“I’ve never seen one of these before. What kind of car is it?” the police officer asked, his cruiser parked behind us on Massachusetts’ Route 13 to provide some protection against the stream of commuter traffic rushing north, toward the New Hampshire border. “It’s a Rover,” I replied. “An SD1. It’s a British car.”
“Rover, huh? Never heard of those,” he said. This didn’t surprise me, given that he probably had not yet been born when Rover made its last stab at selling cars in the U.S. in 1980. “You know Land Rover and Range Rover?” I asked, employing my standard response. He nodded. “Well, the same company that made those built cars, too, going all the way back to the early 1900s.” He found this surprising. People always do.
The car’s owner, my friend Dirk Burrowes, is far more qualified than I am to talk about Rover’s long history, but he was busy crawling under the car, looking for the cause of our fuel starvation issue. This, fortunately, turned out to be nothing more serious than a rust-clogged fuel filter, but it did force us to limp the Rover back to Dirk’s shop for a repair, making us late for the start of the September 8-10 New England British Reliability Run.
“Wait,” you’re saying, “you had a breakdown on the way to an event called the British Reliability Run?” Go ahead and laugh. Any owner can tell you that a sense of humor is something you’d better have in your tool kit if you want to drive an older British car in America. Jokes about “Lucas, Prince of Darkness” electrical systems and leaky cars “marking” their territory with motor oil are just another thing we’ve bonded over in our hopeless allegiance to the cars of Old Blighty. And besides, this breakdown happened before the Reliability Run, and so it didn’t count.
This was my fourth Reliability Run, and my third with Dirk, who’s been enough of a good sport to put his own cars – Rovers all – to the three-day, 600-mile test. We made it all the way in 2015 in his 1950 P4 saloon, a.k.a. “Cyclops,” and suffered a failed clutch in 2016 in his 1949 P3. This time around, we’ve chosen something quite a bit more modern, a five-speed, four-door hatchback powered by Rover’s marvelous 3.5-liter V-8 engine.
When he organized the very first America’s British Reliability Run back in 2003, Blake Discher was rising to the defense of these supposedly unreliable machines, while simultaneously raising funds for a charity that benefits children. The baton was passed to Delaware Valley Triumphs in 2008 after Blake met with the DVT’s Dave Hutchison, well known in British car circles as the operations manager for restoration shop Ragtops & Roadsters in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.
Over the years, the basic idea of the reliability run hasn’t changed at all: Teams sign up well in advance, shake down friends, family and strangers for donations, and arrive at the starting point with their classic British car, ready for a weekend of driving. It’s not a rally, or a race, but a spirited drive through 600 miles of beautiful countryside in the company of fellow British car enthusiasts. The only competition lies in how much money the teams can raise. Because the donations are collected before the drive begins, it makes no difference to the bottom line if a team covers one mile, or 600. In other words, to enter is to win.
Over the past couple of years, the idea of the reliability run has spread like 30-weight Castrol on hot blacktop. In 2016, a Colorado-based run joined the DVT’s Pennsylvania-based event; for 2017, those two returned, joined by new runs in Washington, D.C. and New Hampshire, which is the one Dirk and I have chosen to enter. The donations we’ve raised for the designated charity, Boston Children’s Hospital, are modest, but every dollar counts. Our destination this Friday morning had been Historic Motor Sports of Candia, New Hampshire, the start/finish line for the run, but having been delayed, we arranged to meet up with the group at its lunch stop, taking the interstate to make up time.
When we pulled into the parking lot of Kathleen’s Irish Pub in Bristol, New Hampshire, there was no question that we’d gotten the right place. We immediately spotted a light green Bentley R Type Continental (one of just 207 built), flanked by a red Jaguar XK140 drophead coupe and a deep blue Triumph TR250. Parked behind them were two red roadsters, a Daimler SP250 and an MGA, and a bright yellow Triumph TR6. Other cars came into view as we found our parking space: a pair of Triumph Spitfires, a brace of MG TDs, an MG 1100 Sports Sedan, and more. This was, no doubt, the best-looking parking lot in all of New Hampshire, if not New England.
Inside the pub, we shook hands with Bob Dougherty, the event’s primary organizer. Bob, a rally veteran and retired Air Force officer, decided to create the New Hampshire event at the suggestion of Dave Hutchison, after the two had chatted at the British Motorcar Festival in Bristol, Rhode Island. Bob and Dave had first met when Bob had two cars – a 1952 MG TD and a 1969 MGB Tourer – restored by Ragtops & Roadsters.
Bob gave us a pair of magnetic signs identifying us as Team Rover ’Til It’s Over, a spiral-bound route book that spelled out every turn we’d be taking, and a couple of embroidered hats, provided by Pete Cosmides of British car specialist Motorcar Garage. Bob also promised us that we’d be in for some excellent driving. And he should know — not content to rely on maps alone, he had criss-crossed about 1,300 miles of New Hampshire pavement in previous weeks, planning our route.
The 24 cars in the run had been broken up into three groups, and we’d been assigned to Group B. With lunch accomplished, we fell in line behind the fastback Continental, giving us a full afternoon to appreciate the juxtaposition of H.J. Mulliner’s exquisitely streamlined coachwork against the rugged Granite State scenery.
Our stop for the afternoon was Bath, New Hampshire, a town of 1,077 that bills itself as “The Covered Bridge Capital of New England.” There’s a 390-foot-long, one-lane covered bridge right in the middle of town, one of three in Bath, and teams took turns driving across it and back again, just to be able to say that they had. That was generally followed by a visit to the Brick Store for some of its famous fudge. The Brick Store claims to be the oldest continually operated country store in America; as far as I know, it’s the only general store where you could once find singer Patti Page, a part-time Bath resident, behind the counter, selling bottles of maple syrup.
In the late afternoon, after playing tag with a number of cloudbursts, we swept up through Franconia Notch on our way to the host hotel, the Indian Head Resort. Franconia, named for the region of Switzerland it resembles, is one of the major passes through the White Mountains, and also happens to be the home of Olympic downhill skier Bode Miller. Visitors have been staying in this area since 1916, when campsites were established; today, there’s a 98-room motel surrounded by a variety of cottages, bungalows and houses, in the best New England tourist tradition. Shadow Pond offers guests the opportunity to catch up to three trout a day, which the dining room will happily cook up and serve. Since the Spanos family bought the place in 1962, they’ve added something called the Thunderbird Lounge Entertainment Complex, where a mix of Southwestern and Alaskan tribal art hangs on the walls.
The resort takes its name from a natural rock profile at the 2,593-foot summit of Mount Pemigewasset, which is named for a local tribe, or its chief, or perhaps both. Indian Head has been a singular attraction since 2003, when the Granite State’s other, better-known stone profile, the Old Man of the Mountains, tumbled (though the ghost of the Old Man still haunts the state’s highway markers). Hikers today flock to the resort for the opportunity to ascend the mountain and experience a breathtaking view of Franconia Notch.
After a satisfying dinner in the resort restaurant (hot tip: you can’t beat the $30-a-day meal coupon) and a good night’s sleep, Dirk and I were rested and ready for Day 2. In the morning mist, before teams gathered for the drivers’ meeting, I walked around the parking lot, taking in the whole Reliability Run fleet. Our Rover, a 1980, was the third-newest car in the group, behind the 2005 Lotus Elite of Team Luddite 2.0 and a 1994 Morgan Plus 8 of Team “Mout’s” Morgan. At the other end of the scale were two MG TCs, the 1948 of Team Speedi-Dri and 1949 of Team Wright Stuff. The average age of all the cars was in AARP territory, at 51.2 years.
A little bit more data: MG was by far the most popular marque represented, with 11 examples; among those, it was a tie among the TD, the MGA, and the MGB, with three apiece. Next came Triumph, with five, and Jaguar, with two. Like our Rover, the remaining cars were solitary examples, with Austin-Healey, Bentley, Daimler, Lotus, and Morgan making up the roll.
Shortly before the drive began, we learned that two cars had suffered failures, and would be staying behind. One, a Spitfire, had refused to start, and the other, the XK140, was leaking coolant from a core plug. These were jobs for the indefatigable Earle Tucker, a mechanic with Historic Motor Sports who was accompanying us in a recovery van. (Further support was provided by Hagerty, which generously offered free roadside assistance to all teams.)
There was a sense of hurry-up this morning; the drivers meeting was short and sweet, and the first car was out of the lot before the planned 8 a.m. start. Our route took us on New Hampshire Route 112, better known as the Kancamagus Highway, which winds through the heart of the White Mountain National Forest. Though our job was to make time, the schedule thoughtfully allowed for a stop in a scenic overlook. The Kancamagus is as hilly as you’d expect, but on this morning it was filled with grey-haired, Spandex-clad cyclists out to prove that yes, they still could.
We crossed state lines for lunch, our destination the Jolly Drayman English Pub & Restaurant in Bethel, Maine (“Maine’s Most Beautiful Mountain Village”). The word “drayman,” the dictionary says, originally referred to anyone who delivered goods by a dray, a low wagon without sides, and today specifically means someone who delivers beer for a brewery – hence, the jolliness. I ordered one of the Jolly ’Wiches, a beer-batter-dipped filet of fish on a bun with a huge side of french fries. Well satisfied, we climbed back into the Rover, and changing things up a bit, tagged along with Group C for the afternoon run.
The Wildcat Mountain Ski Area — “New England’s Most Scenic Mountain” – was our afternoon destination, with ascent by gondola. Wildcat is no molehill, at 4,062 feet, but it stands in the shadow of its neighbor, Mount Washington, whose 6,288-foot elevation makes it the tallest mountain in the eastern United States. From Wildcat, we could see Mount Washington’s famous Tuckerman’s Ravine, and even bits of the storied Mount Washington Auto Road, which I mean to tackle some other day.
The road back to the Indian Head Resort took us past the Mount Washington Hotel, a landmark constructed of granite and stucco by 250 Italian artisans at the turn of the 20th century, and today one of the last surviving grand hotels in the White Mountains. We also passed through the Bretton Woods resort, where representatives from 44 Allied nations met in the waning days of World War II to create a new world financial order. That makes it the birthplace of the International Monetary Fund, among other things.
Back at the resort, there was time for a quick shower and a change of clothes before heading to the dining room to deploy meal ticket #3 (#2 had provided a generous breakfast). Dirk and I joined up with four other participants to talk over the day’s events, tell bad jokes and swap stories, in the process discovering that we had quite a few mutual friends. The vintage British car world is truly small.
With the next dawn, we got the good news that our two wounded roadsters had been mended: the Spitfire needed only a new coil wire to the distributor, and the XK140 got a new freeze plug. Back up to full strength, we waved farewell to the Indian Head and again headed east on the Kancamagus, then turned south onto New Hampshire Route 16. Fifty-five sunny miles later, we pulled into the parking lot of Club Motorsports, a recently completed 2.5-mile private road course in Tamworth, New Hampshire, that’s already been dubbed “the best road course in America” by Motor Trend senior editor Jason Cammisa.
Club Motorsports was the dream of two friends, Dave Mirabassi and Dan Croteau, who had visions of a Mount Washington Valley racetrack dancing through their heads since driving through the region on their way back from racing at Canada’s Le Circuit Mont Tremblant in 2002. Construction didn’t get under way for another 11 years, and was only recently completed. Club Motorsports follows a “country club” model, with condos, private garages, and a full slate of amenities, including professional driver instruction. Members pay a one-time initiation fee of $15,000 to $100,000, depending on level of privileges, and annual dues of $1,500 to $6,000. There’s to be no sanctioned racing here – in fact, there are no provisions for spectators.
Some of our cars were … ah … not as well suited to the course than others, but that didn’t really matter, as we’d all be following Club Motorsports’ Roy Hewson, who would pace us in a Shelby Daytona Coupe. Historic Motor Sports’ Bob Mitchell offered me a lift in his 1949 Triumph 2000 Roadster, which offered the 360-degree view that the Rover lacked, and we arranged to be directly behind Roy, so that I could get some photos of the cars following us around the track.
After a couple of laps, the other drivers began passing us, giving me a clear shot at each car in the parade. Facing backwards, I fired off hundreds of shots as we completed four laps, occasionally looking up from the camera to admire the remarkable mountain scenery that surrounds the course. Even from the passenger seat, and at reduced speeds, I could tell that this course’s 15 turns and 250 feet of elevation change would delight even the most demanding driver.
The Reliability Run had one more treat for us: a 71-mile jaunt down New Hampshire Route 28 that took us along the shore of Squam Lake, made famous by the movie On Golden Pond. We pressed on, arriving at Historic Motor Sports in time for a celebratory lunch of hot dogs, hamburgers, cole slaw and potato salad. There was one trophy to be awarded, for raising the most money, and that went to Steve MacKay of MacKay’s Garage in Waterboro, Maine. The award, a bottle of wine and wine glass in a wooden holder, didn’t stay in Steve’s hands for long, though – he immediately auctioned it off to the highest bidder, raising another $130 for the Boston Children’s Hospital.
We’d had a remarkable journey: We’d crossed paths with the Appalachian Trail no fewer than six times, and passed through all of the state’s best-known notches: Kinsman, Franconia, Mad River, Evans, Carlton, Pinkham, and Crawford. We’d motored past the splendor of the Presidential Range, in the shadow of Mounts Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson. We’d been through quaint New England villages that time appeared to have forgotten about, and we’d even made a brief foray into Vermont. In all these miles of driving, we didn’t lose a single car. Every one that was running at the start was still running at the end. The free roadside assistance generously offered by Hagerty went unused.
Most importantly of all, we’d raised $16,195.01 for the Boston Children’s Hospital, more than doubling the original $8,000 target that Bob Dougherty had feared might be too ambitious. “I thought that if we could raise $3,000, $4,000, it would be a success,” he said.
“I was completely blown away by how well it went,” Bob said. “Before the event, you think of everything that could go wrong, and nothing went wrong. I think we had a great bunch of people – everybody seemed to have a good time and stick together, and there were smiles all around.
“I had fun, and I’m going to have even more fun next year,” he said.
Yes, there’s only one way to top an experience like this: to do it again, and raise even more money. The 2018 New England British Reliability Run has already been scheduled, for September 7-9. For details, and to learn about the other Reliability Runs, keep your eye on britishreliability.org.