Editor’s note: Keith Martin invited SCMers Luke Chennell and Richard Lincoln to come along on SCM’s Caravan to Concorso. Last week, Luke took over Keith’s Blog and wrote about the SCM Autozam blowing a head gasket. In this installment, Chennell takes us to California’s Lost Coast with a failing master cylinder:
I believe that fun is something that should be delivered good and hard. To do that requires hard work. It requires participation, kindred spirits and a commitment to goals.
To surmount challenges is fun. To put your own stamp on something is fun. To have fun might be written in a passive voice, but it is not passive activity. It is an engagement in satire, irony, drama and it requires skill. It is what we all should live for beyond the concerns of our families and our loved ones.
I had a hell of a lot of fun today. We started off the morning buzzing around Eureka, CA. I knew of a great Victorian house I wanted to see, something that would make my own real estate ambitions seem petty and meager.
I suggested we detour some five blocks to see it; we did, and ran across another touring group of great pre-war and early post-war cars on their own journey to 2018 Monterey Car Week. We admired some great iron — Bentleys, Packards, touring cars of every stripe. We all took pictures of each other’s cars, laughing and cracking jokes about the reliability of each other’s cars. The house turned out to be spectacular, a study in gingerbread, stained glass and brightwork that served no real purpose, but was charming nonetheless.
We left Eureka on some unremarkable roads (by the standards of the day), and wound up in Ferndale, CA. The combination of pristine Victorian architecture and the utter lack of care about the rest of the world left me begging Keith to just leave me there to hang out a shingle as restoration specialist. They could come back for me when they wanted, if they I wanted, I thought. I was about to go park myself permanently in the Palace Saloon when one of the locals warned me that the road ahead was bad, very bad. The other wizened locals, many with beards, nodded their heads and added sage bits to the first warner’s tale.
Clearly, we needed to take this road. If the road was full of potholes, twists, turns, dives, whatever, I needed to see and experience this. There was a charming rise out of town with some signs indicating that this was not for the faint of heart. In the Citroën DS21, a lovely motorboat of a car that I’d begun to fall in love with, Greg Long and I set off. We chased the two Alfas through the mid-morning mist. We climbed and climbed, the road twisting and turning, up and down, with a surprise around every corner it seemed.
We broke into the sunlight at the top. No other cars in sight the entire way. Dodging potholes, we cautiously pushed our cars up and over the top, into some beautiful grassland spotted with Hereford and Angus cattle, fat from the bountiful grass and happy as could be to roam the hills. Greg and I simply did not talk. The scenery was too good, the road too engaging. There was nothing to say, and if there was, it did not need said.
The road held more surprises. We ran up and down through various ranges. We found the water, a sweeping with views of the Pacific Ocean, windy as a good day in Kansas, with no one but ourselves and the fat, happy cows to enjoy it. We took pictures, we laughed, and we dodged some more potholes. It was sublime, the best car experience I probably have ever had in my short time on this Earth, and it kept going.
We pulled into Petrolia, then Honeydew. We stopped at the combination Post Office and general store, where they helpfully had everything from quality salami to sharp chainsaw files. It was my kind of place. We hopped back in the cars, ready to finish the Lost Coast. After a compatriot stepped on the brake in Keith’s Alfa, it quickly became apparent that we were experiencing what I refer to as the “Sixth Day of Chassis Class,” in which one learns the term “master cylinder failure.”
The thing about “master cylinder failure” is that it’s kind of inchoate — you start to notice that the brake pedal feels a little weird. It engages but sort of doesn’t, the brakes stop you but don’t “REALLY” stop you, and there’s a sinking feeling in the brake pedal as the fluid bypasses the sealing cup but doesn’t exactly leave the system. It leaves you realizing that the world is going to end, maybe, sometime, and that you will not be in control of that.
But, faced with the options, there are really only two options: fix the thing or hope that it will get you down the next hill. We chose the latter. The hill was big with many curves, but in the end we’d asked for our fortune, calculated the risk, and it seemed fine enough to make it out. Besides, there were a lot of hippies in Honeydew, and it seemed like the kind of place where if you got stuck in an old Alfa Romeo, there’d be a few more generations to take care of by the next time you got the chance to get out. Not that it wouldn’t be charming and lovely, but we just were not that committed.
So, we rode up the hill, no brakes needed, and then we rode down the hill, brakes needed. I quickly learned that Keith is an excellent driver. By excellent I mean this: he knows how he wants his cars set up, and he knows how to use them to the fullest. I braced myself on the convenient humps on each edge of the floorpan in the Alfa, clung tightly to the vent window, and we flew down that hill. By hill, I do not mean the linear, convenient hills of contemporary highways. No, I mean the 1920s version of hills, which incorporate multiple switchbacks, sections randomly unpaved, blind corners and elevation changes. We used the entire road most of the time, sweeping wide, hitting the apexes, using every gear to our advantage, up or down.
I began quietly reflecting on the bravery of drivers in long, unplanned races like the Carrera Panamericana and the Mille Miglia. Those quiet reflections came suddenly out of my mouth to Keith, who nodded and kept thrashing away at corners. I quickly then realized that compliments were due to him, lest we get into both spirited driving and spirited argument in a car with shaky brakes. Needless to say, I’m sitting here now, so it came out fine.
We landed in a grove of giant redwoods, a silent, cathedral-like space. As the others caught up, we all walked around in the dead silence of the forest, listening for the quiet after the constant drone of cammed-up sports car engines. We got on Highway 101, and the trip from there was easy. Temperatures went up, they went down, as they do in California. The cars followed suit. Keith and I shared easy conversation about all things car and otherwise, we laughed, we watched the temperature gauge go up and down, we drove through a tree or two.
In the background was a constant buzz about the logistics of repairing a vintage Alfa master cylinder. It will be accomplished, as all things are in time. We landed tonight north of San Francisco, not worrying about the nebulous nature of our brakes. After all, they just slow you down.
We were almost to Monterey.
— Luke Chennell