Phoenix to Flagstaff: The first mile is the hardest

There’s a saying that goes something like this: The hardest part of a journey is the first step. Change the word “step” to “mile,” and you’ve got a summary of the first day of the Hagerty Route 66 Retro Road Trip. Here’s the harrowing tale of how it took us nine hours to get from Phoenix to Flagstaff in two 1970s sports cars.

Hagerty employees recently purchased a 1973 Jensen Interceptor III and a 1977 Datsun 280Z located in Western states and enlisted our help to get them safely back to Hagerty headquarters in Traverse City, Mich. Thus, the idea for our Route 66 Retro Road Trip was born. Yesterday, our team of six – Hagerty Classic Cars magazine Executive Editor Jonathan Stein, Autoweek’s Rory Carroll, photographer Ignacio Salas-Humara, Hagerty Video Production Specialist Justin Warnes, Hagerty Staff Writer Jeff Peek and Hagerty Web Managing Editor Claire Walters – amassed in Phoenix, Ariz., to pick up the pair of sports cars from Reliable Carriers and drive to Flagstaff for the night.

(For Rory’s account of the day, click here.)

After a brief stop at So-Cal Speed Shop to meet with the wonderful Higgins family for a story about the Model A that’s been in the family since 1937 (stay tuned for video and photos from the shoot), we set about ensuring that the cars were ready for our journey.

One problem was immediately apparent – the Jensen wouldn’t start. We had some initial difficulty locating the battery, which was inexplicably tucked away in the trunk. Our first attempt to jump the car was unsuccessful, and we rushed to AutoZone to find a replacement. New battery in place, the car roared to life with a giant cloud of exhaust as 10 years of carbon buildup shot out the back.  

After stopping for gas a couple of blocks away, we were off! But – not so fast – the Jensen was again unresponsive when we turned the key. After an hour or so of troubleshooting and a couple of calls to Hagerty Plus Roadside Assistance, we called Hagerty Parts Finder Davin Reckow, who suggested jumping the starter solenoid. With sparks a-flying, Rory immediately proved Davin correct as the Jensen roared to life a second time and we canceled the tow.

After another stop at AutoZone to buy a new solenoid, which we would install the next morning, we had the tremendously fortunate foresight to purchase a few flashlights (and a fire extinguisher, which we thankfully haven’t yet needed). Finally, finally, the team merged onto the expressway headed for our destination – Flagstaff.

Within minutes, Rory pulled the Jensen to the side of the road as smoke poured from under the dash. Camera man Justin Warnes put down his camera in favor of the fire extinguisher we’d purchased five minutes earlier – just in case. The crew unhooked the ailing air conditioning compressor and was ready to hit the road again after jumping the solenoid yet another time and slamming the hood repeatedly to lock the faulty latch.

The still optimistic team hit the road again, and within seconds Jonathan realized that the temperature gauge in the Datsun was reaching for the sky. There was no sign of a coolant leak, a failed water pump or steam, prompting an inspired long-distance diagnosis from anxious parent/car owner Rob Sass (who called the team no fewer than 30 times in a six-hour period) of a stuck thermostat.

It was now dark, and the Jensen had vanished into the warm Arizona night – with the tool kit. The chase car soon found us, but it did us little good as you can’t remove a thermostat housing with your teeth. The Jensen found us about 45 minutes later, and within minutes (with the help of those flashlights someone had thankfully thought to buy) we’d removed the thermostat and replaced the housing with the pathetically worn-out gasket.

How worn out? Worn out enough that 10 miles later the Datsun’s temperature gauge again climbed at an alarming pace as steam began pouring from the hood. After waiting an hour for the chase car crew to purchase scissors, razor blades and most of the sticky red ketchup-like gasket sealant in Arizona, we performed a miraculous under-hood surgery by the roadside, and at last the trip was on – at about 50 miles an hour.

Three hours and five driver swaps later – more than nine hours after we’d picked up the cars – the team completed the 140-mile trek to Flagstaff, and fell exhausted into bed at 2 a.m. local time.

Start the betting on whether we make it to today’s destination – Albuquerque.

Read next Up next: Route 66 Retro Road Trip: Watching from the sidelines

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