Sunday, September 27, 2009

Two days at the British Invasion, 2009

This article also appears in print, in the Rover News
Words and pictures (c) 2009 John Elder Robison



It’s that time of year again. Last weekend, I left my Massachusetts home for a trip to the wilds of Northern Vermont, all in the name of British Motoring. I’m a diehard Land Rover lover, but the 2.5 diesel Defender is too slow for a five-hundred-mile road trip and the Range Rover was out of town. And this year I wanted plush. So I climbed into the Big Red Bentley and headed north. I moved out onto I-91 and muscled my way past pugnacious thugs in Escalades and granola-powered Prius drivers. My speed climbed as I approached the border. I tried to hold it back, but there's only so much one can do.

The car had a nasty shake at 85, but it smoothed out nicely over 110. Most cars struggle to attain those speeds but this brute takes them in stride. At the century mark the engine is just above fast idle, at 1,900 rpm. You’ve got six inches of travel remaining in the gas pedal, and 2,500 rpm to go on the tach. There’s a certain magic to five hundred horsepower. I wish Land Rover had a product like this. Perhaps one day I will stuff a Turbo R engine into a 110 County to create one.

We ate up the road all the way to White River, where I took a left onto 89 North. My Beast coasted down as the exit approached, rolling past the Exit 30MPH sign at a smooth 75. I hit the bend and slewed my way around, exiting onto 89 with a subtle trail of smoke. A tip of the throttle and I was back to speed for the final run in to Stowe.

I reached my hotel only to find it was Under New Management, a euphemism for, "I'm sorry sir, your room reservation has vanished." Grabbing the hapless clerk by the throat, he regurgitated the key to 124, the room I have occupied for years, which to his great good fortune was as yet empty. I wandered down the hall, where a wedding dinner was in progress. I shared some fine wine and cheese before being found out and evicted. Afterward, suitably fortified, I cruised down the hill into Stowe.

By the time I arrived the block party was in full swing. I made sure my car was well hidden out behind the hotel before walking over the covered bridge to town. A Beatles tribute band was playing, and an intoxicated female dragged me into a dance as I passed. I tried to extricate myself as two drunken revelers snapped pictures. I was saved by the arrival of a freak in a Chicken Costume, singing at the top of his lungs while swinging a golf club to clear a path to the bar.

A short while later I was joined by my friend Dave Rifken with his 1997 Defender 90



Dave and I headed to the Blue Moon Grille, where we were seated and fed immediately, thanks to the economic collapse. In better days they’d have taken a reservation for next weekend, if they fed specimens like us at all. I ate grilled scallops as Dave texted his kid, who was lost somewhere on the highways of rural Vermont.

I remember being lost like that myself, years ago. In my case, it was a result of eating mushrooms. I don’t know what Dave’s kid’s excuse was. Thirty some years ago I found myself hungry and deranged in Rock Island, Quebec, where the border crossing had apparently closed for the night. When I chose the self-service option and took the old 88 through I was rounded up and detained by bad tempered Customs Agents for almost eight hours. By the time I got loose, the mushrooms had worn off and my money was gone. All in all, that was one bad trip.

Our reverie was interrupted by flashing lights and sirens. We saw Police outside the restaurant, and we slouched low in our seats. We didn’t think we’d done anything arrestable in Stowe but you never know . . . Sometimes the Natives get greedy, and invent laws to extract revenue from sweet innocents like us. My mind went back to the Shamokins of rural Pennsylvania, who rolled boulders into the highway so they could stop motorists and rob them. At times like that I regret leaving my preacher outfit home.

Fortunately, the cops were merely clearing the riffraff from around the stage. No one was after us. When we emerged from the Blue Moon, we refrained from song, and our refined and upright appearance made us seem the farthest thing from rabble. We passed unmolested. As the shouting subsided to the snick of handcuffs we slipped back up the hill. Our rigs were safe, surrounded by British cars in all the important colors: red, white, black and most of all, green.

We awakened to a crisp, cool Vermont morning. The fires from the previous night’s bacchanalian debauchery had burnt themselves out, but the smoky smell lingered in the air. It was a pleasant odor for anyone whose house or car had escaped destruction, and I was pleased to be part of that group. We cranked up the Rover and the Bentley, and headed for the Invasion.




We arrived at the show field early, but the scene was already mobbed. Hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands swarmed through the gates on Weeks Hill Road in Stowe. We parked our machines among others of their own kind, and set out to wander the field.



Within minutes, three Guardsmen showed up in a Series III Air Portable, parked near Dave, and emplaced a heavy machine gun to survey the field. I ducked and passed as they shot off a test burst or two. Everyone was well behaved after they arrived. I was lucky to pass when I did, because I heard they began collecting tolls from passerby but I didn’t pay a cent.



Their actions reminded me of some City Parking Lot Attendants who worked a lot down the street from me when I worked at Pink Floyd's sound company in Long Island City back in the nineteen-seventies. After watching them all one summer, I was surprised to arrive at work one day to find them gone, and the lot chained up. It turned out they had not been City Employees at all. Instead, they were Enterprising Lowlifes with Bolt Cutters who had seen an opportunity and seized it. I wondered if the same thing might be occurring today, but I declined to mount a challenge.

Land Rover was well represented at the show. In fact, one 1959 Series truck actually won the concours, something I have never seen accomplished with a Land Rover. I don’t know if the judges were drunk, bribed, or what, but there was some heavy competition out there and they putted away with a trophy. What a sight – an old Series truck sandwiched between a massive Rolls Royce limousine and a dainty Morgan roadster in the winner’s parade.

The Guardsmen also won an award for the tailgate picnic, but it’s not clear if they earned it or merely menaced the show’s managers with their weapons. Either way, though, they exited as winners. And I don’t want to give a false impression – they were not thugs. Far from it; they were clean and very well behaved and their heavy machine gun certainly had a calming influence on every rowdy who exited the beer tent. Robert Heinlein said it very well: An armed society is a polite society.

There was a good field of Land Rover entries, starting with some Series trucks from the late fifties all the way to the current Range Rover Sports. Series trucks made up the biggest contingent but the P38’s made a good showing this year too.

You find many kinds of car enthusiasts at the Invasion, but the ones I love the best are the Rover owners. One of them lounged behind her rig,



while another handed me a beer



after opening it on his back bumper. Two Canadian females at the next Rover fed me kiwi fruit while extolling the virtues of cross breeding strawberries.



All the while, the sound system played vintage tunes from the Kinks, Pink Floyd, and Jimmy Buffet.

Who wouldn’t identify with that?

With 650 British vehicles on the show field, there were some noteworthy non-Rover entries. For example, some deviant with a welder had shoehorned a blown Hemi into a yellow MINI Cooper. The idea seems shocking at first, but upon reflection, you realize that’s exactly what every MINI dreams of turning into, when it grows up.



I saw a genuine Elva, yellow with a red stripe, parked near a fine red TVR. Out behind the cars, revelers sat, drank, and told stories, and I stumbled and bobbed my way through their midst. At one point, I encountered a six-hundred-horsepower supercharged Aston Martin, an authentic Morris Moke, and two Norton Commando motorcycles.

I left as the bikers were fighting over tent poles for the Motorbike Joust. I did not get to see how it turned out, but I’m sure the details appeared in the town Police Log.

We dined at the Olde English Pub, where I had Bangers and Mash followed by a Spotted Dick washed down with tea. All in all, a respectable British feed. Alex had a problem with the concept of Spotted Dick, but I introduced him to Patrick O’Brien’s excellent writing, including his cook book which includes the Dick, and he calmed.

The next morning dawned colder and clearer than the one before. Tops on the day’s agenda was the backseat driving contest. In that competition the driver is blindfolded, and the navigator guides him over a complex route from the backseat. When someone told me the course started on the show field and ended at the Lake Champlain Ferry I decided to get out while I still could.

Until next time . . .

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