The Great Pacific Road Trip: Part 2


Read part one here.

The plan for this stage of my trip is to finish my work trip to San Diego, drive out to Palm Springs and pick up my ’75 Ford LTD, and then drive it to the Port of Oakland. It all sounds so simple, right?

Imagine, if you will, the sense of self-satisfaction which comes from having successfully bought, registered, and insured a collector’s car for your own use in the USA when you are a slightly clueless British chap residing several thousand miles away. I’ll give you a moment to get into the zone with that. That’s how I was feeling. Pretty good. And pretty glad because the whole process concluded successfully only a couple of weeks before my trip to California. Again, readers who may have missed all the preamble on how this went can read about part one of the trip here.

However, the astute amongst the readership will have observed that all I have done so far is a paperwork exercise and had a car trucked across the state. This is not the same as driving close to 1,000 miles in a 47-year-old car in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road and has significantly different traffic laws and driving habits. The reader will start to realize further the task your author had taken on when I go back into a little more detail about my chosen conveyance for this little jaunt.

The choice of car had been a mixture of head and heart. On one hand, the ’75 LTD seemed a fine candidate for further renovation, had a nice provenance, and a great spec. It was described as running and driving and just needing a tune-up. The experienced old car guys in the room are probably already rolling their eyes at that phrase, and to be honest, I should have been rolling them myself, but the heart had taken over by this point. I wanted the car. I wanted to drive it up to Oakland and I wanted to ship it home. Never picture yourself behind the wheel, on a sunny day, on the Coastal Highway, with the wind in your hair … it doesn’t lead to the most rational of decisions.

My local man, my best friend in all of Phoenix, Toby, went to look at the car. It was Christmas Eve and it was raining hard. Toby’s view was that it was a good car, with good bones, and a basis for further renovation.

“It’s not running quite right; it needs some work”.

After purchase and the car arriving at Chuck’s, his verdict was that “it’s running, it’s driving, but it needs some work”.

I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said “The British and the Americans are two nations divided by use of a common language”

To my British ear “needs some work” means “change the plugs, wipe a greasy rag over it and y’all will be good to go”. To an American ear, it seems “needs some work” means “needs significant repairs throughout”.

In retrospect, this explains why Toby and Chuck seemed surprised at my lack of concern and my resultant surprise at how concerned they seemed to be over it just “needing some work”. This is where Bernard Shaw would step in with his observation.

The car came with a very thorough service history, which is unusual for a car this age. It had handwritten records of everything which had been done to it. Those records stopped in 2009 but the odometer seemed to have moved little in the intervening 12 or so years. Also, the last jobs done before the car stopped being used were all the usual tune-up jobs you would attempt if you were trying to cure bad idling, misfiring, and so on. Putting my Sherlock Holmes hat on for a moment, I began to suspect that the car started to run badly, all the obvious things were done to try to fix this, and then they gave up because it still ran bad. Dr. Watson cries “by Jove Holmes, I think you have it!”

My mechanical accomplice Chuck suffered a lot of frustration with this one, as the easy stuff was all already taken care of. Some strange modifications like the extra coil springs and airbags fitted to the rear were removed. One wonders what some cars have been through in their previous lives.

In the end, Chuck dealt with a dozen vacuum leaks, replaced the carburettor, replaced the timing chain, and did a few other jobs. Each made the car run a bit better but not what one would call “right”. We got to a point where changing out parts actually made it run worse again!

The vacuum advance for one, the ignition control module another – the latter causing a total failure to start. So, we called it quits. We decided that “this is as good as this is going to run prior to the trip”.

Question is – would that be good enough to actually make the trip?

Chuck and I seem to be on the same wavelength.  He commented, “well, it is an old Ford, it’ll either make 1,000 miles with no problem or it will crap out after two. You’ll find out soon enough”.

And so, my work trip to San Diego ended. My colleagues and I headed to the airport. They caught a flight home to Heathrow.  I rented a Mustang convertible and headed south. Those reading who are passably familiar with the geography of Southern California will be scratching their heads now, thinking “He means east, surely”.

If I was headed directly to Palm Springs where the Ford was waiting for me, then yes, that’s the direction I should have gone, but I had been recommended a pie shop in Julian to visit. The same pie shop had been recommended to me by three different people in the preceding months and it seemed that I should follow that recommendation as good as a sign from above. Diversions of this type were common on my trip.

Editor’s note: We seem to stop at Julian Pie Company every time we do a press drive in or near San Diego, and I can indeed confirm that it is good pie.

A wise man would have reflected upon the fact that I have not driven in the USA for some years, and never have driven a 2022 Mustang, and several other factors to induce caution. This would suggest that I spent some time acquainting myself with the Mustang and California driving practices and my route prior to leaving the rental lot. However, I had become frustrated with the exceptionally long time I had been waiting in the rental office and was eager to get out on the road so I simply crammed my luggage into the trunk, started my phone’s GPS navigation, and drove out of the lot thinking that in a mile or so I’d stop and sort things out properly.

Anyone who has ever left San Diego airport by car will realize the immediate fallacy in this plan. There simply isn’t anywhere to “just stop after a mile or so”. I think it was more like 10 very stressful miles when I finally found somewhere suitable to pull the heck over and take stock.

I usually drive old cars. Not quite “brass era” but old cars. Even when I drive a modern car it is usually a fairly basic subcompact type thing from an economy rental or shop courtesy cars. The Mustang was like getting into a spaceship in comparison. So many buttons! So many LED things! And a touch screen! I was well out of my comfort zone. I also set off with the roof down. I quickly discovered that this was a mistake. It was a hot day and bright sun (SoCal, right?). My English skin is not used to that, and I had of course packed my sunscreen in the bag in the trunk.

The bright sun made my phone screen unreadable for navigation and the wind noise made it very hard to hear the spoken directions.  Maybe the Mustang allows you to link a phone through its onboard magic to play on its speakers and use its built-in screen. Maybe. I will never know. At the point I could stop safely I messed about with switches and buttons before Googling “how to put the top up in a 2022 Mustang Convertible”. Yes, really.

I have driven LHD cars for years at home in the U.K. My first was a 1966 Buick LeSabre purchased at the tail end of the last century. I daily drive a 1992 Lincoln Town Car. I am totally at home with left-hand drive – on the left-hand side of the road. For some reason, this makes driving a left-hand drive car on the right-hand side of the road seem rather tricky. My brain seemed to go into a mini-meltdown when required to consider left and right directions. Suddenly my brain wanted to swap left and right around. I apologize to anyone who was on the road with me that day, but I ended up doing the first 10 or so miles of my trip sitting resolutely in the middle lane driving about 45 mph.

Before I set off, I had Googled “driving in California”. I found a couple of articles that related to the laws and common practices. I found quickly that these articles we either out of date or just plain wrong on a lot of points. The three biggest whoppers I recall were the following claims:

  • “In California, drivers obey the speed limits rigorously”.
  • “In California, drivers are very polite and considerate even in big cities. Road rage is rare, probably due to the high incidence of gun ownership”
  • “Lane discipline, especially around intersections, is very important to California drivers”

I discovered that when driving in and around large cities, especially Los Angeles, the exact inverse of these points was the case as drivers weave in and out of lanes at will, at high speed, and with a ruthless disregard for their fellow automobilists. The use of turn signals seems to be some form of passive-aggressive gesture, with the signals only to be used after the maneuver has been undertaken. Signaling prior to changing lanes or passing, well, that is just a sign of weakness!

The other thing which is unsettling to the British driver, and something I never quite came to terms with, is the way that the U.S. driver may exit the freeway from either side. In the U.K., and in most of Europe to my experience, we exit the freeway to the left only (or to the right on mainland Europe). Both sides? That’s anarchy! Also, the habit of having the rightmost (occasionally leftmost, occasionally both) lane end with almost no warning is just designed to upset British sensibilities.

The reader may now understand my whole “45 mph, middle lane” instinct and look more kindly on your author and my many countrymen who are similarly prone upon their first few miles on US roads.

The USA is a land of extreme contrasts. I think that’s what fascinates us British (and probably other Europeans) when it comes to The Land of The Free. That and the scale of it. It’s incomprehensible to those of us living on small, densely populated islands that there can be places with so much open space. But the contrasts really play out, and I noted this as I left San Diego behind and the whole driving experience became radically different and a whole lot more relaxing.

The multi-lane freeways became single-lane roads winding through the most beautiful countryside.  I was tempted to stop, lower the roof and apply some sunscreen, drive a little slower, and take in the sights. Other road users seemed happier, and nobody seemed to want to run me off the road. I stopped at a random little town in the middle of nowhere to have lunch, the bar was closed but I got a sandwich from a convenience store that was open and accompanied this with a soda and an unfeasibly large bag of potato chips (I learned not to call them “crisps”), soaked up the sun, and felt the American Dream really running with me. This was more what I had wanted to see, and I felt I was on the right track.

This isn’t a road-test review of the Mustang. I will say that once I came to terms with how different it is from what I usually drive that I very much enjoyed it. Part of that was doubtless due to the surroundings. I think a beat-up Metro would have been a delight to drive through that landscape. You can decide if I mean a Geo or Austin, as suits your preference.

I also must note that I have never heard so much REO Speedwagon on the radio as I did on that leg of the journey. Not my favorite band, but seemingly very fitting for the setting. Also bearing little relevance but worthy of mention is that Mom’s Pies in Julian does make a very fine cherry pie and I felt that all-in-all the 80-mile detour was worth it for the pie and the scenery combined.

Editor’s note: In a twist, our author visited a different pie place than the one I am familiar with. Google Maps tells me they are just 12 minutes apart, though there’s another Julian Pie Company store just one minute from Mom’s. Julian, California and surrounding areas must be pie heaven.

I was still most glad to reach Palm Springs and turn in my rental steed, to join my friends for dinner at a fine Cuban restaurant (Rick’s Desert Grill, check it out) and talk turkey about the next phase of my trip. I was bemused that there seemed to be a fair number of folks who had heard about this or wanted to meet me because they had seen the car and wanted to meet the crazy British guy who thought that it might just make it to San Francisco still running! Toby had even driven over from Phoenix for the evening.

I basked in the glory of my notoriety for a little while and then Chuck drove us home via the shop where my LTD was awaiting me. It was the first time I had seen the car for real and I think that was the point that the enormity of what I was doing hit me. I mean, it looked like I needed some work…

As I turned in for the night at Chuck’s place, I wondered what was awaiting me on my next leg where I was on my own and in my own car. I’d be finding out right after breakfast.

[Images by the author]

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