Blasting through Bend in a Sunbeam Tiger is the perfect escape

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The woman shouted something at me. She was up on the highway, a good hundred feet away, and there was a car burning to the ground between us, so the distance and the thick black smoke obscuring her face made it hard to hear. Again, she shouted, and this time it registered: “Is that a Tiger?!”

I had seen that someone was having a roadside emergency, so I stopped and fruitlessly emptied my fire extinguisher through the molten grille of a 2002 Volkswagen Passat. As the car continued to burn, the woman—Hagerty Drivers Club member Terri Norton—had also stopped, not because of the blaze but because she’d grown up with Sunbeam Tigers. She had seen my ’66 Mk 1A parked down the dirt road and simply wanted to shoot the breeze. I love car people.

Burning VW Passat
Thankfully, all the car drama I encountered on the trip happened to someone else’s car. All four of the Passat’s occupants were fine—the Passat, not so much. Stefan Lombard

It is only 120 miles from my house in Portland to the high desert city of Bend, an outdoor paradise on the far side of the Cascades that enjoys more sunny days per year than any other area in Oregon. It offers easy access to great fishing and paddling, as well as climbing, hiking, mountain biking, skiing, golf, the last Blockbuster video store on earth, and the occasional car fire. What I did not know until my wife, Shannon, and I drove over there last August in our borrowed Tiger was that it is also exactly one right turn from my driveway to the Bend city limits. No lefts—not even a New Jersey Left for good measure. Nope, just the lone right out of our neighborhood onto Burnside Street. To me, the simplicity of the route underscores the “don’t overthink it” aspect of a good road trip. Have a destination in mind (or don’t!), get in the car, go. Everything else will sort itself out along the way.

As Burnside runs due east out of Portland’s farthest reaches, it turns to the southeast, becomes Highway 26, and goes from urban to rural in about ten feet. Before long, you’re in the tall evergreens of the Mt. Hood National Forest, then winding your way past the mountain itself. Summer rain is rare here, so of course it turned gray and cold very fast and we drove straight into a storm. Cue the frantic roadside assembly of the Tiger’s hokey top. When I’d first picked up the car from my Hagerty chum Brad Phillips in July, he’d walked me through the five-minute process. I’d even practiced in the driveway. On the shoulder, in the elements, it was closer to 10 minutes. Back on the road, we huddled close and shivered in what felt like a damp cardboard box.

Sunbeam Tiger Open Road Action Vertical
Stefan Lombard

Once we were through the Cascades, the land began a long leisurely descent toward the Deschutes River, 50 miles away, and we stopped to put the top down (also 10 minutes). I admired the Tiger’s thin veneer of grime—proper road-trip livery—and we traveled on. Firs and cedars transitioned to juniper and sage. The road went straight for miles, and a panorama of sunny, wide-open central Oregon appeared before us. The mercury climbed, too, and soon the cabin thermometer read an unreasonable 100.

With its unobstructed views, a vintage roadster makes for an amazing way to see the world. On cloudless summer days, you pay for it with SPF 90 sweating into your eyes and hot, hot wind all over you. Historically, Shannon, a knitter, spends road trips riding shotgun, whirling away on socks or hats or scarves. This was not that trip, and above the ruckus of the Tiger’s 260-cid V-8 at 80 mph, she yelled over to me, “Do you like this?”

“Like what?”

“This,” she said, gesturing her hands at our flapping clothes and her wildly billowing hair. “The heat. The noise. The wind.”

I sympathized. In that unyielding landscape, there was a certain kind of misery. But the Tiger’s skinny wooden steering wheel felt so good in my hands. The car’s light weight and just-right power gave the impression we could escape the atmosphere, and its tall gearing made it a joy at high speeds. “Yes,” I said. “Very much.”

Sunbeam Tiger Steering Wheel
Stefan Lombard

Bend’s Old St. Francis School, built in 1936, was the first parochial school established in central Oregon. It closed in 2000, and since 2004, it has been a McMenamins hotel. The Northwest is blessed with this family-owned chain of brewpubs, concert venues, restaurants, and hotels; all are housed in rehabilitated old properties, several of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sites include repurposed elementary schools, churches, morgues, and poor farms. They brew their own beer, make their own wine, and distill their own spirits, and all of it is tasty. The charming Old St. Francis School was the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the town, the Deschutes River—which bisects it—and the lava fields and cinder-cone volcanoes that are everywhere you look.

The next day, Shannon walked downtown to explore the shops and riverfront, while I took the Tiger out to shoot photos. At a stop down a dirt road in the woods, I flooded the engine, which required a long pause while it unflooded. The random little road proved a popular breakdown lane, however, because before long, a 1973 GMC motorhome with a ’71 Datsun 510 in tow waddled to a stop alongside me with nagging cooling issues. The rig’s owner and I commiserated as we waited, and he told me this was his seventh 510, that he once had a gig fabricating subframes so they could take Nissan V-6s.

Back out on the highway, I hadn’t even gotten to fourth gear when I came upon the smoldering Passat and the four young guys actively evacuating it. Each held a cellphone in one hand and a jug of water in the other. Each had WTF all over his face; they had just wanted to go swimming in nearby Oak Lake. They thanked me for doing what I could (always carry an extinguisher!). Then I seized upon the magnificent photo-op, talked Tigers with Terri, and got the hell out of there once the firetrucks arrived. All of my drama dollars spent, the rest of the day was as perfect as it gets in a well-sorted sports car on smooth blacktop.

The next morning, on our way back to Portland, just outside the town of Madras, we saw a few signs advocating for the fantastical State of Jefferson. In the middle of the Warm Springs Reservation, we crossed the 45th parallel, smack dab between the equator and the North Pole, where the weather felt neither tropical nor frigid, just hot and dry.

Sunbeam Tiger Sitting By Lake
On the drive back to Portland, a lakeside picnic lunch was a welcome respite from the hot little Tiger. The car makes good power in all four gears, and its torque and tall gearing meant minimal shifting as we buzzed around mountain roads. Stefan Lombard

By the time we made the equal and opposite lone left turn from Burnside Street into our neighborhood, the Tiger had given us nearly 300 trouble-free miles, my user error in the woods notwithstanding. It had done nothing for the unfinished pair of socks Shannon still had on her needles, but let’s not hold that against the car.

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