The GLA Adventure makes it way from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of the United States of America. Here’s part one of a voyage within a voyage...
In 1971, American racing legend Dan Gurney and long-time Executive Editor of Car and Driver magazine, Brock Yates, drove from New York on the East Coast of the US to Redondo Beach, near Los Angeles, in a Ferrari Daytona in just 35 hours and 54 minutes – covering 4,608 kilometres in the process.
This epic drive was documented in great detail by Brock Yates in a book titled, Cannonball! World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race. I first read the book over a decade-and-a-half ago when I was in studying in the US, and it’s an idea that’s captivated me since.
Yates and Gurney were inspired by American racer Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker who set several point-to-point records in the first half of the 20th century. In 1933, Baker drove coast-to-coast in 53 hours and 30 minutes – a record that stood till it was decimated by Yates and Gurney in 1971. Yates wanted to both celebrate the US Interstate system and also protest against the 55mph nationwide speed limit that had been imposed at the time. Needless to say, their record turned to legend and led to the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash – an unofficial race from coast-to-coast. It even led to a Hollywood film in 1981 titled Cannonball Run – the screenplay for which was written by Brock Yates, and which starred the likes of Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore and Farrah Fawcett.
Now, we didn’t set any records as we drove the Made-in-India GLA from the Atlantic coast in New York to San Francisco on the Pacific coast, but it always promised to be an epic drive nonetheless. And, of course, we made pit stops at some Meccas of speed in the process – places like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pikes Peak. The US is nothing if not one big car culture from coast-to-coast – the V8 engine is still celebrated, the muscle car is still revered, and the automobile is still an important part of the family.
The coast-to-coast run is one that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and, thanks to the GLA Adventure, this was my chance. This is part one of an epic voyage within a voyage...
First Taste of Americana
There’s no bigger American icon than the muscle car. And when talking of the pony car, the one that invariably comes to mind is the machine with the wild horse on the grille – the Mustang!
Well, not all Mustangs are born equal. The few that were tweaked by American racing legend Carroll Shelby (Le Mans winner and father of the Shelby Cobra) are among the most sought-after Mustangs in history. Original Shelby GT 350’s from the mid-60’s – white with blue stripes – are the pick of the litter for the real collectors. These were essentially racing cars for the road – with lightened bodies, uprated suspension, and that high-performance 289 motor (that’s 289 cubic inches, which equates to 4.7 litres of pure American muscle).
Thanks to Noel Reid, a classic car dealer in the Bronx, Siddharth and I got the chance to sample our first true taste of Americana. He was kind enough to offer the keys to a ‘66 Mustang GT 350 convertible (not quite an original…) and a ‘67 Chevrolet Impala SS convertible – both of which he currently has for sale. Now these aren’t impeccable ‘matching-number’ restorations (classic cars that sill have their original engines), but that’s a good thing – because it meant that these cars could really be driven. Noel was also kind enough to take us to a pretty remote, and actually quite scenic, part of the Bronx where we could bury the right pedal of both cars and revel in the guttural roar of their motors.
If this were a competition of merely beauty and noise, I’m afraid that the Mustang would win hands down. The proportions are just right, and the exhaust note through the Flowmaster side-pipes is the best soundtrack this side of a Ferrari Testarossa. The Impala SS (Super Sport), meanwhile, is huge. The 22-inch rims and retrofitted digital dash aren’t exactly to my taste, but I have to admit that the metallic blue paint is absolutely stunning. Plus, there’s something pretty special lurking under the bonnet of this beast as well – a brand new Chevrolet small block 350 V8 crate engine that produces 290 horsepower from its 5.7 litres of displacement. And while it may not sound quite as mean as the Mustang, in a straight line it leaves the ‘Stang’ for dead!
[caption id="attachment_61695" align="alignleft" width="642"] The Manhattan skyline never fails to take your breath away.[/caption]
Noel was kind enough to actually allow Siddharth and I to simulate an American tradition – the stoplight drag race! He led us to a massive and deserted parking lot in the Bronx so that we could truly burn some rubber. The Mustang felt light and quite eager, while the Impala simply hunkered down and charged towards the horizon – leaving a trail of dust and noise in its wake. Both cars were a treat in their own way. Of course, you have to keep in mind that these are old cars – so braking and handling can’t really be compared to the Mercedes siblings that we’re driving around the world. But that’s part of their appeal. In cars like these, you have to plan ahead. You have to gauge grip levels and anticipate braking distances. Mostly, though, these are cars in which to sit back, look cool, and sound absolutely tremendous as you drive through Main Street with the entire town enviously eying your ride. If the V8 is the soundtrack of America, then this duo embodies the very best of what made the V8 great in the first place.
Thanks Noel, for letting us get our first taste of Americana!
Falling in Love
In the Fall season, gravity simply takes over as seasonal trees shed their leaves and go bare to prepare for winter – often being subjected to snow, ice and everything else frigid for weeks, only to break through with flowers or fresh leaves galore in the springtime. This magical circle of life takes place every year, and it’s no different this year. There is much that’s been said and written about the beauty and romance of the fall in the United States. Does that mean other parts of the world don’t experience the same intensity of the orange onset of autumn? Of course not, but there’s something about the way nature decides to put on the fall show in parts of the US that make it spellbinding. They say the best time is at the end of September or early October. And we had kind of missed that magic window. Or had we? As we left New York City to begin our drive westwards, we drove through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan – in that order – and each state showed us that the fall season was very much on display. With differing hues too I might add. From the stunning crimsons and rusts to the golden ochre’s and sunshine yellows, we got to see it all. There were purples, plums, maroons, and browns thrown in too by the way. And the best part was that it kept unfolding as we lapped up the miles in pursuit of our destination – the west coast! We continued to see the autumn leaves all the way to Lake Tahoe in California. Right through Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas – even Colorado had yellow vistas for us.
[caption id="attachment_61697" align="alignleft" width="642"] The International House of Pancakes, or IHOP for short, provided much-needed sustenance on many a long day of driving and exploring[/caption]
Pennsylvania is close to my heart as I’ve lived there. And I had promised the group that PA wouldn’t disappoint. My beloved state kept my pride intact, as it laid out a spectacular show of colour. The true magic of the fall emerges only if it’s displayed against a cerulean sky. And we saw miles-and-miles of blue stretching out against the horizon, with nature at its colourful best. To say that the fall must be experienced once goes without saying. To go back and experience it again-and-again is good fortune. I do recommend Vermont however – a state that we skipped on this particular journey – as well as the rest of the north-eastern states like Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts too. And, yes, if you are planning to come see the fall, drive! That way, the road truly takes you through the magic, and you can follow the colour as your eyes see it beckon. I know I have. And it’s time and energy very well spent.
Inside the Henry Ford Museum
Going to a museum can mean many things. It can be an education, act as a time portal, and just be plain entertaining too. Let’s just say that one expects to be surprised – even if you’re going back a second time. The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, did all of these things. The attractions here include the museum, and also nearby Greenfield Village and Ford’s Rouge plant tour.
Yes, I had been here before, but hadn’t been able to see all of it due to a lack of time. So here I was once again, standing at the entrance, thinking the same thing – too little time, and too much to see and absorb. But I was feeling lucky just the same – for being fortunate enough to have the chance to come back.
[caption id="attachment_61688" align="alignleft" width="642"] The Henry Ford museum, of which you’ll read more about on the next page, is certainly worth a visit[/caption]
What most people don’t realise is that this is neither a museum dedicated to the history of the Ford Motor Company, nor one that celebrates the life of the man who founded it. It is, instead, a look at American heritage and history – or a few pieces of it anyway. The museum is divided into different sections – those that look at American history itself, and others that depict American ingenuity, intelligence and industry. And then there are those that combine them. That is what I find most fascinating about this place. We walked through the bits with the cars in greater detail – naturally! Even though I had seen some of it before, I still wanted to see more – and Dhruv hadn’t been here, so was also drawn to the cars first.
Old cars galore, but each with a history attached to it. The part that is perhaps most fascinating besides the concepts and the production models, like the first Mustang or VW Bus, is the section on the Presidential cars. Each US President has had a specific ride – mostly Lincolns and Cadillacs, and these cars have evolved over time. From being ones which allowed the first couple to stand and wave to teeming crowds, to those that now conceal the family as best as possible – its all here to be seen and understood. There’s also a great section dedicated to a subject very close to my heart – the advent of safety in automobiles, and the public campaigns around it to convince the masses.
The museum houses the very early horse-drawn carriages, the first cars – including Ford’s own Model T – and also some very interesting locomotives. The one that stands out is the Allegheny – the largest steam locomotive ever built, and named for the mountains over which it made its runs. This massive locomotive was built in Lima, Ohio, for use by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway to take coal out of West Virginia’s coalmines. The 125 foot-long locomotive could pull a train that was over a mile long with 160 wagons! And looking at its sheer size it’s not hard to imagine that at all. This series of engines did service from 1941-1956, when steam engines were replaced by diesel locomotives. One of the last surviving ones was donated to this museum, where it has stood since. An interesting fact is that the art deco museum building, built in 1929, was never designed to take such large displays – and so a wall had to be broken to create a hole large enough to let the engine in. But looking at it all today, you would never guess that!
There’s also a replica of the first plane built by the Wright brothers, with interesting side stories about what they went through in December 1903 – when they achieved the first manned flight in history. This is part of the section dedicated to aviation, which also has some other superb displays and rare aircraft.
Of course, there’s much-much more to see, which means that I simply have to come back again. If you ever visit Michigan, and indeed the Detroit / Dearborn area, then a visit to the Henry Ford Museum is definitely worth doing.
The ‘Brickyard,’ as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is known, is truly one of the Meccas of speed on this planet. It’s the arena in which the gladiators of speed put everything on the line – including their lives – in the quest to go faster than the next guy.
A four-kilometre oval, built over a hundred years ago, set in rural Illinois – a couple of hours south of the ‘Windy City’ of Chicago – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway truly oozes history. As you drive through the tunnel to the main entrance, you think of the legends whose tyre tracks you’re following in as you enter this arena of power and speed. The Indy 500, in its prime, was truly one of the most prestigious races on the annual motorsport calendar. The Speedway is known as the ‘Brickyard,’ because bricks made up the original track surface. They still have a row of bricks at the start line to celebrate the pioneering spirit of the place.
This was actually my second visit to Indy. My first time was during the inaugural Formula 1 US GP at Indianapolis in 2000. Almost 300,000 people turned out to see the F1 cars take on the famous banking at Indy for the first time. A new infield road course had been developed especially for Formula 1, but the F1 cars used a portion of the Indianapolis oval as well – so you can imagine the spectacle. I regretted the fact, however, that I didn’t get a chance to visit the Indianapolis museum on that occasion. Well, it was time to make up for that oversight. And we did it in style. Donald Donaldson is the historian at the Speedway, and he gave us a guided tour. He’s actually the only person to hold such a position on a full-time basis at any motorsport facility in the world.
An Englishman, Donald, always felt drawn to this Mecca of speed. He made his first visit to the Indy 500 in 1964, and felt as though he had come home! He returned soon after, and never left. I asked him if he was especially proud to have witnessed Scotsman Jim Clark win the Indy 500 the following year – making Clark the only driver to win the Indy 500 and the F1 World Championship in the same year. In fact, Clark skipped the Monaco Grand Prix that year to compete at Indy. Don, however, said that he had come to Indy because he was a fan of the Yanks – men like A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears, who share a dozen wins amongst them. Don talked us through their chariots, and showed us their likeness etched into the Borg Warner trophy – a sterling silver masterpiece that stands over five-feet tall. For me, hearing Don’s stories was certainly one of the highlights of the US leg of the GLA Adventure. It took me back to a time when the sport of racing was less about aero packages and more about the talent and guts of the men behind the wheel.
The Race to the Clouds
It’s a name that stands tall – literally – in the automotive community. Pikes Peak is the tallest peak in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and 39th highest in the USA at 4,302 metres. The reason that it has a strong automotive connect is because of an annual race that’s held here, which basically sees competitors trying to best each other in a race to the top. The road has been smoothly paved all the way to the top since 2011 – before which it used to be tarmac till the halfway point, and then dirt.
Way back in 1916 is when the first Pikes Peak Hill Climb was held, which is often referred to as ‘The Race to the Clouds.’ There are many different classes of vehicles that compete every year, and while some do look like stock vehicles, there’s usually a fair bit of modification work carried out on them. The track begins at the 7th milestone on the 19-mile-long Pikes Peak Highway and ends at the summit, which is almost 13 miles of racing. Seven-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb holds the record for the fastest time at 8 minutes 13 seconds, established in 2013 while at the wheel of a specially developed 800-horsepower Peugeot.
We got to Pikes Peak on a beautiful autumn day in October – just days after the first snow of the season had covered the mountain’s peak. The sky was azure, the air was crisp, and our spirits were high! I had been waiting to come to Pikes Peak, and drive up its famous road for the longest time. And here I was, finally ready to make the ascent.
When we got to the start of the Pikes Peak Highway to buy our tickets, we were informed that high winds at the summit had meant that the last few miles of the road had been closed. That was very disappointing of course, but at least we would be able to cover most of the highway. It was hard to imagine why the road would be closed up top. As we drove higher and higher, the weather seemed just fine. But there were strong winds, and some of the Park Rangers we met on the way up told us that the light, dry snow was flying about due to the winds – and they had to close the roads as a precautionary measure.
It was still wonderful though – right from the base at the shores of the Crystal Reservoir, to the point just 6 miles short of the summit – the views were simply breath-taking. The smell of pine in the air, coupled with our first encounter with snow on the ground just made the whole experience magical. I have to say that driving up the road was extremely fun too – and since I was driving the sportier GLA I could push the corners and take the turns with some extra gusto. I really enjoyed the drive, and the road is a must-visit for any automobile enthusiast – or anyone who simply loves driving. Any kind of elevation is where I think I am happiest, and Pikes Peak was really the perfect setting for me to truly enjoy myself. It certainly was a highpoint of the GLA Adventure’s USA road-trip for me – besides the Grand Canyon of course. More on that in the next issue though...
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