With COVID-19 having cancelled virtually every large automotive event (indeed, it just officially drove a stake into the heart into the already-postponed date of our beloved Vintage in Asheville), nearly all of us are a little stir-crazy, jonesing for something—anything!—BMW-related where we can be in proximity to actual people and cars, even if it’s in a socially-distant fashion.
I’ve been focused on trying to push my new book out the door (see note at the end of this column), but once that was crossed off the list, I figured that I owed myself a little stress-busting road time. I looked online and saw that on that very weekend the Nor’East 02ers were having a fall drive. What’s more, I was stunned to learn that group member Jeff Taylor had passed away in late August; this event was being held in his memory.
I did not know Jeff well, but he was a really nice guy, and I always looked forward to seeing him at events.
The Nor’East 02ers is a CCA-sympathizing—but not directly CCA-affiliated—group with the delightfully accommodating motto, “If you can drive it, you’re in!” Co-chaired by Scott Sislane and Peter Rodrigues, the group is very light on infrastructure, with little more than a Facebook page and a website. “Membership” really just consists of being on the mailing list for messages that go out to about a hundred 2002 heads in the New England states and beyond, sort of a not-a-club for people who like the chance to hang out with other nearby 2002 owners. The group typically holds three or four annual events, with spring, summer, and fall gatherings typically consisting of a barbeque, picnic, or restaurant meet-up, and possibly a short drive. During the past year, though, the driving component has ramped up considerably, as Nor’east 02er Gary Hamilton, the rallymaster at New England Vintage Road Rally, LLC (email@example.com) who provides clubs with tours and route books, has brought his skills to the route-planning chores for these drives.
And in these pandemic times, drives work well as formal or informal auto-enthusiast events, since they are automatically social-distancing.
For the Jeff Taylor Memorial Tour 2020, Gary Hamilton, with assistance from local Wolfeboro native Scott Sislane, put together the 94-mile drive through south-central New Hampshire, starting in Rochester, going north through Ossipee and Freedom (where, this being New Hampshire, you live or, I guess, die, right?), west through Tamworth, and south through Holderness, ending at the Twin Barns Brewery in Meredith.
So early on the morning of Saturday, September 19, I jumped into Louie, my ’72 tii, and headed north.
We all met at the outer edge of the parking lot in the Rochester WalMart between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. As we were milling around, enjoying the glorious early fall weather and checking out each others’ cars, there was a gasp as Jeff Taylor’s very recognizable small-bumpered Fjord ’74 tii arrived, driven by his wife, Cathy, with her friend Nancy Haseltine riding shotgun. Many of those who knew Jeff took a moment to chat with Cathy, express their condolences, and marvel at the fact that she was there, not a month after his passing, driving his car. It was very emotional.
As the 21 cars and 31 people queued up, Sislane handed out swag bags from his trunk, and Hamilton briefed the crowd on the drive. Packets with turn-by-turn directions had already been emailed, but for dolts like me who’d left theirs on the radiator in the haste of a 7:00 a.m. departure, there were spares. Owing to the complexity of the route, solo drivers like me were put behind drivers with navigators so that we could follow them without piloting their 02 into a utility pole while trying to read the route book. Cars were released from the parking lot with some pre-planned spacing so that they wouldn’t bunch up into an un-maintainable train. And off we went.
When I was in junior high school 48 years ago, I went for a two-week-long bike trip of day excursions that radiated from an overnighting point in Alton Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee, so to this day, whenever I’m driving on secondary roads within a hundred miles of the lake, I have fragmented flashbacks, feeling that I remember cycling on the same road in the summer of ’72. That happened several times on this drive. Whether all of the flashbacks are accurate, I don’t know, but I figure that some of them must be. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I wasn’t able to snap the obligatory 2002 group-drive photo of an endless line of the stout, perky little sedans snaking through the twisties, as I was near the front of the pack (which wasn’t really a pack anyway, due to the planned spacing), behind only Sislane, Peter Rodrigues, and Cathy Taylor in Jeff’s tii. Actually, there was one other car, an interloper E46 sedan directly ahead of me ,which I had to pass like a madman in order to get his non-2002 butt out of the frame.
But even though it was only a three-2002-view out my windshield, it still felt great to be a part of the rolling caravan of passion.
As part of the drive, I’d hoped to have the chance to exercise the suspension that I’d recently installed in Louie (the H&R lowering springs, Bilstein HDs, and ST sway bars) and really carve some corners. However, the pace of the drive was leisurely, even including some sections on washboard dirt that kept speeds down to a crawl. It did verify that my suspension choices worked well for a great variety of road surfaces, although the rhythmic washboard revealed a chirping squeak that made me swear that a family of chickadees was roosting behind my driver-side door panel. Still, it was better than if I had taken Bertha, my highly-modified ’75 2002 with the full Koni track suspension, which probably would’ve rattled a filling out of one of my molars.
Twin Barns Brewery, in sight of Lake Winnipesaukee’s Meredith Bay, was the perfect socially-distant destination, as they had an open-air lean-to where food and beverage could be ordered, a barbeque truck from which I got the best brisket sandwich I have ever had in my life (seriously), and a yard full of picnic tables, some under a canopy for shade and others out in the open.
Needless to say, the cars attracted a lot of attention—well, all of them except that E46. (Sorry: cheap shot. Couldn’t resist. Totally worth it.)
Before we began splitting off, Peter Rodrigues gathered everyone and offered words of eulogy for Jeff and support for Cathy, saying that whatever she or the car needed, she could count on the group. Then the cats were herded for the group picture, for which Nancy Haseltine operated Scott Sislane’s camera.
Between the drive up and back and the tour, I put over 300 miles on Louie, which is still running on its cracked head repaired with J-B weld. It wasn’t exactly the corner-carving drive that I imagined, but it was a glorious, resonant way to spend a spectacular fall Saturday.
But there’s one more turn to the story. When I referred to the bag that Scott Sislane handed out as a “swag bag,” I was joking; after all, a no-membership, no-dues organization like the Nor’East 02ers doesn’t really hand out swag. I assumed that the bag contained the route book that I didn’t need because I was following a car with a navigator in it, and maybe some Nor’east 02er window stickers. But when I cleaned out Louie’s trunk and looked in the bag, I found a beer glass, embossed with “Jeff Taylor Memorial Tour 2020” and the group logo, and a nice little adhesive-backed plaque—quite unexpected.
I emailed Scott and asked, “How do these get funded when Nor’East 02ers isn’t really a club and has no dues? Or are there dues that I haven’t been paying?”
I’m not going to include Scott’s entire response, but the important part is: “I wanted people to have a keepsake (or two) to remember Jeff by.”
Forty-nine years after that Hampshire College student who lived with us for a summer gave me a ride in his 2002, bombing around the back roads of Amherst, Massachusetts, and forever impressing on me what this little German sedan could do, 38 years after I bought my first 2002 in Austin, 34 years after my first Roundel article, I never cease to be amazed by the power of an inanimate object to connect people. I’m a sentimental guy. I get weepy over small things.
This glass and this little plaque are among them.
Life is short, people. Enjoy it while you’re here. Drive the car. Get it dirty. Eat the brisket sandwich. I didn’t know Jeff Taylor well, but the fact that his wife, Cathy, drove his car to a Nor’East 02ers event a month after his passing says a lot about recognizing the passion and the value in our community.
And those are beautiful things.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s latest book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available here on Amazon. Signed copies can also be ordered directly from Rob here.