Few things equal the thrill of getting behind the wheel of a classic auto—especially with your gearhead father.
SOME FATHERS TAKE their sons to ball games. My dad, an inveterate petrolhead—I recall him taking apart the block of his ’63 Alfa Romeo in our family room while I watched Battle of the Network Stars—took me to the drag races at Bandimere Speedway and vintage races in Steamboat Springs. The paddocks would be full of priceless cars that normally might sit in dustless garages or museums: a Ferrari Dino, the Jaguar XKE, Mercedes 300 SLs, Porsche 356, Corvette Stingray. These machines were meant to be gawked at—but not only gawked at. They had racing numbers on their doors and they were driven wheel-to-wheel by gutsy drivers who weren’t afraid to blow up an engine or plow through a stack of hay bales if they misjudged a hairpin turn. I loved it.
And so, 35 years later, when I bought a 1976 Triumph TR6, my dad fast approaching 80 and myself zeroing in on 50, I decided the only way to repay him for my love of cars was with a road trip in the Triumph to a vintage-car race called the International Challenge With Brian Redman. There we could watch grown men and women do their best Phil Hill and Mario Andretti impressions piloting vintage Lolas, Formula 5000s, and every stripe of production steel on the legendary 4.048 mile track at Road America. From my home in Glencoe, Illinois, the route to the raceway traverses central Wisconsin, where the scenery turns bucolic and a rolling landscape reveals itself in all directions. The air smells sweet. Farm fields sway with the wind, and horses graze in the shadows of faded red barns. Middle America at its finest.
Of course, in the Triumph, a sleek, two-seat convertible, conversation is different—difficult. With the wind and mechanical sounds enveloping us, we choose our words more carefully. We hit weightier topics, like politics, the future, and raising kids. But also the tropes of our car-founded relationship. “Did I ever tell you about what my dad said about the Jaguar XK120?” he says, referring to his own father’s appreciation of cars. “I’d never drive one those because your balls would be on the street.”
As I whiz past a semi, I can’t help but think of my grandpa’s comment as I notice how improbably high it appeared from the vantage of our low-slung Karmann design. I imagine sliding in under the trailer, Smokey and the Bandit–style. The driving is hot, noisy, and surprisingly physical. In an era of supercars, Teslas, and paddle-shifting ease, it can be easy to wonder, why bother?
For me the answer is clear as I watch the long ribbon of highway disappearing below us. The steering wheel is firm in my hands, relaying the texture of the road like a go-kart. As I push the old cast-iron engine toward 5,000 RPM, our feet start getting hot because the engine is roaring and it’s transferring heat through the firewall to the footwells. We’re so close to the ground that the smell of asphalt and exhaust is palpable, and there’s a primal awareness that we’re traveling in ways that human beings were not intended to. That’s where the magic is. In an age of autonomous and algorithmic driving, it feels like something’s getting lost along the way.
As the sun beats down and the growling inline 6 serenades us, I’m pretty sure that my dad and I have found it.
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