On Aug. 13, in the Eifel Mountains of Germany, while rounding the Südkehre at the Nürburgring Nordschleife with seven giddy Europeans riding along, Lucille found herself a long way from home.
Lucille is a 1972 Ford Country Sedan wagon with a 400ci Cleveland small-block, a three-speed automatic, three rows of blue vinyl seats, and 18 feet of pre-Malaise, Coke-bottled, hub-capped, LBJ-approved, pseudo-ironic beauty.
In 1971, it was the pride and joy of its namesake, a Lucille B. Riley of Thousand Oaks, California, who on her 55th birthday treated herself to a brand-new car. She held onto it for nearly 30 years.
Philipp von dem Knesebeck, a project manager at an ad agency in Berlin, grew up on a steady diet of Eighties American TV and Quentin Tarantino movies. In 2014, he went to a drag meet at a local racetrack. He came home, still heady from the fumes, logged onto the Final Gear Forums—a Top Gear fansite, where he had been a member since 2008—and wrote “I need a big-ass American V8 in my life.”
Enthusiasts always go through those specific phases of car lust sometimes, then they forget about it. Knesebeck thought about it some more. He didn’t forget.
One man rose to answer his call: Craig Blanton, of Ashbury, Missouri, 15 miles north of Joplin, where he and his father run the Mo-Kan Dragway. Through late-night Skype sessions, hours of Craigslist trawling, and dozens of emails, the two hammered out exactly what Knesebeck wanted to bring to Germany—“I won’t buy a U.S. car without that sweet V8 rumble,” he said—and make a vacation with his girlfriend of it, in true American style.
“The not-crazy-at-all idea,” Knesebeck told Jalopnik recently, “was to remote-buy a car, take delivery in Chicago, drive it down to Memphis and then back up to New York City, from where it’ll be shipped to Germany. Totally sensible, right?”
Lucille the woman passed away in 2008, at the age of 91. Lucille the car belonged to a local racer in the town of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where Riley had moved in the Eighties. Blanton packed up and drove the 750 miles across the Midwest to check it out.
The car had just 32,000 miles on it. Other than a few scrapes against a garage door, it had no damage and no rust. Blanton sent photos, Knesebeck approved, and then he did something he had never done before: he wired money to a person he had never met.
Running a dragstrip, you tend to pick up some go-fast parts. After Blanton made the trip to Ohio a second time, he threw on an four-barrel carburetor and an Edelbrock intake, and set a quarter-mile benchmark time with it. Then, he towed it to Chicago for Knesebeck to pick up his new dreamboat. “She’s spunky for a girl her size,” said Blanton, taking it off the trailer for a drive with his wife and son.
“So there I was, in Chicago,” said Knesebeck, “soon heading out on Route 66 towards the South, doing the great American Roadtrip in a classic V8 land yacht. It was an incredible adventure. Apart from a fuel tank leak I got plugged at a small garage in Memphis, Lucille provided trouble-free transportation for me and my girlfriend over three weeks of road-tripping.”
Since returning to Berlin with Lucille in tow, Knesebeck has returned to the dragstrip that launched this whole adventure. While his other car—a 1979 Opel Kadett he bought when he was a philosophy student in his late 20s—awaits a new engine, Lucille is his daily driver. He’s taken it on 1,500-mile road trips with little hassle.
He drives it around town, inadvertently double-parks, raises the occasional ire of the Green Party constituency. He swapped a throttle-body injection system from General Motors, blasphemy notwithstanding, but the result has passed the country’s notoriously tough TÜV inspection multiple times. He made friends on both sides of the Atlantic, experienced an international spirit of community, and benefited from the largess of strangers.
And this year, he finally mustered the courage to take it around the Nürburgring, friends spread out across all three rows of seats. “The marshal at the entrance wanted to deny us entry at first because of the people in the boot,” wrote a passenger, “but the fact that they had real seats including seatbelts convinced him otherwise.”
I caught up with Knesebeck to ask him, among other things, what it’s like pushing a 4,453-pound car around the Green Hell.
How did you find out the car’s history?
The car came with full documentation, including the original window sticker. Craig and I managed to find Lucille B. Riley’s obituary.
What made you interested in an old American car? It must be the “grass is greener” thing.
The soundtrack, mostly. Growing up on The A-Team, MacGyver and Smokey and the Bandit reruns didn’t help, either.
Do you drive it around Berlin often? What kind of reactions do you get?
Right now, Lucille’s my only car. I hope to get the Kadett’s engine back in this weekend, so I can relieve Lucille from city driving duties.
Reactions are different from the reactions I got in the US. In the US, it was mostly “I/my mom/grandma/college roommate/first girlfriend) had one JUST LIKE that,” plus some reliving of happy memories of (backseat) moments…Over here, while some people just think she’s an American gas guzzler hell-bent on destroying Mother Earth, most people see her as a nice, entertaining automotive oddity.
What kind of consumption are you getting?
In city driving, she guzzles gas. Nine mpg, no more. Normal autobahn driving nets 13 mpg. Hypermiling her and driving like a granny brings her up to 16 mpg.
You’re building another engine, right?
I am planning on it. Will hopefully score a block to built on early September... Still a 400, but with high-compression pistons, aluminum cylinder heads, headers, the works. Right now, I guess she’s at around 200, maybe 220 horsepower with the TBI and Edelbrock intake. I think I need 350 to 400 HP.
Is this to get serious about drag racing?
“Serious drag racing“ is a huge word. I’d like to get her below 10 seconds. For the 1/8th mile, that is. What’s more important is that the engine hasn’t got enough power for the car’s weight at Autobahn speeds. Over 60, fuel consumption skyrockets.
How hard has it been to ship parts? Old American V8s practically grow on trees here, of course.
The oily bits are easy to take care of—RockAuto ships reliably within a fortnight. What is more problematic are trim pieces and wagon-specific parts. I wanted the trim to be complete, but I don’t care that all trim pieces are bent and scratched.
There’s not much love for ‘70s land yachts. The repro market mostly caters to earlier models and muscle/pony cars. I like that’s she a survivor, battle scars and everything.
Is there a big American car scene in Germany? Is it mostly newer Dodge Rams?
Well, there’s the undereducated, underemployed, more than slightly racist guys from rural Germany who compensate for their lack of perspective by imitating the lifestyle of undereducated, underemployed, more than slightly racist guys from the rural South. These are an ongoing embarrassment for both the German U.S. car and rockabilly scene.
Then, there’s authenticity-seeking hot rodders who frown on anything younger than mid-’60s.
Finally, there’s a rather relaxed bunch of people who just like huge V8s and who generally are an outgoing, helpful bunch, who don’t make much of a difference between a current Camaro and rare ‘70s iron….
And of course, the rich guy collectors who never drive their cars have realized that Mustangs are investments by now, as well.
Is there a club?
We’re a bunch of guys meeting each week at the pub to talk cars, women, and the state of world politics. The center of our automotive world is the Soul Garage, a classic car shop owned by one of us. We half-jokingly are planning to start the Soul Garage car club for the sole reason of getting preferred “car club“ camping space access at meets.
What’s the soundtrack?
Philipp: ‘60s and ‘70s pop and rock, from psychedelic rock and instrumental surf through the Beach Boys and ZZ Top all the way to Black Sabbath and AC/DC. If we had to agree to one tape only, it’d be CCR, though.
Big Lebowski style.
We all come from different paths of life, but I guess what unites us all is that Big Lebowski and Pulp Fiction were among the tentpole movies of our puberty, defining “cool”.
What was it like driving it on the Nürburgring?
She’s a great cruiser and surprisingly capable on the twisty b-roads through the Eifel mountains. But the lap, oh boy…
Nothing can prepare you for the sheer amount of corners the straights of the Nordschleife have when you are accelerating, thus taking weight off the front axle, above 60 mph in a car that gets more twitchy the faster it gets.
I cooked my brakes within the first five kilometers. So after that, it was a very leisurely drive as I had to basically carry Lucille through 3/4 of the lap at constant speed to avoid braking.
In a post on Finalgear, Knesebeck wrote: “I am thinking about actually doing some solo laps next year, should I be able to get on top of the brake problem…pushing her up and down the bends on the B-road the night after the lap I realized that while she gets mighty twitchy above 100km/h, I just lack the necessary experience to know how far I can push her at that speeds. And I am not willing to find out with a car full of people.”
What was involved in preparing the car for the lap?
I did an oil change. At the same time, we also replaced all front suspension bushings and rebuilt the front brakes. Oh, wait, I also put a bunch of episodes of Karina Longworth’s most excellent “You Must Remember This“ podcast on my MP3 player for the drive.
Ringmeet is an annual gathering at the Nürburgring of members from the Finalgear Forums, where Philipp and Craig first got connected.
The “Ringmeet curse” always means something breaks down. What happened this time?
Well, first we found out that the brake pads, while not work, were broken. So we had to get new pads overnighted from Hamburg with two days to spare. Finally, she decided to piss coolant from what first looked like a broken water pump when I tried to leave for Ringmeet. Turned out to be a lose hose clamp. Once I left the Soul Garage compound, it was smooth sailing all the way there and back.
What’s the most helpful thing someone’s done, other than Craig driving it 750 miles, that you’re most grateful for?
Well, there’s all the things Craig did like organizing speed parts, fixing stuff, sending stuff on to me, getting me Mo-Kan swag, and so on. Apart from that, I think the greatest thing is really how Dan and the other boys throw their resources, including, but not limited to free workshop use, into my mad dream project, helping me with electronics, chip programming, keeping the BBQ going…
Does Lucille like B.B. King?
Of course she does. Lucille likes Little Richard, as well.