Buzzing like a multi-colored swarm of bees, the cars of the California Mille cruised through Bodega Bay on California Highway One. It was the morning of day four, and Wendie and I had pulled over for a quick espresso and to stretch our legs.

This was the 21st running of the Mille, an event created to pay homage to the original Mille Miglia Storico in Italy. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of this event more than a dozen times, and each one seems like the best yet.

The roads are some of Northern California’s most challenging, and are the same two-lane highways I drove in my 1963 Alfa Giulia Spider Normale more than 40 years ago. I had two friends with Giulietta Spiders then, and our cars shared one thing—cheapo exhaust systems each with a single glass-pack muffler.

We spent our time chasing each other like hounds on a hunt, making huge noises from our tiny engines, screeching our skinny tires as we proudly went 40 mph around turns marked 25, and all-too-often limping home to San Francisco as our home-built (read that as done inexpensively and amateurishly) drivetrains suffered one sort of failure or another.

Part of Our Lives

This year, I had the pleasure of driving a 1957 Giulietta Spider Normale from Martin Swig’s collection. It had been upgraded to a 2-barrel down-draft Weber—a modification often done in period to replace the troublesome Solex—and the rear axle had been changed to one from a Veloce, with a 4.1 ratio rather than a 4.5.

I was surprised by the amount of torque the car had with the Weber, and how it pulled strongly through the gears. The 4.1 ratio gave it the legs of a Veloce, and cruising at 75 mph was comfortable for car and passengers alike.

Wendie and I were able to participate in the event through the generosity of Chopard, one of the sponsors of the Mille. Chopard had a bountiful array of watches displayed each evening, and their allure was telling—Wendie is enjoying her new Happy Sport Floating Diamonds timepiece.

Like the changing of the seasons, the Mille and the people who participate in it have become a regular and predictable part of our lives. We’ve watched Martin’s two sons, David and Howard, grow up through the Mille. David, now a specialist with Bonhams, recalled that he was just 6 years old when he participated on his first Mille. And Howard is employed by Car and Driver, which is not a bad place for a college graduate with a passion for cars to be.

If I try to capture what makes this event so special, it would be the way it personifies Martin’s own approach to motoring. An iconoclast, he has his own view of what makes an interesting car (a 1950s Fiat or Lancia wagon has an especial appeal), he sets a route that works for his driving aesthetics (lots of curves, perfect for a small car with a high-revving engine and terrific brakes, i.e. Alfa) and he attracts participants who are there to drive and enjoy the roads and the other participants.

Each year I prostrate myself and beg to be allowed to drive our family 1965 Giulia Spider Veloce, and each year I’m told that it is too new (the cutoff is 1957 or slightly later if a model is in continuous production). Perhaps if I throw in a lifetime subscription to SCM with next year’s entry, they’ll let me sneak the Giulia in.

Seabrook to Superbirds

From the end of the California Mille at the Lodge in Sonoma in Napa Valley, it was a quick flight to Houston, TX for my third year as emcee of Keels & Wheels, my one opportunity of the year be around wooden boats and collectible cars at the same time. The event co-chairs, Paul Merryman and Bob Fuller, were gracious as always, and the event continues to get better each year. I was particularly taken with the ex-Bobby Darin DiDia 150, along with the display of Century watercraft. Carl Bomstead’s review of the event is on page 36.

After touching down for a few days in PDX, it was off to Auburn, IN, for the Auctions America Auburn Spring sale, where we filmed more episodes of “What’s My Car Worth.” My co-host for this group of shows was Peter Klutt, from Legendary Motorcar Company. Klutt is always sending out those tasty advertisements about the near-irresistible cars he has in his inventory—I’m surprised I haven’t bought a half-dozen from him by now.

My favorite part of the show is getting to drive and evaluate some of the cars we are featuring—this time I got time behind the wheel of a 1932 Duesenberg Model J five-passenger sedan, a supercharged 1963 Avanti R2, a 2005 Ford GT, a 1970 Plymouth Superbird and a 1929 Packard 8 Custom Cabriolet—among others.

When I drive these cars, I find some of them “on the button,” and others sorely in need of some attention. Dead batteries, non-working gauges and less-than-perfect brakes and steering are not unusual to encounter. Which points out the necessity of spending a few minutes driving anything you are thinking of buying.

As I like everything on my cars to work as they would have when they were five years old, I’m used to the slog that comes with most used cars. Fix the interior light, the heater fan, the thermostat, the brake linings, the gas gauge, replace the seat cushions, and on and on and on. Most collector cars are now at least 50 years old, and the chances are good that they have slowly degraded under previous long-term ownership. After all, who really feels front suspension bushings go bad over a 20-year-period?

An opportunity to exercise a car will tell you a great deal, and you can generally surmise that if the driving experience is good, the car has been nicely kept. If it isn’t, you should be very careful about what the true cost will be—by the time it is in the condition that works for you.

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