"I'd met Briggs Cunningham at a children's yacht race I was covering at his yacht club." Thanks to Cunningham, an instant admirer, her entrée to the sports car world was assured. "I started a column, the first anyone was writing [on sports car racing].
"Briggs was just the greatest guy ever. Suddenly, I was driving his race cars. My first was a Jaguar, a gift . . . I drove his OSCAs, his Porsches. [Alfred] Momo liked me, too, which was handy. I didn't race the D-type, but I drove it. Of course, it was a relatively simple thing to do in those days. You drove your cars to the races, you slapped numbers on them, you raced them, and sometimes you left the numbers on to impress people driving home."
McCluggage quickly improved an already skilled game, trying everything from Ferraris for importer Luigi Chinetti to rallying in Europe for the British Motor Corporation. A class victory at Sebring in 1961, while driving a Ferrari 250GT, was one career highlight that saw her pairing up with a rank amateur for a co-driver, her then-boyfriend, the tenor sax player and jazzman Allen Eager. It spoke to her ability -- and likely his -- while telling us plenty about a more relaxed time and a more easy-going sport.
After breakfast, McCluggage joined me for a ride in the McLaren. She was duly impressed but not as much as I was with her tale. While writing, racing, and arranging to ski most everywhere, McCluggage also managed to find time in 1958 to help start Competition Press (precursor to Autoweek, where she still writes a column). She left the newspaper game and circumnavigated the globe in the employ of the Fuller Brush Company, for whom she'd write a catalog. She dated a dashing cast of writers, musicians, millionaires, Formula 1 drivers, and, yes, even Steve McQueen. Let that sink in.
Deeply knowledgeable about cars and the automobile industry, McCluggage is well-read; politically outspoken in a retiring, jolly pinko sort of way; and a fine writer to boot. Rarely stooping to convention, she has led the sort of charmed and full life that many would wish for themselves. Not that it didn't surprise me, but it made a strange kind of sense when she added as an aside that "fulfilling men's fantasies insofar as I was able" was very important to her. Maybe so, but in my book, as a feminist, she's tough to top. She didn't confront a male-dominated society; she just went around it.
The gearhead sophisticates of Santa Fe turn out in numbers for a weekly lunch, the Tuesday Car Table, which McCluggage graces whenever she's in town. One of my tablemates, Dean Rogers, owns an MP4-12C that was in Houston having its cracked windshield replaced. He'd driven it 3000 miles so far and loved it. John Paul Gonzales, young son of a family whose Santa Fe roots go back hundreds of years, loved it, too, but believes early customers are involved in the model's "beta-testing phase," whether they want to be or not.
Goddard and I started agreeing with Gonzales when our car's audio system went on the fritz in Texas. Suddenly, the radio (or iPod) would go silent and the touchscreen would freeze. Rebooting would restore function, but then it would crash again, usually sooner than later.
Although Goddard's legs are long and mine are short, we agreed that there was something wanting in the seat bottoms where long-distance comfort was concerned. On the other hand, we were seeing fuel economy in the neighborhood of 22 mpg, even with plenty of full-bore acceleration.
In Amarillo, Tyler's Barbeque had sold out for the night, but we begged them to let us stay and, sure enough, they found a sublime end of beef brisket to share. The McLaren we'd parked outside didn't hurt our credibility. Texas-born Tyler Frazer, the award-winning pit master, revealed himself to be a young man of no mean sophistication, once again puncturing the tired notions I am embarrassed to say many Northeasterners have about the rest of the country, especially the South, a place some speak foolishly about, typically because they've spent no time there.
Not that we could stay in Amarillo, or Dallas, or anywhere too long. Select sport mode on one of the 12C's two console dials (one chooses suspension and stability control settings, the other engine/shift algorithms) and the acoustics get even more ferocious. A centrally pivoted paddle behind the steering wheel lets you shuffle through the seven speeds of the dual-clutch automatic (located immediately behind the engine located immediately behind your head), so you can play each cog for all of its musical worth. With due credit to the MP4-12C's relatively low weight -- 3200 pounds -- the Ricardo-built engine you're thrashing feels like the original Marshall stack of horsepower.
Zero to 60 mph comes up in three seconds. You're barely into second gear. Hitting 100 mph takes four more seconds, and you're at the top of third -- with four gears and three digits' worth of additional top speed left to go, all the way to 207 mph. The quarter mile has come and gone in less than eleven seconds. Holy Schmidt's (beer)! The reality of the road and the reasonable desire to remain outside of the criminal-justice system frustratingly limits manic blasts through any of gears two through overdriven seven.
For professional reasons, we found ourselves duty bound during our first few days with the McLaren to verify, vigorously and over and over again, that it is indeed blindingly fast and always ready to accelerate some more, from as low as 1500 rpm. It is also steely-eyed and stable at triple-digit speeds. We saw an indicated 148 mph on a lonely two-lane that will not be named, and the 12C was just getting started. By the time we got to Montgomery, Alabama, we'd slowed down considerably. I'm against all regional stereotypes, but you know what they say about New York Jews in exotic cars driving double and triple the speed limit. I'm not religious, but I'm pretty sure it's in the Bible somewhere.
In downtown Montgomery, we left the car at a parking meter and were ready to immerse ourselves in some national history that predated McLaren's arrival on our shores. We'd been invited to the state capitol by Josh Segall, a thirty-four-year-old lawyer and one-time Congressional candidate born to an old Montgomery family, a Jewish one with roots in the area that go back 100 years. I'd fortuitously become acquainted with Segall, a history buff and kindred spirit, during a business call. He offered a visit to Alabama government buildings in the company of Dr. Edwin Bridges, director emeritus of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Bridges showed us the rooms in the capitol where the Confederacy was born. He showed us the First White House of the Confederacy across the street. Deep in the bowels of the state archives next door, he and archivist Ryan Blocker allowed us to inspect the remarkable, restored flags of local militias, Bull Connor photographs, and the clothes Alabaman presidential candidate George Wallace was wearing when he was shot in 1972. A fascinating figure -- and a physically smaller man than you'd expect -- Wallace would after his shooting renounce his past of racial hatred and begin to mend fences with the African-American community. As if it were a Hollywood movie set, from the capitol's front steps we could see the church, just a couple hundred yards away, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had preached. Because he was not allowed to speak on the capitol stairs, King orated from a podium placed on a trailer pulled in front of the legislature's great home. So much history in such a small space.
You might say the same thing about our MP4-12C, but you'd say it only if you were talking to serious gearheads. Fortunately, Segall had arranged for us to meet local McLaren and Automobile Magazine fans at Mitchell Classics. Bill Mitchell is a friendly old-car dealer and retired psychological counselor who may, like us, have occasion to ponder the Freudian underpinnings of why he owns so many cars that he needs a warehouse. Two of the attendees told us that David E. Davis, Jr., had stayed at their homes. It's not too soon to hang those David E. Slept Here plaques, folks.
I tried to give them an idea of the sensation of driving this car. Blasting off is electrifying, but so is stopping quickly when you're running hard, such as when the back road we were hammering down turned to crumbled-up poo during a high-speed run. Or each time the Escort radar detector tipped us off to an imminent appearance by the state police. Nail the binders and a huge body-colored air brake rises suddenly from the rear of the car, like the tail of a scared cat.
Which is pretty cool. But once the inevitable paranoia of driving a supercar on public roads sets in, it's easy to suddenly mistake an air brake, or anything else that pops up suddenly in your mirror, for a cop who's stapled himself to your heinie. When you get over the shock and realize it's just the air brake you've spotted, there's the fear that behind it still lurks a cop, one who's been tipped off by its deployment. It's a rich person's problem. Call it Carbon Fiber Handcuff Syndrome.
You're handcuffed or liberated by a supercar, depending on which kind of weirdo you are. But everybody's always staring at you. A sizable percentage of restaurant staff left their stations at an Atlanta rib shack to gawp at the McLaren out front -- in the rain. Then there were the surprisingly arch artiste types we saw in downtown Richmond, Virginia, who paused with nonironic fascination for an unhipsterly number of seconds outside of their loft spaces and galleries simply to take in this most impressive machine. The night we reached New York we stopped for a time-lapse photo along the Jersey-side shores of the Hudson River. Our biggest problem, it soon became clear, was going to be shooing away the young people who surrounded our car.
As I'd assured the assembled that night in Montgomery, our experience proved that the great American road trip is alive and well. Americans loved the McLaren through and through, exhibiting all the unexpected insight, blinding ignorance, and 1000 percent enthusiasm that any supercar driver gets to know in a hurry. Two days earlier, in Mississippi, a family abandoned their dinner in a nearby restaurant to come chat us up at the filling station across the street while their meals grew cold.
Like the cross-country car journey, a supercar is one of those things that never goes out of fashion. And we had to admit that for an awesome machine, the McLaren was pretty decent.