Drive Story : AROnline goes Stateside

Despite being well into the autumn of his life, Keith Adams had made it until the beginning of 2012 without setting foot in the USA.

However, the past couple of weeks saw all that change… and here are his first thoughts of the great place.

From one extreme to another

The long and, er, straight road beckons
The long and, er, straight road beckons

The USA and I have enjoyed a strange relationship. As a kid I loved the place – it just seemed so exotic when depicted in TV dramas such as Starsky & HutchKojak, or The Rockford Files. The roads were wide, the scenery expansive, and the cars all made squealy noises in the corners, and rumbled like drag cars up the straights. As I grew up, I came to appreciate the difference between fiction and reality, and how environments depicted on TV may bear little resemblance to reality, and my cynicism for USA began to build. And as my life progressed, it increased.

Then, by a huge stroke of luck, I found myself writing about cars for a living, and as a consequence, ended up dealing with countless American petrolheads (or is that gearheads?), and found to my delight, that they’re actually very nice people. Very nice indeed. But despite having become a seasoned old hack over the past seven years, I still managed to avoid visiting the place. I think it’s a case of my hatred of flying outweighing my curiosity about the USA.

I came quite close to visiting last year, but as I was going on a job, I needed an journalist’s I-visa, and I didn’t get time to sort one out. Shame, it looked like a good gig. So when Jaguar’s offered a drive of the new XKR-S in California, I made sure that there would be no excuses, and promptly applied for said document. A week later, and after far more faffing than I would have liked, the visa was mine, and I was all set to head off to California.

After an 11-hour flight, and fighting jetlag, we arrive in San Diego. It surprises me just how thorough the border crossing at the airport is – I mean, I have a passport and all the correct documentation, so why am I being fingerprinted and having my eyes scanned even before I’m interrogated about the purpose of my visit. It doesn’t put me in a great mood. But still, this is America, and once through and clear of the airport, I’m wide-eyed and excited as we drive through the Californian evening to arrive at my hotel. As per usual, I’ve not slept on the ‘plane, and although I’ve done my best to adjust to the new timezone, it’s still difficult not to equate to the fact that once sat down at the hotel, I’m actually eating crayfish after a sleepless night at what would be breakfast time in the UK.

Still, it’s a nice experience to be eating outdoors in February, and to meet people who work in the service industry who seem genuinely pleased to be doing what they’re doing. And more than that, I’m excited about driving a Jaguar XKR-S the following morning. Who wouldn’t be?

As it happens, the XKR-S is magnificent. But then you all know that already. I have a 200-mile journey to the US Navy air base El Centro (where they shot some of Top Gun no less) to reacquaint myself with JLR’s flagship coupe, and don’t quite know what to expect. Driving out of San Diego, other than a few L322 Range Rovers and late-ish Jaguars, I see very few British cars on the roads, and can’t help but feel a little sad. But once we’re on to the sweeping A-roads, that feeling of disappointment is replaced at joy at just how good the big Jag is.

But being California, the scenery is a constantly changing tapestry unfolding in the windscreen. Rolling green hills give way to barren mountains that seem to be made from golden boulders the size of cows – and our twisting dual carriageway is wending a meandering course through them. Just as I’m getting used to pushing a little harder than is prudent, we’re out in to the shrubby desert and running alongside the Mexican border – the horizon a shimmering and ever-changing target. I won’t pretend I’m not impressed. This is driving heaven for someone fortunate to find themselves with 550bhp under their right toe…

…only the constant reminders from the roadside signs that this is one of the most heavily patrolled borders in the world – and that they’re also spying from the sky – dissuade us from breaking the law. Too much.

The perfect tool for arrow-straight desert roads
The perfect tool for arrow-straight desert roads

After the liberating feeling of having this fast and undulating road to ourselves for what feels like hours (but is probably only 20 minutes or so), we’re back into ‘civilisation’, and the small, dusty towns of Central California. For those who love the melody of a V8, there’s nothing better than the USA – you’ll hear it all the time. But every time did, I spun round to take a look, and all I saw was beaten-up pick-up trucks. Still, nice sound.

We still have our rendezvous at El Centro. And then there’s a ‘plane to catch this evening. Yes, I’m only going to be enjoying California for the day, and the idea is to take the XKR-S down the runway and see how fast it can go. We roll through El Centro, and admire the well manicured lawns. It seems a bastion of neatness in the middle of a dust bowl. When we roll up to the entrance of the air base, things are a little tense – we hand all our documents over to unsmiling armed guards and wonder what’s about to happen.

Of course, as guests of Jaguar, there’s no need to worry. We’re ordered to follow a golf buggy with two airmen up front, who head us towards a hanger and briefing. And within an hour, we’re scorching down the runway to see how fast an XKR-S will go. You can read all about that on the Octane website – but needless to say, it was over 170mph. It’s a nice day’s work, and ends all too soon.

The drive back to San Diego throws up a couple of interesting moments. A roadside scrap yard-cum-museum throws up a trio of Triumphs rotting in a quiet corner, patinated paint baked in decades of Californian sun. Some would say they need saving – and they are certainly aren’t rusty – but there’s a curious attractiveness to a car returning to mother earth. Time to move on, and after a few miles, it’s time to pull off the main highway and try out a road-side diner. It’s time to – at least once – cut-loose from the ‘programme’ and interact with the locals.

Triumph TR6, TR7, TR3 and Porsche 914 are returning to the earth by the roadside.
Triumph TR6, TR7, TR3 (behind the camera) and Porsche 914 are returning to the earth by the roadside.

The diner is a single building remotely located by the dusty roadside away from the freeway. There’s a couple of pick-ups in car park, and when I walk in, it’s just how I imagined it would be – there’s a bar, it’s under-lit, there’s one customer perched on a stool, and country music playing in the background. I want to use the toilet, but it’s for customers only. As I’ve seen an ATM sign outside, I figure I can buy a beer, but first to draw a few dollars out. But where is it?

‘Excuse me,’ I say in my clearest most English accent to the barman. ‘Where’s the ATM please?’

‘What now?’ he replies.

‘Your ATM, please. Where is it?’

‘What now?’

‘A. T. M. Where is it please?’

“Er…’ he says…

At this point, the customer chimes in and explains to the barman what I’m looking for, and then nods in the direction of the back room.

Card inserted, the ATM processes my requests. And says no. Request rejected. Bugger. Then a text message pops up on my ‘phone: ‘This is Barclays Fraud protection. Please call us immediately.’ Sigh. And I still need a wee…

I trudge back into the bar.

‘Can I use your toilet,’ I ask the barman.

‘Git the hell out of here, and git back into ya car,’ he shouts.

Point taken. I’m out of here. And forget the pushing feeling on my bladder, as I’m thinking more about whether the bartender’s packing a weapon. And we’re on our way again, and head back into the mountains. And that’s when the heavens open. Californians like to tell me about their great weather and how it’s sunny 300 days a year, and here I am wending my way through the mountains. In the dark. With the rain lashing down, following the sat/nav’s dulcet American tones guiding us back to the airport.

As introductions to the USA, it was rushed, frantic, and a bit emotional. And as silly as it seems, but I’ve already decided that I love the place. Possibly even more than I love the XKR-S. I know I have another trip planned for the USA in 10 days’ time, and I’m looking forward to four days on the ground in Florida, rather than the single one in California.

My good friend and Triumph-loving man in Detroit, Richard Truett, comes from Orlando, my destination (after flying back to the UK, Kuwait, then home, then Geneva via Nice), and is happy to point me in the right direction for things to do while I’m in Florida. What he didn’t prepare me for was the heat – and as I step off the Boeing 777, it’s about as hot as the south of France in August, and considerably more humid.

Sonic might not be the first thing that pops into your head when you think of a Chevrolet to drive in the USA - but it proved more than up to the task.
Sonic might not be the first thing that pops into your head when you think of a Chevrolet to drive in the USA - but it proved more than up to the task.

But I don’t mind. It’s somewhere new, and once again, every local I’ve come in contact with is genuinely friendly and inquisitive. And as I head over to Prestige Autos to pick up the Chevrolet Sonic LTZ (that’s an Aveo to us Brits) that Richard arranged, I find myself weirdly excited once again at driving somewhere new and alien to me. But then I do love driving, and I love experiencing new places. Thing is, the Sonic is a bit smaller than the average Floridian motor, and as I roll into the first overnight stop, a Budget Inn, in St Cloud, I’m impressed by the sheer number of good ol’ boys cruising the strip in their oversized pick-ups and howling V8s. Very impressed indeed.

Shame the rumbling keeps me aware during the night, but needs must.

The next morning I take the Aveo – I mean Sonic – for a drive, and almost screech to a halt at the first set of lights. An MGB is in the parking lot adjacent, and I want a closer look. Swinging round, I drive into the dealer’s courtyard and seek out the seller. ‘Can I take some pictures,’ I ask. ‘Sure,’ the friendly salesman replies, before confirming it’s up for sale for a customer for $4500, which I mentally calculate to be around £3000… It’s the first British car I see in Florida, and I’m pleased to see it in such rude health.

But time to press on. Travelling partner Mark Dixon and I have over 150 miles to cover to get to Amelia Island to the north near the border with Georgia, and we’re going to stay away from the Interstate to get a truer flavour of Florida. After getting a few miles under our belts, I start to get a feel for the roads, and it’s clear that despite packing 1.2-litres and 85bhp, and being hooked up to a six-speed autobox, the Chevy is actually very well suited to our surroundings. Why? Well, the drivers seem pretty sleepy round here, and the speed limits are low, and in these conditions, I’m finding myself held up by the natives.

I do smile after an overtake where Mark Dixon describes the engine note as being akin to a blender on ‘High’ setting…

Sublime to ridiculous: Chevrolet Sonic meets 450bhp Impala SS
Sublime to ridiculous: Chevrolet Sonic meets 450bhp Impala SS

We pass through town after town, and the lack of British cars, I think, is quite tragic. Yes, there seems to be a few MINIs here, but as US journalist Myles Kornblatt later tells me, it’s more BMW than MINI around these parts, sadly. But I don’t give up hope – after all, ARCONA, the importer for Sterling in the 1980s was based here – so I’d expect to see at least one Rover 800 in US-drag. From the moment, I arrived, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled, and half way through day two, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The day’s drive up to Amelia Island is interesting, and I do enjoy the complete change of environment compared with the UK, but I miss corners. I really do. On one motorway cloverleaf that advises of a 35mph speed restriction, I barrel into it it at well over 70mph, and it doesn’t even begin to trouble the feisty little Chevy. But then, why would it? These limits are obviously designed for far less wieldy motors than this.

I do stop at one small town, and take a look at some of the scrapped cars in a small garage. As you’ll see from the gallery below, there’s no shortage of abandoned Jaguars. Maybe they’re struggling to find parts. Because I can’t think of any other reason why you’d dump an XJ40 or X300 here. Even as fuel prices are on the rise in the USA, and the locals are complaining about it, the idea of paying $3.70 for a gallon of petrol seems pretty sensible to a Brit like me. To save you working that out, it’s about half what we pay – and to give you a better idea, the Chevy costs us $38 to fill up from empty later on in the trip.

But again, the more time I spend here in the USA, the more I like it – and the more I wish us Brits had sold more cars here. Given that Americans seem to like us, I’d hope that an understanding of our cars would follow – but I guess the lack of reliability and quality in the old days put paid to that.

We got to see the Jaguar C-X16 in motion, and it really does look the business.
We got to see the Jaguar C-X16 in motion, and it really does look the business.

But we made the drive up to Amelia Island in one piece, and the concours event was amazing – the Americans really do things on a different scale to us Brits. It was good to see our fair share of home-built products once we made it to the beach resort. Including the Jaguar C-X16 concept, which looks increasingly like a production car to me. In fact, at the end of the show (which you can read all about on the Octane website) we got to see it in motion – and, boy, does it look good. So good, that Porsche really should start worrying now. Also plenty in evidence was the Range Rover Evoque, which just seems to look better and better each time I see it.

The trip back to Orlando from Amelia Island was uneventful. I did get stopped for speeding on the way to the motorway, but the police officer (who was very visibly carrying a gun) didn’t seem that interested once he realised I was British (could you imagine that happening in France). The route we took back consisted mainly of motorway – sorry, Interstate – and I do have to say that my experience of this was very positive indeed. Why? The lanes are wider, the traffic flows freely (even on a busy stretch), and there’s so many stop off points to do something on. As for why the traffic rolls along better, that’s easy – you can overtake on either side, and the trucks seem to roll along at roughly the same speed as the cars. So no bunching. Could we do that in the UK? Probably not…

As for the USA, what is AROnline‘s verdict of the place, based on a pair of admittedly whistle-stop tours? In short we love it! Okay, so Florida is a bit crowded and the roads lack anything really resembling bends, but California more than makes up for that. There’s a dearth of British cars, and that does start me wondering about a mission to re-populate the USA with classic cars from this side of the pond – perhaps that’s just what the USA needs: an Austin-Rover dealership selling Ambassadors, Maestros and SD1s in every downtown area.

Wonder if the Americans would thank me, or send me packing?


Keith Adams


  1. Splendid and keen observations, Keith. When I was growing up in Florida, British cars were everywhere — the weather, roughly 10 months of summer — made the place perfect for MGs and Triumphs. A decade after BL pulled out, MG and TRs were still so common on Florida roads you’d never know both companies were dead.

    I dream of returning there someday — from the miserable confines of Detroit — and exploring the few really good roads there are in my TR8. Next time you are in Florida, a drive up the east coast, from Daytona to St. Augustine on U.S. 1 should be on your agenda.

  2. Nice to see that you had a good time in the USA! I live in Florida and will say that not all of the roads are straight. However, to find the curves, you have to go to a few rural farming areas away from the big cities.

    With regards to guns, yes the majority of American households have one or more firearms. However, you need not be afraid of those of us who have them. Gun ownership is a right of citizenship for non-felons in the US. Law-abiding citizens who have them are usually responsible with them because they know the consequences for irresponsible gun use. They are not looking for a fight or an excuse to use them on another person, unless that person is posing an imminent threat to them or their family. As far as the police go, there is one easy way to ensure that they will not shoot you: Don’t pull a gun on them or start a fight with them. You also have to remember that it is a very large country and most of it is not densely populated. Thus, having a gun is a way to ensure your own safety when the nearest police officer might be an hour away or if you are threatened by a large animal. Go hiking in the Alaskan wilderness unarmed and it will likely be the last thing you ever do.

    As far as the paucity of older British iron goes, you are correct in assuming that it has to do with reliability. However, it also has to do with the high cost of replacement parts. They are not cheap to keep running in the US and so when a major component fails, they get scrapped. There simply is not a lot of resale for an old, complex luxury car that is past it’s prime here. This also goes for most old Lincoln and Cadillac models as well as 7 series Bimmers and gas engined Mercs. Diesel Mercs however, have a huge cult following. In the US, it is not unusual for a car to be driven 200,000+ miles and so vehicles that can absorb the miles, like the W123 and W126 Merc diesel are prized by their owners. This also holds true for older Honda, Nissan and Toyota models. In fact, a 1991 Nissan Sentra (Sunny) in mint condition will probably fetch more money than a similar condition and year XJ40! Part of this is because no one uses public transportation. There is a huge negative stigma to it unless you are in a major city like New York. Riding a bus means you live in poverty and no one wants to be seen in that light. So, everyone has a car and needs it to work.

  3. Glad you liked the US, I’ve been going there for many years now, i have family in LA and upstate New York.
    California is my favorite. The diverse areas in LA from driving from San Diego up through Santa Monica on up to Santa Barbara on the PCH (Pacific coast highway) is fantastic. And the drive through the Mojave desert to Las Vegas is one of the hottest drives i have ever done.
    Plus the fact that wherever you are you can pull over at any time of day or night and get anything to eat with endless amount of coffee with free top ups.
    So to say i likes the place is an understatement i have been there more times than i have to North Wales.
    The one thing i notice about the cars people drive on the west coast is that many of them are, old but still being used as every day transport like the time i seen a type 2 VW crew cab pick up from the sixties still being used as a work horse.

  4. Glad you had a good time here! Yes, older British cars are a somewhat unusual sight here, though MG and Triumph sports cars are frequently brought out by their owners in the summer, and the occasional old Jag is still seen on the road.

    Others have not fared as well. Haven’t seen an Austin America in a very long time (they were common back in the day), or for that matter a Marina which was also sold here. Cars like Triumph Herald, Rover 2000TC, etc. are pretty much a distant memory. A few years back I did see someone driving a Humber Super Snipe! So they’re out here, but spread thin on the ground over a large territory. Best chance for sightings of course is outside of the rust belt.

  5. hi been to florida 3 times now with my family might be going this year fingers crossed.
    i love american cars chargers etc i have a v8 sd1 american engine and GM auto box. always feel safe in the us and wonderful optomistic people. glad to be on your side.
    saw an xj40 in orlando last year and a lot of discoveries.

  6. How many French cars do you see in America these days?

    I was in Pennsylvania for 10 days last year and saw a couple of British cars (one MGB, one TR6) and no French cars of any age.

  7. I do love spending time in the US even though I hate their straight roads.

    I was fortunate enough to attend the Detroit motorshow last year and really enjoyed what’s left of the city. As a true petrol head you must visit the place at some point. I went on across country road trip a few years ago driving from San Francisco to Washington DC via Tuscon, Yellowstone and Chicago. 5200 miles in a massive V8 SUV was great fun. problem was I only had 16 days to do it in so I have seen many things i’d like to go back to. I’ve even stupidly driven in New York City, an experience that I’m happy not to repeat.

    Just need an excuse to go back now.

  8. That was a good read and as someone who’s never been to the US, made me want to visit, and not to visit, in equal measure!

  9. @6 IanW – French cars seem to be even rarer than British ones here but there are occasional sightings. I recently saw a Citroen 2CV parked on the street of a small town. Also saw a guy pull into a diner with a Citroen DS a couple of years ago. Back in the 1980s Renault-designed cars were built and sold by in the U.S. by AMC but most of those are long gone. (Have seen a couple around recently though.) Can’t remember the last time I saw a Peugeot.

  10. Mention of (a lack of visible) British and French cars in the US reminds me of our trip to the US a few years ago.

    When we arrived at Monument Valley, there must have been a good dozen Citroen Traction Avants there, along with a Citroen SM ‘minder’ whose cars were marked up explaining that they were doing an LA to Chicago (or in the other direction, I forget which) Route 66 road trip.

  11. When I was over there last in 2008 I saw a fair amount of Discoveries, Freelanders & Range Rovers, along with lots of Minis. Also the odd Jaguar here & there.

    I can’t remember seeing any other European cars that weren’t German or Swedish.

  12. You’re piece was wonderful. For 2 years I lived in Jacksonville FL near Amelia Island and you are correct in that the Concours’ shows there are very well run events. However, I believe you are quoting incorrect engine specs/figures for your Sonic/Aveo. In the US, you either get a 1.8L 138hp 4 cyl or a 1.4L Turbo 138hp 4 cyl. not the 1.2L 85hp you mention. I think that will be the new motor on the upcoming Chevy Spark micro car that will be introduced this coming summer to US drivers.
    I love this website, keep up the great articles!

  13. Dammitt Keith… the NEXT time you’re in Orlando, I would be honoured to host you, or render whatever assistance you may need.

    Amelia island is pretty, and the concours event usually draws a few stunners.

    You do see a few British cars around here, I’ve seen a Moggy minor traveler in the traditional green, and there are dozens of MG Roadsters (you rarely ever see a BGT).

    Feel free to drop me a line if you’re coming through Orlando again. -I’d be delighted to do whatever.

  14. Probably the main reason Jag’s get binned is the cost of parts. I mean plenty of XJ-40’s, XJS and X-300’s get binned even in the UK simply because an ECU has died, often they’re not worth replacing as you could spend a fortune on the part only to find the car is still dead. Sensors can give similar problems, i mean if you have to spend £150 on a single sensor then after fitting find the problem lies elsewhere it’s a big gamble.

    Obviously the warm dry climate in places helps preserve the body shells in terms of corrosion but Rubber and Plastic parts tend to split and disintegrate in the heat. Imagine the cost of having a garage replace all the rubber bushes in a Jag’s suspension. If the plastic trim and veneers are all cracked and split too, it could be that the car just isn’t worth anything.

    The dashes on the Early Discovery’s used to come unstuck and peal up even in the UK climate, they must have been terrible in say California!

  15. @ Dennis: Couldn’t agree with you more. I went to the self service salvage yard today (in Tampa, FL) and it was littered with older Jags. Nearly all of them had shriveled leather, sun bleached vinyl and crumbling veneer. The cost of trimming such a car just doesn’t make sense when viewed against it’s resale value. Oddly enough, I was actually looking for seats while there, but not for a British car. I was instead looking for something in dark blue that I could adapt to my 3 cylinder Suzuki. I settled on a set from a Merc W201 but ran out of time to pull them. I looked at the Jags because of how narrow the seats are but could find nothing in a colour that worked that was not destroyed by the sun.

  16. “I looked at the Jags because of how narrow the seats are but could find nothing in a colour that worked that was not destroyed by the sun.”

    If you get some beige coloured ones, they’re fairly easy to dye to a colour of your choice.

  17. “I’ve heard that hot dry conditions can be hard on mechanical parts.”

    Indeed dust and heat gets into rubber seals, making them wear quicker, often that can mean a lot of work to replace a simple rubber seal.

    I suppose the best thing to do would be buy a car from down south then use the mechanicals and interior from a northern car and make one good one.

  18. Its funny reading this as I have just completed a 6000 km meandering trip from Nova Scotia to Key West and back in a Firm car (a 2007 XJ).

    I’ve got to take my hat off to Jaguar as I was in the driving seat up to 13 hours a day and it really wasn’t too painful. I have a bad back and trying that in most cars would leave me hospitalised but the X350 was incredibly comfortable.

    The Boston to NY corridor is an effing nightmare. Imagine the worst day on the M25 you can think of – one where the traffic is flowing but every other car is driven by a psychopath. Going across the GW bridge from Manhatten I was doing twice the posted speed limit in the middle lane, had cars going past me on both sides as well as a selection of horn happy tailgaters and I was the slowest car on the road!

    Having said that North Carolina was beautiful; a clear day, an empty highway, not a sign of a traffic cop. What could I do?

  19. (quote)North Carolina was beautiful; a clear day, an empty highway, not a sign of a traffic cop. What could I do? (/quote)

    …hopefully, have a Valentine One set to “all alerts”! 😉

  20. Your next trip needs to be Atlanta. We’re ranked 2nd in the Nation’s worst traffic list; but you will see a broad range of cars. There are some very scenic and winding roads in the mountains just an hour away as well. I take the Challenger some weekends. There is usually a car show or two, as well. Although, you will mostly see American muscle and a Fiat or a Jag. I had a proper drool session over a beautiful E type last year. Still regret not jumping behind the wheel and taking my chances with the authorities.

    I loved the article. You captured and painted the experience so clearly that I almost thought I was a Brit. Then I remembered…”Oh, I carry a gun too.” (Jim Bob is spot on). You see a lot of abandoned British cars due to lack of parts and cost of a proper mechanic. Many gearheads- I mean petrolhealds- don’t get their hands dirty here. The good thing about the abandoned cars you saw is the lack of rust. The air is dry there.

    As far as French cars (@IanW) I occasionally spot a Citroen, and have seen a Bugatti (once- and I couldn’t believe it. I had to look it up to be sure).

  21. I was in Florida earlier this summer with a rented Chevy Equinox – not a bad car actually. Driving standards were also generally very good as well. What did surprise me was the convergence with cars here – much more common models than there were when I was a kid.

    There were quite a few newish Brit cars over there – lots of Minis, a few Quashqais and Jukes, Range Rovers and Discoveries (no Freelanders) and a few Jags – the XF seems to be doing ok.

    As mentioned I saw nothing French

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