The whole notion of heading to sunny Daytona Beach, Florida, on spring break never appealed to me, not even when I was in college in the cold, gray Northeast. The all-night parties, bad dancing, and inordinate amount of vomiting wasn’t my idea of a good time. I much preferred my springtime stimulation in vehicular form. You know – jumping cars over enormous frost heaves. And perfecting rally-style e-brake turns through snow-covered hairpins. And seeing if I could get my brake rotors to glow white by the bottom of a badly paved, tree-lined downhill section of my favorite back road.
My cash-starved spring break was usually more of a spring broke – often involving an unplanned road trip in a rusty 200,000-mile heap running on half its cylinders and missing a gear or two. Or an impromptu engine swap. Or both, since they typically went hand-in-hand. But now that I’m ostensibly an adult, there’s got to be a way to enjoy spring break in a more grown-up manner.
And exactly such an event was created this year. It’s called the Orange Blossom Tour, a five-day-long classic-car drive that draws a squiggly line on the central Florida map, starting from the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance and ending at the 12 Hours of Sebring race. I found out about the Tour from Mazda PR man Jeremy Barnes, who invited me to accompany him. We squeezed our no-longer-college-aged selves into a Playskool-size 1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S and hoped the poor old car would survive the week.
After all, the Cosmo is powered by Mazda’s first production rotary engine, which was the world’s first-ever twin-rotor in a new car. Even better, it has a carburetor – you know, that contraption that all but guarantees you’ll be sitting on the side of the road with the same regularity that college students projectile vomit at one another on the beach in Daytona. Funny, this is starting to sound more and more like a slightly better organized version of my college days. Bring on Spring Break(down)!
The Orange Blossom Tour was orchestrated by our friends at Classic Motorsports magazine. Publisher Tim Suddard put together a five-day tour of central Florida that serves as the perfect spring getaway for people who would love an opportunity to spend a few sun-drenched days in a classic car exploring parts of Florida that tourists usually don’t see. “People come down here, go to Disney, and head home saying Florida is ugly and the roads suck. And I would love to show people that’s not the case,” explained Suddard.
As it turns out, he’s right – there are definitely places in Florida where the roads don’t suck. Of course, with Florida’s highest point towering a paltry 345 feet above sea level, you won’t be traversing breathtaking mountain passes, but Suddard did find some pretty good roads. And not once did the Tour merge onto an interstate. That, indeed, would have been no fun in the forty-three-year-old Cosmo, just as the Tour’s relaxed pace would have been a drag in a modern car.
If the speed of the world has changed in the last forty years, one thing hasn’t – how easy it is to make new friends in a group of people who share a common interest. Throughout the week, at the many lunches and dinners, museums and parks, conversation drifted from cars to just about every subject imaginable. Including, and specifically, my peculiar penchant for disco music in a little town called Tavares. (Come on – don’t pretend you don’t know who Tavares is!)
At the conclusion of five days, everyone headed home with their cars (if not a renewed affection for disco). That was because the $1995 entry price ($2995 for couples) for the Orange Blossom Tour included a flatbed trailer and an expert mechanic that swept the route to collect vital parts that any of the participating vehicles might spew onto the roadway. Amazingly, not a single car needed to be towed – not even a particularly beautiful Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans that completely lost its brakes – but the presence of the truck was enough to eliminate any anxiety about breaking down. It wasn’t, however, enough to scare the Cosmo into behaving. Watching two hacks try to resuscitate the cute little Mazda time and again on the side of the road ensured that even the mechanic got a couple big laughs from the Orange Blossom Tour.
Had the Cosmo been produced in sufficient numbers, it might have earned a reputation for being notoriously unreliable. Many early rotary-engine cars were. Despite numerous breakdowns over the 770-mile journey, this particular 1967 Cosmo gets an A+ for reliability. Why? Its only real problem was that, after more than four decades, the inside of its fuel tank had begun to turn to powder, which was sucked through a constantly clogging fuel filter and into the carburetor. Each of the Cosmo’s many unplanned roadside breaks was resolved by cleaning gunk from its fuel system. The lack of any other real problem is impressive given that this Cosmo had traveled only 13,851 kilometers prior to the Orange Blossom Tour. That’s 8607 miles, or an average of about half a mile per day.
The Cosmo looks like something out of The Jetsons, which is appropriate given that it shares its name with George Jetson’s boss, Cosmo Spacely. Its styling is a knockoff of seemingly everything – a bit of Ford Thunderbird here, a touch of Ferrari there, with maybe a hint of Jaguar thrown in. Aside from its diminutive size – an MX-5 Miata towers over it – the Cosmo’s most striking characteristic is nearly identical upper and lower taillights that look as if they’re a reflection of one another, bisected by a skinny chrome bumper.
Series 1 Cosmos destined for sale outside of Japan received only “110S” badging, which referred to the car’s 110-hp (gross) engine, a 982-cc, twin-rotor Wankel. Only 343 of these cars were built in 1967 and 1968. The Series 2 Cosmo debuted in mid-1968, essentially the same car with a six-inch wheelbase stretch, a five-speed transmission in place of the former four-speed, and an additional 18 hp. Some 1176 Series 2 cars were built. Neither version was officially imported to the United States, and all Cosmos were right-hand drive.
It’s surprising how well the Cosmo drives. Unassisted steering and brakes require only a little more muscle than do those in a modern car, thanks to the Cosmo’s 2100-pound curb weight. The basketball-sized engine pulls hard right past its 7000-rpm redline and makes lots of smooth, linear, whirring noises. At idle, it sounds, appropriately, like a car from The Jetsons, or perhaps an owl hooting, but only from inside the car. From behind, the staccato sound coming from the peashooter-size exhaust pipe was best described by Barnes as “a nuclear-powered popcorn popper.” With somewhere around 10 lb-ft of torque (OK, maybe 11 at sea level) and a flywheel so light it might as well be made of helium, the Cosmo may be the easiest car in history to stall.
Once you’re moving, though, the Cosmo is easy to drive. The lack of window sealing is the only poorly executed detail of this early Mazda. Huge amounts of wind noise – and a good amount of wind itself – makes its way into the cabin. The Cosmo rides well considering its simple suspension design, although midcorner bumps really trip up the de Dion rear suspension – and that, combined with slow steering, gives the distinct impression that forays to this car’s limits would end in a fireball. Literally – the Cosmo’s fuel pump and (glass) fuel-filter housing are unprotected, located right below the front bumper, ensuring that even a small frontal impact could make the evening news. It’s a wonder any of these cars still exist, which makes it even more impressive that Mazda was willing to put so many miles on this Cosmo for no purpose other than just to have a little fun.
ORANGE BLOSSOM TOUR
1. Brumos Collection, Jacksonville
Hidden in the back of the Brumos Porsche race shop is the personal collection of the late motorsports entrepreneur Bob Snodgrass. Photography at the museum isn’t allowed, but ooh-ing and aah-ing at the motley assortment of racing and street cars is encouraged. The museum isn’t really open to the public, but if you ask nicely enough, you might be able to sweet-talk yourself into a tour.
2. Saint Augustine
If your time spent in the Sunshine State is concentrated in touristy places, it’s easy to forget that Florida has a rich history reaching back to long before tourism took over. Saint Augustine was founded in 1565 – 406 years before Disney World. About a hundred years after its inception, it became clear that wooden forts would no longer suffice to protect the city, hence the current fort is made of coquina, a limestone consisting almost entirely of sea shells. It is the only seventeenth-century fort still standing in America.
3. Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach
Daytona’s mild winters mean this track is open and bustling year-round. While the track’s history – and its main events – are well documented, one of the newest additions is a cell-phone texting service that allows fans to get assistance while at an event – such as help finding a seat or obtaining emergency medical assistance. Still, the coolest thing about the track is the track itself, but we missed our chance to do some hot laps with the rest of the Orange Blossom participants because we stalled the Cosmo on the way there and it refused to restart.
A little town with a big spiritual presence, Cassadaga is known for its psychics, numerologists, astrologists, and tarot and palm readers. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t find a psychic who was willing to perform a reading on our troubled Cosmo, which stalled right in front of the haunted Cassadaga Hotel.
5. Blue Spring State Park, Orange City
Each day, 104 million crystal-clear gallons of 72-degree water flow from this spring into the Saint Johns River. The park is home to more than 200 manatees – and fifteen other species of threatened or endangered animals and plants.
6. Mount Dora Canal Cruise, Mount Dora
It’s been called “the most beautiful mile of water in the world,” and while we can’t confirm that claim, it’s definitely the most breathtaking stretch we’ve ever seen. The Dora Canal connects Lake Dora and Lake Eustis and is home to lots of alligators and tropical birds who live under a stunning canopy of cypress trees. Lake County Waterways’ Captain Tim is as funny as a stand-up comic, so the entertainment was as good as the views from the Southern Breeze.
7. Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, Ocala
Mention “drag race” in Miami Beach and people will turn around to look for RuPaul and a Logo network camera crew. In central Florida, though, they’ll think of Big Daddy. Don Garlits, that is – Florida’s drag-racing legend. The 50,000-square-foot museum displays more than 200 race cars. And not a single pair of size 16 heels.
8. Fantasy of Flight Museum, Polk City
Founder Kermit Weeks opened this museum in 1995 to share with the public his love of flying and his collection of vintage airplanes. In addition to touring the dark, dramatic museum, you can head out to the runway for a ride in a biplane.
9. Florida Southern College, Lakeland
Florida Southern’s campus is home to the world’s largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. Wright built twelve structures here, including a massive, 160-foot-diameter fountain and several magnificent buildings with stained glass as decorative highlights.