Nathan is a designer and Turo guest blogger based in the SF Bay Area. When he’s not building beautiful things, you’ll find him building motorcycles and fixing up vintage Bimmers in his warehouse in West Oakland.
It was a month after a pretty nasty motorcycle accident, that I bought my first car: a 1973 BMW 2002 Automatic. I like high speeds and, honestly, when I was told it would be better for my health, I was not in a place to argue.
I spent the following 18 months of weekends at Sears Point (a race car track near Napa, CA) with Bill Watson, who has to be the most eloquent, knowledgeable, curious, and fastidious BMW mechanic in existence. I bought my car from him, and lived and breathed 2002s at his shop, getting it road-ready, switching to a 5-speed manual, and making it faster and happier. It’s addicting work, waking a car from a long slumber!
Once it was running, I got my girlfriend Annie to join me, and we spun around back roads in the Oakland hills a couple times a week. It was great. I loved it. I parked it in my living room. It was family. But I bought the car knowing I wanted to do rallies, and vintage rallies — from the Melee to the Mille — are plentiful here in the Bay Area. A pal of mine was doing a rally in his dirty ’56 Porsche, and after I saw the photos and heard the stories, I had to sign up.
So this June, I drove into Placerville, CA and signed up for the 10th annual Motherlode 400. The race covers 400+ miles in two days, and all vehicles have to be pre-1975 — most of them are European cars. Essentially, 60 drivers register to spend two days pushing their cars and themselves down narrow, desolate roads and spending the night at divey motels.
Crazier still, 45 or so of these drivers had co-pilots! My own co-pilot for the race was Annie, who has the rare talent of being able to read maps — both the route book and GPS simultaneously — plus give turn-by-turn details, all while being pitched from side to side. After meeting most of the co-pilots, I can say that the people who accept the job of co-piloting a rally are keepers: some of the most optimistic, durable souls on the planet.
In preparation for the race, I packed 40 pounds of tools. Pared it down to 20. Then down to 15. Added a few pounds back and moved on. A good third of excitement is anxiety and I was ridiculously excited. Don’t dwell on it, but genuine excitement isn’t as common as we’d all like to think.
The rally didn’t start until 9 am on Saturday, but check-in was the night before. So we spent a good portion of the evening watching all of the Alfas, Porsches, BMWs, Sunbeams, and Jaguars pile into our motel parking lot at dusk. I’ve been to Pebble Beach and other car shows, but none compares to this.
The cars — some of which are concours-worthy — aren’t being wheeled off a semi and rolled onto a golf course, they’re being driven a couple hundred miles to a rally, where they’ll go for a 400 hard miles and then go a couple hundred more on the way home. Some have been beautifully restored, but many are owner-maintained and driven hard regularly.
It means so much to me that these cars still drive. Back in that shop at Sears Point, there was a tantrically slow, zen element to working on my car, that I thought no one else would get. When the race finally began on Saturday morning, I was hustling the 02 through old gold mining routes, chasing other nuts who had suffered the same or worse, and there was a sense of unity.
There were many mechanical snafus along the way, but most drivers seemed no worse for the wear. Another 2002 died in the first ten miles, pulling off before the parade-speed orientation miles were done. Two guys coming out from SF in a Volvo had their rear wheel pass them at about 60 miles out. A French guy in a Porsche 356c lost a bout with a cattle guard at speed, shearing off his oil filter mount. A TR3 lost its generator on the first day, and even after a local mechanic with one on hand, swung by the motel that night to fix it, the fuel pump went out the next day.
Being that far out in the wild and depending on a 40–50 year old car takes pluck, and maybe more importantly, the knowledge and patience to get it going again. Not everything is repairable roadside, so an unflappable gung-ho spirit is mandatory. By the end of the second day I was hot pink, steeped in sweat and coated in layers of dust. The car was filthy and wore it well.
Motivated by a fear of missing out, Annie and I ran every bonus section in the route book, putting us well above 400. All told, we’d done 553 rally miles on asphalt, dirt, gravel and 4X4-only serious off-roading sections. Forty out of the sixty cars had made it to the finish and ours was one of them. Putting my statistics cap on, 1 in 3 doesn’t make it, or, more optimistically, you have a 66% chance of making it. If that sounds good, you’ve found your people.
The finishers dinner was at held at a winery in Murphys — a high-tone spot that actually agreed to host us. Check out the picture. It’s the same caliber of cars you’d see at a vintage car show, but instead of being waxed and put under a cover, they’d been on a real adventure, loved up and wrung out.
Withdrawal from the rally was rough. Jonesing for more of those roads and small towns, we went up to Gold Country a couple weeks later. On the way home, with 75 miles to go, our fuel pump gave up. We had Josue, a flatbed driver from Stockton, take us home. The new fuel pump comes Friday, so we should be out on the backroads by the weekend.