In memory of our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., Automobile Magazine editors are choosing our ten favorite American Driver columns and will be posting one each day over the next two weeks.
My first transcontinental drive was in June of 1955, my honeymoon. In October of 1954, I’d been jailed for reckless driving with a revoked operator’s permit–a mandatory seventy-two hours in the slammer under Michigan law at that time. (A couple of years ago, I applied for a permit to purchase a Ruger target pistol, and the sergeant on duty brought me up on the computer to see if I was a wanted serial killer. “Aha!” he chuckled. “You’ve been a guest of ours.”) Since I was a short-timer, they didn’t take me out to the county farm the next morning with all my roommates, and I had some time to reflect on my misdeeds. I decided that the cure for my troubles was marriage to a strong, sensible woman, and that woman was Norma J. Wohlfiel, a high school classmate and co-star in several theatrical productions. By the time I was out of jail, I’d written my marriage proposal and mailed it to Norma in California. Her letter of reply said, “I’ll be home in December to see if you’ve lost your mind.” We were married in June, and although Norma was too strong and sensible to stay married to me, the marriage actually lasted twenty years.
We drove cross-country in my MG TF 1500, with the side curtains in and the top down. We both got terrific tans, and it was a wonderful way to see the Republic. We stopped for service at a British-car dealership in Denver and met a young racing driver named Dabney Collins who was delighted to talk cars with me. They had a beautiful aluminum-bodied competition XK120 Jaguar (we called it the “Silverstone Jag”) on the showroom floor, and I could tell that I was getting closer to the fulfillment of all my dreams. We crossed the desert at night, so that the MG wouldn’t overheat, and were almost hypnotized by the hundreds of jack rabbits crisscrossing the road in our headlights. We wound down out of the mountains into northern California on Saturday morning, and even Highway 99 seemed beautiful to a wide-eyed enthusiast from the Midwest. We slept that night in the house Norma had rented in Manhattan Beach, and I had already seen all the manner of interesting cars, as well as my first open-air California automotive repair shop. It really was the promised land!
I’ve lost track of my cross-country trips since then–in an Austin-Healey, a Chevy van, a Saab, a couple of Suburbans, a V-8 Plymouth Barracuda, a Peugeot 404, a couple of Volvos, Mercedes old and new, a Studebaker Hawk, a couple of Ferraris, and a dozen others–but two stand out.
In 1959, I took delivery of my new Triumph TR3A at the New York Auto Show. It was black, with a black interior and a black hard top. It was, by my reckoning, the prettiest TR ever constructed. I drove it from New York to California, breaking it in, and from Chicago west I followed famous Route 66. Around Gallup, New Mexico, the wind came up, and before long the air was full of sand. Being equipped with side curtains, the Triumph was also full of sand. I made it to Flagstaff that night, utterly parched and exhausted. I checked into a motel, went to the fanciest restaurant in the neighborhood, and ordered–God knows why–a dry Rob Roy. This soaked into the tissues of my mouth before I could swallow it. I ordered another, and then I lost track. I woke at 3:30 in the morning lying face down, fully dressed, on the bed in my motel room. The door was open, and my Triumph was sitting outside the door with its engine running and its headlights on. I had no memory of the evening, nor did I know when I’d returned. I got up, washed my face, and left town, thoroughly ashamed of myself and terminally hung over. The Triumph, it turned out, was very badly sandblasted. Everything that faced forward had to be repainted, replated, or replaced. This was not an unmitigated disaster, however, because it offered me the opportunity to customize the little dear and remove some unwanted trim.
In January 1967, I was visiting the General Motors Desert Proving Ground in Mesa, Arizona. One thing led to another, and some Chevrolet engineers offered to let me drive a prototype Camaro Z28 back to Michigan. I left late in the afternoon and followed U.S. 60 out across the high country–over the Salt River Canyon, across the San Carlos Apache reservation and the Whit Mountain Apache reservation, through Show Low and across to Socorro, New Mexico. That car’s 302 engine was as good a Chevy V-8 as I’d ever driven, and I’d driven about 100 that were really strong. After sundown, I burned a six-hour hole through the darkness along U.S. 60. Headlights would appear in the distance and I’d slow down, only to discover that they were miles away in the desert night. I turned on the dreadful little AM radio and picked up radio stations thousands of miles away, all gabbling nonstop pseudo-reverence about the astronauts–Roger Chaffee, Virgil Grissom, and Edward White II–who’d burned to death that day. But I was safe under a great black glass dome. I was a time traveler. I had found my element, and the Z28 was the perfect tool to exploit it.
Last Month, J.L.K. Davis and I drove a new Range Rover 2400 miles in less than a week–Ann Arbor to Montgomery, Alabama, for some concentrated automotive immersion time (and hunting) with Knox Kershaw (owner of the Duesenberg Special Phil Llewellin wrote about in “The World’s Finest Motor Car,” November 1991); Montgomery to Washington, D.C., to present the All-Stars award for the Land Rover Discovery to the entire staff of that company; then back to Ann Arbor by way of Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. Next week, we’ll take our Four Seasons (long term) Mazda Millenia to New York and return. That car is about to leave our fleet, and it’s just too good to let it get away without one last long drive. Next month, we’ll take our new long-term Chevrolet Tahoe to Baja California, and after that we’ll run our own ’55 Chrysler 300 in the California Mille. This is shaping up to be another great year, great drive-wise.