Long Road Trip with a “New” Old Car

Why? Ancient History First

My wife Cynthia loved her 1973 MGBGT and was proud to use it almost daily, to work, to the airport and a handy companion on errands. One day, only she and a school bus managed to find traction on epic snow covered roads in the winter of 1979. Since then she couldn’t pass up an opportunity to surprise skeptics saying her BGT is not just a pretty sports car, it can work like a sled dog when properly prepared. I’d credit good weight distribution, narrow but good snow tires, and a sensitive driver.

Her first BGT was our second MGB. Our roadster was vandalized, probably by “made in America zealots” and it had decomposed beyond salvation. So we got a more practical version, newer and in much better condition. But three years on we moved closer to the University of Michigan’s central campus in Ann Arbor into our second house — built by a prominent dean in the 1920s. That was like buying a classic Packard that needed work. Unfortunately it also had a useless garage, fit for a Model A, with potholes in the floor. We hoped that selling her BGT was kind to that car, and it helped pay for a quick do-over of the kitchen. Besides, she got a promotion and a company car, a leased 320i BMW. My car was “Woody,” a Jeep Wagoneer, already our third 4×4 with a tail gate. Soon the SUV arrived to dominate the market.

From Where and How

Ten years later we had built a much bigger garage and gutted our old kitchen. She said “I miss my classic BGT.” We decided it was time to look for another. We knew the pick of the litter is the earliest GT, still with crinkled black finished metal dashboard but with the improved 5 main bearing engine and synchronized first gear transmission. And we hoped for the electric overdrive option.

In 1993, the “market” was mostly in Hemmings Motor News. They stacked up like National Geographic Journals in the bedroom. Eventually a promising candidate in Vancouver, BC was listed by Ted Laturnus, an auto journalist and TV personality in Canada. I was often in Seattle for a week, so a look-see wasn’t much trouble. Ted was the original and third owner. He bought it from a dealer in Seattle. Eventually he sold it to his secretary. Then he bought it back and had it refurbished. But that shop got a very desirable Morgan. Eventually Ted bought that Morgan and I said his BGT is probably the one I want. I sent earnest money, then visited him to inspect and test drive it. He signed and mailed his title upon receipt of the balance.

I added it onto our car insurance policy, paid state sales tax and bought Michigan license plates. My next week to work in Seattle was in the middle of November. So I packed the license plates, a small tool kit and extra clothes in a duffel bag. Even back then a small fire extinguisher and a one way airline ticket was a suspicious no, no. So I left the fire extinguisher with luggage claim to retrieve later.

Driving a 30-Year-Old MGB from the Pacific to the Great Lakes

I took a short scenic flight from Seattle to Vancouver after work on Friday. My MG was at Ted’s house in Delta, BC. He also had a nice guest room for me. But I didn’t sleep well because I was about to do something crazy. After coffee and goodbyes, I drove to his appointment for me then grabbed a big breakfast next door to the repair shop. All the wheels needed better balancing for highway speeds.

Ted Laturnus at home in Delta, BC saying good bye and “Take care of her.”

The shop was close to Vancouver’s railroad station. They machined a genuine rear-splined hub to fit their spin balancer and had  a knockoff spinner with its center punched out to slip over the spindle. I’d never seen a setup this good and didn’t know the center of a spinner was like a freeze plug in an engine block. Travel can be very educational.

My plan was to drive it home for Thanksgiving, heading diagonally southeast to Jackson, Wyoming — an area I used to know well, but not this close to winter. After Boise, Idaho, I would take secondary roads to North Platt, Nebraska, then two Interstates home. And it pretty much worked out that way.

Starting at the Canadian Border

I like telling this story, when I hear or read about the horrors of importing cars. US customs asked how long was I in Canada, and did you buy anything? I said one night to visit a friend in Delta, that I work in Seattle but live in Michigan. And an hour ago I got my wheels balanced for the long drive home, that’s it. He said good luck. Boy, I miss those friendly days. A note of caution — it seems that past experience importing cars is not a reliable predictor for your next experience.

I drove down to Seattle, then onto I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass and suddenly hit at least 4” of fresh snow. Remember, this was before cell phones and my camera used film.

I’m leaving Mt. Baker and the Sierra Nevadas behind. I wouldn’t dare grab the camera before because I was motorboat steering in tracks of deep slush.
Nice B&B. Wish I kept a record; this must have included a good breakfast because lunch was far away.

Somewhere around Yakima, after 300 miles with my purchase and some white knuckle driving, I saw a nice B&B’s sign welcoming me to relax.

The next morning I had enough confidence to wear my headphones and start listening to a book on tape from our library on my Sony Walkman plugged into the cigarette lighter socket. Old school, eh?

I-82 crosses the Columbia River at Umatilla, OR where I stopped for lunch. Then I-84 got us to Boise, ID for our second night, this time downtown with a parking deck. Before lunch the next day, I kissed over 600 miles of Interstates goodbye. Craters of the Moon National Monument was our next goal. Those craters and huge lava fields were created by a “drift” of this one of many “plates” of crust over a hot spot, way down in the mantel. The same process formed the chain of Hawaii’s islands. Now this hot spot is under Yellowstone Park. Sorry, its not easy to take an interesting photo of that landscape.

MGBGT at Columbia River
Looking NE across the Columbia River with McNary lock and dam, just east of Umatilla, OR.

From there it was an easy drive to Idaho Falls, then to follow the Snake River via US 26 and 89 to the Tetons south of Yellowstone Park. I was looking forward to returning to Wyoming, the parts I know better than some residents. I worked for the capstone of my degree in geology there. My wife and I also learned technical climbing at the Exum School for Mountaineering, and we each filed gold claims twenty years before, on 40 acres, up from the Hoback Canyon, along Cliff Creek. That was when Hippie life, subsistence living, and seasonal work had some appealed for me as a viable plan B.

This was the weather at Palisades Reservoir on the Snake River near Alpine, ID.

Wyoming is an Interesting, Empty State

I kept on driving, because stopping might keep us in almost-abandoned Alpine for the night. But testing the gas gauge and my resolve was not my plan. I’d driven that canyon road in summer many times, in my yellow VW bug convertible, then my K-5 Blazer, and yet again in my Cherokee Chief. But this time, the weather and gas gauge made Hoback Junction seem so far that I started thinking about Apollo missions to the moon. When I arrived, I saw this:

Yikes! Never seen this happen.

We had covered another 370 miles, some on ice, not salted. Our roads in Michigan are salted liberally for lawyers. A thick bed of salt with a town-sized salt mine, is under Detroit and Windsor. Our auto industry depended on it, like the annual model change-overs, to sell more cars.

My next goal was a bison burger at the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill. After that big wish fulfillment I slept like a bear in a cozy room upstairs in the Wort Hotel, downtown Jackson.

Stuffed moose at hotel
Standing under the moose in the hotel lobby.

This moose in their lobby reminds guests who’s the boss around here, not the bears, cattle, sheep, wolves, deer or elk. But in August they ought to pin a headshot of the current Chairman of our Federal Reserve to that nose when they all meet in Jackson Hole.

Next morning I used high-pressure spray to remove the ice at the “quarter car wash” close by the Wort Hotel. Then we doubled back, past Hoback Junction to visit Camp Davis, the University of Michigan’s geological field station. Ten weeks there in 1972 was like boot camp for becoming a useful field assistant. About 30 of us, some from other programs, learned mapping, structural analysis, gravity and magnetic surveying, local earth history from before fossils recorded life, how copper was mined in Butte, MT, and coal and iron extracted in other parts of Wyoming. Its unbelievable now, we mapped veins of ore for a couple of hours almost a mile under Butte, where the adits had compressed to just five feet high and the ambient temperature is 120 degrees F without the ventilation system running. The huge open pit mine next door is now a lethal lake. Also oil and gas had recently been found in this western part of Wyoming, trapped in commercial quantities by a process of mountain uplift called overthrusts. This region’s only other claims to fame are recreation and a retreat for our ultra wealthy who shun the fashionable hangouts in Colorado and Utah. Oh, the Rockefellers and Pews were here first and donated a huge tract of land to the park service.

In 1972, Geology 440 was a 10 credit-hour, ten-week course. It consisted of ten assignments, many taking 60 hours, sometimes more to complete. Now that course runs four weeks to earn six credit hours. You’ve heard of grade inflation? This is another type of inflation we see in higher education.

Darwin Was Right

I never saw big horn sheep until then, although a few staff or students at camp claimed to have seen them using binoculars. This time all I had to do was roll down my window and shoot a picture. Here they were, panhandling by Hwy 191, next to Camp Davis. The only difference, this was hunting season. It’s illegal to shoot game within a quarter mile, either side. I suppose the game that teaches their kids this habit reproduce better. Darwin was even more right than he had theorized.

Big horn sheep
Extremely rare sighting: just pulled over, rolled down my window and scrambled for my camera. If I had carrots with me …

Mid November 1993, just a half mile to the right of this bridge for Hwy 89 at Hoback Junction with Hwy 191, which coincidentally is also the confluence of the Hoback with the Snake River.

Bridge over Snake River
Bridge over the Snake River (summertime photo from the web). Right behind that bridge, as if on top, is that gas station I had hoped was closer when I was driving in a blizzard.

A couple of miles farther on 191, into Hoback Canyon, where Granit Creek ends, is (now was) Battle Mountain Lodge. That was our pre wedding retreat, and three year later it was our base camp while prospecting for gold. “Our” log cabin faced up Granit Creek.

Less then ten miles upstream was a secret gem, an all-season watering hole, especially popular with Jackson’s high school kids old enough to drive and of course students and faculty from Camp Davis. A perfect hot spring surfaces here from the Gros Ventre Range. A good sized pool, 15 or 20 yards long, with a cabin for concessions, lockers, etc. was built here during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It’s water temperature and drinkability is just as good as your fresh bathtub. A hatch is opened by the single attendant forest ranger (Bridger National Forest) before he leaves at the end of each day. By early evening it is filled again to its spillway. I understand today it is much more commercial and gated. Sweet memories there celebrating the end of that course include swimming nude, or wrapped in a blankets, looking for shooting stars, and later camping there all alone one night before we got married. We are constantly amazed how true “you can’t go back again” has been for at least half the places we’d enjoyed visiting these past 50 years. Don’t postpone good opportunities!

Cable car
Cable car going up Rendezvous Mountain (photo from the web).

From Jackson we headed north, past the Jackson Hole ski resort on the left with its Swiss-built cable car up Rendezvous Mountain and a county airport used by many more private jets than commercial carriers. Year around it welcomes billionaires and every summer our Federal Reserve’s colloquium, not celebrities like Aspen does. On my right is the iconic profile that names the Gros Ventre Range. That’s French for “big belly,” an Indian lying on his back wearing a feather bonnet. Oh, and BTW, Teton County boasts the highest average income in the entire US! Hardly any is earned from employment.

I made two u-turns for this shot with that sign. North is the other way.

Cresting at 9,600 Feet Above Sea Level

At Moran Junction we turned right or east to cross the Continental Divide, leaving the Grand Tetons behind, also French, for “big tits.” French trappers got here first which gives them naming rights. The last highlight of my trip worth remembering was the guy wearing a black cowboy hat. He got wobbly on his ramp for the snowmobile in his pickup truck. We definitely looked exotic and sounded winded, motoring uphill on plowed but deeply snow-packed US 287/26. I grabbed the camera a bit later when I could relax and shot these from the down hill side of the divide, not an RV, or any traffic anywhere for days! Don’t expect that to happen in-season.

View back west
Descending from 9,600 feet at Togwotee Pass, WY.
Mountain range
Having crested the Continental Divide, the view back west.

We had just crested the highest altitude of our trip, 9,600 feet above sea level, exhausted and no get up and go from the gas pedal. Then I smelled gas. Oh, oh no extinguisher! I pulled over, popped the bonnet and noticed a wet float bowl lid and a hose clamp loose enough to twist. Easy fix. That was the only repair!

Nebraska is an Uninteresting, Empty State

I have no other memory after that, except driving due east for half a day on a two-lane road, pacing a very long freight train going a similar speed. Small towns slowed us down, not the Union Pacific, but we’d eventually catch up. It was also headed to North Platt, NB. The Great Plains are almost as boring as crossing an ocean. I can’t remember any stops for food, gas, and sleep. Travel there makes no lasting impressions unless something happens. Nothing did.

MGB Runs 2,000 Miles Over Snow and Ice for Thanksgiving

After North Platt we committed to long slogs on I-80 then 94 to arrive home for Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor. I’ve driven that stretch from Jackson, WY at least a dozen times since 1970. And for that long I’ve wished for the option to take my car on a train, to and from Denver, Salt Lake City, or Billings. Such an option only runs between Washington, DC and Orlando, FL. Go figure! Its where money talks loudest.

My wife loved that car and I improved it, but our collection grew out of control. A Jaguar E-type coupe made our BGT redundant. But we kept it around. Two friends owned it sequentially and also enjoyed using it for traveling. So now this BGT has also been up North and way down South to visit their families. Occasionally, I drive it around here. Last year I helped install a new ignition distributer. At some point it will be inherited by someone younger than the car.

Car event
During a wet dust-off tour in 2022. The next owner will be younger than the car!

The Best Classic Cars Create Great Memories

Some vintage cars become gems because we like to drive them and they are unusually reliable. They exist because every owner was a good one who treated them extra special. Barn finds happen because either the owner failed it or the car failed.

1966 MGBGT Limited Edition — with new springs and wheels, an overhauled transmission with CR gears, electric overdrive, and electronic ignition. It has never failed any of us. The short block is still a virgin! Very few classics are that good.