Gathered in a semi-circle around Carillon Point on the eastern shores of Lake Washington, the cacophony of noise on an early August morning makes this posh enclave sound like pit row.
Once drivers confirm they're good on necessary fluids –- oil, gas, coffee -– the leader of this group, retired aeronautical engineer Al McEwan, honks the horn on his 1930 Hispano Suiza. The deep brassy baritone signals the start of the Pebble Beach Motoring Classic, a 1,500-mile drive from the northern reaches of Seattle to the Monterey Peninsula.
Easiest way to arrive at the destination would be to head south along Interstate 5 and drive in a straight line for 914 miles. Adventure, however, does not come in a straight line, and this is an unlikely group beginning an unlikely journey.
Driving on the interstate is, in fact, blasphemy. The only stretch on the tour is a six-mile section of Interstate 90 in the opening minutes of the drive. After that, these motorists will morph into modern-day explorers, bidding to recreate automotive history. Over the course of nine days, they'll peek into the past, driving classic cars along some of the oldest roads built in the Pacific Northwest.
Without modern-day conveniences like power steering, seat belts and, in one case, brakes, they'll guide the likes of a 1933 Rolls-Royce P-11, a 1928 Packard Phaeton and a 1940 Lincoln Zephyr around the switchbacks of Mount Rainier, through ancient lava flows near McKenzie Pass and up engine-churning climbs on Mount Hood.
Officially, the oldest car on the tour is a 1916 Pierce Arrow and the youngest is a 1971 Jaguar XKE Roadster. I'm tagging along, helping to drive a 1939 Packard Super 8 convertible coupe that's part of the collection at the LeMay: America's Car Museum in nearby Tacoma, Wash.
Participants skew toward retirement age, though they range from 27-year-old Gordon E. Logan to octogenarian Bill Davis, old enough to list his cell phone number in the official tour handbook as "You've got to be kidding me!"
They've brought their cars here from as close as Seattle and as far away as Hawaii, Germany and The Netherlands to participate in this invitation-only event, which serves as a kickoff for the Concours d' Elegance, the annual classic-car extravaganza held on the 18th green of Pebble Beach.
Lined up in a half-moon at Carillon Point, a crowd of onlookers wishes us well as we ease the cars into gear.
We take much for granted in our modern cars. We assume that the 5,000-plus parts will work as intended, that the oil doesn't need hourly supervision, that there is sufficient coolant to make it up a hill, that we will reach our destination.
Heading onto Lake Washington Boulevard, our outcome feels very much uncertain.
Three of the classic cars on the Pebble Beach Motoring Classic overlook the Columbia River Gorge. (Photo: Pete Bigelow)
The Power Of Glue
Hours later, the first hiccup occurs when we arrive at our designated lunch stop in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Dominic Dobson, my driving cohort, discovers a quirk of the Packard: it won't reverse with the overdrive engaged. Naturally, our overdrive is stuck in the engaged position. In his zeal to fix this, he rips the knob right off the dashboard. A pair of pliers and tube of industrial-strength glue eventually fix this problem.
The second hiccup occurs following lunch, and it's more complicated: Dobson asks if I'm ready to drive.
I am mentally ready, but I'm also hopelessly unqualified to drive this majestic fortress of steel and chrome. Once owned and meticulously restored by jewel magnate Nicola Bulgari, the Packard was literally driven out of a museum exhibit and onto this tour. Before this, the most vintage car on my automotive resume is the '82 Oldsmobile Delta 88 that carried me through college.
Dobson, a former Indy Car driver, proves a patient teacher. He walks me through the three-on-a-tree gearbox, the shifter located on the steering column. It's not at all like driving a modern manual, where laziness is forgiven. In the Packard, each shift requires movements that are at once delicate and deliberate – good luck finding that balance. Every one of my missteps brings a hideous gnashing sound from underneath the hood.
I eventually find my way to third gear, and the car finds its sweet spot. Hurtling in a straight line down Highway 12, it drives like a 4,000-pound freight train with whitewall tires. The top is down, the sun is bright and the car is bulletproof.
We head into the heart of the Cascade Mountains, where the twisty roads provide more teachable moments. With neither power steering nor power brakes available, the uninitiated tend to under-steer and over-speed into the turns. This causes all sorts of squealing and fright. Once I comprehend steering requires the cartoonish fervor of a bus driver executing a K-turn in rush-hour traffic, the trepidation fades.
Modern cars are designed to make us forget we're driving ... We're cocooned from the world outside. After a day in the Packard, I'm sunburned and disheveled. Both thumbs hurt from gripping the steering wheel.
Dense green forests stretch for hundreds of miles in either direction along the route. Mount St. Helens emerges as the Packard climbs above the treeline, the 130 horsepower feeling more than ample for the ascent. Traces of snow remain on the eastern slopes, and a jagged scar still cuts across her top, a reminder of the great eruption in 1980.
As the sun starts its descent, we follow the Columbia River Gorge toward a hotel near its northern shore. We've traveled 294 miles, the longest scheduled day of the trip.
Modern cars are designed to make us forget we're driving. Suspensions smooth the road. Soundwave-canceling technology quiets the engine. Infotainment systems provide concert-quality acoustics. We're cocooned from the world outside. After a day in the Packard, I'm sunburned and disheveled. Both thumbs hurt from gripping the steering wheel. Sleep beckons.
But it has been a great day. I didn't break the car, and this is the second miracle of the road trip.
A 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK flies the American flag during the latter portion of the Pebble Beach Motoring Classic. (Photo: Pete Bigelow)
Of Memory, And Passion
A scruffy, middle-aged man sees us parked at a gas station and stops to admire the car. "I have my grandpa's '55 International," he says. "I'm going to restore it someday." He stares until we drive away.
An employee at the front desk of a hotel watches the procession of classic cars roll into the parking lot, and says, "My dad had a '45 Studebaker. He died a while back."
A teenager standing near the lodge at Crater Lake National Park is practically overcome with emotion at sight of the procession. "Oh my goodness, oh my goodness," he says. He's generations removed from these classic cars, but they nonetheless have a profound effect.
It's like that everywhere we go. Tourists looking out upon the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood stop taking pictures of breathtaking vistas and focus their cameras on the cars. Memories come tumbling out of onlookers.
It's tempting to call it nostalgia for a simpler time, but that explanation falls short. It's something that runs deeper.
Frans van Haren, who came from Druten, The Netherlands, to be a part of this drive, is so moved by the outpouring that he stops at a hardware store and purchases an American flag to fly from the back of his '30 Mercedes Benz SSK.
The drivers are happy to reciprocate in this exchange of memory. They all have stories to tell.
Karra Canum fell in love with BMW's as an eight-year-old girl while reading her older brother's car magazines. She worked at a dealership when she returned to California for the summer after her first year in college. A customer wanted to trade in his rare 1972 BMW 3.0 CS. Other salesmen had never heard of it, couldn't appreciate it and didn't make an offer.
She couldn't let it go. She spent every last penny of her college tuition savings and summer earnings to buy the car, then spent a year-and-a-half working to save up enough money to return to school.
It's tempting to call it nostalgia for a simpler time, but that explanation falls short. It's something that runs deeper.
In 1958, Davis bought his first Rolls-Royce, the first of more than a dozen that made their ways into his collection. The one the Charleston, West Virginia resident drives on this tour, the '33, is his oldest.
One year earlier, McEwan, the tour founder and leader, graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and drove straight across the country in a new 1957 Buick Skylark to start a job at Boeing in Seattle, the first of his automotive adventures.
Some of the participants on this tour are neophytes. Most, though, have crisscrossed America in all sorts of events and races. At dinner, they discuss the merits of the Loop Around America, the mechanical skill needed for a race from Hershey, Pa., to Bakersfield, Calif., the beauty of the Colorado Grand, the precision required for The Great Race.
This is the prized event.
They like the Pebble Beach Motoring Classic, now in its ninth year, because it is the anti-race. When a '54 Jaguar XK-120 breaks down, every car pulls over to help. When Multnomah Falls appears off the exit, there's time to stop and admire. When the driving is done for the day, cold beer awaits.
Had Jack Kerouac lived instead of drinking himself to death, I thought more than once, he'd have enjoyed this group in his twilight years. His '49 Hudson would have eased onto the two-lane highways of the Pacific Northwest and flashed past pear orchards, turquoise rivers and snow-capped mountain ranges.
"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?"
Today, the answer is Pebble Beach.
Cars park along the side of a road near Crater Lake National Park in central Oregon to help an ailing '54 Jaguar. (Photo: Pete Bigelow)
From Detroit, Mich., To Detroit, Ore.
On the third night, we drive 6,000 feet up the southern slope of Mount Hood. The arduous climb tests the endurance of every vehicle on the tour and brings much worry. They all arrive at the Timberline Lodge, one of the most captivating buildings in America.
Constructed by laborers and artisans employed by the Works Progress Administration in 1936, the wooden mountain retreat is rich in handcrafted details, much like the Packard. Both were conceived in built during the throes of the Great Depression and eight decades later, the kind of place they don't build anymore hosts the kind of car they don't make anymore.
A homecoming of sorts awaits the Packard the next morning. Born in the factory bearing its name on East Grand Ave. in Detroit, Mich., the 74-year-old car swoops down the Clackamas Highway switchbacks and descends into Detroit, Ore., a town founded by a large number of people who migrated from Michigan.
The factory has become infamous, the defining image of the Motor City's decay. Its progeny, on the other hand, has been a model of durability Cold starts in the morning result in momentary delay, but once the car is running there's nothing but smooth driving.
In Detroit, the Packard basks in the sun while parked by the nine-mile-long Detroit Lake for a few minutes, before we resume the journey along Route 22.
Rivers pass underneath bridges. White, Clackamas, Deschutes. Mountains loom across the horizons. Hood, Jefferson, Shasta. Lush forests blur together. Snoqualmie, Pinchot, Wilamette. Hours pass without cell-phone service and gas stations. Days pass without sight of a fast-food fry pit or strip mall.
These cars are indeed elegant pieces of artwork. In the days ahead at Pebble Beach, they'll fetch million-dollar prices at auctions.
Many classic-car owners, perhaps most, truck their prized possessions to Pebble Beach, unwilling to risk a speck of damage on their million-dollar rides. Package them away like they're pieces of art. Those timid souls miss all this.
They're also are half right. These cars are indeed elegant pieces of artwork. In the days ahead at Pebble Beach, they'll fetch million-dollar prices at auctions.
Here, on the road, they're also artwork in motion. The cars, many of which indeed are million-dollar vehicles, are not viewed in a museum or in a stoic parade. They're alive, hurtling down the highway, being driven like man intended.
Which allows for the final miracle of the road trip. Nine days on the road, and all 22 cars reach Pebble Beach, the first time in the history of the Motoring Classic that every car that started in Seattle reaches the finish line.
In the final days, the Packard and other cars ride past the tallest trees on earth in the Redwood National Park and cross through the vineyards of the Napa Valley. A few hours before the end, they ride triumphantly across the Golden Gate Bridge and gaze onto the Pacific. It's a fitting conclusion. As its been the whole trip, the giants of nature meeting the giants of the road.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.