Driving a 65-Year-Old British Car 1100 miles in 3 Days Was the Most Fun I Had All Year

Saco River covered bridge in Conway, New Hampshire; was this was a checkpoint or just a nice photo? It's all kind of blurry now. Courtesy John Voelcker

As the 65-year-old British car glided, powerless, to a halt on a leafy side street in New England, all my codriver Tom said was, “I didn’t expect it to happen this soon.” We had covered just 18 miles.

An hour earlier, we had left the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Massachusetts. We were on our way to tick off 13 checkpoints in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine—or as many as we could reach on our first day of driving.

But it was barely 9:30 am on Day 1. We had just filled the eight-gallon gas tank of my 1958 Riley One-Point-Five, anticipating a long day of driving. I had pulled out of the gas station, and the car just died. I had coasted into a handy suburban side street, pulled to the curb, popped the hood release, and opened the trunk.

Out came the toolkit—wedged into place with a fleece Hello Kitty blanket. Tom, whose role was riding mechanic as well as codriver, went to work. The battery had charge, the under-hood button turned over the engine, but there were no dash lights at all. So, no ignition.


Riley vintage car lemons rally breakdown side street parked
Courtesy John Voelcker

Tom wriggled under the steering wheel and looked behind the wooden dash. Eureka! “Small flat-blade screwdriver,” he yelled. I handed it to him, and we were back in business 30 seconds later. After 65 years, the wires had just fallen off the back of the ignition switch. Screwed back into their contacts, the car fired right up, and we were back on the road.

First disaster averted—and we didn’t even have to break out the crucial King Dick wrenches (Whitworth, naturally). We only had 1100 miles left to cover. In three days.

Ubiquitous Lemons

Sooner or later, every car nut runs into a Lemons event or sees the photos. Maybe it’s the 24 Hours of LeMons endurance race, aka “crap-can racing,” for cars that cost $500 or less. Two years ago, I stumbled across their Lemons Rally series. Each rally is a three-day weekend event for weird-car drivers to cover hundreds of miles a day through a series of local sites and checkpoints.

Riley vintage car lemons stickers
Courtesy John Voelcker

As I familiarized myself with the points system, an idea took shape. The Lemons folks deduct points for Japanese cars (reliable) and give points to British and Italian cars (unreliable). The older the car is, the more points it earns.

I had a 65-year-old Riley One-Point-Five I’d bought in college, in 1980, out of a parking lot at the late, lamented Palo Alto All British Car Meet. It lived in California for two decades, served as my daily driver in San Francisco in the 1980s, then came east to join me in the early 2000s. Embarrassingly, it hadn’t done even 1000 miles since then.

Lemons Rally series car door ashtray contents
Not until I rode shotgun in my own car did I learn that it carried ashtray contents that had been undisturbed for 45 years. Points for preservation. Courtesy John Voelcker

What’s a Riley One-Point-Five, you ask? It’s a small sporting sedan from the long-defunct Riley marque, one of the sprawling stable of British Motor Corporation brands (along with MG, Morris, Austin-Healey, and others). Developed in the mid-’50s, the One-Point-Five blended underpinnings from the Morris Minor with a powerful 62-horsepower twin-carb MGA 1489cc engine. The spiffy sedan body retained an upright grille, traditional leather seats, even a wooden dash. When they were new, One-Point-Fives ran the Monte Carlo Rally; today, they still compete in U.K. vintage races.

Hidden Assets

My car was a bit of a mongrel when I got it. Over the years, its replacement MGB 1789-cc engine (with half again as much power, at 98 hp) gained a Datsun 280ZX five-speed gearbox for longer-legged cruising. It has MG Midget front disc brakes and a stronger Datsun 210 rear end, geared for up to 75 mph on highways—in a car less than 13 feet long, which is most often hailed by the public as “cuuute!”

Riley vintage car lemons parking lot hangout
Magnetic signs seemed like a subtle way to promote our team, Tempting Fate Tours; the painter’s tape is a Lemons Rally tradition. Courtesy John Voelcker

If I could find a team and enter with a British car from the 1950s, we would get hundreds of points just by showing up. That sounded promising. Tom lives in New Hampshire, I live in New York. Our Massachusetts friend Scott would round out the team of Tempting Fate Tours the next day in his grubby but mechanically solid 1969 MGB roadster. (We met Scott, aka TheStylusGuy, through our various Isuzus … but that’s a different story.)

Driving onto the dewy lawn, we scanned the competitors. There was a RHD Mazda Bongo minivan, a JDM import whose occupants loaned tools and gave obscure Japanese candies to anyone who wanted them. A giant, lifted, diesel Ram “bro truck” was unexpected, but so was a surface-rusted ’59 Edsel (“the Dreadsel”). The Big Farmer team of veteran Lemons Ralliers flew in from around the country: They had bought a hugely rusty 1984 Volvo 240 wagon—sight unseen—out of a field, got it running in one day, and entered it. Inevitably, there was a Blues Brothers ex-cop car. Our favorite British compatriot may have been the 1988 Ford “LTD Queen Victoria,” with a Union flag on the roof (made with painter’s tape); it blared “Rule Britannia” on entering every checkpoint.

The Riley wasn’t the oldest car; a gleaming black ’56 Ford sedan, mildly hot-rodded, took that honor. But its New Jersey owners trailered it away at the end, whereas we drove home. Sniff.

Find Checkpoint, Shoot, Post, Repeat

To prove a team had reached a checkpoint, someone had to photograph the car and/or driver at the requisite building, bridge, sign, or store—then post the pic to Instagram with the proper hashtags. Tom and I each got good at jumping out, snapping the pic, and posting it as we roared off to the next destination. Simple and effective.

To be honest, after the first five, the checkpoints all started to blur together. We crossed from Massachusetts into New Hampshire, then into Maine proper, complete with signs saying, “Brake for Moose, It Could Save Your Life.” Okay, then. The amount of Insta posts grew, and after 100 miles or so, we started to relax. At every gas stop, we followed the mantra of those who drive British cars: “Refill oil, check petrol.” Castrol, in bright green cans, was our friend.

Lemons Rally series British Roadster engine bay adding oil
British car driver’s mantra: “Stop, add oil, check petrol.” In this case, proper Castrol in green tins. Courtesy John Voelcker

We landed at the Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor, Maine, just at sunset. (Note to outsiders: It’s pronounced “banger.”) After a tour, we headed for the hotel just as an exhausted Scott arrived after six-plus hours of 4000-rpm driving in a 54-year-old open-top car without overdrive. We shared a quick dinner and a few microbrews, and fell into our beds.

Day 2 was a long and twisting loop that took us from Stephen King’s house to the easternmost point of the United States (Lubec, Maine), past Big Jim the Fisherman to the Million Dollar View Scenic Outlook, and a host of others. We didn’t hit them all—especially those billed as “Ill-Advised” and “REALLY Ill-Advised” checkpoints—but we did enough to feel respectable. Props to Bangor’s Sea Dog Brewing Company for accommodating not only every single weird vehicle but also the raucous crowd speaking fluent Car-Nerd Esoterica.

On Day 3, we started earlier, at 7 a.m.—add oil, check gas—and hit the list harder, knocking off 14 separate checkpoints. Among them were Maine’s State Prison Showroom (Thomaston), the Fat Boy Diner (Brunswick), the Way Way Store (Saco), the Maine Classic Car Museum (Arundel), and Warren’s Lobster House (Kittery). My personal favorite was a fabulous Mid-Century Modern Ford dealership from 1963 in Portland (now a mini-storage site).

At the end of the list, we headed back into Massachusetts to the Paper House (Rockport) and our final destination: the Cape Ann Lanes and Laneside Brewery in Gloucester for the closing party and ceremony. The reunion was raucous, relieved, and involved beer, burgers, bowling, bad language, and lots of heckling. It also included awards.

That’s where we learned our evil plan had actually worked. Jeff Stobbs, the majordomo and organizer along with Eric Rood, put it like this: “Our next one is Organizer’s Choice. They bring a car that shouldn’t perform well in a rally whatsoever. It’s generally too small, it’s generally British, because I like British cars—and they also convinced their friend to like little British cars, so for Organizer’s Choice, it’s Tempting Fate Tours in the 1958 Riley!”

We’d like to thank the Academy … and especially all the little people out there whose cars now sport a fine film of oil from the back of the Riley. Which ran fine, with regular infusions of Castrol.

Fun, Fun, Fun

Tom made it home to New Hampshire in the Riley in an hour or so; Scott took three hours to cover the 130 miles to his home in western Massachusetts, in pouring rain; I was the last to collapse into bed, because I had another two hours to go after that (but in a modern car, so hey).

All next day we texted nonstop about the event, what we’d seen, the people we’d met (all friendly, mostly bonkers), and what fun it had all been.

Lemons Rally series Cavalier heroes
These guys are our HEROES. Their J-body Cavalier convertible developed engine problems, it wore no top, and the rain was pouring in this shot. They rock. Courtesy John Voelcker

To our shock, we now seem to be planning for this year’s rally. Our little gang may have a few new tricks up its greasy British-car sleeves. (Stay tuned on that front …) All the checkpoint photos are on the Tempting Fate Tours Instagram, and if you want to see the video version of Fall Fail-iage, watch for new episodes of Tempting Fate Tours on YouTube.

Meanwhile, make a point to drive to your local cars and caffeine event. Or organize a handful of old-car friends and plan a drive (we suggest two hours, you take it from there) on interesting local roads. You’ll find yourself stopping to take photos and BS about the driving along the way. Then you can check out this year’s Lemons Rally schedule.

The point of having old cars is to drive them—and we all know too many people who don’t do it. Not everyone has to do 1100 miles in a 65-year-old car, but with suitable maintenance and a dash of the best British luck … you could.

TL/DR: Drive the damn car! If we did it, you can too.


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    Great article. Thank you.
    We must have been neighbors. I lived in Palo Alto, 4 miles from the Stanford All Brit Car Meet. I still miss that venue; it’s now in Danville.
    My first car was a ‘58 Fiat 1200 Rdstr. (Extra points.) My longest owned is a ‘66 Sunbeam Tiger. (More extra points.)

    My schedule decided otherwise, so unfortunately I skipped that Fall Failiage rally last year–I only got to do the Rocky Mountain Breakdown. A good time is always had, though, on the rallies. My hoopties aren’t as old and decrepit, but I’m not in it to win. Just there for the fun of the road trip and finding the checkpoints.

    Sorry, but Bangor is pronounced “Bang-ore”. Banger is for non-Mainers. But absolutely loved the story,
    It was wicked good as they say DownEast.

    I love Rileys, even have a dealer wall poster 4 feet away as I write this. My first car was a 1950 Riley 2.5 liter RMB sedan. Looked like a Morgan 4-door. Great experience. I later had a dark turquoise 1.5 like the one in the article. My best experience with it was taking it to a local autocross. Got fastest time of day in sedans and, best of all, beat the local Buick dealer’s Opel that they had just brought back from running at Sebring.
    They came with two drivers (one of whom was very talented) all hauled by a new GMC pickup towing their decorated enclosed trailer. They had mechanics and even two attractive young ladies dressed in matching racing suits. All sponsored by Schott Buick, owned by a friend- the well-known Marge Schott. of Cincinnati Reds fame. Quite the entourage against a puny kid used car dealer like me.
    A Riley 1.5 may look like a Tardis, but the combination of an MGA engine in a Morris Minor chassis is a sleeper. I had FTD in our class and 3rd FTD overall and beat the Opel team. Afterwards I went over to Mrs. Schott and asked her if she was interested in buying my Riley for $750, which I would have taken. Sometimes it’s more fun to do it the hard way. Sometime I’ll tell how I caused the local PCA (Porsche club) to go to Porsche-only events when I got FTD at one rainy autocross in a’58 Sunbeam Rapier convertible.

    Great write-up and beautiful photos! Thanks for letting us tag along vicariously on this adventure.

    P.S.: Brush-paint the valance white and add the two-tone tape stripes. 🙂

    If you read this story without grinning the whole way through, a relocation to Western Moldavia should be your next move……just sayin’……..

    Brings back memories of my 1960 Riley 1.5. Bought new, it carried me on my odyssey from St Paul to San Francisco, to Portland, back to San Francisco, to Denver, to Cody Wyoming(!!) to Seattle, to Portland in four years, all the time sheltering my 6’3″ frame in that cramped Brit interior. It ended up as a parts runner for a racing friend of mine. Ah, youth…..

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