Early in 1998, a glossy brochure arrived in the mail. It almost immediately made its way into the recycling bin. “Rich and Jean Taylor present the 1998 New England 1000”. Recognizing the name ‘Rich Taylor’ from his stint on the staff of my favorite mag, Car & Driver, I decided to read on.
“Each of our events is a five-day rally over paved roads, plus flat-out Special Stages. Each day covers about 250 miles over some of the most beautiful and least-traveled roads in America. Events are restricted to 50 cars, driven by you and a small group of like-minded vintage sport car enthusiasts. The New England 1000 is held the week before Memorial Day, and is open to pre-1974 sports, racing, or GT cars.”
I was somewhat familiar with the Mille Miglia road rally in Italy, but the concept of an “antique car rally” held on U.S. soil was new to me. While I was intrigued, there was one small issue: I didn’t own a rally-eligible car (the BMW Isetta restoration was not quite finished in 1998). However, my good friend Steve had recently obtained a nice 1966 Sunbeam Tiger. I showed him the brochure. There was little need for discussion. “Let’s do it!”
Calling the 800-number in the pamphlet, a male voice answered the phone: “Vintage Rallies”. “Hi, is this Rich Taylor?” “Yes it is, what can I do for you?” Holy cow, Rich answers his own phone. A credit card deposit was made, and we were in.
The Tiger was in quite good condition; it had been given a rather thorough restoration by its previous owner, so it needed little prep for rallying. We noted the mention that helmets were required if one wanted to participate in the off-road timed events, so helmets were dutifully obtained.
Most of our time in the months leading up to our May push-off was spent mentally picturing the other participating vehicles. We imagined everything from hopped-up MoPars to modded Mustangs to big-block Chevys, with the occasional MG and Triumph thrown in. We could not have been more off-base.
Departure day arrived. The Tiger’s trunk proved plenty adequate to handle our suitcases and helmets. Our destination on this beautiful Sunday in May was the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport Maine. It was going to take us about seven hours, with stops, to get there.
We arrived in Freeport around 5pm, with no roadside dramas to report, and as we drove around to the rear of the building, the sight was unforgettable: the hotel’s entire lawn had been taken over by an impromptu car show, featuring the week’s rally cars. MoPars? No way, Mr. Iacocca. Instead, there were Jaguars, Alfas, Benzes, Aston Martins, more Jaguars; and in the center of it all, like a Queen Bee, a gleaming white 4-door Bugatti. We were going to spend the week in exclusive company.
We parked in a sectioned-off area of the hotel lot dedicated to the rally cars, had dinner with fellow rallyists, and learned that the Sunday Car Show was a planned part of the festivities. Now we knew better for next time. After dinner: Famous Navigator’s School, wherein we were taught all the intricacies regarding synchronization of stop watches, driving etiquette amongst ordinary civilians, and the importance of placing your car’s front bumper across the finish line at the exact required moment, lest you earn unwanted points, one point for each second early OR late. Oh, the pressure.
Monday morning, we got up, had breakfast, and headed out to the Tiger with our route book. The parking lot was already abuzz with activity. Rally cars were staging themselves up to be flagged off at one-minute intervals beginning at 8:15AM. There were SIX timed stages that first day, plus two so-called transit stages (untimed). Steve was driving, and I was navigating. For the next stage, Steve graciously allowed me to drive, with him navigating. From that point onward, we had established a pattern that driver and navigator would alternate stages. It’s an agreement we’ve kept to this day.
Here’s a rally secret to share with you: navigating is SO much more difficult than driving. The navigator must be constantly be mindful of the printed directions, public landmarks, vehicle speed, and miles traversed, AND he must communicate driving directions to the driver in a clear manner. The driver? He needs to drive while heeding the navigator’s calls. Oh, and if the rally car in front of him turns right when his navigator tells him to go straight, then of course, he should go straight. Unless, of course, that’s incorrect…. (There is tremendous pressure to follow the rally car in front of you rather than refer to your navigation sheet.)
The concept of a TSD (Time, Speed, Distance) rally like this is to “zero out” each stage. A zero score is a perfect score; you’ve hit each finish line at the exact time you were due. As mentioned earlier, being early OR late is penalized, one point for each second you are off your mark. (The New England 1000 caps the maximum points you can earn per stage at 500.) It’s all in good fun, as we were learning.
But nothing was more amazing than the sight of other rally cars on the road with you. To be motoring with a Mercedes Benz 300 SL roadster in view out your windshield, and a Jaguar E-Type in your mirrors, is not something to be taken for granted. Vehicles you’ve drooled over for years, meticulously primped and pampered for show, were now screaming along at 6,000 rpm.
It is not an exaggeration to state that my participation in this rally forever changed the way I felt about the old car hobby. I would never feel the same passion again about static car displays. Once I was exposed to owners who were willing to take their prized machinery and drive them at speed, in rain or shine, then I knew I wanted to be part of that as frequently as possible.
Monday flew by. So did the rest of the week. I saw that the days were quite full, what with early departures, driving, lunches, more driving, and dinners. There were few photographic opportunities during the rally stages, so I was glad to have taken the pictures I did on Sunday. Thursday’s banquet dinner was yet another highlight, with comical speeches, a charity auction, gag gifts, and a trophy for everyone, no matter what your score. You really felt like you were part of something.
If you want conclusive proof that we enjoyed ourselves, know that during Thursday’s festivities, my rally brother Steve wrote a deposit check for the 1999 New England 1000. We would be returning in the Tiger. That’s a story for another time.
All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.