By on May 14, 2015

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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30 Comments on “You Don’t Need a Mill’ to Run a Mille: The Joy of Budget Classic Car Rallying...”


  • avatar
    FormerFF

    What was up with the MG’s carbs?

    • 0 avatar
      Brendan McAleer

      Actually, it was the fuel pump that failed intermittently. The aux pump was higher pressure, so it was overwhelming the system. Any number of cars broke on the trip, but only one didn’t finish (dropped a valve). The driver joined another team though.

      • 0 avatar
        FormerFF

        Ah, the old “overpower the needle or float valve with fuel pressure” trick, I know it well.

        When you get down to it, carburetors are pretty simple devices, and tend to be reliable, especially when it’s the factory selected carburetor attached to a stock engine. The moving parts do eventually wear out.

        Back when I was dealing with carbureted cars, we had a rule of thumb: if you think it’s the carburetor, check the ignition. More often than not, that’s where the fault lay.

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        Yup. Some carbs can only handle 3-4psi. So a fuel pressure regulator, with its return line tee’d into the supply line upstream of the auxiliary electric pump, would have fixed that. In a pinch, you could omit the regulator and use a regulated leak (either with a valve or a pair of vise-grips clamped onto the tee’d hose) to bleed off some flow to regulate the pressure.

        • 0 avatar
          -Nate

          Or , simply get the right fuel pump ~ oddly few ever figure out this simple thing .

          -Nate

          • 0 avatar
            Brendan McAleer

            Guys, the original fuel pump failed intermittently mid-trip, so we jury-rigged the aux on by the side of the road somewhere near Vernon on Day 2. The MG is now running the correct pump – Dad disassembled the original, used a little emery cloth to clean the points, and she’s running like a sewing machine. (If a sewing machine was inclined to leak oil)

          • 0 avatar
            Fred

            Love to hear the ticking of that fuel pump filling up my bowls!

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            That’s not a leak. That is the self-changing chassis rust prevention feature that most old British cars come with. As a side benefit, it keeps the dust down in your garage. Actually, my ’01 Range Rover has it too!

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    I’m a fellow graduate of the MGB school of troubleshooting. Don’t want to go back but it makes a Miata very appealing. This sounds like fun.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    That Giulietta is absolutely stunning to behold. It would upset me very much to drive it through hail.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    Awesome piece!!! A real treat to read, thank you :)

    All of these mechanical issues and tinkering remind me a lot of my college days of touring on an old motorcycle, together with my brother and friends astride on similarly vintage steeds (our epic ride was Ithaca NY to San Francisco and back). It’s funny how much more you savor the moment when you’re riding/driving something old and breakdown prone. Rain clearing up and the sun shining is just an irreplaceable feeling of relief and joy when you’re on an old bike, with a rain-soaked crotch and poorly insulated points and plug wires. At the end of the day when you get to where you were going, the beer tastes better and the girls seem prettier.

  • avatar
    Undefinition

    Brendan’s TTAC articles never fail to make me laugh out loud. “…and we continue on to our overnight stop with only three more breakdowns. For a British car, this practically qualifies for honorary Toyota status.

  • avatar
    zamoti

    I truly enjoy the tales that you tell about the motoring experiences that you and your family share. Though you don’t contribute often enough for my tastes, your contributions are some of my very favorites.
    Your review of your father’s 535i has always stuck with me as I think about my own sons. In fact, when I was car shopping about a year ago I couldn’t find what I wanted (V8, manual, five seats, not a truck) so I just gave up on what I thought I should get (Challenger) and searched on those parameters alone. What popped up in the list but a reasonably priced BMW 545i, 6MT. At first I dismissed it, but then I drove it, remembered your fond memories and now I own it. I’ve already had my sons first swearing lessons as they have assisted me with various repairs. Eventually they might even learn to fix something!

    Keep writing, keep sharing!

  • avatar
    cgjeep

    Makes me want to go buy this. Actually i already wanted to buy it, but this makes it worse.

    http://inventory.swedishmotors.com/detail-1973-saab-sonett_iii-sports_car-used-11054113.html

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      There are two types of people in the world, those that regret doing some of the things they do, and those that regret not doing some of the things they might have done. Assuming you’re in the latter group, you should go get that car. It’s not likely to depreciate much if at all, and if nothing else, maybe you keep it a couple of years and pass it along to someone else. That is, of course, if your life can stand a little more complication and you have a place to keep it. If not, wait until you’re less busy, but don’t wait too long.

      • 0 avatar
        cgjeep

        FF, thank you you are right. The last time someone gave me similar advice I ended up taking home a stray dog and was the best thing I ever did. Is true, the vast majority of things I regret are things I didn’t do. But sadly this Saab will be another one. Not 10 months ago I came home with a car I would regret not getting more.

  • avatar
    Fred

    I had a 1971 MGB that was only a few years old when I got it. Maybe the best sport car I ever had. I have an aftermarket electric pump in my Lotus. Webers hate high fuel pressure more than SU, but a regulator fixes that. Please fix it before you have to use that extinguisher.

  • avatar

    Great story and awesome pictures as well

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    Should be a sticky at top for a while.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Sort of like Ed Pasini’s most excellent ” No Frills Iron Bottom Motoring Tours ” , Tad’s twice annual TT Runs and so on .
    ~ all manner of old cars show up and we always have a blast .

    Almost no one ever crashed , taking one day to do minimal basic maintenance prevents most from any break downs .

    Steve mCARthy’s three day driving extravaganzo begins Sunday 5/17 , I blew the engine in my Metropolitan Nash FHC and so will miss it =8-( .

    Just GO and have fun ! .

    Your photos are superb , THANK YOU for them .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    j3studio

    This is a really excellent write-up and great pictures.

    It is different in an older car. My wife and I see ourselves as making a commitment when we drive medium to long distances in our 1985 Corvette, but there’s always someone who is doing something like us in something we see as an even _more_ sketchy form of transportation.

    It also sounds like you were lucky enough to be around some folks who just know things (because they can’t imagine _not_ knowing everything about, say, British sports cars).

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I’m on vacation this week and I have never seen so many C3 Corvettes on the road at once. I recall saying to my brother I don’t really want to deal with carbs so it would be C4 or newer for me if I lived down here (yes I am aware of crossfire injection on later C3s and it doesn’t count in my mind).

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Heart warming, specially in these cold autumn days. This is the lovely brewed cappuccino you need to start a day just right.

    Beautiful pictures and great history. Is there any other place to read your stories?

    • 0 avatar
      Brendan McAleer

      How kind – and there are several ways.

      The easiest is to simply click my name at the top of the post. I have been writing for TTAC for a decade, and there’s a large backlog of stories. I’ve also worked out something so that I’ll be contributing a little more regularly in the future.

      I also have a website for most of the good stuff at http://www.brendanmcaleer.ca ; It’s a simple aggregator with no advertising or additional content, just a place where I throw up links to whatever I’ve written in the week.

  • avatar
    Sjalabais

    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.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    Thank you for posting this!

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