80's europe drives to key west
What could possibly go wrong
The distance is 1,115 miles. Two old cars can do that, right? Without breaking down?
My friend Alan and I were itching to take a road trip. We knew we didn't want to take our daily drivers and we knew that the trip could only last a week to 10 days. Admittedly, setting a hard timeline for any road trip is not ideal, but since we both serve in the US Navy, duty calls. We decided to make this trip a bit of a challenge, classic-Top Gear-style. The show was in between series and we needed some entertainment, although little did we know at the time, a fracas would change everything. We set out some ground rules for the challenge and decided we could each spend up to $2,500 on a used car that wasn't a Mazda Miata (because, well, that's just cheating).
I was maybe a bit too eager to get started and soon I found what I figured was an acceptable 1993 Audi Cabriolet in a metallic forest green. I drove the 3 hours up to Richmond, VA and took a look at the vehicle. Well, let's step back a second, first I drove to the address the shady character trying to sell me this car gave me and then was guided into the correct neighborhood after calling said character. The car drove fine around the block, the brakes worked, and the cannabis smell was almost gone from the upholstery. Boaty McBoatface informed me that the only things that didn't operate as they should were the driver-side window and the convertible roof. I was a bit bummed about the roof, since the whole point of buying a cabriolet is to let the top down, but hey! this thing is German, it's super reliable! After paying Mr. McBoatface $1,200 I drove this new stallion of mine back to Norfolk.
This was my first clue that I am no Stephen Hawking when it comes to using online classified websites to buy used cars. I noticed some roughness and a knock in the engine when I approached anything remotely considered freeway speed. The driver side window did in fact NOT work, but not only did it not function, it refused to acknowledge the fact that it was not also a vent for the cabin of the Audi. I got the car home and set about diagnosing the problems. I plugged a $30 OBD-II reader into the car's port and read the codes. One told me that the spark plugs were not all functioning...that made sense, so I replaced them. The roughness and knocking did not go away. The same code appeared on the reader so I did what any modern man would do in this scenario and resorted to Mr. Google's search engine. There I found that the likely culprit was a faulty ignition coil. Those are easy enough to buy, but not so easy to ensure you are installing it correctly. I refused to take this car to a mechanic, I CAN FIX THIS MYSELF!
A little known fact about Norfolk, VA: in the winter, it snows, quite a bit I might add. This did wonders for the car's cloth top and plastic rear window. When I say wonders, I mean that the car was now always as cold as you would expect an open top car to be in the snow, but the roof was up, the rear plastic-rubber window had shattered. At this point I decided I would sacrifice no more dead presidents into this heap. A heap, by the way, I still did not have the title to, Mr. McBoatface was "having issues" clearing it into his name so that he could sign it over to me. My only option was to abandon this thing to any charity willing to haul it away on a flatbed trailer. My brief foray into Audi ownership was over, thank god.
I was determined to make up for my German debacle. I searched for about 3 weeks through the same online classified ads and found my new chariot: a 1988 Jaguar XJS V-12 in British Racing Green. This car was magnificent in my eyes. Unfortunately, it was an automatic, but it was a Grand Tourer, it was built to chew through miles like Rosie O'Donnell through a 72 oz steak eating competition. The car had 87,000 miles on it and, more/most importantly, the paperwork was in order. I paid the nice man $2,300 and drove off. Truth be told, the car did have some slight electrical issues, but I went into the buying process on this car expecting a 27 year old British car to have at least a few electrical issues so I wasn't as fazed as I probably should have been. I got my steed home after discovering that in order to stop this 2 1/2 ton beast, I needed to literally stand on the brake pedal while simultaneously throwing out a boat anchor and attempting to lasso the nearest lamp post.
The brakes didn't bother me too much because the worst thing that could happen would be replacing the master cylinder (hint: it needed to be replaced). What bothered me was the Hobbit apparently living inside the dashboard of my car determining that the best time for the car to die inexplicably was in rush hour traffic as the lead car at a stop light on a road with a slight uphill grade. I put up with 3 or 4 of these episodes, wherein I would push the car around the corner and wait for approximately 64 minutes at which point the car would start again and drive long enough to get home, until I took it to my local Jaguar exclusive mechanic to diagnose the issue. The pleasant gentleman with dirty hands told be that the issue was with some sort of computer that regulated gas flow into the engine. The electrical connection was loose/faulty and the unit needed to be replaced and luckily he had a line on one. I was too distracted by the Austin-Healey Sprite in the parking lot to bother worrying about the $800 price tag. Post-surgery, the XJS ran like it was brand new. Everything electrical functioned perfectly except for the trip computer and the radio, neither of which I figured I would miss.
Alan's expedition into old car ownership was much less adventurous. After scouring the car ads for something he thought was acceptable, he found a 1987 Porsche 944S. He asked me to go with him to take a look at the car, so I obliged. The car had been the project of a father-son team and it was time for them to move on to something else. You could tell the teenage son was not entirely thrilled with the idea of giving up this car to anyone, but he did his best to hold back his delicious tears of unfathomable sadness and showed Alan all the particulars. The car was in remarkable shape given its age and history of being tinkered with. The popup lights worked, the heater worked, even the gigantic hole in the roof of a sunroof worked. Alan gave the car a good test drive around the neighborhood, which was quickly becoming inundated by yet another Norfolk snow episode. It turns out that a light, rear wheel drive sports car does not corner well on roads covered in snow. Alan deemed the car acceptable, paid the nice man and his grieving son, and we took off. Well, when I say "we" took off, I really mean I drove home at normal freeway speeds in my daily driver Subaru and Alan feathered the accelerator all the way home to avoid ending up in a ditch.
We had a little over two weeks to go until our big road trip down I-95 and US-1. Alan and I got together to finalize the route we would take. We would start from Norlfolk, VA in the US and A and mosey our way out to the Outer Banks of North Carolina ending up in Kitty Hawk. From there, we would head back inland to I-95 and head south to Savannah, GA. The next stop would be Daytona, FL, followed by Miami, and finally Key West. We made a list of equipment we might need in an emergency (read: only a 5 gallon gas can).
The day had finally come, I met Alan at his house and we drove off into the distance. Policemen in Southern Virginia and Northern North Carolina are very picky about the speed you travel on the road, it turns out. Now, neither Alan nor I received a ticket, but that was because we had seen the aftermath of the all out war on the accelerator the local authorities were waging and chose to drive incognito, or at least as incognito as one can while driving a bright red Porsche and a car built with flying buttresses. Kitty Hawk, as a town, is shall we say...underwhelming. Fashioned to look like a crappier version of Virginia Beach, itself fashioned to look like a crappy version of any other Atlantic seaboard boardwalk town, Kitty Hawk did not impress. The national monument commemorating man's first powered flight by the Wright Brothers was impressive, but the slab of rock on top of the hill was, sadly, not enough to save the reputation of the surrounding area.
The cars at the Kitty Hawk National Monument
After spending an hour or so at the monument, we headed towards I-95. This was our first real chance to stretch the legs of our cars and see if they could hold up to any further abuse we might throw at them. Our cars performed great as we took them to exactly the legal speed limit and "no further." We also had an opportunity to check whether or not our cars' weather-defeating-equipment worked once the rain moved in near Fayetteville.
The next day we headed down the road towards Savannah. The miserable weather was still around, but neither of us could detect any leaks in the windows or door gaps of our cars. Unfortunately, for you the reader, there is nothing worth noting in either North or South Carolina along I-95. This made our drive equally boring, especially for me with no radio. You remember how I told you that I wouldn't mind the radio not working? Well, in this sort of environment it was rather painful not to have something to listen to other than road noise. In fact, the only thing of note in either North or South Carolina was a gigantic complex called South of the Border. The complex didn't look interesting enough to convince us to pull off the road, but there were advertisements for it at least 75 miles prior to the border. For what, I have no clue, but it reminded me of one of those run-down places you'd expect to see if you were trying to recreate Pee Wee's Big Adventure. By the time we reached the South Carolina-Georgia border the weather had cleared and Savannah was looking nice.
The day was St. Patrick's Day and (little did we know) Savannah goes all out for the Irish. Someone still needs to explain to me why this southern city is so enamored with St. Paddy's Day, but neither of us were complaining. The booze was flowing freely, the corned beef was easy to find, and debauchery was everywhere.
The next morning found us giving our cars a once-over and heading out for Daytona. The drive south through Georgia could easily have been confused with the drive through North or South Carolina, uneventful and dull. This, however, gave us some more opportunity to play with our cars a bit. For instance, I was able to nail down exactly how many RPM correlated with different speeds on the speedometer.
Heading south through northern Florida
In what became a theme on this trip, we hit another city in the midst of a giant celebration we had no clue was happening. For Daytona, that celebration was Daytona Bike Week. As soon as we exited I-95 to head towards our hotel, we knew something was up. Motorcycles were everywhere. Never having been to Florida before, I initially thought this level of stupidity was normal and to be expected. As we continued through town though, the shear number of two-wheeled vehicles driven by people in nearly no clothing was staggering. There were mini-bikes, crotch-rockets, cruisers, choppers, scooters, baggers, cafe-racers, all of which were more than ready to murder their current owners. If we thought the debauchery of Savannah was intense, we had no clue what to expect in Daytona. Luckily for our livers, bank accounts, and criminal records, this was the closing day of bike week and the festivities were winding down as we rolled through the crowds and waded through the wasteland of vehicles with half the number of necessary wheels. We took the opportunity to rest up after the previous night's festivities and in preparation for our next stop: Miami.
Our drive down to Miami was, generally, rather enjoyable. Apart from approximately every other driver trying to speed up to tell me my temporary license plate was about to flap away from my car, the Space Coast is a pleasant place to drive in a straight line for a few hundred miles. At one point, a fellow car enthusiast decided to go down the road with us for a while, playing road games and enjoying some roadside brotherhood. This is the kind of experience Alan and I were both hoping to get at some point on this trip, to draw someone else into the fold and just enjoy the act of driving. Unfortunately, Mr. 1991 BMW 325i had to leave far too soon and Alan and I were alone once more.
Sometime before lunch, I discovered that the speedometer on my Jaguar had partied too much over the last few days and was getting tired. That is to say, it no longer wanted to work all the time. At first the needle would waver and oscillate within a few MPH of the speed I was travelling, then it simply dropped to zero and didn't move. Luckily, my road games played during the terrible states of North and South Carolina and Georgia had prepared me for just such an occurrence, as I could know exactly how fast I was going simply by looking at my RPM-o-meter. The main reason for this is that Florida contains approximately 1 hill that rises about 3.5 feet, the place is flatter than Enron's stock price. This meant that I didn't have to worry about the deceleration accompanied by going up a hill. As I explained by predicament to Alan over the radio, we must have passed the transmission tower for a comedy radio station because the interference of laughter coming back was deafening.
Searching for a speedometer cable
What I don't understand about the city of Miami is how it's possible to plan a city so poorly. The city planners have to know that 90% of cars coming into the city from elsewhere have one destination in mind: the beach (or at least near the beach). To solve this problem, they built the city with as few roads as possible to transfer people from the main arterial roads out to the coast.
I'm not sure what major event was going on in Miami while we were there, but it must have been something epic. South Beach was out of control crowded, but fortunately we were moving faster than the growth rate of cyanobacteria. We arrived to our hotel to discover that the front desk of the hotel wasn't actually the front desk of our hotel. Where we had to go was into a basement-type area of the building and wait for a pair of people who are not native to any of the 50 states. Upon meeting with these people we were informed that our room was about twice as expensive as what the posted rate was. We tried to explain to them that this was illegal and we would not be staying with them. That devolved into much shouting, calls to customer service, and a conversation on the phone with a Russian man who spoke Spanish (imagine that accent for a minute). We left Trump tower in search of better lodgings. What we found was a place literally on South Beach among the neon and 1950s taxis. We knew we had picked a good hotel when we saw a brand new BMW i8 out front (yes, I realize the novelty has worn off by now, but at the time, the car was just unveiled and very awesome). All I will say about that night is that if you have never had a beer-ga-rita, you haven't lived.
The final leg of our journey found us heading north out of Miami. There was a gator ranch/fanboat tour business that took people through the Everglades not far out of town. Using my excellent method of checking RPM for speed, I guided us out there at the proper speed limit. Our fanboat pilot was a man call Captain Rick. I should note that these fanboats were essentially tin roofing with some park benches bolted to the bottom, attached to a Chevy big block V-8, attached to the world's largest ceiling fan. How these guys find their ways around the maze of old Army Corps of Engineers' waterway highways to where they mean to go, I'll never figure out, but I'm sure many nights of moonshine drinking and throwing darts is involved. After our soiree with 7 or 8 gators, we continued on the final stretch of road.
The portion of US 1 we were driving starts in Miami and end 150 miles away in Key West, FL. Given the typical freeway speed of 60 MPH in the USA, this should have led to a travel time of 2.5 hours. Don't fool yourself. This road travels at 35 MPH if you're lucky. The shortest leg of our journey nearly took the longest amount of time. We left the greater Miami area at approximately noon. Our first stop was in Key Largo for lunch. If your only vision of Key Largo is from the Beach Boys song Kokomo, your vision is wrong, I'll leave it at that. Many of the other Keys are big enough for you to realize that you are no longer on a bridge, but as soon as you make that realization, you are on a bridge again. By far the most impressive bridge is Seven Mile Bridge. If you are any sort of action film aficionado, you'll quickly recognize the bridge from True Lies, when Arnold Schwarzenegger orders a pair of USMC AV-8B Harrier jump jets to fire AGM-88 Mavericks to take out the bridge and prevent Crimson Jihad from transporting a nuclear warhead to the US mainland.
This would be a good time to mention that my climate control had shit the bed. Well, not at this particular moment it didn't. That happened while we were still in one of the Carolinas, but I couldn't tell due to the mildness of the temperatures there. It wasn't until we entered Satan's butthole in Florida that I realized I would be experiencing road noise at a level that is not fathomable to the human brain. Anyway, this was my third day of ensuring that I will need hearing aids in the future, with both windows down and the sunroof open. As I continued to ensure the leather seats of my XJS were adequately hydrated, we neared Key West and the end of the road.
The end of the road
As it turns out, the point marked as the Southern Most Point in the United States is, in fact, not even the most southerly point on Key West. The reason for this (we surmised) is that the actual most southerly point is on Naval Base Key West. After we dismissed the false marker and ridiculed those for celebrating reaching a point that was meaningless, we headed over to the base, since we could. Using the very complicated procedure of looking at Google Maps, we found our way to the actual Southern Most Point and celebrated our victory over cartography and geography.
This point is a lie
Our magnificent vehicles had ventured over 1,100 miles, through the bitter cold of Virginia and into the heat and humidity of tropical Florida, without a single mechanical issue between them. One of them, a true reflection of the logical nature with which it was designed and built in Germany; the other defying the designed-in fragility intended by the mid-70s British Communists who built it in the Midlands in the 1980s. The challenge was complete and conquered by both cars. And now...back to the studio.
At the real Southern Most Point
Only the 3rd Foxhunting license plate in Virginia history