As the reader may discern from the previous installments of this tale, a fair amount of planning and preparation had been undertaken to get to the point where your author could set forth on California’s roads in one slightly time-worn 1975 Ford LTD.
Nevertheless, I was still abounding with trepidation as I stood in front of the big yellow beast and watched Chuck run through that curious combination of cursing and praying which is the lot of the old-car guy faced with a reluctant automobile – a combination I knew I was destined to repeat for myself as I took the car west and north to our destination at the Port of Oakland.
The first and most urgent order of business was a good breakfast: For this, I thoroughly recommend Billy Reed’s in Palm Springs. There’s a totally Malaise-era experience of carved dark wood and faux art nouveau glass and a menu of robust breakfast specials. I was so pleased to have found a chicken fried steak which I had with biscuits and white gravy and a portion of grits on the side. Replete, there was no putting this off any longer. The car, which had been nicknamed the LaTurD by some local wag, was about to sally forth.
We had checked so many things on that car, and many things did not check out. The air conditioning, for one. That was very much not working. There was also no fan for the vent. I was later to discover that the vents would only flow hot air anyway, so this point was probably moot. I am British. I am not from a particularly hot part of the U.K. anyway. The thought of being sat in 100+ degree heat with no AC didn’t fill me with delight. Chuck said, “keep moving, it’ll be fine, it will get cooler when you reach the coast and head north”.
One thing we hadn’t even checked was the fuel gauge. “Does it work?” “No idea”, “Either it doesn’t work or this thing is running on fumes”, “Good thing that it’s an economical 460 motor then!”
So, off I set. I have never felt so alone in all my life as taking the turn off the industrial park where Chuck’s shop is and heading out onto a real American road in my real American car. It all suddenly felt very real. Approximately 800 miles of open road stretched out ahead of me, and I knew I wasn’t going to be taking the direct route. And the needle of the fuel gauge was pegged on empty.
I headed for the nearest filling station. I knew it to be near O’Reilly’s and I needed to pick up a thing to plug in the lighter to charge my phone. Spoiler alert: The USB plug-in thing would not work with a 1975 cigarette lighter anyway. As I approached the gas station, I found out that the fuel gauge did work and yes, the car was empty. Once again, I must apologize to other road users for my driving. The thing is though, guys, I needed all the momentum I had to reach the fuel pumps. That LTD is way heavy to push.
Chuck’s words were in my head: “It’s an old Ford, it will either run 1,000 miles just fine or crap out after two.” I reckoned I had come about three miles at this point. I guess the LTD has a 20-gallon fuel tank. I put 20.24 gallons of gas in that thing. I wondered at the time if that was a good investment. I turned the key and after spinning a few turns to bring gas back to the carb bowl, it fired up and ran.
The reader may recall that the car idles badly. One of the potential explanations for this was “old gas”. So, with a full tank of new gas and evidently having used up any old gas already I was hopeful that the car would run sweet now. It did not. It ran just as before.
Now I am quite aware that “life is about the journey” and that one should “take time to stop and smell the roses”. But these sayings are not attributed to someone about to drive through L.A. in a 47-year-old car that runs bad, has no AC, and for which the cooling system is “unproven” for extreme conditions. I did not want either the car or myself to expire through the heat of being stuck in L.A. traffic at rush hour.
I had planned my timing to find the lowest level of traffic for crossing L.A. and I was sticking to that, and I was behind schedule for various reasons. So, the run across to the coast was done in the manner of my father on a family vacation: “We can stop when we get there”.
I reasoned that if the car was running and continued to do so, all was good. The risk comes from stopping and it failing to restart. I have owned old cars before, I think the reader can tell. So, I canceled all my fine plans to go to the Peterson and the L.A. Farmers Market and all that and just pressed on to reach my hotel in Ventura. I reasoned that if the car was going to die, it could die where I had a bed waiting for me.
I was not really relaxed while driving. I enjoyed the scenery as I ran through the desert, though. I enjoyed ticking off the names of places I have heard of as I came through L.A. I sang songs to myself about the place names (the AM radio was not working well, and AM radio across L.A. was not something I wanted to listen to anyway).
The car ran well enough when on the freeway, but gentle tip-in of the throttle caused stumbling and the idle was bad any time I had to stop. I practiced the “two pedals, two feet” approach to try to keep the motor at a fast idle when braking, and so on. The standard of driving in L.A. was not as bad as I had been led to believe. Not notably worse than San Diego, at least. I mean, there were moments of shock and horror at some madcap maneuver by a fellow driver but it was OK, I survived it.
The 101 North was much more of the same. I reached Ventura and I was so very glad to see my hotel. It was the Inn on The Beach. The front desk guy proudly told me “this is the cheapest ocean-fronted hotel in the whole of California”. This is why I was there! The hotel is old and somewhat dated and a bit tired in a few places (it suited my LTD). But it is comfortable, clean, and friendly, and the view from the balcony is unbelievable, 1,000 times better than from the Hilton I had stayed at in San Diego at three times the nightly rate.
I am in a few Facebook groups and a local guy in the Malaise Motors group messaged me to say if I was in town “can we meet up?”. So, we did. He was a really nice guy with a really nice Mustang II which his mother had bought new back in 1970-something. It was great to meet him and see his car.
I had my dinner in a local bar, and as I was finishing up a guy walked in with an English accent and was having difficulty with the beer choices. So, I stepped in to help out and we had a good chat. It turns out he was on an around-the-nation road trip taking in presidential museums. He was off to the Ronald Regan museum the next day and asked if I wanted to tag along. I had other plans, though.
Day three saw me headed south from Ventura to Oxnard. I did say that I wasn’t taking the direct route! I wanted very much to see the Mullins Museum there. Seems a lot of people haven’t heard of it but it’s an amazing collection of exotic inter-war French cars and the HQ for the Bugatti Club of America. It’s also a collection of the works of the other members of the talented Bugatti family so you will see furniture, glass, ceramics, and more. If Art Deco is at all your thing, and you love cars, then go!
The LTD was running about the same on its second tank of gas as it had on the first. The car made an impression most places it went, at one gas stop the locals wanted to take selfies with it and wanted me to pose “flipping the bird”. There’s a cultural reference I missed out on going on there, but I was happy to oblige and not ask too many questions.
My next scheduled stop was The Madonna Inn at San Luis Obispo (SLO). I was more confident with the car now, so I was relaxed in driving. In fact, the standard of driving was more relaxed than other road users and I was happy to take the odd random detour and take stops for photos, cold drinks, and so on.
I popped into Solvang but unfortunately, the Motorcycle Museum was closed. I ate at Pea Soup Andersons, which was a wonderful experience. That was very much the “American Experience” I was looking for. I detoured via Pismo Beach, which appears to be the weed capital of the state. Finally, I made The Madonna. I think enough is known about this place that I don’t have to say more than “Pink. Kitsch. Steakhouse”. Everyone should visit here at least once.
I spent some time the following day in SLO itself. I found it a lovely town. If any readers live there, then take my personal commendation for your wonderful conurbation! I went to the art gallery, the city museum, the railroad museum, and a top-class diner called Burger Village. I strolled around, taking in the vibe. From here I was taking the Pacific Coast Highway proper – CA 1 departs from the 101 by a fair way and the driving conditions were quite spectacular.
There are those who believe the USA is entirely flat and all roads are laid out on a grid system with no curves, that the whole country subscribes to a 55-mph speed limit, and so on. Those people did not grow up watching Charlie’s Angels, The Fall Guy, Rockford Files, and so on. Your author was very familiar with the concept of “bad guy drives big car fast through twisty mountain roads with hubcaps flying off round hard bends” as being a trope of any decent crime-adventure-action type show.
Even so, the route taking CA 1 north towards Big Sur was a revelation. It was steep inclines and descents, it was hard corners and spectacular views, and moreover, it goes on for ages. If you have never driven it, go do so. It is simply marvelous. It’s even marvelous in a mid-1970s Ford full-size sedan. Maybe it’s even more marvelous that way. The big yellow Ford even lost a hubcap on one bend, it made a wild bid for freedom into the ocean as it took flight on a tricky apex. I feel I have paid due respect and reverence to all those shows and movies I grew up watching as a kid.
Toward the end of the “really exciting bit” of the PCH I could smell something which was either the brakes cooking – or the transmission. The unmistakable odor of toasted friction material. I decided it was probably “just the brakes” as stopping seemed to be getting a more protracted affair, and the big barge was still accelerating with enthusiasm that belied any slippage in the transmission. I let the car rest else I take the same trip over the edge as my errant hubcap had done.
I also took the opportunity to buy the most expensive gas I had yet found in the U.S. I noted that the car was driving better for a damn good thrashing, and so maybe some of the reluctance it had been exhibiting prior to this was laziness, carbon build-up, or some similar condition. It still idles oddly and cold starting has proved to be no easier. But the throttle response off idle on cruise seemed sharper. I believe I may have halved the service life of the tires.
I was headed to an overnight stop at Monterrey. I wanted to see the Cannery district. I also had the most interesting hotel of my trip lined up here. I was staying at the Jabberwock Inn, which is brilliantly located just a short walk from the Cannery and is themed on Lewis Carroll’s works (mostly Alice in Wonderland rather than the nonsense poem with its slithy toves and so on which gives its name to the venue). It was an utterly magical place, full of whimsy without any tackiness. If you want the full details you can check out Trip Advisor. The redux is that it is utterly wonderful. I was also able to get a recommendation as to where to get 1975 Ford keys cut on a Sunday morning from the folk there, as I knew that very soon I needed to consign the car for shipping and only an absolute fool would leave the shipping office the only set of keys for the car. Despite evidence to the contrary, I am only a partial fool: Ace Hardware cut me two spare sets of keys.
Leaving Monterrey, I stopped at Santa Cruz to see the boardwalk, mostly because I’m a huge fan of the movie The Lost Boys which was filmed in the area with key scenes shot on the boardwalk. I found a local chap in a pickup who followed me from stop light to stop light to tell me his opinions on the LTD (they were mostly surprisingly positive), but I started to feel stalked so I was glad of a left turn that finally separated us.
My final stint was in San Leandro where my friend Craig lives, and this was a “sleep on the sofa, drink wine, and whisky talking lots” kind of evening, which was also very much what I wanted. The next morning, once the mild hangover was cleared Craig followed me to the shipping office where I deposited the car ready for shipping and rode back into San Francisco in his Lexus so that I could catch my flight home.
Nothing went wrong. There was no drama. It’s almost anticlimactic. I wasn’t late for my flight and it even left on time. With all that behind me and some wonderful memories of a tremendous trip, all that I had to do now was wait for the car to arrive in the U.K. and then register it for a second time.
[Images by the author]
Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.