Missing a flight is always annoying. And trust me – I’ve missed a few… There might be a holiday to go on, a family event to get to, or even more importantly – a car show to attend. Back in January, Ben Chandler and I were due to fly in to Detroit for the annual North American International Auto Show. Having flown from London to New York, we found ourselves in the middle of an ice storm, a connecting plane that didn’t seem to want to even get to our airport, and a fast looming deadline…
So what did we do, give up? Hell no. We rented a HEMI and hit the road. Failure was not an option.
Most airports look the same. There are varying levels of scale and quality, of course, but the basics are always constant – battle-hardened check-in staff included. In fact, most people who travel professionally these days often refer to the whole affair as some sort of military operation. Get in, get there and get out. Thankfully, Ben is not one of these. So when faced with the reality of a cancelled flight after having been awake for roughly 20 hours, a smile was quickly followed by a plan. Because in life you can either sit around bemoaning the delays, or you can take control of the situation and do something about it.
Based on what the map apps on our phones were telling us, it looked like our final destination was around 600 miles away – no more than a 10-hour drive we figured. We had a booking with a hire car company for collection that evening in Detroit, so we contacted them to see about changing that to include driving something (anything!) from NYC. After we were quoted what I assume it would cost to charter a private jet for the journey, we found ourselves in the Hertz offices, as their price was something far more in keeping with our budget. Which is when Ben happened upon quite possibly the best person in the world at that exact moment. She went by the name of ‘Agent Lillian’ and after a couple of tired English guys did a stupid dance (voluntarily I might add) and made her laugh, she upgraded our hastily reserved booking of a Ford Focus…
To a Dodge RT Challenger! Did that just happen? Really? What, that one outside? I scanned my license and we collected the keys. Yes it did and I don’t care about the why or the how. It’s dark, we’re wearings sunglasses and it’s… Oh, you get the idea.
Ben started looking at me with mild concern as I slipped into the Dodge’s driver seat. I can remember muttering words about Vanishing Point, Kowalski, V8s and my undying affection for my compatriot’s powers of persuasion. The tiredness stripped away as finally we were making progress on our own terms, instead of being beholden to a series of check-in desks and unreliable air carriers. We were sat in a V8-powered ticket to freedom.
Easing away from LaGuardia Airport, there were patches of snow by the side of the road with slush and murk being flicked at the windscreen. At this point I’d been awake for, well, ‘long enough’ shall we say, and here we were in an RT with the greater area of New York City ahead of us. It’s at this stage I’d love to say we Cannonballed it to Detroit, but frankly that would have taken the fun out of it. So with NYC out of the way we found the first hotel that didn’t look like we would be murdered in, was affordable, and that actually had a room available. Which meant there was going to be a long way to go when the sun came up. Good thing we had a fast car, right?Hammer Down Time
Those who know me well will know that I’m a big fan of road tripping. Anywhere is good but America tends to be better. For a start it’s an English-speaking country, so although the accent thing can get in the way sometimes, it’s generally not too hard to make yourself understood and enjoy some banter with whoever you meet along the way. Sure, there’s more challenge in getting a 60-year-old classic across the Sahara Desert, but sometimes it’s nice to just cruise.
As for the Challenger, it makes for a pretty ideal road trip vehicle for two blokes and some camera equipment. So it’s not running a massive twin turbo setup, track-ready suspension or a wild interior, but what we need to remember that this is a rental car. A rental car that has 375hp on tap. That should do…
This to me is a proper American car. The refinement levels aren’t up to European standards by any means, but then again, if you compare this to a BMW M5 I don’t think I’d want to do a donut on dirt in the M5, where as this bad boy is just begging for it! US metal has always had that allure of the rugged wild west to it. That might sound odd to you if you live stateside, but as a European it is drummed in to us from an early age that the United States is a massive film set where everybody catches their own dinner before cooking it on a campfire, and where if you don’t high five and whoop at least twice a day your citizenship is in danger.
And that’s no bad thing, because there’s nothing wrong with cutting loose sometimes. I can’t remember the last time I saw a brand new European model – other than a supercar – that came in such a bright hue. HEMI Orange as it’s called, which I assume is taken from the colour of the original HEMI engine blocks. Suddenly it makes Acquese Blue sound a little light in the gear shift, huh? I want more colours named after legendary power houses!
The Challenger came with a GPS system, so although I think we only needed to make two turns in 500 miles after escaping NYC, it was nice to know it didn’t really matter if we wanted to make some more.
But we were here to make up time. The original plan had been to spend Sunday visiting the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn followed by a meeting later on in the afternoon with a couple of legends who’d flown in for the NAIAS. Instead, we had some driving to do. If yore familiar with this part of the country you’ll know that we weren’t on the most exciting of routes. Cold, hard tarmac, often tree-lined with little foliage in early January to add some colour, and the odd passing town marked by five-storey-high billboards and universally recognisable logos. That’s about it.
When it comes to eating though, I have a theory that no more than five minutes off any major route you’ll find somewhere better and cheaper than the options you’re presented with if you stick to the rest areas. That’s the beauty of hitting the road instead of flying – what would we have been eating at 35,000ft if the flight had made it?
I bet it wouldn’t have been as good as this spread. Nothing fancy here, just good old fashioned home-cooked fare that doesn’t require a mortgage to purchase. In fact, this plate of food perfectly represented my feeling of freedom; my power of choice. That may or may not be a good thing depending on your point of view, but it tasted fine and I always like try and support an independent business if possible. Ben just wanted to eat though. We didn’t have long and shortly after this picture was taken, that lot was in my belly.
Back in the cabin of the starship HEMI and fuelled by gravy and greens, I hit upon what I thought would be a most amazing plan. The last time I drove this route was in 2007 when I stopped off at a friend’s house in Dubois, PA. I told Ben he’d like what Greg had in the garage, if only I could remember the way to his house. Not knowing whether he’d be home, no phone number to call him on, and seven years since we last caught up, I just figured that meant we had the element of surprise on our side. So we turned off the 80 to see what we could find…We Did 185mph In That?
As much as I love traveling, discovering new places, tastes, sights and sounds, I also like to feel comfortable once in a while – to feel familiar with my surroundings, even if it’s just for a moment or two. So if I can combine those feelings then even better, and the further from home or normality then better again. So as Ben tanked up the RT I wandered around the icy-cold forecourt with a subtle smile on my face. Bearing in mind I was a jet-lagged Englishman, I figured the locals probably wouldn’t be too understanding of my seemingly unprovoked demeanour so I kept it low key. The reason was because seven years ago when I was passing through this small town in Pensylvania I stopped at this same fuel station and fueled up my ’47 Ford Tudor street rod as I was headed across to New Jersey on a blistering hot July day. There’s been a few yesterdays since then, but it felt good to know where I was.
I know I mentioned it last year when I drove the Double Down Mustang away from Vegas, but I swear the price of fuel in America is both delightful and annoying at the same time. If I do the precise maths, it’ll only annoy me more, so best I just mention that this is way less than half of what it would cost for the same amount back in the UK. Another thing that impressed me about the Challenger was its overall fuel consumption. Given that we drove it pretty hard and the novelty of having that riotous factory V8 under the bonnet, we still averaged 25mpg! I know that probably means we should have driven it harder, but in all seriousness, if you’re think of renting one and you’re arriving from Europe, your fuel costs will be similar to a vehicle that does over 50mpg back home for the same mileage covered. So you still think renting a Focus is a good idea? Come on…
Thanks to our earlier pit stop, we avoided the $4 foot-long subs and I took the wheel to try and remember my way to Greg’s house. Greg is the local Ford dealer by the way, so I hoped the Dodge wouldn’t burst in to flames if I did manage to find his driveway!
I needn’t have worried though, because my sense of direction and memory was working well. No more than 10 minutes later we were stood in his immaculate garage, admiring a very special 2006 Mustang. I navigated for Greg in this car during the 2007 Silver State Classic event, so just seeing it sat there brought back warm memories of blasting through the desert in Nevada at 180mph+. It was very good to see old friends again. Ben watched as we attempted to catch up on seven years in 10 minutes, but all too soon we had to hit the road again. It was a painfully short visit, but better than nothing. Plus, I never would never have forgiven myself if we’d have kept going and not even tried to stop.
As the late morning turned in to afternoon and the skies started to clear and brighten, the landscape opened up too. I have a few happy places, but driving the Dodge was climbing up that list quickly. So much so I was prompted to practice my Jay Leno sideways grin to camera. It’ll never be as good as the big man’s, but I can try.
With our spirits flying high and good progress being made, we stopped for some more food before a last dash into Detroit and the demon schedule we knew that awaited us. When you make a plan, it can go wrong, which is what it probably would have looked like to the outside world if we had explained the events of the last 18 hours. I have a different take on things though.
You can only plan based on what you know, or think you know, so when something outside of your power changes that plan generally you are then in somebody else’s control. So we could have sat there waiting for a plane that didn’t turn up. We could have accepted the local hotel they would have offered and then mumbled under our breath about the inconvenience of whatever later flight they chose to supplement us with. And we could have offered our apologies to those who we missed and our frustration to those who waited for us, and simply written off the time as ‘wasted’.
But we didn’t. You can adapt, forget the plan and make a new one. Because in our case, that meant we got to drive fast, take chances and talk to strangers… And trust me, that’s much more fun. You should really try it some time.