Constant attention is part of the experience of English cars. When you arrive at your destination, you have achieved something


Most gearheads agree that a classic car doesn't come to life until it's driven on the open road. Highly organized thousand-mile tours have allowed many owners to put some miles under their classic wheels, but don't hold a candle to a plan-as-you-go long-distance road trip with one or two friends in old British cars.

I can say this after recently completing a two-week, 2,300-mile trip up the coast of California and along the river roads of western Oregon in my Austin-Healey 3000. The scenery was spectacular along the rugged Pacific Coast and among the redwoods, the pace was relaxing, strangers admired our cars, and we couldn't have had a better time.

We even got to repair my car along the way, surely an essential part of any English car road trip. We were on Highway 97, in central Oregon, when my car hiccupped then started again. An hour later, when we found a few shade trees, we replaced the distributor on the theory that it was either spark or fuel that had gone wrong, and the distributor was easier to replace than the fuel pump, since it didn't require the removal of luggage.

But the car died again while sitting there, and we confirmed there was no fuel flow. An old membrane and hot weather had caused the points in the pump to hang up. So when we got to Richland in Eastern Washington, (which required one more judicious off-on of the key to goose the fuel pump back to life), I ordered a new electronic SU pump from Moss, had it overnighted, and installed it before we drove home; I readjusted the old pump to carry as a back-up. Constant attention is part of the experience of English cars. When you arrive somewhere, you have achieved something.

Company welcome and possibly vital

The only other repair involved rebuilding my electronic distributor on the sidewalk outside our hotel after I had crossed the wires and fried it. Luckily, I carried a spare with points and condenser-always a good idea if the component is small, cheap and critical.

The excuse for the trip was a Healey meet in Eastern Washington. A buddy was planning to drive up with his teenage daughter and was looking for one or two other Healeys to join him, reasoning that the company would be welcome (and possibly vital).

Since I hadn't driven my Healey on a long trip for over five years, I was happy to go. Just about any British model built after WWII can manage highway speeds on secondary roads and still cope with freeway transits.

Calling British cars "agricultural" is a compliment, since they can be maintained easily with hand tools and a shoebox of spares. Best of all, they're pretty enough to attract attention and familiar enough to encourage passersby to tell you their stories of "a car just like this one."

The plan was simple: We would set aside four days to cover the 1,200 miles up to the meet and three days to return, we'd stay near the coast to avoid the high temperatures and high-speed freeways of the center of the state, and we would find a motel whenever we felt we had done enough driving for the day.

We went over our cars carefully

We might not have planned in detail, but we did prepare. On other club trips, I've noticed that most breakdowns occur in cars that haven't been well-maintained, and they usually happen during the first day of a trip. To avoid that, we went over our cars carefully a few weeks before the trip, changing fluids, tightening fasteners, tuning them up, and replacing or rebuilding parts like fuel pumps and distributors, which most often cause a mechanical failure. We then took the cars for day-long drives to make sure everything was working. And still there were surprises.

We packed a basic set of spare parts between the two cars, including hoses, gaskets, tune-up kit, radiator and gas caps, and miscellaneous mechanical and electrical fasteners and wire, plus a completely wired and tested distributor. The nice thing about touring in North America is that you're only an overnight delivery away from Moss Motors and their spares.

We both had basic tool kits. I carry a large, transparent plastic zippered make-up bag in which I have all the stuff I need to reach on the road, including a flashlight, tire gauge, pliers, screwdrivers, crescent wrench, test light, and electrical wire with alligator clips in several lengths.

Two other pieces of equipment turned out to be essential to the pleasure of our trip, one almost obsolete and one just introduced. These were our CB radios-standard trucker Cobras hard-wired into the cars-and my Garmin Nuvi navigation system.

With the CBs, we were able to chat back and forth, a nice feature when you're driving alone. Without that communication, I think we would have lost touch in the Portland rain on the one major freeway transit we had to make.

We weren't too concerned about getting from one specific place to another, the purpose for which a nav system is usually used. For us, its most useful function was to locate the next gas station, motel, or restaurant, critical information when you're driving unfamiliar back roads at twilight, getting hungry, tired, and looking at a gas gauge that's semaphoring from empty to half-full.

Without the Garmin we never would have found Mom's Kitchen in North Bend, Oregon, on a Saturday morning. Not only did "Mom" serve us up wonderful western omelettes with fresh-baked biscuits and hashbrowns, but she also told us there was a local car show at the bowling alley three blocks away. We were the only British sports cars in the lot among the custom hot rods and classic Fords.

Nav system and CB both helpful

Having the freedom to stop whenever we wanted allowed us to learn the story behind the theatre marquee in Orick, California, which was advertising "Cowgirl Mud Wrestling," and also check out the Palm Tree Restaurant next door, which served seven kinds of fresh-baked pie.

There are amazing roads in Northern California. We'd particularly recommend the 30-mile stretch of Highway 1 from Fort Bragg to Leggetts and the 85 miles of Highway 101 from Eureka to Crescent City. Though the Avenue of the Giants that bypasses 101 between Garberville and Fortuna shouldn't be missed, these two stretches have as many redwood trees as one could wish.

In Oregon, the small beach towns offer coffee, an ice cream cone, or a night's lodging, but the secret of this state is the river roads. Trace the Umpqua River along Highway 38 from the coast to Cottage Grove, or the McKenzie River along 126 from Eugene toward Sisters, to experience the Oregon's forests.

Regardless of where you live, the experience of finding your own routes away from the main highways, in classic British cars with just one or two like-minded friends, just can't be beat. You don't need five-star hotels or a following crew of mechanics in a car-hauler to enjoy your British car on the open road, where it belongs.

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