It’s been nearly ten years since I last drove in the California Mille. Dodge was the primary sponsor then, and I enjoyed the Northern California countryside from behind the wheel of a Viper.
After growing up driving Alfas, with their puny 4-cylinder, 80-ci engines, mashing the throttle on a 450-horsepower, 488-ci V10 rocket sled was like lighting the fuse on a Saturn V. With a small-displacement foreign car, passing on a two-lane road takes cunning and guile. Can you really get past that mini-van before the next turn? What if the Taurus speeds up when you pull alongside? Does that Winnebago RV even know you exist?
With the Viper, it was simply pick your passing zone, press the warp-speed pedal and boom, you were around and back in your lane.
But as much fun as that sledgehammer approach to country lane roads was, I was eager to get back to my hamsters-running-in-a-cage roots. Martin Swig, the Mille founder, called to ask if my wife Wendie and I would like to drive in this year’s Mille, and he was gracious enough to offer us a very original, 101-series Alfa Giulietta Spider Veloce, in black over an orange/red interior. It didn’t take us long to say yes.
The staging area was in front of the Fairmont Hotel, atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. The Fairmont opened just before the earthquake and fire of 1906, and has stood in stately repose ever since.
One of the great American road events
We’ll have two bird’s-eye views of the Mille in our next issue-one from RM’s President and COO, Ian Kelleher, who was driving in his first-ever vintage event and piloting a 1954 “Hot-Rod” Lincoln decked out in Carrera Panamericana livery. The other article will come from “The King of Toasted Ponies,” Tom Shaughnessy, who most recently wrote about driving in his first vintage event, the Colorado Grand, in his Ferrari 375 MM. In the California Mille, he teamed up with the irascible Dick McLure in a VW-powered Devin Special that they found on eBay. It was, to quote Shaughnessy, “Something completely different.”
While we wait for these tales, I can only say that the Mille continues to be one of the great American road events, combining outstanding vehicles, rabid enthusiasts who think the worst day of driving is better than the best day doing anything else, and terrific scenery.
The Mille welcomed a new sponsor this year, Chopard, well-known for their involvement with the Italian Mille Miglia. It was a perfect match-the American version of the Italian event, supported by a watch company that really appreciated what was going on.
As for us in our Giulietta, aside from the distributor working loose, the gas gauge permanently reading empty, and a brief episode when smoke began to pour out of the steering column, the car ran flawlessly. We had a chance to stop in the ghost town of Chinese Camp, where my grandmother’s side of the family established itself after coming around the Horn during the Gold Rush. We then paused to admire the old Moccasin Power Plant not far away. Electricity essential for Northern California is generated there by water flowing through massive pipes from the reservoir behind O’Shaughnessy Dam deep within Yosemite Park-all a part of the Hetch Hetchy power and water project my grandfather worked on during the Depression.
I drove some of these same roads in my 1963 Giulia Spider Normale almost 40 years ago. Chinese Camp and Moccasin haven’t changed much, but today’s restored Alfas are vastly superior to the clapped-out beaters we drove back then. Which brings us to the nut behind the wheel. I’d like to think that we vintage car drivers are gaining our own patina, perhaps not wiser with the years but more appreciative of the good times our old cars allow us to have. Swig often says, “You don’t choose the cars, the cars choose you,” and on the Mille, given the smiles and camaraderie we experienced, the cars appear to have chosen well indeed.
Keels & Wheels
From Sausalito, California, where the Mille ended, I flew directly to Houston, Texas, to participate in the 14th Annual Keels & Wheels Concours. Concours Chairman Bob Fuller and I had long spoken about my providing emcee services for the event; this year the scheduling stars aligned and I was able to join him.
For those not familiar with wooden boats, they provide an opportunity to spend even more time and money than you can on a classic car-and have even fewer venues to put them to use. Which makes them all the more splendid and desirable. Unluckily for me, the current president of the Antique and Classic Boat Society, Dick Werner, is from Newberg, Oregon, not far from my home in Portland. The wooden boat fanatics at Keels & Wheels have already promised to help me find my first boat: a Chris-Craft 24-foot utility is their choice. “It’s so practical.” Of course it is.
As those of you who have already attended Keels & Wheels know, it is a first-rate gathering of cars and boats. Adding to the ambience is Worldwide Auctioneers’s catalog sale, which is presented-wonder of wonders-in an air-conditioned tent. (The concours awards assembly is held in the tent on Sunday, making the entire proceedings much more enjoyable.)
Chief Honorary Judges this year were Bill Warner of Amelia Island and Don Sommer of Meadow Brook. The primary sponsors were Alex Rodriguez Mercedes-Benz, First Community Bank, and the City of Seabrook, Texas. We will have complete coverage of the concours by SCM Senior Analyst Carl Bomsted in the next issue, and he will wrap up the auction as well.
Seabrook was devastated by Hurricane Ike on September 13, 2008. Stories of eight-foot waves and 110-mph winds that washed 30-ton barges and 100-foot yachts into front yards were common. While evidence of the disaster could still be seen, the entire area has made a dramatic recovery-the concours is an affirmation of that.
It has been a very good month, and I thank both Swig and Fuller for these opportunities. Both men have created first-rate events that celebrate motor cars, and their passion for what they do permeates their respective endeavors