Photos by the author.
[Editor’s Note: The LeMay America’s Car Museum’sDrive Home road trip kicked off Sunday, and all this week Bill Hall will fill us in on the trip’s progress.]
The last time I was in a Chrysler 300G, Ronald Reagan was president and premium gas hovered at 97 cents a gallon. A college dorm mate had borrowed his brother’s coupe for the weekend – a la Animal House’s Kent Dorfman – and piled five of us in, boiling the rear tires at every stoplight. As a GM guy, I remember being absolutely shocked at the unbridled fury emanating from that Chrysler cross-ram 413 engine. It left quite an impression.
Eager to renew my acquaintance with Chrysler’s early muscle car, I jumped at the chance to pilot another 300 on the first leg of The Drive Home, a 2,900 mile, mid-winter road trip from theLeMay/America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on January 11th. Our expedition includes the venerable 1961 Chrysler 300G, a 1957 Chevrolet Nomad, and a 1966 Ford Mustang – appropriate representation for the Big Three automakers, and of the larger American automobile experience as a whole.
The event is the brainchild of LeMay/ACM head David Madeira and NAIAS executive director Rod Alberts. The tour is a salute to the engineering and craftsmanship of Detroit Iron in that most-uniquely American of activities: the trans-continental road trip. Not surprisingly – like most great American ideas – it was hatched over cocktails.
Madeira’s guiding principle with the LeMay/America’s Car Museum has been to make it kinetic, relevant and inclusive. It revolves around the idea that not only are cars works of art to visually enjoy, but unique creations that can – literally and figuratively – transport the viewer/driver into new situations and realizations. Automobiles are among the few art forms that appeal to all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. But only fully if the car is actually being driven.
So it is that ACM has carved out 11 days of wild space in our otherwise structured and regimented lives. Eleven days’ time on the road, in which to be transported to new realizations of people, place and adventure with just enough adversity and uncertainty thrown in to make it interesting.
The tour left the LeMay yesterday morning, with a stop in Portland and onto Bend, Oregon, for the night. Subsequent stops include Boise; Salt Lake City; Grand Junction, Colorado; Lakewood, Colorado; Hays, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis; Bloomington, Illinois; Chicago; and finally Birmingham, Michigan, where the cars will be displayed at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. Each leg has a public gathering where the general public is encouraged to come out and greet the crews and the cars. The hope is that enthusiasts might bring out their own classics, if only to reassure the crews that insanity indeed loves company.
And there were early clues that indeed this tour may be insane.
One hour outside of Tacoma, the snow started. And it never stopped. It was a quick trial by fire for the three classics, all of which had underdone extensive disassembly and preparation for the journey at the hands of the volunteer mechanics at ACM. The guys were all present for the departure ceremony, and each took pride in their work and their responsibility of our safety, briefing us on quirks and features of each of the cars. Their tips were invaluable.
Though most systems were very well tuned, a conscious compromise was made on the 300’s steering box adjustment, leaving an “age-appropriate” amount of slack lest it be over-tightened and prone to breakage. The result was that the big Chrysler required a fair amount of rudder input; more akin to piloting a riverboat than a sports car. A constant, easy sawing of the wheel served to dampen the yaw, and after a few hundred miles, both car and driver settled in to a comfortable rhythm as the 300 found and held its line.
And just in time. Climbing east out of Sandy, Oregon, on Route 26, the snow started coming down. Hard. Westbound traffic was backed up for 20 miles as the mountain pass became a parking lot. People left their cars; motorists banded together pushing SUVs out of ditches. Plows struggled to get through. At one point, the Nomad pulled away from the caravan and left the group behind, giving true meaning to the car’s namesake. Seeya in Bend.
Which left the Mustang and the Chrysler to face the snowy mountain pass together. The ’66 Mustang had been struggling a bit. The bendix on the starter was not engaging; resulting in some noisy starts, and the car had killed a couple of times; its four-barrel Holley carb did not like being trucked about in the low speeds that the road conditions dictated.
The Chrysler, on the other hand, seemed bemused by all the fuss. It glided past the miles of parked oncoming cars and pulled gamely up the hill, never breaking decorum. An early detonation ping had stopped; probably another astute calculation by the ACM guys to run the car a hair lean so it would perform better at altitude crossing the mountains.
At the top of the pass, at the one lone gas station, a small community of stranded motorists had started to form. We pulled into the station, snow piled 10 feet high, and out of the crowd a gentleman and his scrawny dog approached. I did a double take. The guy was a dead ringer for the man who had sold “Christine” to Arnie in the movie of the same name.
“Had one in high school. Seeing this one takes me back. Good old car,” he said to no one in particular. Then he looked me square in the eye and said, “You be careful on the other side of the hill. Real careful.”
And with that, he and his dog walked off into the snowstorm. And we drove off down the hill, into the darkness.
William Hall is a writer, car collector and classic car broker based in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.