By The Time I Get To Oxnard

Tim Marrs

While many old-car buffs limit use of their elder rides to car shows, weddings, and high holy days, I have long been an advocate of using venerable machinery for actual transportation. That is, not just for puttering around town but for long trips.

I freely admit that old cars have inherent limitations -- if you call being noisy, smelly, unsafe, unreliable, and un-air-conditioned limitations. These cars are fun anyway, and exercise only helps them. As I was once again reminded the other day, just seeing old cars makes a lot of people happy. Including flatbed drivers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Another big disincentive to old-car road-tripping over the years has been that, in order to offer affordable rates for classic vehicles that are often the third, fourth, or thirty-second car in the family, most insurance companies specify a cap on how many miles a year -- typically 2500 -- you can drive your classic car. Which is not onerous if you don't drive it much, but what if you do?

Enter American Collectors Insurance, which has recently introduced a new type of policy with a 7500-mile limit (and which produces a well-done online show where ACI customers share their cars with the hosts). To celebrate this signal development, Al Navarro, the cofounder and chief creative officer of ACI's ad agency, Mint, invited me to drive his 1961 Lotus Seven from Los Angeles to San Francisco. No fault of Al's, it turned out to be a good example of why some people don't like traveling major distances in old cars. But as I know only too well, you can't get them right until you find out what's wrong.

Following a just-completed restoration in Denver, Navarro had driven his very handsome example of Colin Chapman's seminal handiwork to L.A. for my convenience. Other than a pair of Weber carburetors that needed rejetting to cope with the more oxygen-rich elevation of coastal California and a slow leak in the cooling system that I'd want to keep an eye on, he thought I'd be good to go. After a day of battling Los Angeles traffic with no obvious ill effects other than heat prostration and a wrinkled suit, I concurred.

Waking up at 5 a.m. for my journey northward, I set off up Route 1, the famous Pacific Coast Highway, where I hoped to exploit all the roadholding and accelerative magic that this 1000-pound car with a Ford Kent 1500-cc Cosworth clone -- installed in place of the more humble, 1340-cc English Ford engine it came with -- has to offer.

Finished in black with Colorado orange accents, including Lotus's classic "wobbly web" alloy wheels, Navarro's car was stunning and widely admired, even when it ground to a halt after a little more than two hours -- the first of nine failures to proceed in the course of my 420-mile journey. At least that's the distance I think I went, because the odometer was broken. There was no fuel gauge with which to monitor goings-on in the 5.5-gallon fuel tank, either, which I figured meant it had to be filled every 125 miles, to be safe. So I stopped a lot.

At first, I'd thought the day's toughest question would be whether to wear my windbreaker as I blasted through many of the diverse microclimates the California coast presents. It was cold and dark when I set out, for instance, then foggy and damp, but by the time I got to Oxnard -- sixty miles down the road -- it was blazing hot. Fortunately, the Cosworth was running cool. But then I realized it wasn't running at all, and before I knew it I was coasting to the shoulder with a fuel-starvation problem.

Weaker souls might have called roadside assistance and given up right then -- and I would have, but AAA kept me on hold for so long that I had plenty of time to poke around under the hood, which was slightly irritating since accessing the engine room involves unscrewing one of the twin, exposed air cleaners before one removes the slight aluminum lid that passes as a hood. And there was nothing doing, near as I could tell. So I tried a little trick I'd learned when my Alfa Romeo Giulia Super died on New York City's FDR Drive not long ago -- I unscrewed the gas cap. With a thumping hiccup, a lot of pressure bled off. And what do you know? The car started right up and ran swell. Until it died again, fifty miles down the road. Which it did four more times before I'd even made it halfway to the City by the Bay. Each time, I'd empty my soft luggage to get to the cap (hidden under a tonneau behind the passenger's seat of this right-hand-drive roller skate), crack it, and, voilà, smooth running. Note to Al: perhaps they meant to install a vented cap?

Around San Luis Obispo, I decided to forego the PCH because I needed to be in San Francisco for an important meeting at 5 p.m. That's why I'd left so early, and that's why I now diverted to US 101. If I was going to wind up by the side of the road, I'd just as soon it was along a more trafficked road that was closer to services. Having further refined my already-advanced coasting-to-the-side-of-the-road skills, I made it to Silicon Valley only mildly inconvenienced. One is always meant to be scanning his mirrors and plotting escape routes whilst driving; when operating an old car, you merely need to add to your checklist constantly locating the place you're going to ditch if/when the power cuts out.

Using this method, I made it to San Jose, fitfully. Then, without prompting or advance warning, the Seven started spitting coolant all over. The gauge said the engine was running cool, but before I knew it I was on the side of the road again, my shoes and pant legs covered in antifreeze. Keeping my cool, I let the Seven regain its, and added more of the green stuff before tortuously making my way through Friday rush-hour traffic, stopping twice to let the engine cool and add more fluids. When I finally gasped into San Francisco, the valets at the Hotel Vitale were kind enough to let me park the Lotus out front while I caught a taxi to my meeting. Smelling funny, I arrived with three minutes to spare.

The next day, after the car arrived by flatbed at master-mechanic Nate Walton's shop in San Rafael, it was determined that a split hose and a failed weld on a loose header tank had caused the distributor, coil, and pretty much every square inch of real estate to become soaked in greasy coolant, corrupting the spark so much that the car was backfiring and shooting flames from its air cleaners and side pipe. But now that that's straightened out, the tiny Lotus may head back to Navarro's New Jersey home under its own (pardon the expression) steam. Fully covered, thanks to ACI's new mileage limitation, and debugged, thanks to some long drives, the Lotus's trip east is an adventure waiting to happen.

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