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 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 & Hutch, Kojak, 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.
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.
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?’
‘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.
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…
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.
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?
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.