I met Ian Crawford and Emilee Coomes in Louisville, KY last week. What great folk! While talking with Ian he mentioned that Emilee had written a story about their road trip to The Mitty a few years ago. I am honored to publish her story her. Oh, and thanks for the beer. 😉
The truest test of two young men’s talent for restoring British sports cars: Let’s Take a Ride.
“First step, let’s see if they start,” a lover of vintage British sports cars says to me, the weary yet excited, passenger/girlfriend sitting beside him. It’s barely daybreak and three twenty-somethings rev the engines of their decades-old, British sports cars, embarking on an ambitious road trip down south to “The Mitty”.
Sunrise cracks through the Kentucky sky and onto the maroon hood of the 1973 MGBGT leading the caravan – a black 1964 Triumph follows close behind. “Chello mate! Lovely day for a little stroll in the old British cars eh?” I say over our walkie-talkies in an exaggerated British accent. “Look at you and your fancy blinkers,” the Triumph barks. “And we have heat!” I reply positioning the MG’s air-vent toward my face.
While most young boys were sporting grass stains and skinned knees, Ian Crawford, The MG Maestro, was wearing grease-stained nails and healing wounds from battery explosions rather than mending sports injuries. We are driving the first of 13 British cars that he has owned since he was a teen, all which were restored and sold by The MG Maestro himself. Nick “The Triumph” Tonini, a quiet yet witty 25-year old, has a similar story. His father recognized his mechanical talent and bought him projects in the form of old vintage cars-some came to his garage with nothing more than a rusted frame. Then there is me, a Kentucky lady, museum marketer and lover of all things vintage with a family history of crummy cars. I had never dated a “car man” before and explaining this tacky family lineage to my car-loving boyfriend was like having a foreign conversation. “You see, my family’s cars are bad. I mean, one car was so bad that it was given to us. It was a hand-painted Cadillac, the size of a boat, given to my father by his great-uncle-in-law, James. Hence the car’s name, Sir James. We knighted the car. Is that weird? There was also the 1980s LTD Deputy Dog, the Kitty Car, Douggy, Biscuit, then, of course, Biscuit Remix.”
Our trip begins on the interstate from Lexington, Kentucky to Knoxville, Tennessee and within a few minutes, we smell our first problem: the tires are rubbing the inner fenders of the MG. “Once we use some fuel it should be better—or so I hope,” he tells me. “Better to lose fuel than my polka dot luggage,” I think. Clutching his worn convertible top for ten miles on the interstate is finally enough for Nick “The Triumph” Tonini to surrender to the chilly morning air. Pulling off the interstate, a long, blue 1980s Cadillac (Sir James is that you?), loaded down with yard sale inventory exits with us. Hollering out his window, Mr. Blue Cadillac shares his past ownership of an MG then hands us his business card. Without hesitation, we make a group assumption that his self-proclaimed title, “Film Producer”, is one of a mischievous industry. One Triumph top down and two Cadillac taillights ahead, I make my first “I’ve never been around vintage cars” mistake. I left the MG’s door wide open and resting on the guardrail. The motors vibrations had rubbed off the brand new paint job on the door’s edge. I am told to be careful, and I wonder if my vehicular faux pas is remediable.
It’s barely past 8 a.m. and already we’ve received four thumbs-ups as strangers pass our mini, British car parade. The boys make a stop for some kind of cords and I stop for anti-nausea medicine after hearing the Tail of the Dragon consists of 318 turns in 11 miles. Cords and meds purchased Nick realizes his tire pressure is off and Ian smashes his finger in his hood: Are we there yet? Hours later, we arrive at the Tail of the Dragon with one throbbing finger and no car problems to hinder a timely arrival. The MG hugs the curves of this wooden two-lane road and I hang out the window, hands cutting through the zooming air. The smell of tires rubbing is prominent and the sounds of the exhaust bottoming out blend with the musical representation of the car’s era. All in all, it is a ride to remember.
Almost to our destination, we pass through miles of apple orchards. We are months from the fall harvest so a Georgia apple is far from reach, but we find the next best thing: Big John and his fruit stand on the side of the road. The girth of his calves and thick carrot fingers solidify his name. “I passed my driving test in my cousin’s Opel GT,” John tells us as we munch on his Washington apples. “Apples are on me,” he tells us. “It’s just exciting enough for me to see those kinds of cars around these parts. Brings me back,” he says through a gap-toothed smile. With a “God bless you” and a carrot-finger wave, we leave Big John. Waving goodbye, I hope that other Mitty-goers in their vintage cars are on this same path through Ellijay and make time to pay Big John a visit.
Ten hours, seven thumbs-ups and even a Jersey-style fist pump later, we are united with the engineering father of The MG Maestro, Doug Crawford. Mr. Crawford, who had once owned a fabrication shop that allowed the father-son team to restore cars, trailered his handmade racecar, proudly named the “Crawdini”, down from Kentucky with plans to break in the car’s motorcycle engine in true style, on a touring lap at The Mitty.
The MGBGT and Triumph wear their journey’s dust with pride as we pull into Road Atlanta for the first day of the weekend festivities. Clouds billow over the track and a cool breeze floods the infield whipping through the international flags at the car corrals. We proudly park among cars of our own kind and pass time admiring fellow Brits. The infield at The Mitty is far from what I anticipated, considering my Kentucky Derby infield experience being my only point of reference. The tame elegance of the rolling terrain makes for a scenic afternoon spent meeting The MG Maestro’s car friends with introductions by what they drive verses their names.
Before arriving for day two at The Mitty, we stop to bathe the ladies. With the MG covered in a layer of white fluff, we look over to find the Triumph’s hood popped. “I snapped the throttle return spring,” Nick says. While, of course, this means nothing to me I am convinced I am a good luck charm when we discover there is an auto parts store about a football-throw away. Day two of the Mitty is spent in smiles while plugging my ears. “This is why my hearing stinks!,” The MG Maestro says screaming over the thundering exhausts of vintage Porsches in the hour-long Enduro. Car enthusiasts bask in the sun and all hang close to the fences feeling the rumbling grounds beneath them.
On Sunday morning, the boys rise with the birds to head to the track and I convince The MG Maestro to let me drive the MG to meet them later. Sweating and anxious, I start the MG. “God, don’t let me break this thing,” I think, finding first gear on the unmarked stick. Up and down the hills of Big Canoe I go, gaining confidence in my driving and enjoying the turning heads of admirers. Forty miles later, I arrive.
We set out for our trip home with Mitty infield passes taped to our dashboards. As temperature gauges start to climb, we seek out shade to let the ladies cool off before beasting the Tail of the Dragon once more. With hoods popped, we relax at an abandoned gas station where the last gas pumped sold for $1.35 and unsold items weigh heavy on the shelves. Turks Service Center is now a graveyard for old mowers and weedwhackers. A Pepsi machine, faded with the summers of brazen sunbeams, and a Standard Oil sign now serve as a home for woodland creatures. I hear something about leaking and clogged fuel lines as I make my way to a pay phone across the street to dial a 1-800 number on a faded billboard above me. This is a moment, retro in all senses.
The Tail of the Dragon is yet again before us. “Let’s roll,” we sing. With the Tail of the Dragon slain, we pull over to enjoy the Tennessee country vista. Bikers look on as we step out of the old cars– hot and exhausted. “Those must have been rebuilt, the original ones wouldn’t have made it down the tail,” one biker says within listening distance. The MG Maestro and Triumph Tonini smile at each other in agreeance to the leathered stranger’s comment.
Traffic on 71 sent us to 23 which, in turn, ends up to be as equally congested. The rarely-traveled, two-lane highway is bumper-to-bumper and locals enjoy the traffic spectacle from their porches. Some even bank on the opportunity with illegal pop-up beer stands on the side of the road. “Not sure the ol’Brits can stand this traffic much longer,” The MG Maestro relays. “Did you see that truck pull up next to me? He just offered to sell me headlights,” Nick the Triumph Tonini says with a sarcastic laugh in his words. We agree on a detour of the detour adding two extra hours to our trip home but none of us seem to care. “It’s about the journey!” we agree over the walkie talkies.
We float into the driveway on a cloud of pride ending the 12-hour, two-lane highway trip in true vintage style; no radio, dead cell phones, telling time by a watch. I begin to understand why this is such an important part of these two young men’s lives and how this trip solidified their rare talent as more than just a hobby. Sitting in the driveway, the MG’s motor still buzzing, I come to a revelation and I am more in love with this car now than I was two days prior.
“I get it,” I say to the man who has spent the past 14 years under the hoods of these vintage cars as I start to realize what these cars represent to many. They are fixtures in time that bring people back to moments in their life when they were young and the world was a different, at times, better place. I like to imagine that the strangers who would stare at us and smile as we drove by were taking a trip back to the 1960’s in their minds and that they were now teenagers, wearing bell bottoms and miniskirts, flipping Beatles records and parked at drive-in movies, listening to the voices of the Kennedys and wearing flowers in their hair. It may be a daydreamer’s idea, but I hope for their nostalgic moments nonetheless.