Driving ‘top down’ through the central valleys of California at night in a 1954 Austin Healey is a nostalgia inducing series of sensory experiences unequaled by any enclosed methods of highway transportation. I got ten hours of it on my drive from San Diego to Lake Tahoe for the Healey Rendezvous 2004/Open Roads Get together in June.
It was warm. Wearing T-shirt, jeans and driving shoes, I left home at eight in the evening and took highway 5 north. Odometer showed 81,875. Got a map? Two hours later, Los Angeles freeways were still rolling. Noise? Speedball coffee-can exhaust piped imports chasing each other from on-ramp to off-ramp? The music of pavement eating tires was almost enough to overpower booming ‘gangsta rap’ rockin’ countless lowered open-windowed pick-ups. My ears were tuned to station BN1 at 3,000 RPM. Oh yeah.
Hanging with traffic around seventy, I joined the Great American nighttime commerce of eighteen-wheelers moving up the grade toward Gorman. Eleven o’clock. 188 miles. Seven gallons. 26.7 miles to the gallon. Heavy winds. I put on my jacket and knit cap.
Down the grade through darkening stretches of four lane asphalt and smells of farmlands and fertilizer. Traffic thinned but moved faster. Truckers lined off-pavement interchanges and rest stations both sides of the highway. Filled the tank at Santa Nella where highway 33 crosses 5. Three o’clock in the morning. Nearly empty highway. Two probably bored Highway Patrolmen pulled in to take a closer look at Gerry Coker’s moving work of art. The look in their eyes said they wished they could trade places with me. I had the best looking black and white.
Sacramento. Ate breakfast at five. Filled up after turning east on 50. The drive to the Tahoe summit was sunrise at California’s best. Mother Nature conspired to hijack my attention from a road designed for every AH driver’s delight. Traffic? A steady stream headed west into the capital. None on my side of the yellow lines. Lucky me.
At eight in morning I parked in the back lot of the Tahoe Horizon Casino. The odometer read 82,500. Ten hours driving…two for eating, resting, cleaning bugs from the windscreen, filling the tank, and adding one quart of oil. I spent some time at a $1.75 car wash getting rid of unwanted road dirt and the remains of suicidal bugs.
Healey people. What a wonderful group. Check in and Opening Reception was June 2nd
There were two self-guided tours I didn’t take, but a Popular Choice Car Show the next day got me behind the wheel, over the thin-air Kingsbury Grade and down some spectacular curves to the ‘quaint’ mile high mountain town of Markleeville. By the time we were fed mouth-watering lunches by Ed Moss and Marsha Bennet, more than fifty beautiful Austin Healeys lined both sides of the street. Please pardon my obsession, but I have never seen so many 100s parked in one place. Naturally, newer Healeys sparkled too, and their unmistakable sounds filled mountain air with a music no other car can make. Me? Toad. Wind In The Willows.
That evening, most folks did dinner on board the Tahoe Queen. I’m sure they had a most splendid time. I sent my old bones to bed early.
Day two featured a snappy parking lot autocross behind the hotel. Six classes. Naturally, cars had to pass technical inspections. Track and climate were dry. Each driver got three runs. Each improved. If memory serves, a Sprite turned the fastest laps. It was a fun safe event. No pun intended, but good times were had by all.
Those who wanted drove the 75-mile Rendezvous Poker Rallye around Lake Tahoe, a trip I’m sure will be well remembered. Instead, I explored more mountain ridges and took pictures.
Later that afternoon, Dave and Norman Nock, of British Car Specialists in Stockton, did a question and answer tech session for attendees. Following that, Dave introduced the honored guest, Gerry Coker, the man responsible for the design of the Austin Healey 100.
Accompanied by his wife, Marion, Gerry, in his most inimitable style, modestly answered questions and signed memorabilia. What a gracious man. Thank you, Gerry! You must know how much we love your cars.
Though most attendees took either the tour to Truckee or Virginia City, Nevada the next day, my schedule called me to the long drive home. Consequently, and a bit disappointed, I also missed the Saturday night Awards Banquet.
At eight-thirty Saturday morning, I retraced the route back to Markeeville, then over Monitor Pass to 395 south. Though a few hundred miles are mostly above 7,000 feet, the BN1 purred like a large contented cat. Panoramic views from those snow topped mountain passes had me stopping over and over to snap just one more shot. By noon it was warm and air smelled of cattle ranches and wet grasses. Idyllic. That’s when the fan belt broke. Two and a half miles south of Bridgeport, California.
Two-lane road. No cell phone reception. When the temperature gauge finally dropped below 100, I started the engine, did a fast U and headed for Bridgeport. Almost made it before the needle pegged. Got cell phone reception and called AAA. The truck was there by one and we were in town in five minutes. Thanks to Yankee Ingenuity, a swell tow truck driver and a Napa store, we had a belt that ‘worked’ installed by two-thirty. Left Bridgeport a little nervous because it wasn’t a 5/8” wide V belt. Got some gas in Bishop. The high desert is a hot place in June. Ambient air temperature…105 degrees. The belt still looked good. It got me home by midnight. It’s still on the car
My thanks again to all who worked so hard to make the Healey Rendezvous 2004/Open Roads Get together possible, My most appreciative nod to our hosts, the Golden Gate Austin Healey Club, and the entire ‘event team’ for their admirable accomplishment, to David Nock, Loren Cross, John Trifari and Lee Bardellini.
Let’s do it again!
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