A Car of My Own

Vile Gossip

My husband gave me a new car for my fiftieth birthday. You are maybe thinking what I was thinking, and what I actually, stupidly, churlishly, began to say out loud: "You're giving the editor of a car magazine a new car?" But having worked for tips during my formative years, I instantly recovered, adding, "Sweetheart! That's just wonderful! I . . . I . . . I can't believe it!" I was holding the oil cap of a Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata, which I'd just dumped from the manila envelope he'd handed me. (A few words about my husband's joyful gift giving. He can't wait. He drives directly from the jewelry store to my office, three full weeks before Christmas, and hands me the pearls across my desk. He throws open the trunk of the car, pulls the new Ruger Red Label .28 gauge over-and-under shotgun-with special wood for the stock and a little woodcock engraving on the receiver, both of which he wrangled from the factory-from the trunk, and presses it into my hands. He grabs the front of my flannel pajamas, hauls me to a seated position in bed, and shouts, "Merry Christmas! Look!" and I am staring at an ice-fishing shanty he has assembled in the pre-dawn darkness, in the flower garden, just outside the bedroom window. It comes with a power ice auger that I can't lift. The longbow and wooden arrows. The kayak. The camouflage Ruger .12-gauge over-and-under duck gun. He is a serious sport.)

He was so excited about the Big Gift that I don't think he noticed my initial gaffe and beamed proudly as I turned the heavy billet aluminum oil cap in my hands. My own Miata. And it very slowly began to occur to me that I never have access to a convertible press car the rare times I need one. Michigan has teensy windows of convertible opportunity, sandwiched between bouts of bone-numbing cold, torrential downpours, tornado season, occasional plagues of locusts, and the typical summer's blazing, breath-sucking heat. (But it's a wet heat, we like to add.)

Mr. Jennings had, all on his own, talked to senior Mazda management and finagled a deal that would allow me to choose any color of paint and leather as long as it was in the Mazda system. I conveniently wanted titanium gray metallic, one of the two current Mazdaspeed Miata exterior colors, the other being a rather obvious velocity red mica. I inconveniently wanted brown leather, rather than the red-stitched black leather interior that distinguishes the Mazdaspeed line.

Miata chief engineer Takao Kijima turned up a rich saddle brown leather, complete with a matching Nardi steering wheel, left from a limited run of 2001 special-edition Miatas.

The rest needed no additional finessing. The 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata package is quite fabulous as is, with its newly turbocharged, 178-horsepower engine (that's 25 percent more than the base car), tuned suspension (larger front and rear antiroll bars, stiffer springs, tuned Bilstein dampers, lowered ride height, and retuned engine mounts), quickened steering response, and striking five-spoke Racing Hart alloy wheels wrapped in Toyo Proxes R28 P205/40R-17 high-performance unidirectional tires.

Nothing needs to be done to the interior, either. The instrument panel is tidy, easy to grasp for an old five-decader like myself, and the 225-watt Bose system has six speakers crammed in that tidy little two-seat cabin, the better to listen to the six-disc CD player.

My stunning one-off roadster arrived just in time to drive it up from Mazda headquarters in Southern California to the mid-August festivities on the Monterey Peninsula. My Miata made the scene at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, at the relatively new Quail concours event, and at both the Bonhams auction tent across the drive from the Quail Lodge and the RM Auctions in downtown Monterey. We drove the entire length of Seventeen Mile Drive on four separate occasions, the last to cap the weekend at the packed Pebble Beach concours.

Why stop there? We mailed our luggage home, packed two small duffels with shorts and T-shirts, and set off directly from Pebble Beach on Sunday afternoon, packed like sardines, for Michigan, 3000 miles east.

We made Truckee, California, the first night; Laramie, Wyoming, the second; and Iowa City, Iowa, the third. There was no drama to report on Interstate 80. I drove for exactly three hours; Tim reeled off the rest. Long car trips make me sleep like an infant (even with the seat nearly vertical, as it is in the MX-5; even with the slam-bang of the tight suspension hitting expansion strips on the interstate). There was enough crap packed in around the passenger footwell that Tim wouldn't have been able to scrunch in on that side, anyway. As it was, I could exit only by pulling my feet from my shoes. It's a wonder I didn't develop deep-vein thrombosis from not moving for hours on end.

Today, the Miata feels great at 80 mph, tachometer settled at 4000 rpm in sixth gear. It squirts easily in and around big SUVs and dirty family sedans. I'm feeling very special and wonderful, despite the bumper crop of goldenrod lining both sides of the freeway. A chopped and flamed Harley flies by, heading west, and a gush of warm kinship wells up, but for his dumbass Nazi-style helmet. The Miata leaps from 80 to 100 mph with a pulse of the accelerator, just long enough to jump ahead of the semi merging from an on-ramp. It feels just as fine to move right, giving way to the Ford F-150 breathing up my twin tailpipes. I am driving my Miata.

It's mine, and that feels different.

It's mine, and that feels great.

A Few Good Cars: We made it home to Michigan just in time for the rockin' Woodward Dream Cruise, the second time in its history that it hasn't conflicted with the Monterey weekend. I joined Tom Addis, a genial Ford dealer from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and Bill Warner, automotive Rain Man and founder of the quirky Amelia Island concours, to award trophies to some of the 160 cars assembled to celebrate Ford's first Cruisin' Legends concours. The three of us had three awards to give among twenty-nine blue-oval cars vying for Best Custom, Best Classic, and Best Lincoln/Mercury.

I'm here to tell you that a 1979 Lincoln Town Car looks awfully big these days. Big, like aircraft-carrier big. Big, like you could land a helicopter on the hood. Or on the trunk. Take your pick. This particular aircraft carrier-Town Car, that is-was painted a bold cordovan over crystal apricot, a stunning two-tone color combination that hasn't been seen outside Shaquille O'Neal's shoe collection since, well, probably since 1979. It looked luscious in the early-morning shimmer that was beginning to rise.

Thanks to the ministrations of Donna Culver of Detroit, the dew was being lovingly mopped from its brow, and the Town Car was nearly ready for its close-up. The judges circled and oohed and aahed, while Culver casually dropped lines like "Last of the big ones," and "Drives like a baby carriage," as she continued to primp her ride.

"How long have you owned it?" we asked.

"My husband drove it off the line," she said proudly. "Easiest thing I ever drove," she added, a carnival barker hawking her show.

The Best Lincoln/Mercury award was al-most locked up the minute we spotted Bob and Jan Gajewski's 1965 Comet Cyclone, so black and shiny it looked like the deep end of the pool at midnight. "We duplicated the car we first dated in thirty-eight years ago," said Bob, throwing his wife A Look.

But what Lincoln is more spectacular than a 1957 Continental Mark II? Al Gorosh's creamy green showstopper, with its wide whitewalls and flawless chrome, stole the prize. "It always wins something," admitted Al afterward. "I've owned it for seven years, but I hardly ever drive it." Oops. I hate that. If I had that Mark II, I'd drive it everywhere. Get over it, Al.

The Best Custom award went to a 1951 Ford Victoria owned by Robert Hayes. It was exactly what any bad boy in 1951 would have done to the family Victoria, with a flathead, frenched headlights, blue dots from a 1949 Ford, four-bar Lancer hubcaps, and Fox cruiser skirts on the rear wheels.

Darlene Lupu and her cloned version of a 19631/2 Galaxie 500 drag racer in Rangoon Red, our choice for the Best Classic at the show, epitomizes what the Dream Cruise is all about. She was parked in a lawn chair behind the Galaxie, wearing saddle shoes, a varsity jacket with "Boss Lady" embroidered over her heart, and sunglasses with a little Ford oval on the glass. "I lost my license three times for racing when I was a kid," she told us. "I looked for thirteen years for that car, but they're few and far between. This was the best I could do unless I had $100,000. I don't have that kind of money. I work for Ford's, ten hours a day, six days a week." And here she was. The rest of her free time, she's drag-racing the Galaxie. "I did the quarter-mile in fourteen seconds at 101 miles an hour. I just couldn't get off the line. It was 95 degrees."

She recently took the Galaxie to Milan Dragway just south of Ann Arbor and buried the speedo, breaking off the needle. You win, Darlene, honey.

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