Driving a car across a big bridge can sometimes be humbling, overwhelming, or even a bit unsettling. Driving my 2300-pound MGB/GT across the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, which suspends traffic up to 199 feet above the chilly Straits of Mackinac, was awe-inspiringly petrifying.
I bet I’d have felt even smaller had I peered up at the giant towers from the open cockpit of a 1500-pound 1966 Triumph Spitfire, though. But my fear was unfounded, because my MG, a ’66 Spitfire, and six other vintage British cars safely traversed Mighty Mac (twice!) in late September without tumbling into the drink.
The picturesque bridge was essentially the only interstate stretch of the Michigan leg for the 2008 edition of America's British Reliability Run (ABRR), an annual British car rally that has raised more than $130,000 for children's charities since 2003.
This year’s Run marked my third ABRR with my wife Jennifer (see 2005 pics, 2006 blog) but the first in our own car. We missed last year’s ABRR because I was busy on my own mega reliability run, driving my newly purchased 1967 MGB/GT Special (most of the way) home from California.
Thirty-four cars registered to participate in three different legs this year based in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. Michigan participants raised money for the Hemophilia Foundation of Michigan's Camp Bold Eagle, a specialized camp for children with hereditary bleeding disorders. Two representatives from the Foundation visited us at the kickoff dinner in Frankenmuth and shared a heartwarming video about the camp, which has touched the lives of kids with hemophilia since 1969. The Alabama group, which included a 1949 Bentley Mark VI, convened at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, where they shared ten British cars with about fifty kids from the Magic Moments program. The Pennsylvania run benefited the Gia Nicole Angel Foundation. (If you’re so inclined, you can still donate to the cause. Log on to www.abrr.org and click "Donate Now" in the upper right-hand corner.)
For me, helping raise money for the kids was the best part of the event. The second-best part: our MG completed the trip--some 1100 miles total--under its own power!
It was touch-and-go at first. I’d been fiddling with the MG’s carburetors in the weeks prior to the Run, trying to solve intermittent fuel-system problems that caused the 1798-cc four-cylinder to misfire (seemingly) randomly and/or gasoline to overflow from the float bowls onto the hot exhaust manifold. With the crucial help of associate editor Sam Smith and family friend John Bishop, I got the car running OK but not great, just in time for the Blackwells’ departure after work on a Friday afternoon.
Not long after leaving Ann Arbor for Frankenmuth’s Bavarian Inn nearly 100 miles away, I deduced that the engine’s misfiring wasn’t as random as I thought: it happened only between about 2700 rpm and 3000 rpm. If I kept the revs away from that danger zone, the car ran perfectly fine. If not, the cozy cabin filled with the scent of gasoline and the four-banger’s 98 hp dropped precipitously. (I later learned that the one SU carburetor’s float bowl was overflowing in this rev range.) We pressed on regardless, arriving at the hotel just in time for dinner, having traveled 114 miles (according to the MG’s somewhat ambitious speedometer/odometer) that day.
The weather was nearly perfect on Saturday morning as our eight cars convoyed north along the gorgeous Lake Huron coastline. All eight cars stopped at the “new” Presque Isle Lighthouse near Alpena for a midmorning break and a photo op. (From left: my ’67 MGB/GT, a ’62 Triumph TR4, an ’80 MGB LE, a ’73 Spitfire, the ’66 Spit, a ’71 Triumph Stag, a ’77 Spit, and a ’73 Stag.)
The group got together again for a lunch of fresh fish and chips at Scalawags in Mackinac City, a meal that helped reinforce my nerve to drive my little British car across the ginormous American bridge. San Francisco’s majestic Golden Gate Bridge, which I crossed on my first day with the MG last fall, almost pales in comparison.
Highway 2 carried us along the southern edge of the Upper Peninsula, skirting the Lake Michigan coastline. The 55-mph speed limit was challenging at times, since the engine’s misfires translated to speeds between about 51 to 58 mph in fourth gear. Each time the misfiring occurred, I wondered to myself if this would be the time that the engine wouldn’t recover. On numerous occasions, I silently wondered whom I’d call to rescue us if something happened to the car: Jennifer’s cousin lives about 100 miles from here, and he’s a mechanic … My uncle lives a couple towns over, but he doesn’t own a trailer … My buddy Bob lives nearby, but he’s out of town on business.
The wire wheels on the B/GT have seen better days, too, though, so I also had to avoid speeds around 62 mph and 68 mph, lest the vibrating steering wheel pull my shoulders out of their sockets.
But neither rain nor vibrations nor inadvisable velocities prevented us from thoroughly enjoying the trip. Traveling long distances in my old MG can be slightly nerve-racking, but it also offers a special sense of occasion and man/machine unity that simply can’t be attained in a modern automobile.
Near Gulliver, Michigan, we even took a slothlike detour down four miles of dirt road to see the charming Seul Choix Point Lighthouse. An hour or so later, we rejoined the group for dinner at our Escanaba hotel, having driven 455 miles that day.
Sunday morning, after carefully rinsing the gravel-road remnants from the car, Jennifer and I sped back east with the seven other cars from our group. After stopping again to admire the scenery near the Mackinac Bridge, we left the land of Yoopers but stayed off the Interstate, instead sticking with the route that ABRR coordinator Blake Discher had diligently prepared.
We caught up with Discher and his dad at Cross Village’s Legs Inn, an old Polish restaurant--in rural northern Michigan, mind you--styled in“rustic folk” architecture. Whatever you call it, lunch was fantastic. Two sharp, non-ABRR vintage British cars--a Jaguar XK120 and an Austin-Healey 3000--were parked behind my MG when we left Legs, but we didn’t loiter long, because we had a date with the some of the curviest back roads in all of Michigan. We chased the two Stags through the woods along M-199 and the Lake Michigan coast. Discher led the way in his maroon ’71, while Chris Holbrook, a British expat who once worked for Triumph, piloted the white ’73. My lighter MG was very quick through the corners, but the misfiring in-line four couldn’t keep up with the Stags’ V-8s on the straightaways. Still, the B/GT’s unassisted rack-and-pinion steering is incredibly communicative, and the narrow car is simple to place exactly where you want it. I didn’t squeal the tires much, though, for fear that the wire spokes might resign earlier than the grippy Michelin radials.
In McBain, Michigan, after dozens of nail-biting miles through the boonies, I was ecstatic to learn that the fuel tank holds at least 13.6 gallons, despite the fact that the Standard Catalog of Imported Cars lists the 1967 MGB fuel capacity at 12 gallons. Running out of fuel is one of very few inexcusable reasons for breaking down in an old car. Luckily, the fuel gauge works well, and I achieved fuel economy as high as 24 mpg.
As Sunday’s shadows grew longer, my wife and I decided to return home via the highway instead of completing the circle at our Frankenmuth starting point. After jostling with suburban Lansing and Detroit traffic at 75 mph, we reached home by 9 pm, having traveled 561 miles since leaving Escanaba that morning--farther than I drove on any single day of my weeklong cross-country drive, in fact. Only one car in the Michigan group, Dale Smigelski’s ’77 Spitfire, broke down, but he got towed 100 miles to his parents’ house, fixed the oil leak, and drove home that night.
Thankfully, I never had to open the well-stocked toolbox that I borrowed from Bishop. It did come in handy as a footrest for my amazingly tolerant, seven-months-pregnant wife, however. Strangely, after 1130 miles in three days, she now has no interest in getting back into the MG. I’m not quite sure why: the soreness in my back went away. After a few days …