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British Auto Enthusiasts - On The Line

Why Do Anything Else?

May 14, 2002
Epcp_0205_01_z+british_auto_enthusiasts+photo Photo 1/1   |   British Auto Enthusiasts - On The Line

I ran into Ken Payne the other day at the North American International Auto Show. Ken is a project engineer at Michelin Tire in Greenville, S.C., and he was a part of Michelin's contingent at the Detroit show. Ken has had a variety of interesting jobs at Michelin, including working as test driver for the tires Michelin created for the Dodge Viper.

Unlike so many people in the auto industry who like cars because it is fashionable to do so, Ken is a real car guy, the kind who has a Morgan and a Mini in his garage and a shop behind his house filled with a couple more Mini projects, several vintage racing cars and an unfinished Lotus Seven project. I'm not sure if being a car guy is a hereditary thing or if it comes from one's environment. I do know that Ken Payne has been one for a long time.

A decade ago, when I worked at Michelin, Ken would let me drive his 1959 two-stroke Saab 93 sedan in vintage endurance races. A decade before that we were running Pro Rallys in his Saab 99. And almost 30 years ago, when both of us were in high school in St. Petersburg, Fla., both of us were part of something called the BAE, or British Auto Enthusiasts.

To us, BAE was the big time. Its members were adults with real-life jobs who were as crazed over cars as we were. They too had gasoline in their veins. But these weren't the same motorheads whose hopped-up Mustangs and Camaros filled the high-school parking lot. BAE was a club made up of sports-car enthusiasts in the best traditions of string-back driving gloves and tweed flat caps. Sports cars in the early '70s meant either cranky British roadsters or the occasional Corvette or Porsche. By its charter, the president of the BAE was required to own a British car, although all during the time I was involved with the club, the president's Morgan was actually in pieces, hanging from the rafters of his garage.

I was on my second car by this time, a pretty, bright yellow 1968 MG Midget. Ken Payne was already showing his predilection for Saabs; he had an early 1960s two-stroke Monte Carlo Model 96 sedan in the same color red the factory rally cars wore. Fortunately, he also had a baby blue Triumph TR3 to qualify him as a true British car nut. You had to own a British car to be a member of BAE, but you didn't have to own one to take part in its events.

The club's monthly events were its entire raison d'tre. The club ran rallys. Other sports-car clubs were more into hammering around a parking-lot autocross, or amateur sports-car racing or polishing their wire wheels for car shows. We were into rallying. If this brings to mind images of small European sedans dashing at breakneck speed through snowy mountain passes, lights blazing in the dead of night, then you get the idea, at least in theory. Except that we lived in Florida, where the highest point around was 40 ft above sea level. The tropical climate wasn't too conducive to snow either, so scratch that. Most rallies work on the principle that cars must arrive at secret checkpoints along a route at exactly the right time, given a specified average speed. So perhaps the biggest obstacle between fantasy and reality was a countywide rule that prohibited timed automotive events from taking place on public highways.

Enter the gimmick rally. They were once popular during the early days of sports-car ownership in the U.S. In the early 1950s, couples in their MGs, Austin Healeys, Triumphs and Aston Martin sports cars would scour the countryside looking for clues that would answer the questions on their rally score sheet. The answers could only be found by traveling on the correct route and being rather clever about interpreting those clues into answers. For sports-car enthusiasts in St. Petersburg, frustrated by the police department's obvious prejudice against us, the gimmick rally was the only answer.

Sports cars would begin to gather Saturday evenings at around 6:00 p.m. The rallymaster would often choose the civic center on Tampa Bay as a starting point, but almost any large shopping-center parking lot would do. Not everyone drove sports cars, of course. There were some American sedans and pony cars and even a few pickup trucks. Occasionally there would be an open sports car with a rollbar and door numbers, as someone brought their road-racing sports car out for an evening's fun. In those days some people still drove their racing cars on the street. For a high-school kid it was all pretty heady stuff.

Like most of the red-blooded males who came to the rallys, whenever I could I tried to show up with a female navigator. It seemed like a pretty exotic and adventuresome date, and my dashing little MG roadster with its flashing wire wheels and snug cockpit was a good draw for most of the high-school girls of my acquaintance. What you wanted was grace under pressure. You could learn a lot about a girl while driving around half the night on a BAE gimmick rally. You could find out if she knew the capital of North Dakota. You could find out how quickly she could calculate the square root of 17. You could learn if she was supple enough to hop in and out of an MG Midget repeatedly to check for clues. These were important things to know before embarking on any future relationships. Particularly quick-witted and agile girls were worthy of further pursuit. You could also find out the quantity and quality of the swear words that she knew.

You could always tell the drivers from the navigators before the start of a BAE rally. Drivers were generally loud and boisterous, talking to other drivers about their previous exploits and trying hard to maintain the kind of cool demeanor that only Steve McQueen could really pull off. There was lots of talk about spark-plug heat ranges, low-restriction mufflers, tuning S.U. carburetors and the bedevilment of Lucas electrics. The jacket patches worn by the drivers proclaimed their automotive allegiance to MG or Triumph or sometimes Ford. Many of the more tweedy anglophiles could be seen smoking a pipe in the best reincarnation of a British motoring enthusiast. We had all read the sainted words of Ken Purdy. We knew how to act.

The navigators, at least the seasoned ones, were a breed apart. They were the ones carrying three flashlights, with 20 pens sticking out of their pockets, early bulky electronic calculators slung from their belts and magnifying glasses around their necks. They would walk around nervously, avoiding conversation with other navigators, or sit quietly in their cars, surrounded by maps, dictionaries, encyclopedias and anything else they thought would help them find out what the capital of North Dakota was while bouncing along in a car in the middle of the night. Sometimes the drivers and navigators would be wearing matching shirts, often in a color that matched their car. Mostly I thought that was just too weird.

Registration was around $5, and a quick technical inspection was used to make sure your lights worked and nothing was in imminent peril of falling off your car. As many of the entries were British, this was a real danger. After passing this test, a number was written onto your windshield in white shoe polish, turning you into a bonafide and real-life rally driver

Finally, the start would draw near and the teams would retreat to their cars, pull into line and await their out time. Cars were released every minute, and the start could last almost an hour. It wasn't unusual for 30 or 40 cars to show up at a typical monthly BAE rally. The excitement would build as you watched the cars ahead of you pull out of the parking lot and into the night. Clever rallymasters were known to occasionally send odd numbered cars one direction and even numbers another, so you couldn't always count on simply following the direction the car ahead of you took when leaving the start line.

The route would typically take you in big loops through the countryside where the few locals would be unlikely to call the police and complain about 40 noisy sports cars driving past their houses. But there were only so many country roads and the lure of St. Petersburg's grid-like city streets was almost irresistible. Instructions were often purposefully vague, and it wasn't unusual for cars to circle a block three or four times while trying to unravel a fiendish rallymaster's instructions. An occasional police car would join the circle, just to make life more interesting.

Because a timed event would have been illegal, the scoring of a BAE rally was entirely based on answering a series of questions that could only be found along the route. Indeed, sometimes the route itself could only be discerned from solving such puzzles or landmarks on the way. Teams would stumble their ways along the route, counting the number of benches in a city park or finding the third right turn after the second diner on the left. The best instructions were those that sent you 15 miles across the county, with no indication until you got there whether or not you were on the right course. For some reason, probably having to do with mistakes made in course following, about half the time you seemed to be driving very quickly trying to find your way back on course. Maybe that was half the fun.

Eventually, sometime around midnight, most of the cars would make it back to the finish at another parking lot, a local restaurant or somebody's house. A few cars would always break down, usually in the middle of nowhere, but there was always plenty of help from the other teams to get most problems quickly sorted. Probably less than a dozen cars ever actually ran the entire course correctly. Everyone else just sort of wandered in, more by dumb luck than navigational skill. Maybe three or four would even have all of the answers right on their score sheet. The tiebreaker in this case came down to mileage. Each team would write down what they thought the official mileage for the course actually should have been, and the tie would be decided by whoever came closest to the right number. Some people took it all pretty seriously, and when the decision had been made the winners were suitably joyous and the losers equally gracious. Although I never came close to winning a BAE rally, I'm pretty sure that Ken Payne won more than a couple.

I'm not entirely sure how a high-school kid becomes a car guy in today's world. I'm not saying it isn't possible, but changing points and plugs, tuning an S.U. carburetor, replacing a waterpump and running a car rally all seemed like pretty good training in the '60s and '70s. We learned how to act and not to act in a group of adults who happened to share some of the same passions that we did. We learned that those passions were acceptable, even among adults who had jobs and kids and mortgages. And, most importantly, by driving around half the night in an open sports car, looking for clues we would never find, a whole generation of young men and women learned how to be car guys.

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