Wednesday, 15 May 2013 22:24
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Jada Winery, Paso Robles CAI’ve never really been a beach resort or cruise ship guy when it comes to vacationing. For that matter, I’ve never really been a vacation guy when it comes to vacationing.

However, when the opportunity to get some real unwinding and decompression done after over a decade and a half of more or less ‘round the clock work presented itself, it also presented the question of how to go about doing that.

Recently, I’d had one of the best times of my life wandering around rural Nevada and parts of Northern California on an 1800 mile road trip to visit my sister and her family for the holidays. As a combination photo safari, random exploration of off-the-beaten-path places, and relatively effective way to get my butt up to my sister’s place, it provided a tremendously satisfying means of unwinding and exploring.

Frosty fences outside of Fallon, NV Nevada high desert ranch Morning in Occidental, CA Sierra Nevada sunset

My vehicle of choice for that trip was a 2011 Honda Fit, and although it’s a car that normally known  for being a solid and efficient commuter, it also proved to be a pretty solid and comfortable road trip vehicle. Great mileage, an uncanny and Tardis-like ability to swallow more cargo volume than there is car volume, and although not exactly overburdened by an excess of power, it had more than enough to cruise comfortably at the kind of speeds necessary to quickly cover large tracts of Nevada desert.

"Minimal maintenance" Chains on, near Belmont, NV NV Route 844 near Ione. Yes, this is a real road. Not too far from Area 51...

It was plucky, eager, and reliable, taking on dirt roads, high mountain passes, snow bad enough to require tire chains, and city driving with equal aplomb. I’d recommend it to anybody looking for a good all-around performer.  Other than getting stuck in the snow once on the way home, it was a perfect trip. I contemplated two things after that: One, I definitely needed to do a longer trip, and two, as solid as the Fit was, I should probably consider getting a vehicle with a touch more capability if I wanted to get more adventurous…a truck, an SUV, a Subaru Outback, something like that. (For more photos of that trip, go here.) 

However…that’s not really being adventurous. A large component of a long road trip is the vehicle you’re driving—indeed, you’ll spend the vast bulk of your time right there, driving. If you surround yourself with a cushy vehicle, then you’re not really on an adventure, you’re just out for a drive…sort of the beach resort/cruise ship version of a road trip. Obviously, what I needed was not a more capable vehicle—it was a less capable vehicle. Something with character, but without too many of the creature comforts that would insulate one from the road, the trip, the mechanisms of the vehicle, and the places and people along the way.

Luckily, I just happened to own such a vehicle—a 1967 Datsun Sports SPL-311, aka the Datsun Roadster. The car needed a little work to make it reliable and safe enough for a long trip, but cosmetically it was in decent shape.  Seemed like the best thing to do would be to get some of that work done and take it on a shakedown run before embarking on the longer trip. An opportunity presented itself in the annual Solvang Datsun Roadster Classic being held at the end of April 2013. That gave me a few weeks to spiff up the car a bit before taking it on the road.

More for the money! Datsun Wins Daytona 1967 And the chicks dig it Road & Track

 The main issue with the car at the time was the transmission. On draining the oil out of it, I got several intact and semi-intact parts coming out with the fluid, some of which were probably important to its continued operation.  I have a 5 speed transmission out of a ’68 that I considered dropping in, but at the time I was reluctant to make the necessary modifications to the transmission tunnel  (i.e., cutting a bigger hole in it), so I hunted around for a different 4 speed and found one in North Las Vegas for $100. After picking that up, I pulled the motor and transmission out of the car to do the swap. Since I had the motor out and on the stand anyway, I also freshened up some of the seals and gaskets, put a new clutch in it, and basically gave it a decent once-over. The day before my departure, the car was back together and ready to go.

Pulling the engine out before the trip This is supposed to be a) All one piece, and b) Inside my transmission, not in my hand

I first drove to Los Angeles, and the car behaved reasonably well with the exception of a few self-inflicted wounds like a loose coolant hose clamp and some issues with the voltage regulator connections. After hanging out in LA for the day, I drove up through Ventura, Ojai, and Santa Barbara to Solvang, where a Datsun Roadster invasion was actively in progress. We had a great meet ‘n greet at the Mendenhall Museum on Friday night, and then the show/meet was all day on Saturday. I met some great fellow Roadster owners, picked up some parts and tips, saw some beautiful restorations, and had a generally great time.

Roadsters at the Mendenhall Museum The car, hanging out with its brothers in Solvang

 Click here for more Solvang photos. 

That night, I had to make the decision on whether to drive back to Vegas and end the shakedown run there, or continue northward to San Francisco and turn it into a longer trip. The car seemed to be behaving itself pretty well, so I decided to go for it, and the next morning I took off for points north. I spent most of the day wandering through the wineries around Paso Robles, and slowly started filling my passenger footwell with some great wines. On the way out of the area, I found one more issue with the car (loose fuel fitting at the fuel pump) and fixed that at a rest stop, and then crashed in San Jose for the evening.

I woke up the next morning and decided to get off the freeway for a while, so I headed into the hills and went up Skyline Drive for a lovely scenic cruise.  I stopped at the famous Alice’s Restaurant, then went down the hill to Half Moon Bay and hooked a right up Route 1 toward San Francisco. Driving over the Golden Gate with the top down was a huge amount of fun, but I had a lunch date in San Rafael with the lovely Stacy Luis, so I didn’t dawdle too much around the bridge. After lunch, I headed up to see my friends Jim and Drusie on the other side of San Rafael, parked the car, and we went to a screening of “Kings of Summer” for the California Film Institute, complete with Q&A with the cast and director afterward. It’s a fun movie; I recommend checking it out when it opens for real. 

You can get anything you want... San Franciso

After staying at Jim and Drusie’s for the night, I continued up US 1 toward Occidental, where I met up with my sister and then (much to their surprise), picked up my nieces at school in the Datsun. They loved the car and the open air and the general motoring experience, so then we also took the car to dinner in downtown Occidental. It was a fun evening, and it was great to be able to surprise the girls.

The lovely ladies of Occidental, CA

Next day—back southward to Sears Point, where Jim had generously offered to let me borrow a bike and leathers/helmet/etc. for a great charity track day at Sonoma Raceway (aka Sears Point). I’d been around Sears driving a car before (in the LeMons events), but never on a bike, so it was a lot of fun to be able to get out there and run the AMA course on a couple of fast bikes—I was switching between a CBR600 and a GSXR1000 in different sessions, and it was an all-around awesome time.  Great bikes, great weather, good food, and good company. Hard to beat a day like that.

Trusty track day steeds Cabernet shootout at Chimney Rock winery Drinking and driving in Napa

Another evening of dinner with Jim and another evening at the house, and then it was time to start making my way back to Vegas, but not without a few pitstops first.  After a little TLC for the car (quart of oil, scrape the bugs off), I headed up the Silverado Trail outside of Napa and visited several more wineries. It’s a pretty different vibe in Napa than it is in Paso Robles…they seem to take themselves a little more seriously, but it was still good people and good wine, and the remaining space in my passenger footwell disappeared.   That evening, I met up with the still-lovely Stacy again for dinner, then went and crashed out for a few hours before getting up super-early and hitting the road. I figured I had an opportunity to see how both the car and my butt would do with an extended freeway run back, so I did the whole 11 hour trip in one big push, staying primarily on I-5 and I-15, which for the Roadster meant a steady 4100RPM in fourth gear.  Both the car and my butt did quite nicely, so now at least I know it’s do-able if I have to, although that’s not really the kind of road trip I’m after.

So, the upshot? The long road trip is a go (which you probably already figured out if I went so far as to put up a website).  I’ve got a long list of stuff to do to the car pre-trip, mostly having to do with freshening up the brakes, suspension, and steering, and generally taking care of anything mechanical that might give me trouble down the road due to age or wear and tear. I’m not going to worry about the cosmetics of the car; I figure I can make it pretty once it’s done getting pounded on this trip. And, living in Las Vegas, I know I’m not going to get a real chance to see how it does in the rain (leakage-wise), but I’ll do my best with a garden hose and try to eliminate any bad leaks around the top or elsewhere. Also, I think I’m going to try to put that five speed transmission in it for this trip, both for science and to be a little kinder to the engine on the freeway.  I figure once I get all that done and I have an exorcism for the variety of squeaks and rattles that showed up along the way, I’ll be ready to go. What could go wrong?

Now to completely disassemble the car to prep for the trip…you know, like you do. 




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