A free day to walk around the beautiful old part of Quebec along with a few thousand other tourists. The main streets with their tourist trap shops could be anywhere in the world but away from there the magnificent French influenced buildings and streetscapes can be enjoyed. One of the distinguishing characteristics of churches and public buildings in Quebec is their zinc plated roofs and spires which blend into the sky almost appearing transparent. Chateau Frontenac, the much photographed hotel overlooking the water, is every bit as grand as we expected. Since I was last here a boardwalk has been built stretching along the clifftop to the Citadel and the end of the old city wall. We were hoping to get views back over the old city but temporary fencing for a rock concert about to get underway on the Plains of Abraham limited access – we got to hear the rehearsal for free – almost as good as the real thing but with almost no audience apart from us.
We are meeting Jen and Todd Steeves from the Ottawa MG Club for breakfast near the hotel and then driving to the outskirts to meet Duncan and the group who will be driving with us to Montreal. No dramas getting away although Peter is a bit disappointed that the electric fan he was hoping to pick up for Green Car didn’t turn up. Yesterday he had dropped into a spares shop near the hotel and the owner was so impressed with our trip that he told Peter he could have any of the fans he had in stock for free if they would fit. Unfortunately they were all too large so he tried to get a smaller one overnight – no stock unfortunately but a nice try.
Bob Zelmer from the Ottawa Club has loaned me a Gilles Villeneuve book overnight for our adventurers to all sign – we find we share a passion not only for MGs but also Formula 1, especially from the 1970s and 80s when Quebec’s Gilles Villeneuve was driving briefly for for McLaren and then Ferrari. An exceptionally talented driver who had a short but exciting career and was the father of Jaques Villeneuve. Bob was excited that our trip includes a visit to the Montreal F1 track named in the memory of Gilles so it’s going to be a good day.
Montreal is only a couple of hours away tracking parallel with the St Lawrence Seaway so we shortly arrive at Chateau Laudreuil – a magnificent building and gardens running down to the water. There are another dozen or so MGs with their very enthusiastic and welcoming owners from the Montreal Club there to meet us and we enjoy a delicious buffet lunch – how good to be in Quebec province where the culinary traditions are so French.
First stop after lunch is the Gilles Villeneuve circuit built after Mosport was deemed not safe enough for F1 in 1982. It was built on Ile Notre Dame alongside the former 1967 Canadian Expo and has a reputation for being one of the more challenging circuits on the calendar. The wall on the outside of the chicane is known as the Quebec Wall and has caught out many famous drivers. The weather today is much cooler with showers followed by brilliant sunshine but It is fairly damp and dreary when we arrive at the circuit. A quick grid line up of the cars for photos with officials flapping around saying you can’t stop here and we are off at the strictly limited top speed of 30 km/h – what would Gilles have thought about that!
Then it’s into the old city where we meet Duncan’s friend Sarah who is our tour guide. An excellent introduction to Quebec’s history dating back to 1642 interlaced with nice touches of humour and little tests along the way followed by a meal at a very noisy restaurant right near the hotel we somehow managed to book right in the party centre of Quebec. Not quite our demographic but everyone has a good time anyway.
There was a bit of car drama this afternoon when we were parking in downtown Montreal and for a change it wasn’t one of our cars. The very smart MGB driven by our friends Jen and Todd suddenly started itself as they were unloading stuff with no-one was in the driver’s seat. And it was in gear! Fortunately the handbrake was on and Jen managed to stall it before hitting any of the other cars but what a nasty shock. They had experienced a starter relay problem a few days ago and it seemed the wire to the starter relay had short circuited to a live wire at the ignition switch. An autonomous car ahead of its time! Unfortunately the starter solenoid fried itself so they were left with a long drive back to Ottawa and no starter – Jen sent a note later that night saying they got back okay so all good.
Our first morning in Ottawa and we take the hop-on – hop-off bus for the tourists’ view of the city. It is a very beautiful city with many grand public buildings including Parliament House and the impressive chateau nearby built by a railway magnate. In Australia the grand buildings of the 19th century can be attributed to gold but in Canada it seems to be mostly about lumber and the railways. First stop is the Museum to get an overview of Canadian history. The permanent displays focus on pre-European settlement and celebrate the rich history of the First Nations Peoples. We were fortunate to also see 3 special exhibitions – one covering a large collection of very-French carriages and sleds collected from all over Quebec. Another covering Napoleon’s life and influence on Paris and the third on the gold rush in British Columbia. I’m guessing most Australians are like us and don’t know a lot about this gold rush which followed on from the 1850-60s rush in Australia but it was just as intriguing as ours. The environment was every bit as tough as any of the goldfields in Australia but at least they were blessed with plenty of water. What made it different was the active involvement of the First Nation people. Prior to the gold rush there were many years of trading between initially the French fur traders and later the British so there was a strong desire to maintain harmonious relations. This worked well until there was an influx of miners from America and then things turned ugly in some areas. Reason prevailed and harmony was largely restored according to this version of history. It was interesting for us to see a number of unflattering comparisons made between Canada and Australia’s treatment of their indigenous people. In one display there was a quote from an editorial in the Maryborough (Queensland) Chronicle of 1861:
“The war has now fully commenced… Every white man has full license to shoot, kill and destroy all aborigines… The process is so slow, so expensive… that if the extermination of the aboriginal races of Australia be essential to the prosperity of the European races, then he is the greatest benefactor to the country who mixes arsenic in the ration flour and so destroys them quietly and expeditiously”
Back on the bus feeling a little flattened but a walk around the Byward Market lifted our spirits – we skipped the last few legs of the bus tour and walked through the old residential part of town and around the canal back to where the car was parked under the Arts Centre. It seemed most parts of Montreal were under re-construction in readiness for their 375th birthday celebrations next year and this included most of the Arts Centre precinct but we finally found a way around the construction after a few false attempts.
Got back to the hotel in time for a bit of car maintenance. Our brake lights have been more or less out of action for most of the trip – only coming on when you really stand on the pedal. Simon changed the pressure switch a few weeks ago but it still isn’t right. Checking all the connections suggested that the pressure switch still isn’t right so this might need to wait for another time. Hope we don’t get to wear another car in a sudden stop…
What a contrast to the fast and furious not to mention stinking hot drive to Bracebridge after we left the Falls yesterday. 10 and even 12 lanes on the expressway as we approach Toronto. Fortunately our side of the road was flowing fairly well but the other side was stop and go for over 100 km which would have been miserable in the hot sun without air conditioning. Canadians seem to have a fairly relaxed approach to speed limits with a margin of around +20km/h the norm. Even in the US you tend to get mown over by huge trucks if you are driving at the speed limit and there is no backing off for roadworks. At one point the highway was down to one lane while workers were sealing cracks in the pavement just a few metres from trucks and cars whizzing past at 110 km/h. We learnt that the penalty for hitting a highway worker is 10 years in jail – a reasonable incentive to be cautious.
Our stop over is in Bracebridge, a picturesque town a couple of hours north of Toronto in the lakes district of Ontario. From there we drove along Route 118 as recommended by MG people from Ottawa. What a fantastic road! Just two lanes winding through thick forest between the lakes and small villages for nearly four hours – MG paradise.
All good things have to come to an end and finally we reach Renfrew, just a few km from Ottawa where we are to stop over for a couple of days. Renfrew was a very wealthy lumber town in the late 19th century but has hung on nicely and we found a newly opened slightly quirky coffee shop called The Vintage Kettle to have lunch. Very friendly staff and good food! After just two days in Canada we are starting to see the stark differences in cost of living between Canada and Australia. Our respective dollars have the same exchange rate to the USD and Canadian salaries are similar to ours but eating out in Canada will cost about half the amount in Australia. A $10 minimum wage in Canada probably explains the difference. You could also buy a 4 br house with 3 bathrooms, all freshly renovated with its very own sandy beach on a lake less than an hour from Ottawa for less than $500k. Of course we were seeing it at its very best, a beautiful warm summers day but we’re not so sure about the -20 deg C winters…
A long drive today to catch up with the other three cars who have driven directly over the border into Canada with our destination at Bracebridge, around 150 km past Toronto. After breakfast I walk back past the bar where there are so many memories stuck to the wall from the early days when Seneca Lodge was the place where everyone from Formula 1 stars to race mechanics stayed. Those were the days when drivers talked to their mechanics and they all shared the excitement. Today the F1 drivers don’t even speak to each other. On the back wall behind the bar, there were many garlands donated over the years by winning drivers. One of them was won in 1977 by James Hunt, probably the last of the sport’s colourful characters. I took a couple of photos – the first in the normal view and the second using 20x zoom to capture the essence of James Hunt’s life. The other pic at the top right is a montage of many of the famous faces who competed at Watkins Glen over the years.
Dave couldn’t leave without one more lap of the original 6.6 mile road circuit used from 1948 to 1952. Those drivers must have been brave – the track starts in the main street outside the courthouse and turns right up the hill past Seneca Lodge, over a stone bridge and through some tight corners at the top of the hill before descending back to the main street around a long sweeping bend which was just a dirt surface in those days. The MG TCs in those days were reaching speeds of 115 mph according to the folklore – even if that was a bit of a stretch, they were still very brave! The last corner is called Millikens Corner named after the driver of a Bugatti who rolled his car into the pub and crawled out to order a beer.
We get through Canadian immigration and customs after a little drama over the carnet for the car. Probably not appropriate to go through the details in a blog but we finally got the stamps we needed and headed for the viewing point on the Canadian side of Niagra Falls. This was all a bit nostalgic for me because I lived in Buffalo NY for the best part of a year in 1971-2 and took many visitors to the nearby Niagra Falls. Back then there were hardly any other tourists but now there are thousands every day from every corner of the globe. Just a day before, Dave had an email from Giles Cooper, the Australian adventurer we had last met in Argentina. He had just finished a 4 week drive around Nova Scotia in his well-travelled Land Cruiser and was on his way beck through the US and happy to drive a few hundred kms to meet us again. Dave had told him we would be at Niagra Falls about noon and sure enough when we drove into the car park at 2 minutes before noon, Giles was there waving to us. Over lunch he shared his experiences of Novia Scotia with us – it sounds beautiful, can’t wait to get there.
A beautiful morning when we wake at the Seneca Lodge. Blue sky, birds are singing and it isn’t going to be too hot. Such a change after some of the hot gritty places we have stayed in. This is the big day for the cardboard boat races at the lakeside park and everyone is in town. We find a place for breakfast and then drop off Lorraine and Laurel to do some shopping while Dave and I go to the International Motor Racing Research Centre which is run by enthusiasts dedicated to keeping the history of motorsport at the Glen alive. With the Glen’s rich history not only in Formula 1 but also Nascar and Indycars they have a pretty impressive pedigree of Directors including people like Roger Penske. First off we are interviewed by Ron Hills for a YouTube piece to be shown on youtube/theracereport.TV in a few weeks.
After a quick browse through their expansive collection we are off to the circuit to drive a few laps around the circuit behind a control car. I was last here in 1971 to watch the US Grand Prix but there was no chance to experience the circuit from the track side of the fence that time. Our time slot is delayed 30 minutes because there are dozens of Corvettes in town and they seem to get priority – no problem, we get to admire them streaming past making nice noises. The it’s our turn and I find myself behind a Holden masquerading as a Chev SS – hmm 415 horsepower vs. 90 hp nearly 50 years ago might be fun… As it turned out he could have used some driving lessons and Navy Car could easily keep especially through the corners. Dave was right behind me in RIP and also having a fun time. Unfortunately there was a no-passing rule so not as much fun as I’d hoped but it did mean we got to enjoy the views of this beautiful circuit with its freshly laid tarmac as well.
The last day of the National Meeting where we’ve met some amazing people gathered from all over the US and Canada who share a common interest in MGs. This morning everyone is driving to the waterfront where all 800 plus cars will be on show to the public. A beautiful location on the banks of the Ohio River and close to the downtown area.
We have a long drive ahead and leave around 2 in the afternoon to mix it with the trucks on the interstate heading north and then west to Watkins Glen passing through Ohio, Pennsylvania and into New York State. I reflect on a couple of conversations, the first one overheard when one of the MG people is leaving one of the sessions and talking loudly on the phone to his wife. “Hi darling, did you have a good day? Did you go to the shooting gallery?” This was just after we had read about the Tennessee politician who was running a fund-raiser and offered an AK-47 assault rifle as a door prize. When someone queried whether this was an appropriate offer in the aftermath of the Orlando shootings he responded by upping the door prize to two AK-47s. “No-one is going to take away my right to bear arms”. The other conversation was with a lady sitting in her Cadillac looking at our cars outside the motel. “They’re cute cars, where are y’all from?” “We’re from Australia” I reply. “Oh, that’s awesome, how fantastic (slight pause) is that far away from here?”
Some amazing sights on the interstate highways – pick-up trucks with oversize wheels, motorhomes towing full size Jeeps as their run-around and convoys of interstate transports dwarfing our tiny little cars. But we survived another day..
We have a free morning so time to visit another couple of Louisville’s attractions. First stop is the cemetery where the body of Muhammed Ali was laid to rest just a few days ago. At the gate we were told that around 50,000 people had visited already and we were lucky to be there early in the morning before the rush. When we got to the grave site we were surprised to see how simple it was. Just a few newly laid pieces of turf partly covered by various flags, photographs with written inscriptions and a few wilting flowers. We were sure that in a few weeks there will be an impressive headstone and all the tourist minibuses will be lining up but for now it was a peaceful and simple memorial to a very great man.
The cemetery was also a resting place for thousands of soldiers who died in the Civil War. Where we were standing many headstones were unidentified or with numbers only – unknown soldiers who died for a cause which in some parts of the US seems to be still not finally settled.
Next stop was the historic Georgian house called Locust Grove. Founded in 1790 by William Croghan and Lucy Clark it played a very significant part in the history of this area of the US. Lucy Clark’s younger brother was William Clark who together with Merriwether Lewis were the first Europeans to find a way through the Rockies and got to the West Coast – a little like Burke and Wills except they actually discovered some useful land and made it back to Locust Grove to tell the tale. Her older brother was George Rogers Clark who started life as a surveyor but rose to become a general leading the Kentucky militia in the War of Independence. His success in beating superior British forces earned him the nickname ‘Conqueror of the North West’ and he hadn’t even reached his 30th birthday. From then on it was all downhill. A former colleague spread malicious stories about Clark’s drinking habits and financial management back at headquarters in Virginia which lead to him losing his commission and not being paid for his efforts. He spent the last half of his life living at Locust Grove with his sister, suffered a number of debilitating strokes and had his leg amputated after falling into a fire. Meanwhile the former colleague did very well – where’s the justice in that.
The original house has had a charmed life since it was built in the late 1700s. It just survived the developer’s bulldozer in 1961 and was then completely renovated recently. We learnt that while the US has a National Trust register of listed buildings similar to Australia, the final decision on whether a building is to be preserved is made by the local municipality with little recourse to a higher authority. And everyone knows that local municipalities are never influenced by developers…
The registration day for MG 2016, the National Meeting for North American MG Clubs. During the day the hotel car parks filled with around 700 MGs from all over the US and Canada plus a few ring-ins from the antipodes. We were given a warm welcome and many wanted to find out more about our adventures so it was a good day for meeting and chatting to people from all over. While we didn’t spot any pre-war models, there were many TCs and TDs, the models which started the British invasion of the US market and as expected a larger number of MGA and MGBs. Quite a few highly restored ‘trailer queens’ brought in to show off at the Concours but also many cars driven from distant starting points. Most people seemed pretty excited to be there but we did hear one passenger say she never, ever wanted to do that again. It was about 36 deg C and 70% humidity so maybe she was just having an off-moment or maybe she was talking about something else altogether….
I took Navy Car to a nearby service centre for a little TLC before the journey resumes. Ross had found an Express Service where we could drain and refill with fresh oil. We had to shop around to find the right oil grade which didn’t seem to be a problem to the service guys. They helped us remove and refit the sump shield, grease the front suspension and prop shaft, check everything underneath and then didn’t want to charge us because we hadn’t used their oil. A $20 tip seemed to be well received and we went on our way. The service on our car at home a few weeks ago cost $550 and it didn’t even need greasing!
In the evening we drove a few kms down the road to Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby – the US equivalent of the Melbourne Cup. Interestingly the track surface used for the Derby and most other races is sand over clay which is more durable and consistent than turf and probably essential for a track where they run around 700 races each year.
Today’s route took us from Auburn heading towards the MG fest in Louisville via Indianapolis the home of the self-proclaimed “Greatest race track in the World”. There may be a few other contenders who would put their hands up for that title but there’s no doubt it’s impressive in every way. The first 500 race on the 2.5 mile rectangular oval track was held on Memorial Day 1911 attended by 80,000 spectators and the winning driver averaged 120 km/h. Until 1935, the track was paved with bricks, hence the nickname “The Brickyard” but as speeds rose this surface became increasingly dangerous and there is now just a 1 yard section of the bricks remaining near the start/finish line to remind future generations of this piece of history. Until 1961 the race cars maintained a traditional front engine layout but in that year Jack Brabham created history by entering his rear engine car. He managed a 9th place finish and would have done even better except for a fuel consumption miscalculation requiring an extra pitstop but the die was cast. British driver Jim Clark driving a rear engine Lotus won easily in 1965 followed by Graham Hill in 1966. Today the quickest cars can lap at an average speed of 230 mph or 370 km/h so it must be just a very spectacular blur to the 350,000 spectators.
What was supposed to be a quiet uneventful drive turned out not so well for Simon driving Navy Car. A minor misunderstanding with another car as we were leaving the morning tea stop resulted in a scraped rear quarter panel – poor Simon was very disconsolate, his first ever accident and the first scrape for Navy Car apart from a dinged bumper over-rider caused when a van backed into us at a toll booth in Turkey. The blessing was that no-one was hurt and panels can be easily fixed.