It was a little after seven in the morning and it was already hot – just as it had been hot all night and for several days beforehand. Curiously, there appeared to be some hints of rain clouds in the sky. This was significant, as it had begun to seem that Erie was, in fact, rapidly becoming hell on earth and it simply wouldn’t do to have a life-sustaining liquid fall from the sky. Fortunately, either way, transportation would survive as the old, air-cooled Porsche 914 scoffed at water and only required ample quantities of 87 octane to keep going. (That is, provided one didn’t turn the thing off after it warmed up. Vapor lock remains the Achilles heal of an otherwise reliable Teutonic machine.) A mash on the gas pedal and a twist of the key brought all four of the car’s horizontally opposed cylinders to life with a purposeful and slightly metallic rattle; somewhat reminiscent of many cans of spray paint being abruptly shaken before defacing a particularly appealing piece of public property.
To Pittsburgh – where many decades blue-collar industry have finally begun to give way to such foreign things as “The Arts” and “Tourism” and for this particular weekend in July, a vintage sports car race. It’s funny how it used to be that people from Pittsburgh would go to Erie (referred to occasionally, and to this particular writer tongue-in-cheekily, as the “Gem” city) to get away from the Steel City. It’s a fairly easy trek down Interstate 79, though PennDOT, the state police, and countless minivans from Ontario casually passing Freightliners always find ways to make the experience a, shall we say, lasting one.
The aforementioned possibility of rain turned into a reality about 50 miles into the trip. This was somewhat disenchanting as such meteorological events have the tendency to plague the attendance rates at automotive events. There are a variety of reasons for this – not the least of which is the discomfort of walking around wet. Old cars, particularly (and somewhat ironically) the ones produced in England, have a general dislike of moisture. It exponentially increases the lack of reliability in what are notoriously fickle electrical systems to begin with. The Italian cars suffer from similar problems, though precipitation is also a mortal enemy of generally gorgeous Mediterranean bodywork. It turns out that no matter how pretty the shapes you can form from it, the Soviet steel often chosen by the Italians is highly water-soluble.
The removable top on the Porsche was naturally stowed away in the trunk at the time drops started pelting the windshield. The rain shower was brief, and cruising at 70 to 80 miles per hour allows the water to simply fly over the cockpit. Soon enough, the large heat-and-light-emitting object in the sky was back with a vengeance and things were dry again. Pittsburgh’s skyline was now in sight and scattered among the nondescript sedans, and delivery trucks were more and more old European vehicles headed in the same general direction.
It probably would have been wise to follow the other Porsche to the car show that is featuring the brand this year, though I could have sworn I remembered taking a different exit than that particular car had chosen. It would have also been wise to assume that said Porsche also had a GPS system stuck someplace inside – a feature not found anywhere inside of the 37-year-old 914. As a result of that, and numerous other bad directional choices in a city that Magellan would find difficult to navigate, the destination of Schenley Park was nowhere to be found. There were no astrolabes or even maps in the vehicle, and driving around in a topless sports car in sweltering heat (while surrounded by vast expanses of black vinyl) on narrow cobblestone streets which, by all forms of thoroughfare logic, should be one-way (and are not) in some godforsaken slum on a slope was becoming slightly frustrating. Regardless, after some direction from a curious-looking older lady on the sidewalk and a bit of divine intervention, suddenly there were more old European cars in traffic again. Much better.
Of course, the traffic was backed-up for several blocks. Many drivers were simply neglecting to notice the car in front of them was actually parked, or the signs pointing out that one particular lane was for turning only, though to be fair, the department of transportation could have put a little more effort into making some of the signs visible – such as perhaps ripping the vines off the damned thing. Others had decided that it would be possible to get further in near total gridlock by changing lanes repeatedly so that their pattern of travel eventually resembled a sort of double helix along Forbes Avenue. You know things are getting serious when someone in a Cadillac Escalade actually uses turning signals while trying to merge. It’s the bus drivers who truly have no regard whatsoever for anything else on the road. It can be somewhat disconcerting to have a 30-foot-long box on wheels pull up so close to the side of your four-foot-high car that you can read “Made In USA” on the tires.
As the entrance to the park got nearer, the progress became slower. There was an interesting potpourri in the air of over-carbureted exhaust fumes, hot antifreeze, burning clutches, and something similar to the smell of a swamp – likely sewage. Meanwhile, the heat was still a problem. The human body can only take so much before it physically and mentally breaks down, yet thankfully the Porsche’s insentient all-aluminum engine was happily, and somewhat amazingly, running at optimal temperature. A fire truck suddenly sped past in the opposite direction. I could only imagine an old Triumph valiantly burning into the asphalt in front of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History as life-sized fiberglass statue of a Diplodocus dinosaur unwittingly ignores the situation that was so fittingly caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. A few more yards up the road, a Porsche 912 sat stationary in the bike lane. When questioned about a need for assistance, the owner, who was applying a wet rag to something down in the engine bay, simply said, “Ehh, neah – I think it’s vapor lock.” Vapor lock – the most cursed of endothermic phase transitions.
Entering Schenley Park behind an early ‘90s Oldsmobile and ahead of a mid ‘90s Porsche 911, drivers were given directions by volunteers in bright green vests. The Olds was damned to meager street parking in Squirrel Hill while those behind the wheel of anything that appeared vintage, expensive, or both, were directed towards the golf course. The grounds were divided up in a manner that was almost reminiscent of occupying forces patrolling a foreign land. American cars were safely corralled on one side of the road with the Italians curiously even further back on a hill. The rest of the Europeans and the Asians were given the bit of land most adjacent to the track. The Brits had arguably the best location, but the Germans had vast numbers this year and for a time it seemed they were poised to invade a section of the Japanese sector. Of the 500 or more Porsches, many were newer 911s and Boxsters, which are nice, but frankly nothing special to see at such an event. There were of course several 356s, a handful of 914s, and as always, an assortment of the front-engined water-cooled models too.
The visual appearance of a particular model’s owner is generally predictable though open to some variation. The older, more rare cars tend to have older owners who enjoy khaki, linen, and gold watches. Most are men over 60 and many have wives whose age is masked by as much bodywork as there was in the restoration of the car they arrived in. The guys wearing a baseball cap, cargo shorts and floral-patterned button-down shirts with sandals often have a late-model car that seems to have an overabundance of unnecessarily expensive accessories that were purchased so as to make it seem all the more appealing when they talk about it or write about it in a forum. They always know everything there is to know about that particular car – beware, they generally start giving you blank stares when the conversation switches to another brand, or even more frightening, another country of origin. “Saab – that’s German too, right? No wait, maybe I’m thinking of Volvo.” Meanwhile, a reasonably attractive young woman walking past a row of no less than a dozen 911s looks at a particular red one and half-heartedly exclaims “Porssshh!” while walking hand-in-hand with her beau.
Meanwhile, racecars were on track. In past years, there was a more interesting assortment of competition vehicles, though it turns out that this time around the Vintage Sports Car Club of America (VSCCA) was at odds with the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Association (PVGPA) about what sorts of cars to let run. As a result, the VSCCA simply decided run off and sanction a new event in Springfield, Massachusetts the very same weekend. To be honest, “olde” New England seems like a slightly more proper place to find 70 and 80-year-old Bugattis and Alfa-Romeos briskly motoring down city streets. After all, Springfield was the birthplace of Goodyear tires and Indian Motorcyles, but perhaps most significantly in this case, America’s first gasoline powered automobile – the 1894 Duryea. There weren’t any Bugattis or pre-war Alfa-Romeos in Pittsburgh, but interestingly enough, there were several (perhaps a half dozen or so) Porsche 914s racing. Go figure.
The lack of “interesting” cars on track likely had little impact on many of the sun-baked spectators, however. Most of them were probably more concerned with avoiding the onset of heat stroke while meandering through the car show on the greens. Besides, the only place to get a good look at the racecars was in the paddock, which was now even harder to get to that before. It used to be that one could simply follow a completely unmarked trail with an almost entirely vertical grade through a wooded area of the park while trying not to break an ankle on errant roots and branches that criss-crossed freely. It was tedious, but fairly direct. Perhaps because of the potential for bone snapping, this portal to the paddock was closed and required a lovely stroll around a few blocks of residential South Squirrel Hill – another unmarked route left to be figured out by those who dared venture to such far off lands. This attitude of assumed directional knowledge towards travelers would appear to be a common theme in the city, from most grand of highway junctions to the lowliest of footpaths.
The paddock was formed from a section of tree-lined park road that dead-ends into a cul-de-sac. It was a free-for-all of automobiles, golf-carts, and spectators. Access to the racing machines was exceptional, although it was perhaps the only place in the world other than urban areas in Cuba where there were such high odds of being struck by a car more than 50 years old. In a similar manner, the infield food and beverage tent contained a 1984 ex-A.J. Foyt Indy car. With so many children running around a relatively un-monitored piece of racing history, the possibility of finding a bratwurst jammed straight into the uncovered turbocharger inlet of a Cosworth V8 seemed almost a certainty.
Back on the golf course, suck in among the show cars were a few tents displaying new cars from assorted manufacturers. Volkswagen made a notable presence and had a few of the all-new Passats fresh from the factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The last time VW built cars in the United States, it was in the 1980s in Westmoreland, PA just to the west of Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the quality was notably compromised in some areas compared to their German-made counterparts. Today the company would assure you that Volkswagens built down south are just as good as the ones from Germany. They probably wouldn’t mention all the cars they’ve built in Brazil, or Mexico, or Slovakia, however.
Nevertheless, the new Passat is bigger, less expensive, and better looking that it’s predecessor. Opening the door revealed the interior, which at first glance appeared to be typical world-class VW…until you touched the rock-hard, pebble-textured plastic on the door panels. Ok, cost cutting – fair enough. What isn’t so acceptable was the way the rear door seemed to bounce away from the body when the front door was closed. Repeatedly performing this maneuver and remarking in amazement at it attracted some interest from onlookers and a Volkswagen salesman as well. He was quick to point out that this was still a pre-production model (verified by it’s low serial number and lack of finishing details such as door-jamb stickers) and that Volkswagen’s tolerances for fit and finish are among the most stringent in the industry. Apparently they, “still have a few months to work some bugs out before they go to the showrooms.” Somehow, it seems like improving the overall structural integrity and solidity of a vehicle is more like a major engineering project rather than a “bug” though perhaps the car was just beginning to melt in the extreme temperature of the mid-day sun. When questioned about the United States parts content, he simply said, “uhh, it’s pretty high… uhh, but the drivetrain is from Germany and, you know, that’s the important stuff.” Very reassuring. If the car is creaking and rattling over railroad tracks and potholes like a shopping cart full of empty cans in two years, at least one can take solace in knowing that the engine was made in Germany. Let us hope that the proof, as they say, will be in the pudding.
After a few hours, the prospect of consuming precious liquids and being alive enough to drive home to Erie began to outweigh the interest in staying at the event. The Porsche’s shiny black interior had been baking nicely in the sun all day without the roof on to protect it. This was uncomfortable at best. Putting the car’s black roof on at this point could be insanity, though it would provide valuable shade on the drive back. In spite of ambient air temperature, the engine was actually cool enough to start up with ease. One of the heater flaps that allow warm air to enter the interior of the Porsche had somehow become disconnected and thus, it was not unlike having a hairdryer blowing into the footwells of the car. This wasn’t quite as noticeable with the roof removed. Mercifully, the car was designed with a fresh-air vent that allowed (relatively) cool air to be directed to the floor to help dissipate the heat somewhat.
Traffic on the way out of the city wasn’t as obscene as it was getting in. Aside from a city bus broken down on Forbes Avenue, the retreat went off without a hitch. As the shores of Lake Erie became closer, the temperature dropped to the point of almost being able to sustain human life again. These machines we use and concern ourselves with so much – humans created them and they have lives of their own, yet care little for such existential matters.