we took our cognacs and cigars into the parking lot to survey our aristocracy of transport. Is a little snobbery incompatible with spiritual enlightenment, beauty, truth and wisdom? I was walking with Camilo Steuer, who had flown from Bogotá to drive his Alfa in the Mille. “These are cars,” said Camilo, “of the soul, not of gold chains.” No offense to the memory of Dale Ernhardt, but motorsports could use some bon ton. It is the traditional responsibility of the gentry to do the dangerous, foolish things in life. Wars became so vulgar when just any old person was drafted to fight them. Not that the California Mille is really dangerous or that I’m a member of the upper class. But there’s such a thing as a natural gentleman. Fangio was a humble mechanic from the potato-growing town of Balcarce. If danger and folly are the provenience of oligarchy, then my incompetence with the Fangio Chevy made me at least a duke. A duke with, the next morning, an ignominious speeding ticket, a mere 60 in a 45 zone. This in a town with the humiliating name of Weed, where I was written up by a young twerp of a highway patrolman who was oblivious to the car’s regal bearing, uninterested in its noble pedigree and not impressed by the lordly note of the Chevy’s engine. “You’re pretty loud, too,” said the twerp. This was the only unexalted moment of the remaining three days. But now that I’ve found truth, wisdom, et cetera, I realize how egocentric and unevolved it is to dwell on my own bliss. So I’ll stop right here with the recitation of the delights I experienced in the California Mille. I’ll say nothing about the ecstatic thrills of the 2,000-foot climb to Gazelle Summit on the wiggles, steeps and skinnys of escarpment roads where the Weed speed limit seemed like space launch velocity–and a launch into space was available at every hairpin. I won’t report that there’s Elysian scenery in the remote Scott Valley running north through Xanadu gorges to the wondrous Klamath River, which I won’t even mention, despite the fact that it’s a fly fisherman’s paradise though somewhat cluttered with white-water-rafting bozos, but they might be amusing to catch and release, too. I kept making Fred drive and Fred kept making me drive because neither of us could keep a ton-and-a-half of Chevy chasing nimble Porsches and, at the same time, drink in the glories of nature (and the Selad Valley Volunteer Fire Department’s darn good cup of coffee). And neither of us could decide whether driving or gawking was the most fun. But I won’t speak of that. In fact, just to name the geological features of Rt. 299 to Humboldt Bay would be to flaunt the good time I was having (and on expense account, at that)–Nixon Ridge, Lord Ellis Summit, Tip Top Ridge. I want the reader to be as happy as I am. And it would only make you feel bad that you weren’t there if I said we stayed at the luxurious Eureka Inn, or that the Ferndale loop out to California’s Lost Coast is so sublime that it must be kept a state secret from everyone who owns a Winnebago, or that at the Little River Inn south of Mendocino proprietor Mel McKinney has the best cigars this side of the Hotel Nacional in Havana. Likewise I’ll avoid any reference to Humboldt Redwoods State Park and its stately Avenue of the Giants. (Nice but, personally, I think, too many trees.) I won’t tell you that we traveled an additional 300-odd euphoric miles beyond Humboldt in a heaven-to-heaven zigzag between mountains and sea until we arrived in jubilation at the groaning boards in the pleasure gardens of Napa Valley’s Far Niente winery. And I’m certainly not going to brag about how I got better at driving the Fangio Chevy.
I got much better. I almost got good. I discovered that the Chevy, despite an undercarriage as clunky as a trolley’s and a suspension design dating to the days when a table model radio was bigger than a NASA mainframe computer, was perfect in its handling. The back end didn’t push. The front end didn’t pull. The faster I’d go, the better I went. Bad brakes? So what. If I couldn’t stop when I ran out of road, well, who wanted to stop?My joy increased with every hour until, at last, I attained satori on the Point Arena road. Never mind that the car is stronger than I am and has more guts. So much so that I would have been hard put to screw things up. The point is I’m enlightened. And I finally understand the message that all the great teachers, saints and visionaries have been trying to convey to man, particularly to middle-aged man: “Sell the Honda Odyssey. Buy a 1955 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce. And let the kids take a bus.”