Lowlites, Splitties, Thous and Millions Lowlites, Splitties, Thous and Millions
Lowlites - Splitties - Thou's - Millions

Travels With Homer

Next Time I'll Bring an Extension Cord
By STEVE POTTER, The New York Times

This article was posted on the Morris Mailing List back in November 2002.

It started with the car, a 1957 Morris Minor four-seat convertible with a downcast ovoid grille and headlights perched on top of the fenders that gave it a sad-funny face like the clown Emmett Kelly Sr. Perhaps it was the Minor's cute demeanor that 15 years or so ago persuaded a restaurateur in Charlotte, N.C., that it would make a good salad bar.

I could more easily shoo away a lost and hungry puppy than dismiss the little car, the British grandfather of the chic new Mini. A friend had recovered it from a field, where it was left after the restaurant closed. Now, three years later - after a restoration from the floor (which was mostly gone) to the roof (which needed all new fabric over the metal bows) and everything in between - it was our car. "Let's drive it home," I said to my wife, Kathy. "It'll be fun. We can get to know the car a little."

Home was Freehold, N.J., 600 miles from Charlotte. And while the Minor appeared to be in like-new condition cosmetically and mechanically, with a 37-horsepower engine, it still was no speed demon. My laptop road-atlas software suggested we could make it home in 10 hours, including rest stops, by maintaining a 70 mile-an-hour cruising speed, but the Morris would be roadkill on the Interstate.

"We'll take back roads," I suggested. "Drive through small towns. We won't take any road that wasn't built before the car, or sleep in any building that wasn't standing in 1957." We would eat in cafes and little roadside restaurants, the kind of places that travelers ate in 45 years ago. It would be a chance to revisit interstate travel before it became Interstate travel.

A few clicks on my mapping software (I wanted to revisit the 50's, not relive them) specifying a preference for local roads and strict avoidance of Interstates and toll roads, and we had a route. With the addition of Asheville, N.C., to our itinerary and a stop to see friends in Sweet Briar, Va., the mileage totaled more than 900 and the driving time nearly 24 hours.

We flew to Charlotte on a Sunday morning and took delivery of the Minor the next evening. Our plan was to leave midday Tuesday and head west to Asheville for a brief stop at the historic Biltmore Estate, the 19th-century Vanderbilt mansion, before checking in at the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa, a 90-year-old stone hotel overlooking the Pisgah Mountains in the Appalachian chain.

The next day we would shadow the Appalachians northeast, cruise for a while on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stay Wednesday night in Roanoke, Va. Thursday we would make the short trip up to Sweet Briar and visit our friends for a couple of hours before continuing on to Rockville, Md., for the night with other friends. The day after that we would drive through eastern Pennsylvania, spend the night in a Victorian bed-and-breakfast and then drive through New Hope and Princeton, N.J., on Saturday morning to be home by early afternoon.

Our schedule was documented in a 60-page notebook, generated by the mapping program before we left home. It listed starting and finishing times for each day and every turn, gas stop and meal along the way.

What could I have been thinking? Almost nothing went according to plan, which turned out not to be so bad - our misadventures let us see places and meet people we wouldn't have otherwise.

Things began to go awry as soon as we picked up the car. The generator light on the dashboard refused to go out, indicating that the battery was not being recharged. (British cars of this era are notorious for their electrical problems.) Opening the hood and rapping on the voltage regulator extinguished the light, but only temporarily.

Still, given the minimal electrical needs of a car without power anything, we should have been able to drive quite a way on a well-charged battery. So we left Charlotte with the yellow light blazing ominously, a battery charger stuffed in the trunk and plans to recharge the battery overnight.

TO THE RESCUE Ornamental-concrete workers lend a hand near Asheville, N.C.

Just outside Asheville, the battery went completely dead. The spark plugs stopped sparking and we coasted across two lanes of traffic into a convenience store, where three good Samaritans, ornamental-concrete workers, agreed to take me to a nearby auto parts store and wait for me while I bought the biggest battery in the place. It was twice the power of the original, and physically longer and wider than the car's engine.

The Minor started right up and if we had gone straight to our inn, we would have been delayed only about an hour. But I had located a repair shop 30 miles away that specialized in old English cars, and wanted to get this problem fixed once and for all. So we drove there.

Improbably located, down a country lane outside Hendersonville, was the British Connection, a place full of old MG's, Austin Healys, Minis and such. Bennett French, the owner, worked on the Minor for several hours, changing the ancient generator and trying to adapt a pickup truck voltage regulator, but to no avail. It was now 8:30 p.m., and we were fresh out of ideas. Mr. French said that in the morning he would order a proper regulator from a supplier on the West Coast. With air service, we could have it Thursday morning.

As we pulled out of his shop that day, Mr. French said, "If you don't use the headlights or the windshield wipers, and you park on hills so you can push-start the car, you should be able to drive all day, or maybe more, on one battery."

Installing the new voltage regulator meant we had essentially lost a day and a half. Two full days and we were farther from home than when we had started. I began to understand what the Eagles were singing about in "Hotel California" ("You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.")

"I'm naming this car Homer," my wife said. "Because I'm sure that he'll get us home. Eventually." O.K., I decided, let's throw away the schedule.

Having made that decision, I could now enjoy the drive. Our route was still good, taking us through some of the most picturesque scenery on the East Coast. At 45 to 50 miles an hour, the car was very pleasant to drive, and we had plenty of time to look at the landscape. We just weren't going to get to our overnight stops at the end of each day.

A LONG, STRANGE TRIP The 1957 Morris Minor pauses near Boone, N.C., three days and several repairs into a journey from Charlotte, N.C., to Freehold, N.J.

Instead, we arrived in Boone, N.C., early on Thursday evening after a drive that took us creeping over Grandfather Mountain in second gear and then down a dirt road, where we came face to face with a prison work crew and found the battery too flat to crank the starter. (A push-start got the car going and we limped to a gas station and bought a third battery.)

Boone had many motels, some of which looked as if they might have predated our car, but none looked like the right place to stay. We reached the far end of town when my wife spotted the Lovill House Inn, a B-and-B run by Scott Peecook, a retired Navy officer, and his wife, Anne. They had a room left and Mr. Peecook knew a mechanic who could charge up all three of our batteries in the morning - the charger we brought along didn't really work.

Being off our schedule also meant that instead of arriving at Sweet Briar midmorning and having only an hour or two with our friends, we arrived just in time at their house for dinner and spent a relaxing evening before retiring to their guest room. By now we had written off our plan to drive through Pennsylvania, and I plotted a route on my laptop that would take us home more directly, albeit with a five-mile dash along Route I-95's 12-lane bridge over the Delaware Bay. (Come to think of it, how did people cross the bay before the Interstate?)

But before that, we lost another day to bad weather. Saturday afternoon, after a rural crossing of the Potomac River on a wire-guided ferry at White's Ferry, we made it to the home of friends in Rockville, Md. We awoke the next morning to a driving rain that lasted most of the day. Even if we had the use of headlights and wipers, I don't think I would have ventured out in that weather: too many gaps between the convertible top and the windows. We had a nice visit with our friends.

LUCKY BREAK A wrong turn in New Jersey leads to the Olympia Dairy Bar.

We departed on the final leg Monday morning, two days after we were supposed to be home. Even on the uphill side of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the Minor maintained 55 miles an hour. We exited just before the toll barrier for the New Jersey Turnpike - and missed our turn off the road. It was the first navigational error of the trip, but even this was serendipitous. Before we discovered our error, we passed the Olympia Dairy Bar, a roadside stand that looked right out of the 50's. It was.

The Olympia is still operated by the same family that built it in 1956, the year before our Minor rolled off the assembly line, and it was architecturally unchanged from when it opened. It was a bit early for lunch, but we had left Rockville shortly before dawn and before breakfast. A Philly cheese steak and a chocolate malt quelled my hunger pangs and was a perfect coda for a trip through time. We retraced our path a couple of miles and were soon wending our way through New Jersey on Route 537, which becomes Main Street in the small town where we live, Freehold.

What might be said of driving a recently-restored-but-untested vintage English convertible on a 900-mile trip is that once is fine, but after you are reminded how far cars have come in the past half-century, why would you want to live with the shortcomings of an elderly auto? I can't answer that, except to say that my wife and I are already thinking about a back-road drive to Saratoga Springs, N.Y.