You Don't Need a Mill' to Run a Mille: The Joy of Budget Classic Car Rallying

Brendan McAleer
by Brendan McAleer
you don t need a mill to run a mille the joy of budget classic car rallying

Today, the Mille Miglia begins – indeed, as you read this, it’s probably already done so. The entry list is available online, a roll-call of million-dollar coach-built rolling-artwork. And also stuff like a Borgward Isabella, which should make Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky giddy, as he’s covering the event thanks to Jaguar.

Bucket list stuff, surely, but far beyond the reach of us ordinary morlocks. The shimmering golden fleece of the Adriatic, the reflected glow of Brescian honor and the echoing footsteps of heroes: heady stuff indeed, but a little outside my personal pocketbook. There is, however, an alternative.

Thus, I find myself in a 1967 MGB with an auxiliary fuel pump duct-taped to its air-cleaner, firing so much fuel into the rearmost carburetor you have to keep the revs above 4000 rpm lest the fuel overwhelm the float, go spurting out the side, hiss, and evaporate alarmingly close to the exhaust manifold. The din is deafening. The brakes are Neville Chamberlain levels of ineffective. Traffic is building and we’re up to our oxsters in LED-swathed crossovers driven by inattentive morons, in a car with all the safety equipment of a penny-farthing.

In short, I’m having the time of my life.

If you have a vehicle older than 1979, and the wherewithal to scrape together $500 Canadian loonies, you can have a proper adventure. There will likely not be caviar, but there will be a great deal of blathering about carburetors. This is the sixth year of the Spring Thaw, an event run by Classic Car Adventures in BC, and I’ve signed up my father and I as a birthday present for the old man. Prior to this trip, the MGB has gone no further than fifty miles in a single outing in three decades – hence the duct-taped fuel-pump, but more on that later.

Think of the difference between Cars and Coffee and Pebble Beach. The latter is amazing, theatrical, replete with straw boaters, pin-stripes, and decades of tradition. The former is just a bunch of folks who are too busy earning their living to spend all day standing around in a field talking about cars. You show up, jaw for an hour, then go cut the lawn. It’s automotive enthusiasm without the marbled Kobe beef.

So is this. A three-day tour covering 800 miles or so (Dad and I in the MGB will be past 900 miles, thanks to a start up the Fraser Valley), we will be part of a train of eighty classics and oddballs. If you’ve scanned the royalty on the Mille, check out this collection of uncommoners.

There is a sprinkling of Mini Coopers. There is a Luftwaffe of air-cooled 911s. There are a few old Volvos, a Datsun 510, and a Renault Gordini. There is a Lister D-Type replica, and the Giulietta Sprint Special that sat at the Alfa Romeo booth at the 1957 Geneva Motor Show, and two guys dressed like extras from Deadliest Catch in a open-topped Mini Moke, and a Traction Avant, and a 1950 Ford F-series pickup, and a 1935 Bentley, and a Plymouth business coupe, and a Peugeot 504, and a Triumph TR8, and a whatisgoingonhereIfeellikeI’mtakingcrazypills.

Varied? Oh yes: everything here has wheels and the similarities end there. When we assemble in the tiny town of Hope to get our driver’s briefing and our route maps, there’s a guy in a denim Utilikilt revving the nuts off an two-stroke Saab 9-6. We park behind an MGA and across from a Morgan Plus-4 and go stand in the rain to pick up our stuff.

Everything has the air of a family barbeque. Some people are rolling their eyes at others. Some are greeting old friends. Some are chuckling at inside jokes, and some are exchanging embraces like they haven’t seen each other in years. Which might well be the case.

When I pick up our name tags, there’s a red dot on each. “How many of you are new to the Thaw?” organizer Dave Hord asks the crowd. A forest of hands goes up. “I know it can be intimidating,” he says, “So veterans, it’s your job to speak to at least three newbies with the red dot on their badge.”

Hord and his pal Warwick Patterson came up with this cut-rate touring company while hurtling across the desert in a semi-demi-quasi-legal VW Beetle speed rally. CCA currently runs five such events annually and is expanding into the US in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. For your entry fee, you get two dinners, two overnight hotels, an expert mechanical sweep car, and entry into a clubhouse of nutters.

I love these people. They’re all lunatics in the best way possible.

Beyond Hope, we run into sheeting rain, construction delays, and eventually snow. If you have not seen two balaclava-clad pilots driving a quarter-million-dollar open-cockpit D-Type replica in the snow, you haven’t lived. And then there are the deepsea-fishermen-lookin’ loons in the Mini Moke. And the pre-war Bentley. And the 1930s Roller.

Cresting the pass at Manning Park, we descend into moderately warmer climes, only to be attacked by a hailstorm that piles on ice faster than the MGB’s lackadaisical wipers can shift it. Behind us, a pair of brothers in an original no-rollbar 1969 Lotus Seven S3 hunch down and ignore the pings.

At lunch, we’re quizzed by a local: “Doin’ the rally, are you?” Luck is wished. We need it. A few miles onward, Lucas, Prince of Darkness unfurls his cape and horns. The MGB dies at speed.

Two guys in an Alfa Romeo Giulietta pull up to see if we’re okay. This is the equivalent of a leper asking if you’ve twisted your ankle: rescued from breakdown by an Alfathe shame of it!

The MGB decides its wildcat strike is over – for now – and we continue on to our overnight stop with only three more breakdowns. For a British car, this practically qualifies for honorary Toyota status.

Dinner is a humble affair, interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the word goes out that we’re having intermittent issues, and we’re instantly besieged by people who want to help. Two of them will accurately diagnose the problem, as it turns out.

The second interesting thing is the conversation at the table, where strangers express their unrequited love for Lancias and the like. Upon learning that I write about cars for a living, a suspicious gaze is cast my way. “Why are you guys always talking about technology?” I’m asked. I point out that last year I sought out and road-tested a base-engined Hyundai Pony. This smooths things over somewhat.

In the morning, we head out into more rain, more intermittent issues, and the best piece of road I’ve driven outside the Burren in Mayo County, Ireland. It’s a wonderful piece of tarmac, as wriggly and looping as if you’d asked Salvador Dali for an autograph while he had the hiccups. Dad loves it, and goes foot-down when the curves straighten out. The MGB develops emphysema again.

Instantly, we are besieged by Minis. One is driven by Rob Fram, a gent who repairs million-dollar pre-war Alfa Romeos for a living. He diagnoses the problem, and we wait for a replacement pump – for about five minutes. Keinan Chapman, driver of the Peugeot 504, has a pump set up with alligator clips for a battery, so it’s a quick cut-and-swap and we’re on the road again. The Minis all roar off, I flick through the route guide and get us set on the longer loop.

That evening, after a long side excursion to the drifting rain storms and lonely landscape of the empire of grass, we pull into an underground parkade with a sense of elation. The mystery issue is no longer a mystery, and with the aux pump plumbed in, we’re going to make it. Maybe. Probably. Say a few rosaries to Our Blessed Lady of Acceleration.

The garage is a fug of unburned hydrocarbons, but we all stand around in the unhealthy atomosphere, toasting our long day on the road and reminiscing over roadside repairs. I’ve got a lukewarm can of Old Specked Hen in my hand, there’s Budweiser and craft-brew in equal measure, the Volvo P1800 crew are sipping Merlot, and the young Asian woman in the ’37 RR 25/30 has two tumblers and a bottle of 12-year-old Glenlivet tucked under her arm.

We laugh, we reminisce, we recap. People keep asking me if we’ve figured out what the problem is; there are a dozen conversations going on about the semi-Biblical weather. Quite frankly, glitz and glamour and the sparkling Mediterranean can get stuffed; in a stinky underground parkade in Kamloops, real bonds are being made, real friendships renewed.

In the morning, we all assemble in the sunshine, dial up the carbs and run West and South. It’s a special route, this; the old road down from Lillooet where I lived in the early days of grade school. When it was gravel, I was a passenger in a bouncy, jouncy Land Rover Series III; now it’s five-year old tarmac, fresh and smooth and wriggly as an earthworm after a thunderstorm. Behind us, an XK150 drophead falls behind in the turns and then catches up on the straights; in front, the scarab-shaped shell of a Porsche 356 coupe scuttles along with an air-cooled blat.

We’ve a long way to go yet, not just the finishing line in Whistler, but hours beyond it in heavy traffic, fuel spurting out the carbs, and a clean finish anything but a guarantee. But just as Moss and Jenks did, so many years ago, we keep our foot in, fire extinguisher at the ready, but thankfully unneeded.

Henry’s Model T brought transportation to the masses; the Camaro, the Mustang, and the MG democratized speed. We’re currently living in a golden age of horsepower, but apart from the insanity of the air-cooled 911 market, the past is also more accessible than it’s ever been. Want to buy a forever car? They aren’t making them any more, but a classic is easier to find than ever.

And if you do find something special, get out and drive it. Run your own Mille, write your own legend, have your own adventures. It’ll cost you less than a ticket to Vegas, and you’ll cherish the memories rather than struggle to remember them.

Rush’s Red Barchetta was based on a 1982 Road & Track article written about just this car, a “fifteen year old MG”: that’d make the Barchetta a 1967 MGB just like Dad’s. For a time, we outran the gleaming alloy air-cars, tasted the metallic sting of mechanical failure, felt the warmth of camaraderie, and savoured the joy of having completed something extraordinary.

And when the winter rains come in around Christmas, and the fire crackles in the hearth, and both my children are asleep, and the time for talking is at an end, my father and I will sit there in the oak-panelled living room and think about doing something stupid and slightly dangerous and pointless again. We’ll both see the snow-capped peaks off to the East, the winding ribbon of the Duffy Lake road, smell the fuel leaking out, and hear the sewing machine hum of the engine.

The Mille exists to let you bathe in history, experience the echoes of an event the world will never see again. Write your own history; drive your own road; go your own mille.

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2 of 30 comments
  • Sjalabais Sjalabais on May 15, 2015

    Great read, fantastic photos! BC is gorgeous, I made a trip from Vancouver Island to Edmonton almost a decade ago - memorable. Would have improved tremendously by adding a fleet of classics though.

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Jun 04, 2015

    Thank you for posting this!

  • SCE to AUX This is not a race worth winning.
  • JMII These would sell better if they came with a service to drop it off (with new tires and brakes) at which ever track you decided to visit per weekend. While its small it still doesn't fit on a private jet and there aren't many tracks close to where your yacht can be docked. 1st world problems here.
  • JMII Its an SUV so I am shocked they don't already offer it.
  • Analoggrotto As we Tesla owners receive our life energy from the greatest son of the gods of all time, Elon Musk; His cherubs and His nephilim may remove whatever they wish from us for unto him we owe all for our superiority above all the rest of humanity.
  • Kcflyer Nice to see California giving NY some competition to be the worst run state in the union.