Magazine

The Mechanics of California Mille

Conrad Stevenson and his fellow mechanics keep obscure and exotic vintage cars running on the California Mille

Conrad Stevenson, chief mechanic on the California Mille, is upside down, splayed across the front seats of a Frua-bodied Maserati A6G 2000, his head buried beneath the glove compartment. Kneeling next to him is Ivan Zaremba, co-driving a Maserati A6GCS in the vintage-car road rally but better known as the venerable Maserati sensei at Phil Reilly & Company’s restoration shop.

The screw holding the rotor to the distributor shaft has backed out, and Stevenson—with Zaremba’s advice—is retapping the thread so he can replace it with a socket-head screw that provides more bite. Car owner Jonathan Segal watches the parking lot repair with a beatific expression of a roots rocker who’s snuck into the studio where Bob Dylan and The Band are recording “The Basement Tapes.”

“This is the real deal here!” Segal says. “Ivan is Mr. Maserati, and Conrad … ” He just shakes his head, momentarily speechless. “The buzz I’m feeling right now is amazing. There is no drug like it.”

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As day two of the rally draws to a close, more than 60 entries are stuffed in the parking lot of the Inn at Morro Bay: a Ferrari 250 Tour de France, a ton of Alfas, a passel of Porsches, several sweet Lancias, a killer T-Bird, ACs (both Bristols and Acecas), a singular Lotus Elite, and so many Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs that they almost look ordinary. Most of the owners have already congregated at the bar. But there’s still work to be done.

While Stevenson buttons up the Maser, his two fellow mech-anics, Larry Eisner and Jere Brown, romance a 4.5-liter Bentley that’s playing hard to get. It’s up on jack stands so the lanky Eisner, wearing a blue denim smock, can remove the belly pan and slither underneath to examine the troublesome aftermarket overdrive. Brown, white-haired and vastly experienced, leans into the capacious bonnet to troubleshoot a water leak.

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“You’re not going to change the pump now, are you?” car owner Craig Ekberg asks.

“I’d rather get it out of the way,” Eisner says, “so we have one less car to worry about tomorrow morning.”

And there’s always a car—or two or 10—to worry about during the California Mille, which covers nearly 1,000 miles during a four-day journey along some of Northern California’s most picturesque roads. As Stevenson puts it, “We’ve got 60 cars, and each one has a list of items for their mechanics to look at when the event is over, so we could spend all day working on them.”

But that’s not what Stevenson and company have been hired to do. The rule of thumb is they’ll spend up to 30 minutes on a car, and if they can’t fix it, it’s loaded onto a flatbed that brings up the rear. Most of the problems are predictable and straight­forward: clogged fuel filters, dead batteries, etc. But these cars are idiosyncratic, and there’s no telling when a bizarre malfunction is going to crop up. Without the support crew’s MacGyvering skills, the roads from San Francisco to Carmel would be lined with owners, all frantically calling AAA on their cellphones.

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“We couldn’t put on an event of this caliber without these guys,” says David Swig, who organizes the California Mille with his brother, Howard, and Dan Radowicz. “They’re able to diagnose and fix a wide variety of problems with a wide variety of cars with very different mechanical systems. At the same time, they also have the people skills they need to interact with the owners of multimillion-dollar cars that have broken.”

Stevenson has been wrenching on cars running the Mille since the first event in 1991. Now 56 and the owner of an Alfa Romeo shop in Berkeley with a cultlike following, he still has the energy and irrepressible enthusiasm of the car-crazed kid who bought his first Spider Veloce just before he turned 16.

In 1986, he and Alfa collector Ken Shaff attended Italy’s Mille Miglia, a road rally in the spirit of the famous Italian road race bearing the same name, last run in 1957. Through that experience, Stevenson met Martin Swig, a San Francisco imported-car dealer and celebrated automobile raconteur. In 1988, Stevenson built two Alfas—one for Swig, one for himself—to run in the Mille Miglia. Meanwhile, Swig began organizing informal road rallies for his friends in Northern California, and Stevenson was a regular participant.

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Bob Sutherland established the template for the high-end American road rally in 1989 with the Colorado Grand. There are now dozens of similar events across the country, all using the same basic format. Entrants follow meticulously planned routes in between catered meals and overnight stays in deluxe hotels. The entry fees aren’t cheap—the California Mille charges $7,000—but the rallies provide a rare opportunity for owners to exercise their cars on challenging roads without worrying about the logistical nightmares that come with esoteric machinery.

After 25 years, Stevenson has the operation wired. He, Eisner, and Brown—who each have Bay Area shops and sterling reputations of their own—drive chase vehicles while George Powning plays Tail End Charlie in the flatbed. Two guys from Chubb Collector Car Insurance, a sponsor, help out when necessary in an orange 1968 Chevy Sportvan. A few owners bring mechanics.

Mechanical maladies waylaid several cars even before the rally left the Fairmont San Francisco hotel. A dead battery. A smoked clutch. A bad starter. By the morning of day three, most of the seriously snakebit cars have disappeared, but Eisner is chasing wiring gremlins in a 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk as cars start rolling out of the parking lot. Stevenson walks over, and they confer collegially. “If it was a single thing, I’d say stop and fix it,” Stevenson says. “But my inclination is to just hit the road. It’s not a friendly car to work on. We’d be here for days.”

Although the mechanics seldom get stuck with any truly obnoxious jobs, the eclectic nature of the cars on the rally means that they’re constantly playing a vehicular version of NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”—which is what they enjoy most. “It’s all just about figuring out stuff,” Stevenson says. “There are some really peculiar cars, which can be daunting, but there are so many people around who can feed you information. I always feel like a Yosemite bear in a campground. They get into things, and they figure it out.”

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The entries look properly spectacular lined up while their owners eat lunch at a winery, but the finicky cars often need some TLC—or more heroic assistance—on the road.

Stevenson—who proudly calls himself “a shade-tree mechanic” even though he has a mechanical engineering degree—has amassed a vast storehouse of specialized knowledge during a lifetime immersed in the hobby. “I’m not one of those guys who works on old cars and drives home in a new truck,” he says. “My ‘new’ truck is a ’63 Falcon Ranchero. I drive nothing but old cars. I know what breaks on these things.”

Over the years, he’s completed a bunch of unlikely Hail Marys. He’s taken differentials apart in the middle of nowhere, made cotter pins out of scraps of barbed wire, torqued Porsche wheels with a fence pole and a monkey wrench borrowed from a passing firefighter, even repaired a giant hole in an aluminum Aston Martin oil pan with J-B Weld—a lot of J-B Weld.

“My favorite fix was when [1961 American Formula 1 champion] Phil Hill was on the run,” he says. “An alternator, which was probably a generator originally, sheared off a Lancia Fulvia HF. So we found a manzanita branch that was shaped like a slingshot, and I pivoted it off the block, and then Phil grabbed some baling wire, and he tied it to the glass-bowl fuel pump on the firewall, and it held the tension, and the car made it the rest of the event.”

Alas, all stories don’t end happily. Early on day four, Stevenson climbs into a plucky but rough-running 1958 Giulietta Sprint Normale to give it what he calls an “Italian tune-up.” Even though the car has no seat belts, Stevenson—an avid vintage and LeMons racer who’s won his class three times in La Carrera Panamericana—briskly runs through the gears. But accelerating up the Laureles Grade, one of Carmel Valley’s twistiest routes, the Alfa punks out. Stevenson realizes the problem is serious. He pulls the plugs and blows compressed air down a cylinder. “I’m sorry, Jim,” he says, shaking his head like a surgeon informing a family that the patient just died as he breaks the news to the car’s owner, Jim Keck. “The motor’s got no compression. It’s probably an exhaust valve or a hole in the No. 1 piston.”

“At least this is better than rolling off the road,” Eisner says gently.

The rest of the cars have sped off en route to the Harris Ranch in Coalinga, where the group will stop for lunch. Down the road, there’s a big Bentley that needs a brass fitting soldered and a C1 Corvette waiting for a replacement fuel pump and a V-12 Lagonda that wants … something. “You would not want a mechanic to take your car on this kind of test drive,” Stevenson admits as he chases down the convoy. “That’s your privilege for owning the damn thing. Of course, it really sucks when something breaks and we can’t fix it. I don’t like seeing cars break down, but I love trying to help people. Having a positive attitude when you get to a car is the most important thing. You’ve got to think, ‘I’ve got this. I can do this.’ It’s always fun. Honestly, I would do this for no money.”

Up ahead, a 300 SL roadster backfires ominously and crawls off the road. Stevenson smiles as he swings onto the shoulder and parks behind it.

Roadside Assistance

Each Mille mechanic brought his own tools and supplies. “Officially, we have 30 minutes [to work on a car],” Larry Eisner said, “but the goal is to keep the backup flatbed truck free for the really serious breakdowns or emergencies.” Here’s what he had in his rented minivan:

• Floor jack and jack stands, drain pans, funnels, cordless flashlight, cordless drill, cordless impact wrench, battery charger, air tank, brake-bleeder bottles, 2 gallons of fuel, 1 gallon of water, first aid kit, Halon fire extinguisher.

• SAE, metric, and Whitworth sockets and end wrenches, assorted screwdrivers, pliers, hammers, pry bars, feeler gauges, magnets, mirrors, soft knockoff hammer, ball-joint splitter, tire gauge, latex gloves, shop apron, coveralls, hand cleaner, fender cover.

• Compression tester, vacuum gauge, timing light, infrared thermometer, oil pressure gauge, SAE and metric tap-and-die sets, tube flaring kit.

• Volt-ohm meter, jumper leads, tackle box of crimp-on connectors, collection of wire and tape, various sizes of black shrink tubing.

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• Small vise, propane torch, soldering kit, hacksaw, tin snips, drills and bits, hole punch kit, gasket paper and related tools, two sizes of safety wire, gaffer tape.

• Two 12-volt ignition coils (internal and external resistor type), one 6-volt coil, Bosch points and condenser, Lucas points and condenser, common Bosch and Lucas distributor caps and rotors, spool of 7-millimeter spark plug wire and an assortment of ends, common spark plugs, electrical switches, fuses (American and foreign), assorted lightbulbs.

• Three 12-volt electric fuel pumps, one 6-volt electric fuel pump, quarter-inch and five-sixteenths-inch fuel filters and flexible fuel lines, miscellaneous fittings, assorted hose clamps, five-sixteenths-inch rigid tubing, shallow and deep neck, medium-high-pressure radiator caps, generic segmented temporary fan belt, a variety of hose pieces and aluminum tubing, heater hose.

• Three screw-in brake light switches, one mechanical-arm brake light switch, tire plug kit, common Girling hydraulic rebuild kits.

• One case 20/50 engine oil, 2 quarts DOT 4 brake fluid, 80/90 gear oil and pump, several tubes of AlumAseal, one can of starting fluid, Rain-X, Yamabond, Ultra Grey silicone, PB B’laster, Berryman B-12, Brakleen, moly wheel bearing grease, J-B Weld, Super Glue.

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