By Emilee Crawford
“First step, let’s see if they start,” a lover of vintage British sports cars says to me, the weary yet excited, girlfriend sitting beside him. It’s barely daybreak and two twenty-somethings rev the engines of their decades-old British sports cars, embarking on an ambitious road trip down south to The Mitty.
Sunrise cracks through the Kentucky sky and onto the maroon hood of the 1973 MGB GT leading a black 1964 Triumph following close behind. “Chello mate! Lovely day for a little stroll in the old British cars eh?” I say over our walkie-talkies in an exaggerated British accent. “Look at you and your fancy blinkers,” the Triumph barks. “And we have heat!” I reply positioning the MG vent toward my face.
While most young boys were sporting grass stains and skinned knees, Ian Crawford, The MG Maestro, was wearing grease-stained nails and scratched up knuckles. We are driving the first of 13 British cars that he has owned and restored since he was barely a teen. Nick “The Triumph” Tonini, a quiet yet witty 25-year old, has a similar story. His father recognized his mechanical talent and bought him vintage car projects—some nothing more than a rusted frame. Then there is myself, a Kentucky lady, museum marketing professional, and lover of all things vintage—and with a family history of crummy cars. I had never dated a “car man” before and explaining this tacky family linage to my car-loving boyfriend was like speaking a different language. “You see, my family’s cars are bad. I mean, one car was so bad that it was given to us. It was a hand-painted Cadillac, the size of a boat, given to my father by his great-uncle-in-law, James. Hence the car’s name, Sir James. We knighted the car. Is that weird? There was also the 1980s Ford LTD ‘Deputy Dog,’ the Kitty Car, Douggy, Biscuit, then of course, Biscuit Remix.”
Our trip begins on the interstate from Lexington, KY, to Knoxville, TN, and within a few minutes, we smell our first problem: the tires are rubbing the inner fenders of the MG. “Once we use some fuel it should be better—or so I hope,” he tells me. “Better to lose fuel than my polka dot luggage,” I say to myself. Clutching his worn convertible top for ten miles on the interstate is finally enough to get Nick to surrender to the chilly morning air. Pulling off the interstate, a long, blue 1980s Cadillac (Sir James is that you?), loaded down with yard sale inventory exits with us. Hollering out his window, Mr. Blue Cadillac shares his past ownership of an MG then hands us his business card. Without hesitation we make a group assumption that his self-proclaimed title, “Film Producer,” is of a mischievous industry. One Triumph top down and two Cadillac taillights ahead, I make my first “I’ve never been around vintage cars” mistake. I left the MG’s door wide open and resting on the guardrail. The motors vibrations had rubbed off the brand new paint job on the door’s edge. I am told to be careful, and I wonder if my vehicular faux pas is remediable.
It’s barely past 8am and already we’ve received four thumbs-ups as strangers pass our mini British car parade. The boys make a stop and I grab anti-nausea medicine after hearing the Tail of the Dragon consists of 318 turns in 11 miles. Meds purchased, Nick realizes his tire pressure is off and Ian smashes his finger in his hood: Are we there yet? Hours later, we arrive at the Tail of the Dragon with one throbbing finger and no car problems to hinder a timely arrival. The MG hugs the curves of this wooded two-lane road and I hang out the window with my hands cutting through the zooming air. The smell of the tire rubbing is prominent and the sound of the exhaust bottoming out blend with the musical representation of the car’s era. All in all, it is a ride to remember.
Almost to our destination, we pass through miles of apple orchards. We are months from the fall harvest so a Georgia apple is far from reach, but we find the next best thing: Big John and his fruit stand on the side of the road. The girth of his calves and carrot-thick fingers solidify his name. “I passed my driving test in my cousin’s Opel GT,” John says as we munch on Washington’s best. “Apples are on me,” he tells us. “It’s just exciting enough for me to see those kinds of cars around these parts. Brings me back,” he says through a gap-toothed smile. With a “God bless you” and a carrot-finger wave, we leave Big John. I hope that other Mitty-goers in their vintage cars are on this same path through Ellijay and make time to pay Big John a visit.
Ten hours, seven thumbs-ups and even a Jersey-style fist pump later, we are united with the engineer father of The MG Maestro, Doug Crawford. Mr. Crawford, who had once owned a fabrication shop that allowed the father-son team to restore cars, trailered his handmade racecar, proudly named the Crawdini, down from Kentucky with plans to break in the car’s motorcycle engine in true style, on a touring lap at The Mitty.
The MGB GT and Triumph wear their journey’s dust with pride as we pull into Road Atlanta for the first day of the weekend festivities. Clouds billow over the track and a cool breeze floods the infield whipping through the international flags at the car corrals. We proudly park among cars of our own kind and pass time admiring fellow Brits. The infield at The Mitty is far from what I anticipated, considering the Kentucky Derby infield is my only point of reference. The tame elegance of the rolling terrain makes for a scenic afternoon spent meeting The MG Maestro’s car friends with introductions made with what they drive before learning their names.
The next morning we stop to bathe the ladies. With the MG covered in a layer of white fluff, we look over to find the Triumph’s hood popped. “I snapped the throttle return spring,” Nick says. While, of course, this means nothing to me I am convinced I am a good luck charm when we discover there is an auto parts store about a football-throw away. Day two of the Mitty is spent smiling and plugging my ears. “This is why my hearing stinks!” The MG Maestro says screaming over the thundering exhausts of vintage Porsches in the hour-long Enduro. Car enthusiasts bask in the sun and hang close to the fences feeling the rumbling ground beneath them.
On Sunday morning the boys rise with the birds and I convince The MG Maestro to let me drive the MG to meet them later. Sweating and anxious, I start the MG. “God don’t let me break this thing,” I think, finding first gear on the unmarked shifter. Up and down the hills of Big Canoe I go, gaining confidence in my driving and enjoying the turning heads of admirers. Forty miles later, I arrive.
We set out for our trip home with Mitty infield passes taped to our dashboards. As temperature gauges start to climb, we seek out shade to let the ladies cool off. With hoods popped, we relax at an abandoned gas station where the last gallong sold for $1.35. Turks Service Center is now a graveyard for old mowers and weedwackers. A Pepsi machine, faded from summers of sunbeams, and a Standard Oil sign now serve as a home for woodland creatures. I hear something about leaking and clogged fuel lines as I make my way to a pay phone across the street to dial a 1-800 number on a faded billboard above me. This is a moment, retro in every sense.
Traffic on 71 sent us to 23, which, in turn, ends up to be equally congested. The rarely-traveled, two-lane highway is bumper-to-bumper and locals enjoy the traffic spectacle from their porches, some even bank on the opportunity with illegal pop-up beer stands on the side of the road. “Not sure the ol’Brits can stand this traffic much longer,” The MG Maestro relays. “Did you see that truck pull up next to me? He just offered to sell me headlights,” Nick the Triumph Tonini says with a laugh. We agree on a detour of the detour, adding two extra hours to our trip home, but none of us seem to care.
We float in the driveway on a cloud of pride ending the 12-hour, two-lane highway trip in true vintage style: no radio, dead cell phones, telling time by a watch. I begin to understand why this is such an important part of these two young men’s lives and how this trip solidified their rare talent as more than just a hobby. Sitting in the driveway, the MG’s motor cooling, I come to the revelation that I am more in love with this car now than I was two days prior. “I get it,” I say to the man who has spent the past 14 years under the hoods of these vintage cars. I realize what these cars represent to many. They are fixtures in time that bring people back to moments in their life, when they were young and the world was different, and maybe at times a better place. I like to imagine that the strangers who would stare at us and smile as we drove by were taking a trip back to the 1960s in their minds. That they were remembering themselves as teenagers, wearing bellbottoms and miniskirts, flipping Beatles records and parked at drive-in movies, listening to the voices of the Kennedys and wearing flowers in their hair. It may be a daydreamer’s idea, but I hope for their nostalgic moments nonetheless.
Emilee penned this story several years ago. Since then, she and Ian married and now are raising—with proper British influences—an adorable daughter named Piper.