You Don't Think About The Danger Of Old Cars Until A Guy Dies

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It's hard to describe what it was at first. A cough? A hiccup? A stutter? The engine misses a beat on the highway back from the Lime Rock Historics and I shut the engine straight off and coast to the shoulder. A few hours earlier, an old man had died at the wheel. Now, why am I here?

I had a feeling I was going to break down at some point today, but I didn't expect this. There was still a hole in the pushrod tube where a New England rock struck my exposed engine, and an unnamed, unknown rally mechanic broke off my crankcase breather, meaning my car was slowly leaking oil at all times. That's why I turned the car off immediately after hearing the engine falter — I was sure it was out of oil, and mere seconds of running an air-cooled motor when dry could mean destruction.

But I'm on the shoulder now, and the dipstick shows I've still got oil. That's worrying, because when I hop back in the Baja and turn the key, the thing won't start.

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I call my coworker Jason. I go over the symptoms. We agree that the problem is the engine isn't getting spark — that cough was a misfire. It sounds like a busted coil or distributor. We agree I can try and limp the car the hour's drive home.

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Jalopnik's editorial fellow Chris Perkins had organized this whole trip up to Connecticut to see the Lime Rock Historics, and together we get the car going with a bump start after a couple of runs. The Bug coughs into life, and we start back down the highway. Chris later tells me he has asthma. Good that I had him push the car.

The Baja is driving, we're moving, but the engine isn't happy. Light throttle is fine, but anything over a third down the gas pedal and it's like running on pebbles. Misfiring all over, irregular, stifling. Still, Chris and I are motoring away at a good 50, 55 miles an hour, so I'm confident we're going to make it back to Manhattan.

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Then we come up a big hill and start to lose speed, and then we hit bumper to bumper traffic.

I go into neutral. The car stalls. I hurriedly get it into second and re-start the car on the roll. I get down to first, but that's too fast for the traffic. I go back to neutral, but I can't keep the engine going. Too much throttle makes the engine want to die, too little does the same.

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Before I know it I'm back on the shoulder again. We're slowly rolling downhill, just about matching the traffic. An Accord full of people is alongside us and asks if we're ok. I crack up that I can have a full conversation with these guys, me waiting to gain speed to bump start the car once more in second.

And it works! I lift the clutch at speed and the engine stutters into life. But it's only minutes before we hit traffic again, this time uphill, and we roll to an abrupt stop on the very narrow shoulder.

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Not one but two cars stop to help us. The first one is a guy who recognizes the Baja ("Hey are you that guy from Jalopnik?") and has us call his brother, who offers us his driveway, two train tickets back to NYC, and maybe a beer if we can get to his house. I politely decline — if we can get the car driving, we're motoring all the way back to the city.

Then a blacked-out MkV Golf rolls up behind us and out walk two mechanics, both still wearing their Honda tech shirts. I'm not sure how I am this lucky. I go over all the problems, all the symptoms, and they agree it's either the coil or the distributor. I ask if there's any way I can I fix it, the light fading into the dark trees. "On the side of the road? No," they laugh. "Wanna try bump starting it?"

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I know that a bump start isn't going to help, because it barely worked two bump starts ago, but I say why not. With three guys pushing, the car gets up to a good speed. I turn the key and nothing. Not even a cough comes from the engine, which is absolutely done.

Chris calls AAA and after a few hours and a slight confusion about our location later we have a tow truck to take us home, a very exuberant driver Frenchie, and no fewer than three cop cars closing down a lane of traffic for us.

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Illustration for article titled You Dont Think About The Danger Of Old Cars Until A Guy Dies

The whole ride home we got lessons on street racing in the Bronx, mistakes making '60s Chevelle drag stars, and assorted other stories about building and driving and racing old cars.

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Illustration for article titled You Dont Think About The Danger Of Old Cars Until A Guy Dies

And that was weird, because that afternoon a guy died a few hundred yards from me while driving, racing an old car.

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His name was Lee Duran. He was 73. His car was a 1934 single-seater special, built out of a 1934 MG PA. Duran spent most of his race with other pre-WWII competitors at the back of the pack. His MG special wasn't a fast car, but it was fast enough that when he lost control on Lime Rock's downhill turn leading towards its front straight, he flipped and crashed and died.

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I have no pictures of him racing, so there is his car, on the flatbed, leaving the track.

The Lime Rock officials told me they'd given him CPR at the track and rushed him to the hospital. He arrived there alive, they said, and there he was pronounced dead.

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The marshals waved black flags to cancel that race. There was a weird omen about it - the only time I've ever seen a black flag waved like that was in the old movie Grand Prix. It's in the scene at the Monza F1 race, 1966, and the announcer over the loudspeaker announces a black flag hadn't been shown since the 1930s for the Alfa Romeo works team.

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As one marshal raced the black flag, two genuine 1930s Alfa Romeo works cars thundered past.

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It was real grim around the pits. For a moment all the drivers could not avoid thinking about the danger of the racing, and all of their friends and family couldn't put it out of their minds either. You could see something in their eyes - sadness among the old guys, confusion among the youngsters. It all seemed very pointless after they cancelled the race. I got the feeling none of the racers would've minded if they all packed up and went home and tried to forget the whole event happened.

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Some news station interviewed his wife, and she said he'd switched from vintage racing to owning a yacht some years ago, then he came back to vintage racing. It was what he loved.

How do you reckon with that? With a person choosing a risky past time and realizing that potential danger. And it wasn't like a wheel fell off while he was driving. It wasn't like he was hit by another driver. He lost control, by himself, and crashed. There was nothing but him, the car, and the nature of the sport.

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Here's the thing — we all know that MG is a dangerous car. We've had 80 years to figure that out. You know it, and I have no doubt that Duran knew it, too.

It was a long drive back from Lime Rock, even leaving the breakdown and the tow out of it. There I was wheeling a deathtrap of my own. I was driving down that highway, thinking about a crash in the Bug, knowing that there wasn't much more in front of my feet than a gas tank.

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Why choose to drive like that? Why did I choose a car I know is unsafe? For that matter, why did Duran?

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Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove

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DISCUSSION

We have forgotten how dangerous racing was back in the day and many vintage class racers must think it had something to do with the water or air or something. It was the cars. The cars for the most part haven't changed except... the old tire compounds they used in the 50's are long gone and in fact even though the tires 'look' vintage - they are completely new construction and have modern chemical make up making them far gripper then the old stock tires. The gas is better, they may even have updated carbs giving more power. Some vintage series allow a few modern updates. So the cars have more grip - maybe even more power - yet the basic lay out of the car hasn't changed.

The Lotus open wheel racers still use the skinny tubes as a chassis where on one side they have oil running through it to the front rads and another tube on the other side has coolant running to another little rad up front. Hit something with moderate force and one or both tubes can break or crack and hot fluid starts flowing into the cockpit...

I once had a driver in a Lotus Super Seven come to a stop and fall out of the car and roll around on the grass. I run up to him expecting a fire, (although I can't see any flames - not rationalizing that a Lotus 7 doesn't run methanol) and I find the driver now tearing his clothes off. Oil. All over his suit and helmet. The Lotus used a pressure fed oil pressure gauge that sat right in front of him. Yeah, that's where they get the term oil pressure gauge from! Over 200F oil squirting in your face. That was a ambulance call signal to the corner post.

The cars were/are tricky to drive. Most of these racers are older - many as old as the car. Their reactions are slower. I was marshaling one day when we had a Can Am Wolf flip over and the driver died. The car had a tricky handling reputation. Gilles Villeneuve was the first driver of it. He hated it. He said it was a handful and hard to control at anything over 8/10th's. This was Gilles saying this.

There seems to be a collective amnesia about how bad some of these cars from the early era of racing handled, as if the thinking is, well it's the 'modern era now', so bad things don't happen anymore. Well they do and I've seen the results.

Having said that: he was an adult and he was doing what he loved to do. God Speed.