Sunday, November 22, 2015

Prelude to the Crosley Cruise

Since 2015 was the 30th Anniversary Meet for the club, I had suggested that we do something we'd never tried before: a two-day meet, with a Crosley-friendly driving event scheduled for Sunday. While my proposal was overwhelmingly approved at our 2014 meeting, I came to find that my idea was going to be more of a struggle than expected.

I've been scheming on the idea of a "Crosley Cruise" ever since I went to the Great Pacific Northwest MicroCar Extravaganza in 2013.  The GPNW is a CRAZY two-day event with more oddball tiny cars gathered in one spot than can be believed.  On the first day of the meet, a fleet of about 25 underhorsed micro-machines took off into the hills and backroads outside of Portland, all chasing a Messerschmitt that led the way.  Since I'd come in an appliance car I was invited to ride along as a passenger, and spent the day trading between a Berkeley, a Fiat Multipla, a Lloyd, a Subaru 360, a Citroen 2CV and the aforementioned Messerschmitt.
On the road at the 2013 GPNW
We covered probably 60 miles in a leisurely drive with plenty of stops to take pictures, eat, and check out the local color.  It was the most fun I'd ever had at a car event (except for Bonneville, which is in a class by itself.)  My gears were turning before I even started heading home from Oregon: the only thing more fun than being part of a traveling fleet of assorted microcars would be traveling in a fleet of Crosleys.  It's obvious that I would think this was a great idea, but would anyone else?

To back up a bit: When I first got the idea of owning a Crosley, 20 or so years ago, it never occurred to me that people owned cars that they hardly ever drove.  I didn't know anyone in that category, and I didn't think there was any term more derogatory than "trailer queen."  I had decided I wanted a small car because I knew it would be more fun to drive than the big '60s boats I was used to, and because I felt guilty driving a car that got 11 miles a gallon.  I started looking at Fiats and British cars, but kept coming back to the weird little cars I was reading about in the old sports car magazines that my pal Dean kept loaning me.  Whatever I got, it would have to be my only car - I didn't have the space or resources to have more than one vehicle.
When I finally got to my first Crosley Meet, in 1997, I was floored that nearly every car arrived on a trailer!  Of the 15 or so Crosleys at that show, only two had arrived under their own power: wagons piloted by Road and Track star Frank Bell and bonafide Crosley legend Bob Carson.  When I told the guys at the meet that I wanted to buy a Crosley and use it as a daily driver they all thought I was crazy. After several years living that experiment I discovered that they were right.

However, that doesn't mean that Crosleys can't be driven - and driven hard.
Crosley's first real claim to fame was when a showroom-stock Hot Shot won the Index of Performance at the first Sebring race, powering through a six-hour race for the trophy. Back in the forties and fifties, Crosleys were driven across the United States, all the way to Alaska, and competed in an uncountable number of road races. A few years before I joined the club, two of the members met up with Bob Carson for a three-Crosley caravan from San Francisco to Wauseon, Ohio - and back.  Dale and Rob Liebherr of Service Motors think nothing of driving their cars over the Sierras, and a guy named Greg Hall drove his Hot Shot on a round trip from Seattle to Sacramento in 2005.

But just because they can be driven doesn't mean they will be, and I can remember one meet where as many cars were pushed on and off their trailers as could move under their own power.  (Sad to say that I was one of the ones with a 'pusher' that year.)  So the question is: would Crosley owners actually want to drive their cars a reasonable distance?

It turned out that getting a thumbs up from the club was the easy part: finding a suitable route through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada was the challenge.  The goal was to find a 60-70 mile round-trip route that avoided major highways and steep hills but featured interesting scenery with plenty of stopping points, and had a spot for lunch somewhere in the middle.  After spending most of a year on this, let me assure you: not easy.
Siata-owner and Jackson resident Marty Stein and I spent months trading proposed route plans and test-driving two lane roads, with him providing the local expertise and me confirming whether or not a road was Crosley-friendly.  Given that the region is almost entirely hills, canyons and rivers, we had our work cut out for us, but by mid-Summer we had a working plan.  And then, the fire.

The Butte Fire started just outside Jackson on September 9, hit 14,000 acres by the next day and then doubled in size in the next 24 hours.  Many Jackson residents, including Marty and his wife Sheri, were evacuated as the fire jumped roads and roared through the hills.  A week later, the fire had burned over 60,000 acres and was only 10% controlled.  The smoke reached me in Sacramento, 50 miles away.  The Italian Friendship Society Park - our meet site - was the staging area for the out of town fire departments and PG&E.  We started making calls to postpone the meet for a month.

Thankfully, the weather changed, the winds died down, and by the next week the fire was largely under control - although it wasn't fully out until the beginning of October.  Marty and Sheri were back in their home (no damage, thank goodness), but they, like everyone in the area, were emotionally exhausted. And, the Crosley Cruise route we'd worked on for months was toast.

I had some suggestions, but basically handed the chore of revising the whole tour to Marty since he knew the area, including what had burned and what was OK. We abandoned most of the original drive, added other bits, and reversed one long stretch to make things connect.  After a lot of back and forth we put a plan together - I think we finally had the details worked out about a week before the meet.

As noted earlier, the Saturday event went great - now the big question was: how many cars would actually make it on the cruise?  We'd lost a few drivers because of the date change, including a few non-Crosley microcar owners who had planned to join us for the run.  I really hoped I wasn't going to be making the tour by myself...

to be continued

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