Vintage British Autos Roar to Life on Local Roads

John Rachow’s 1974 MGB GT. Photo by Jack Robert.

Owning a classic British car is a complex relationship. There’s exhilaration behind the wheel, sometimes followed by disappointment on the side of the road. For the 153 registered households of the British Car Club of Western North Carolina, the relationship often starts young and only grows fonder with age. 

To have a ’60s-era MGB, Jag-u-ar (the Brits style it in three syllables), or Austin Healey is to become intimate with these car’s quirks. Club members share an intuitive knowledge. “You’re driving the car, you’re not being driven by the car,” says David Wood, club member and MGB Mark-1 driver, “Three pedals, changing gears, listening to it, feeling it — you know when something’s off.” 

When Wood drove back to Hendersonville after attending his first club meeting, he put the headlights on as it got dark — and, he reveals, “the whole thing died.” Wood remembers being stranded on the side of the road a half-mile from home. “It was scary as hell.” 

Clockwise from top left: David Brooks, 1970 Triumph Vitesse, Carol Clemens, 1977 Triumph Spitfire 1500, Tom Young, 1955 Austin Healey 100/4-BN1, Gail Rachow, Dorothy and Donald Caba, 1968 E-Type Jaguar, Terry Ramsey, 1966 Sunbeam Tiger Mk1A, 1981 Austin Mini. Photos by Jack Robert.

But he wasn’t scared enough to sell. He had the car flat-bed-towed to his home, went to work on it, and had it back on the road the following week.

Every club member has similar stories. “I like the camaraderie,” says member John Rachow, originally from Rochester, New York. “People talking about the same thing, cars and vintages.” 

They’ve all experienced the joy of driving these cars on Western North Carolina roads. “It’s incredible,” Wood says of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “People wave, honk their horns. You can smell the trees, hear the birds.” Originally from hilly Derbyshire in England, Wood says living here is the closest thing he can find to the winding roads of his youth (he grew up working on these cars with his brother). 

Clockwise from top left (red car): David Wood, 1965 MGB; Mitch Andrus, 1966 E-Type Jaguar; Carol Clemens, 1977 Triumph Spitfire 1500; John Rachow, 1974 MGB GT; Alvan Judson, 1965 E-Type Jaguar. Photo by Jack Robert.

 

Wood is the chairman of this year’s Annual Autumn in the Mountains British & European Automobile & Motorcycle Show, happening September 25 in Mills River. It’s the club’s main fundraising event that benefits Meals on Wheels. This 21st show features the 60th Anniversary of the E-Type Jaguar. 

Club member Mitchell Andrus got his first E-Type in high school in New Jersey. “‘My brother is selling his Jaguar,’” Andrus recalls his friend telling him in history class. “I can’t afford that,” Andrus replied. But the cost was only $500 plus a spare engine. 

“I followed him home,” says Andrus. And he restored the E-Type right at the school. “We made the rocker panels in sheet-metal shop and we installed them in auto shop.”

When the E-Type was launched in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1961, a revolution occurred. Jaguar’s roadster was faster than a Ferrari and one-third of the price. It was desired by stars like Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, yet still affordable enough for relatively regular folks to race around in. (Today, a fully-restored E-Type can fetch up to $100,000.)   

Another club member, Alvan Judson, worked for a parent company of Jaguar during the early ’60s, when eight out of every ten E-Types being produced was getting shipped to the U.S. “We’d be sitting there getting Telexes from America saying, ‘We want power steering.’ ‘We want air-conditioning.’ ‘We want sun visors.’ We’d have a good laugh about that,” Judson recalls. 

He bought his E-Type as a “complete wreck” in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, in 1999 and took six years to fully restore it. He started out trying to make it Concours d’Elegance, a white-glove level of restoration strictly judged by appearance. Most of those cars are trailered from show to show. “I ended up driving mine,” says Judson. He once described, in a memo to club members, how the “nicely cambered bends and breathtaking views” of Western North Carolina resemble the mountain roads of the English Lake District or Scottish Highlands. 

Current President Carol Clemens comes to the club with a pedigree: She was a high-level racer in Sports Car Club of America who now does “flag & communications.” She bought her first MGA off the showroom floor shortly after high school, joined the Michigan MG Car Club, and participated in rallies, hill climbs, ice runs, and gymkhanas. “I drove it to work and on the weekends I raced it,” she says. She met her late husband, Robert (a racer and chassis designer), on the track. 

Club members love to get together every month for drives, shows, and to swap car knowledge and stories. “The friendships that we’ve made in a short time are incredible,” Wood says. And the cars? “It’s back to the way it used to be, open-top driving. We just love them. If you look after them, they’ll keep going.” 

“Autumn in the Mountains” Annual British & European Automobile & Motorcycle Show happens Saturday, Sept. 25, 9am-3:30pm, at Mills River Brewing Co. (336 Banner Farm Road, Mills River). Free for spectators. For more information, see bccwnc.org

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