For me and many of my colleagues, car manufacturers' ride-and-drive programs are our stock in trade. The drill is pretty much written in stone: show up, drive their cars for a day or two, do our best to evaluate them, and then go home to write our stories.
Over the years, it's something I have done literally hundreds of times. Some of these events work out better than others, but as a way to make a buck, it takes some beating.
But every now and then, I like to do one of these things with my own car. On my own ticket, with no PR types to bail me out or whisk me back to the hotel if things go sideways. If the car goes kaput, I'm on my own.
So it was that I found myself taking part in the second annual Spring Thaw Rally, a low-cost, low-key event held in southern British Columbia and organized by Warwick Patterson and Dave Hord, two self-confessed car nuts who, in the true spirit of recycling and making the most of things, strongly believe that "clunkers" should be driven and not scrapped.
The concept is simple; bring your pre-1979 car - regardless of make - and drive the thing for 1,200 kilometres over three days.
Everyone is welcome and there are no prizes for coming first, although there are trophies handed out for those who get the most thoroughly lost, drivers who press on regardless of mechanical problems, a "hard luck" award for cars that don't finish, and a trophy for those who travel the farthest to get to the event. This year's winner in the last category went to a couple from Florida, who shipped their 1978 Porsche SC to Seattle and then drove it up to Hope, B.C., where the event started.
In a cruel twist of fate, the hard luck trophy went to co-organizer Dave Hord, who had assembled the award just days before. Despite replacing the pushrods in his 1969 VW Beetle in the parking lot of a winery, Hord seized his engine on the third day of the rally and the car had to be flat-decked home. "That's what I get for trying to keep up with Porsches," he said.
The variety of entrants in this year's event was impressive. Everything from a 1953 Aston Martin DB2 to a Lancia Fulvia, to a '64 Chev Malibu convertible. BMW 2002s and MGs were there in force, as were various Alfas, a swarm of Minis and a surprising number of 356 Porsches.
Not to mention a 1966 Saab Monte Carlo powered by a three-cylinder two-stroke engine with three single-barrel carburetors. The only thing more unusual than this particular car was the guy who brought it, whose driving attire consisted of a leather kilt and felt bedroom slippers. Driving the car up from Washington State, he received an award at the event finale and introduced himself by saying that we probably recognized him as "the guy that drives the Saab," to which someone promptly responded: "No! You're the guy in the skirt!" His wife and dog, who also rode in the car, were suitably impressed.
That's not to say that substandard or poorly maintained vehicles were suitable for the Spring Thaw. All of the cars participating appeared to be in top running condition, and had obviously been on the receiving end of serious maintenance and mechanical work on the part of their owners. The Spring Thaw is a run for old cars, certainly, but if you show up with a piece of crap, it'll be a pretty short weekend for you.
Drivers are free to set their own speeds, but the pace throughout the event was, er, lively, and although there was a sweep vehicle to help stranded drivers get to the next town to arrange for a tow truck, in terms of repair work and getting the thing going again, well, you were pretty much on your own. For most drivers, this is the natural order of things.
My own car - a 1976 Taiga green BMW 2002 with at least 250,000 miles on the clock - performed admirably, although it did have a really annoying engine buzz at precisely 3,200 rpm. It also tended to get a bit crabby during high-altitude driving, developing a small miss and sucking down gas at a frightening rate.
But after some 1,500 kilometres of spirited driving through high mountain passes, snow flurries, torrential downpours, desert sunshine and twisty back roads, it ran like a champ, and was apparently none the worst for wear. I hasten to add that a ton of work has been done on this car, including a new cylinder head, new brakes, new rear wheel bearings, new water pump and radiator, a new carburetor and manifold, new ignition system, and on and on. The way I see it, if the car makes it through the rally okay, then it kind of validates my ability as a do-it-yourselfer, which is basically the spirit behind the event.
When you spend a lot of time driving through the countryside, your mind does tend to wander - but in a good way. One of the things that occurred to me while pelting along through the Okanagan and over coastal mountain secondary roads was how far modern cars have come technologically.
My own ride was considered to be the state of the art for compact coupes 35 years ago - aficionados will explain how the 2002 was actually overbuilt for the market. Yet compared to contemporary models with their high-revving engines, multi-speed gearboxes, race-car-quality braking systems and myriad creature comforts, it's a tank, transmitting every bump and dimple in the road directly to your backbone and inundating you with a mechanical cacophony that makes normal conversation difficult. Ain't it grand?
I also couldn't help but reflect that events like this - where you drive your car for the sheer enjoyment and pleasure of the experience - are probably destined to go the way of the buggy whip and running boards. More and more, it seems, automobiles are falling out of favour and people use them only because they have to. The automotive industry is under tremendous pressure these days and there are big changes in the wind, both for manufacturers and motorists.
As for me, I've been driving cars and riding motorcycles since the mid-'60s and it's still one of my favourite ways to spend time.