Californian tales

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The Assistant Editor is let loose in the USA

California Interstate 5 joins Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is a fast Freeway with little traffic and the Jensen Interceptor III was gobbling up 90 or even 100 miles each hour. The cotton fields flashed by; we would be back in San Francisco by 4 p.m. Lazily I looked in the mirror and there it was. Both red lights flashing and about three feet off my bumper—the Highway Patrol. Apparently the siren was wailing as well but the Lear stereo in the Jensen was belting out Rod Stewart at full volume. Well, I suppose, St. Quentin would be an experience! I pulled onto the hard shoulder and waited for the red necked Patrolman to frogmarch me off. But it wasn’t like that at all. He was extremely polite, explained there was a 70 m.p.h. limit, we discussed the relative merits of cars—”the 1969 Dodge now they were fast”— he gave me a ticket, and we parted best of friends.

Motor racing journalism has its rewards and for me the trip I always look forward to most is in late September/early October when the Canadian and United States Grand Prix take place with two weeks in between. Flying back to Britain and out again in the intervening period, as I did one year, is a costly business; it is literally cheaper to stay over. I find the USA a tremendously invigorating environment in which to stay for two or three weeks. Professionalism is the key word which describes the life style. It is probably all too much of a good thing but, anyway, I enjoy it.

The two weeks between the Grands Prix obviously offer countless opportunities, both motor racing and otherwise. Last year when posed with the problem I chose to go to the Edmonton Can-Am race which was on the middle weekend. Canada’s Alberta is getting cold by that time of the year and the Can-Am contest warmed things up only slightly. But the possibility of an intense Penske Porsche versus Gulf McLaren battle tempted me again but, then, I thought of sun and California.

As a youth in the upper fourth I had sat at my desk, put calculus at the back of my mind, and dreamed of going to California. The image builders of Hollywood had done their job well. San Francisco had a special ring about it and that TV series about 77 Sunset Strip made “downtown” Derby seem deadly dull. Last year my ambition was fulfilled and I went to California. I saw Los Angeles airport, I saw Ontario Motor Speedway, I saw the Holiday Inn at Ontario (which could be a Holiday Inn anywhere) and I sneaked off to a drag strip one evening. The appetite was whetted.

So Edmonton and the Can-Am series was forgotten. There was so much that I could do and see in California. Particularly there was the Vel’s Parnelli team of USAC cars which now has former Lotus man Maurice Phillippe as a designer. Also, I was sure there would be a host of motor sporting events in the Los Angeles area and I wasn’t wrong. So the planning started. A former colleague from Standard House, now in the press and public relations business, wanted to come too and then somehow a racing driver friend, who also draws very funny cartoons in a magazine I daren’t mention, also joined in. The whole thing was in danger of becoming a Page Tours trip so there we drew the line.

The plan was to fly from Toronto to San Francisco, spend about a week including driving to and from Los Angeles, and then jet back, jumbo style, to New York. Maurice Phillippe wrote back to say he would he pleased to see us and suggested we book in at a hotel in Redondo Beach which sounded very romantic and anyway that’s where Peter Revson lives. Jensen’s public relations man, Gethin Bradley of Good Relations, said he could organise a motor car with his opposite number in San Francisco and we also gathered there was an important motor cycle race at the Ontario Motor Speedway. In case you are confused Ontario is a town in California as well as state in Canada.

We arrived in San Francisco (never call it ‘Frisco) on schedule and the first thing we did was buy a map which seemed fairly essential. I noticed that a place called Lafayette was not far up the road and that was where the American weekly publication Autoweek was based. I had met the Editor a couple of years ago so we gave him a ring hoping he would help us get our bearings. An hour later we were having “the Cooks tour” of the magazine’s offices and two hours later we were eating barbecued steaks in his back garden!

Wednesday was the day earmarked for sight-seeing San Francisco and collecting the car from British Motors, the firm run by Kjell Qvale. This company sells Lotus, the sporting British Leyland models especially Jaguars, Rolls-Royce and Jensen. Qvale is now a major share holder in Jensen in Britain and we wrote two months ago of how he played a leading role in the Jensen-Healey story. It was disappointing to note that Qvale hadn’t yet received his first Jensen-Healey but the first batch was expected almost any day. The company’s vice-president, Forrest Faulkner, was full of praise for the British products he sold although he complained about XJ6s overheating which was interesting in the light of Andrew Whyte’s letter elsewhere in this issue. While we were waiting for the road test Jensen to be checked over he sold another one on the phone to a middle-aged lady who had a passion for fast cars!

Soon we set off in style to see the sights of San Francisco avoiding collisions with the famous cable cars which grind up the steep slopes like Hyde Street. Dating back from the turn of the century, these cable cars are kept in immaculate condition and while they are a tourist attraction the three remaining lines still provide a valuable day to day service. Incidentally the streets are much steeper than I had ever imagined even from those shots in the film Bullit. We were so fascinated by the two (or was it three?) tier Bay Bridge which joins San Francisco to Oakland, via the man-made Treasure Island, that we made several runs across this miracle of civil engineering—and at 50 cents a time too.

After exploring the fascinations of Fisherman’s Wharf (later that evening we ate there at a superb fish restaurant) we motored north wards round the Bay area and over the Golden Gate bridge which, to our disappointment, was shrouded in mist. Later in the route we spotted an imposing yellow maze of buildings and, as we came nearer, we saw the watch towers. A couple of miles further on and we were at the gates of San Quentin State Penitentiary. Hurrying on, we returned over the Richmond Bridge, where we saw a broken down vehicle literally being pushed to the end of the bridge by a breakdown truck, and back to Lafayette. That evening we rode back to San Francisco in Knepper’s road test rotary-powered Mazda RX3 which impressed us all tremendously, particularly as it seemed able to blow off all the American V8 machines despite it had five occupants.

Our itinerary for Thursday scheduled the drive down to Los Angeles via the coast route called Highway 1. This narrow road wiggles along the coast for 200 miles or so often perched at 1,000 ft. above the sea. Unfortunately a sea mist obscured much of the view for mile after mile but we saw beautiful and almost deserted sandy beaches as we motored south. We stopped at Monterey and said hello to Bob Hugell of SCRAMP, who found time to see us although the Can-Am race at nearby Laguna Seca was only two weeks away. Bob directed us to the circuit which was a few miles inland and the circuit manager was delighted for us to put a few laps in. They certainly weren’t at speed because I was finding the Jensen’s power assisted steering rather unhelpful and was ill at ease in the car. Laguna Seca is only 1.9 miles in length but is a tremendous circuit with some very difficult combinations of corners.

A few miles out of Laguna we found out three more things about the Jensen. Firstly its fuel consumption was in the region of about 12 m.p.g., secondly one eighth full on the gauge meant, in reality, empty and thirdly, after expeditions with cans we found that it took 23 US gallons to fill. This however proved to be a far less costly operation that it would have been in Britain. After this trouble we were way behind schedule but it was no use hurrying as the mobile homes and campers along Highway 1 proved difficult to overtake. We passed through Big Sur where the Hippy movement started, then later through a little village called Harmony, and as dusk approached we lost little time traversing places with fascinating names like San Luis Obispo. After stopping at a Dennys restaurant (nothing to do with D. Hulme) we pulled in for “gas” at Santa Barbara. By this time it was 10 p.m. and we were all rather weary. Then I remembered that an American journalist, by the name of Jack Brady who often visits Europe, had once said “if you ever Visit Santa Barbara call me up”. I took the offer at face value but he did seem a little surprised to hear my voice not three miles away on a telephone. “Well we haven’t got room for you here but we can get up the hill” he told us. That is exactly what we did and stayed in an amusing household of which, I think, he was the landlord. We stayed up to 3 a.m. listening to Peter Ustinov’s Grand Prix of Gibraltar record and were woken at 6.30 a.m, by a visiting donkey which my cartoonist friend insisted on riding. When the animal ran straight for the cliff face, over which the houses perched, it didn’t seem such a good idea and we expected to see him rolling the 1,000 feet down to Santa Barbara. Fortunately the donkey stopped just in time.

Seriously, Santa Barbara is the most beautiful place we visited. The architecture is Spanish influenced and, in the summer, the resort is very popular with tourists. We all resolved to make our fortunes and come back and live there one day. But it was Friday and we had an appointment with Maurice Phillippe at noon at the Vel’s Parnelli headquarters at Torrance, which is on the southerly part of the Los Angeles conurbation. The rest of the journey was on Freeway and we arrived a little late after getting rather lost in the suburbs.

The Vel’s Parnelli Racing Team and Parnelli Jones Enterprises is another story (see next month) but suffice to say here that Maurice and his British assistant John Baldwin gave us a tremendous welcome. On the radio coming down we had heard an advertisement for drag racing at Irvindale and some big names would be there. We mentioned this to Phillippe who had never been to a drag meeting but he knew where lrvindale was and off we all set that evening in his Ford Torino Grand Sport which looked good but seemed to have most of its power strangled by the strict Californian anti-pollution devices. Digressing for a moment, I would say that, having seen and breathed the smog in Los Angeles, such measures are entirely necessary although it is about time the US automotive engineers found ways of producing cleaner engines without restricting the power so severely. Lotus have proved it can he done with their new Type 907, 16-valve unit.

Friday’s show at Irwindale was mainly qualifying for the following day and we had intended to go to a Sprint race at Ascot, which was only just down the road from Torrance, that night. Incidentally this popular oval track is owned by J. C. Agajanian and has shows of one form or other of motorised sport three or four days a week. Soon they are having a demolition day with a new Rolls-Royce, new Cadillac and the like! But the shattering speed and spectacle of the dragsters brought us back to Irvindale next day too. The meeting was titled the 7th Annual Grand Prix of Drag Racing and the main highlight were the Top Fuel Dragsters. Thirty-two of them had qualified for the big show. Don Garlits wasn’t there but Jerry “The King” Ruth was, as so was 19-year-old Randy Allison who has been making a big name for himself lately and World Champion (whatever that means) Gerry Glen. The rails, most are now rear-engined, all had fascinating names but by far the best was the one called “Blood, Sweat and Nitro”. As well as the AA fuellers there were the funny cars—really rails but with plastic imitation bodies. There were eight of these and, as well as the eliminators, there were “grudge matches” or those knocked out. All eight were top names in this sphere. The funny car final was a spectacular end to the evening when Ed McCulloch, in a device called the Hawaiian, just beat Tom “The Mongoose” McEwan by the merest fraction, after these fire spitting monsters roared their ear shattering way side by side down the quarter mile. I can still smell the Nitro. Earlier MeEwen had beaten his team mate Don “The Snake” Prudhomme in it grudge match. But we will find space to expand more on the Californian drag scene in the future. It is a very special branch of motoring sport and if you are in California don’t miss it.

Earlier on Saturday we had done the real tourist bit by visiting Sunset Boulevard and spent most of our time in Tower Records. “The largest record store in the known world”, they claimed and we wouldn’t dispute it. We came out staggering under the weight of our purchases—good job they accepted Barclaycards!

On Sunday we were off to Ontario Motor Speedway and the 2nd annual Champion Spark Plug Motorcycle Classic which had the largest ever prize fund offered in motorcycle racing. Ontario is easily reached, for it is alongside the San Bernadine Freeway (Interstate 10) 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Last year this 250-mile (two 125-mile heats) event was won in a photo finish by Britain’s John Cooper. All the top American riders were competing, as well as several British entrants including the John Player Nortons of Peter Williams and Phil Read. In the first heat there was a tremendous ride up the field by the Canadian Yvon DuHamel who was on a works-backed Kawasaki of Team Hansen. However, DuHamel later collided with a slower rider, when lapping him, and the heat was won by Kel Carruthers on a Yamaha. But he struck trouble in the second heat and this and the event overall was won by DuHamel’s team-mate, the cheerful Londoner Paul Smart who divides his time between European and US racing. It was Smart’s biggest victory of his career. Incidentally his bike had a Seeley frame, this firm now being part of Motor Racing Developments which are better known for Brabham racing cars. The best all British bike was the BSA of John Cooper, which finished fifth while the Player Nortons were very disappointing.

The 23,000 crowd looked completely minute in the huge Ontario stadium and the bikes also looked rather lost on the road course which uses part of the banking. Actually the same lay-out as utilised in the Questor Grand Prix was used. But the dismal jimmies who predicted that the vast Ontario stadium complex would be broke within twelve months have been proved wrong and the recent California 500 USAC race attracted 160,900 spectators.

We spent the evening with an ex-Team Lotus Grand Prix mechanic who now looks after Al Unser’s Parnelli and rejoices in the name of “Joe 90”. He finds California rather more attractive than Bethel and only seems to miss the English beer and Grand Prix racing. Indianapolis and USAC racing just isn’t the same as far as he is concerned although the pay, hours, and working conditions more than outweigh the disadvantages. We finished off the evening in a club which featured music by a tremendous group called Beserk. With a bit of luck they could be superstars one day.

The final part of the Californian travels took us reluctantly back to San Francisco and this time we decided to take the quick route up Interstate 5. Our map showed the road to be incomplete but it proved to be finished for the whole distance. As related earlier, our attempts to put 100 m.p.h. into an hour were halted by the Highway Patrol and we took it steadier after that. By this time I was far more in tune with the Jensen which proved to be one of the most comfortable high speed luxury cars I have ever driven or travelled in. But I never did get the hang of the indirect feel of the steering and wasn’t at all confident about throwing the car around. But, judging by the tyre wear on the front, the steering was out of track and the rear wheels were out of balance. Surprisingly, the engine with all its smog gear, didn’t seem too happy over 125 m.p.h., which was probably a good job or I would have finished up in a jail house somewhere. We were sad to leave California and San Francisco behind as the TWA Boeing 747 speeded us to the completely different world of New York, and onwards to Watkins Glen. A.R.M.