A Drive Down Memory Lane

We own our cars for a number of reasons. Those might be passion, performance, status, comfort, fuel economy, cargo space, or a well-reasoned compromise of all of the above. But hopefully, somewhere in there, we actually enjoy driving them.

I thought I’d take a moment and enumerate the drives I remember best. Some are about speed, some about the destination, some about the overall experience—but all will be with me as long as I have blood pressure.

1970 Triumph GT6+, Cambridge-to-Amherst land speed record, 1977

My legendarily awful 1970 Triumph GT6+.

Over the years I’ve made numerous mentions of the 1970 Triumph GT6+ that I bought when I graduated high school in 1976 and drove until the fall of my junior year in college. It looked great, but also taught me that every Lucas joke you’ve ever heard is true. Plus, its drivetrain components spontaneously snapped from metal fatigue, and it ran perhaps just 40% of the time I owned it. In fairness, when it ran, it was a lot of fun. The two-liter straight six sang at 5,000 rpm, which—and I remember this as instantly as my own birth date—occurred in fourth gear at 87 mph. I now realize the insanity of regularly using this speed in this particular car, but hey, youth, right?

It was the summer of 1977: I was living in Amherst. I found myself in Cambridge visiting someone who I hoped would be more than a friend. We saw a midnight movie in Porter Square. The date ended with a “friend kiss”; It was clear that I wasn’t going to be staying over in Cambridge. There was little to do but head back to Amherst. I left Porter Square at 3:00 a.m., hit the highway, put the GT6 in its happy 87-mph place, and with empty roads, arrived back in the center of Amherst at 4:15—one hour and fifteen minutes. Coincidentally, Google Maps puts the drive distance at 87 miles, and not all of it is highway. I still don’t know how it was possible, but this drive is the root memory I have of the Triumph. For all the trouble it gave me, it also gave me that incredibly predawn run.

1973 BMW 2002, Austin, Texas, to Durango, Colorado, 1983

Maire Anne and I lived in Austin for a few years in the early 1980s. She had a ’69 VW camper into which I’d just swapped a rebuilt engine. We began a road trip to Durango to do ten days of hiking in the Weminuche Wilderness. It was a big trip in several ways, not the least of which was the fact that I planned to ask her to marry me when we hiked over the Continental Divide.

Unfortunately, within the first hundred miles of the drive out, it became clear that what I thought were some minor teething issues with the engine swap were more serious. We turned the camper around and limped it back to Austin.

The only other car we had was my Malaga ’73 2002, the second 2002 I ever owned. I’d recently bought it because it had air-conditioning (not yet functional), and I had just sold the much-better-sorted Inka ’71 2002 that it replaced.

Maire Anne asked, quite reasonably, about taking the 2002.  I balked; the immediate issues were that it burned oil and had no spare—but more to the point, taking the unsorted car on such a long trip felt risky.

But we didn’t have much alternative, so I bought a case of Castrol and a can of Fix-O-Flat and threw them in the trunk, and we made it to Santa Fe the first night and Durango the next.

On the drive home, the giubo began to come apart, smacking the underside of the shift platform whenever I accelerated, but by driving as if there was an egg on the gas pedal, we made it. We arrived home an engaged couple, and this particular 2002’s rugged can-do spirit forever cemented its place in our hearts.

I sold it before I left Austin. I can’t remember the buyer’s name. Of the 37 2002s I’ve owned, this is the one that I wonder where it is now, and think—in the words of Neil Young—long may you run.

The feisty ’73 Malaga 2002 and the backpack that held the engagement ring.

Bertha in Nova Scotia, 1987

Bertha on the Digby ferry.

When Maire Anne was pregnant with our first child in 1987, we took what would be our last road trip in Bertha, the ’75 2002 I’d bought in Austin in 1984 and moved up to Boston. We drove the car up to Saint John in New Brunswick, then took the ferry over to Nova Scotia. What I’ll remember the most was the trip out to Digby, a small, thin peninsula consisting of two islands. The first ferry to Long Island looked like, well, a ferry, but the second one to tiny Brier Island looked like little more than a floating piece of road with a ramp; Bertha was the only car on it.

The rest of the trip was great, and the twisty coastal roads of Cape Breton on Nova Scotia’s eastern shore were as spectacular as in the photos you’ve seen, but the intimacy of Bertha on that little ferry, followed by parking the car close to the beach on the rocky shore of Brier Island and rooting around in the tidal pools with Maire Anne, is the life-long memory.

Banked oval, BMW Test Centre, Mirimas, France, 1992

In 1992, Roundel magazine sent me over to France for the international press release of the brand-new E36. I loved both the car and the experience of driving it around France’ but oddly, what I remember most fondly was the time on the banked oval at the BMW proving facility in the town of Mirimas in southern France.

While I used to regularly do CCA driving schools, and attend events like the International Motor Press Association (IMPA) Test Day, where journalists can drive new cars on the track, I have never been a good track driver. I wish I could say that my Zen moments included one where track-driving clicked, where I suddenly found the rhythm, got the turn-in points, and hit the apexes perfectly, but that never happened. I found the whole track thing so frustrating that I stopped doing it.

But a banked oval with no apexes or turn-in points, at a BMW facility, in a variety of new BMWs? That I could do. Because the track is banked, you basically plant your right foot on the gas and leave it there. The car that felt the most stable on the oval was a Euro-spec E32 7 Series. With the speedometer labeled in kph instead of mph, and without the usual visual cues for speed like trees or phone poles whipping past—hell, without even any the lateral G-forces sending alert signals to the wet matter in your skull—it’s a somewhat disconnected experience. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel and did the math that I found out that the 230 kph I saw on the speedo was 143 miles per hour. No helmet, no white knuckles, never to be duplicated. Very cool.

Kugel’s trip to MidAmerica 02Fest, 2014

I’d been going to the Vintage (a long one-day drive down to Winston-Salem) for a few years when I decided to try my hand at something longer: the two-day, 1,500-mile drive down to MidAmerica 02Fest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. As the event drew near, I became obsessed by the idea that the head gasket in my ’72 2002tii, Kugel, was likely original and could blow on the drive. After all, that very thing had recently happened to my friend Paul Wegweiser at the Vintage. While Paul and Ben Thongsai changed the head gasket in the parking lot of the event hotel, I didn’t relish the possibility of being faced with that challenge alone in some Interstate highway rest area, so, about a month before the departure date, I pulled the head off Kugel to prophylactically replace the head gasket.

Not surprisingly, once I was in there, down the rabbit hole I went, and wound up refreshing the engine. I rebuilt the head, honed the block, re-ringed the pistons, and replaced the rod bearings.

Then two things happened. First, when I got the engine together and ran it, there was a nasty knock as I revved it. I fought through denial, dropped the oil pan, and found that, incredibly, I’d forgotten to fully tighten one rod-end cap. Concerned that I might have damaged the rod, I pulled the head so that I could yank the rod and piston back out and have it checked by a machinist. It was deemed undamaged. I was relieved that it only needed one new rod bearing—and, of course, hours of reassembly.

But next, during that engine reassembly, I broke my left foot while walking down the two steps from my garage into my basement (stone-cold sober, I might add). They set the fracture using a small titanium screw, but the foot was very sore for weeks. Clearly I wasn’t going to MidAmerica.

Or was I?

I figured I’d push as hard as I could and let the chips fall where they would. I hobbled around in the garage in one of those molded plastic boots and got the motor back together. I found that if I took off the boot, I could work the clutch with acceptable pain. I didn’t get anywhere close to the rule-of-thumb 500 miles on the rebuilt engine before an oil change and a valve adjustment. Maybe it was 50. I changed the oil and called it done.

The night before I left, I was stressed out, but I had my FDR moment and realized that the fear itself was the main issue. I faced it, and headed out at 4:30 in the morning, alone into darkness. I’ll forever remember that moment of pulling the car out of the driveway, facing down the fear, and thinking, “Yup, I’m really going to do this.”

It wasn’t until I was under way that I realized that this was the first time I’d road-tripped a 2002 since that drive to Nova Scotia in Bertha 30 years earlier.

The drive down was uneventful to the point of being boring, but once I was there, I had a moment of utter bliss. Event organizer Bo Black knows the roads in this area well, and maps out a wonderful drive. If you own an enthusiast car, do yourself a favor and attend an event where there’s an organized drive with your model of car; to see your model, snaking ahead of you and behind you through the sweepers like the coils of a snake, like pearls on a necklace of passion, and to know that each driver is likely experiencing what you are, is incredibly moving.

The conga line of 2002s at MidAmerica 02Fest. Few things are better than being part of this.

The mad dash in the Z3 M coupe, 2012

I love my ’99 Z3 M coupe. I don’t drive it often, but whenever I do, I’m immediately reminded how completely unlike any other car I own it is, and my mind instantly goes back to one event that’s burned into my consciousness.

For a few years, my son Ethan was into film. He entered an event called the 48-Hour Film Project where you’re assigned a topic and have two days to write, shoot, and edit a ten-minute film about it. The finished film has to be submitted on thumb drive, in person, at a specific location. The morning of the final day, as editing began and the zero-hour of 7:30 p.m. loomed large, Ethan mapped the drop-off location (a bar in downtown Boston) and told me it was twelve minutes from the house.

I scowled. “Maybe with zero traffic and driving like a madman. I’d count on at least twenty.” He and his film crew finished editing at 6:00 p.m. and began exporting the ten-minute film, but found that their thumb drive was too small. I ran out and bought a bigger one, but the export speed was agonizingly slow.

It finished at 7:20 p.m. Disqualification seemed certain.

Nonetheless, Ethan and I jumped in my Z3 M coupe and burned rubber. I did things I’ve never done before, have never done since, and would flip you the finger if you did in front of me, but they were the kind of things one does for one’s child. I went around a guy on his left at a stop light and hung a right turn in front of him. I slung into the entrance ramp to the Mass Pike in West Newton so hard that I flung Ethan into the passenger door. I wound the M coupe up to 90, weaved through traffic, and passed people on the right. This being a film-related project, from my viewpoint, I was Bullit, The French Connection, and Ronin rolled into one. From the viewpoint of the other cars on the road, I was probably starring in a movie called Just Another Asshole in a BMW.

I’m not proud of it. I’m not saying it was right. I’m not saying I’d do it again. But it was what needed to be done.

The Z3 M Coupe is as wonderful as everyone says it is, and booting it to make a deadline was epic.

As we reached the exit, the clock in the car ticked to 7:30. We were either just going to make it or just going to miss it. We waited at an agonizingly long red light that I couldn’t run. I made two turns, then Ethan said “That’s the place stop stop STOP!” He opened the door, bolted across traffic, and ran inside.

I sat there, double-parked, waiting to console a dejected child. He came out grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Made it as they were doing the ten-second countdown,” he said. “I got a standing ovation!”

The next day, Ethan learned that the exported film on the thumb drive wouldn’t play because it had links to film clips that were still on the hard drive. His team’s entry was disqualified.

Still totally worth it.

Louie’s drive home, 2017

My purchase of Louie, the Agave ’72 tii that I bought in Louisville, Kentucky, in early 2017, and its thousand-mile road trip home, was a singular experience. The car was just barely ready for the drive when we departed, its unrepaired maladies including a windshield that leaked so badly in the rain that inches of water accumulated on the floorboards. Eventually, near the end of the second day of the drive home, I was no longer afraid that next 30 seconds would bring disaster; the car and I settled into a rhythm, and I began enjoying the drive, despite the fact that my left leg was soaked with rainwater. There was a moment when I saw the sign for that evening’s destination, the appropriately-named town of Harmony, Pennsylvania. I was so happy to be having this adventure, to be living in this moment, that I literally wept tears of joy.

Louie was unstoppable on his thousand-mile trek home to Boston.

Bertha’s gift in Asheville, 2019

As I’ve written about extensively in this space, last June I bought back Bertha, and spent months resurrecting her. This past May I drove the car 2,000 miles to the Vintage in Asheville and back. At the end of the event, I wound up replacing a broken giubo for a guy, after which I was baked, parched, and bone-tired. But because I’d stayed for several hours after the event was over, the traffic was gone, and it was just me, Bertha and her 10:1 pistons, hot cam, Weber 40DCOEs, and the road.

Ripping back to the hotel from the event, hitting the tight twisties and the long sweepers, using the hot engine and the Koni suspension for what they were intended, was pure heaven. For a car I originally bought in Austin in 1984, that Maire Anne and I drove off from our wedding and later road-tripped up to Nova Scotia and back, this short drive may be its lifelong defining moment. Had I put a rod through the side of the block, I think that I would’ve honestly regretted the trashed engine less than the fact that the drive had been cut short. It was that good.

Here’s hoping your cars, too, are not just things, but touchstones for precious memories.—Rob Siegel

Rob’s new book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available here on Amazon. His previous book Ran When Parked is available here. Or you can order personally inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com. His new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back the Car My Wife and I Drove Off From Our Wedding, will be released in the fall.

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