Cars

Have Austin Healeys, will travel through Europe

The four couples had an idea for what soon came to be called their “Trip of a Lifetime.” They’d ship their classic Austin Healeys to Brussels. Then they’d spend a month driving them through Europe.

Nearly a year went into the preparations, anticipation building as they gathered for combination garage parties planning sessions at their homes. The result was a 23-day spreadsheet calendar with flight times, daily itineraries, hotel locations, and major tourist stops.

Travel partners were Dave and Maggie Altman of Beverly; Bob and Jill Abbott of Greenland, NH; Dom and Mary Falconeiri of Lakeville; and Peter and Cindy Sturtevant of Mansfield.Their Austin Healeys were a 1965 BJ8 convertible, 1962 BJ7 convertible, 1967 BJ8 convertible, and 1957 100-6 roadster.

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Their pre-planning was nearly perfect; in fact, there was only one snafu in the advance logistics, a reservation at what turned out to be a closed-for-the-season hostel in the alpine village of Churwalden, Switzerland. Instead,they found more comfortable accommodations in the nearby town of Chur.

The prepared route took them from Brugge in Belgium through Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, and back to Belgium. Construction and a few wrong turns changed routes but not daily destinations. Starting out on the 2,500-mile journey, the four cars all were in excellent shape. They all were (and fortunately still are) show-quality Healeys. In addition,three of the owners were comfortable working on their cars, and the fourth, Bob Abbott, specializes in restoring Healeys.

Still, 50-year-old Austin Healeys aren’t beholden to their owners’timetables or the most detailed of spreadsheets; instead, the cars seemed to delight in causing delays and spoiling the daily itinerary’s 8:30 a.m. starting time.

The most serious problem was Abbott’s. His car lost one of its six cylinders in France and finished the trip running on five. Others had flat tires and starting problems, caused by bad coils, burned points, running-out-of-gas, and just plain Lucas (Healey electrical system) obstinacy.

Maggie Altman blogged after Abbott’s troubles that “Bob won’t be flying down the highways for the rest of this trip, which may be a good thing. Keeping the pace slow means we can see more of this gorgeous scenery. After all, we aren’t the Porsche Club.”

As for trying to find their way on back roads, she wrote, “Roundabouts are your friend.We could go around three times if necessary until someone figured out the right road to take.”

Fortunately, as part of their preparation, the group had arranged for Ahead 4 Healeys, an Austin Healey specialist in Rugby, England,to be on call to overnight repair parts to the next night’s scheduled hotel. Climbing the Alps (and other mountains) was a challenge for the Healeys, which don’t have synchromesh in first gear. “You had to keep up your momentum in second gear and gauge the curves perfectly,” says Dave Altman. “If you had to stop and shift back into first gear, you would wind up starting out by heading straight up and holding up some impatient local drivers.”

The group didn’t account for the gawk factor in its preparations. It wasn’t so much the local citizens but the American tourists, who noticed the cars had Massachusetts and New Hampshire license plates, who wanted to talk.

“It’s amazing how many people stopped and chatted when they saw the New England plates,” says Dave Altman. “We met people we’d normally have just passed on the street over there [Europe] and found out they were almost neighbors back home.”

When troubles arose on the road,the group quickly developed a simple plan: Find the next rest area and have a picnic while repairs were made. “The local farmer’s markets were a feast for the eyes and stomachs. We managed to stock our tiny cars with the most amazing cantaloupe, sausage, and bread—heavenly,” wrote Maggie Altman of picnic provisioning.

All agreed the highlight ofthe trip was four days in Creponnear Bayeux in Normandy. “We had a 10-hour, privately guided tour and barely scratched the surface. It was emotional, very moving. When we got home, we all were watching “The Longest Day” again,” says Dave Altman.

They’d also enjoy the hour-long DVD Maggie Altman compiled of the trip along with her blog. Some additional blog entries: “In Strasbourg, the hotel garage was an elevator, and the Healeys were stacked on top of each other. Where was my camera?”

“Tonight Dave [Altman] said he had breakfast in Luxembourg, lunch in Germany, and dinner in Switzerland.” On driving the shores of Lake Como: “The buildings on each side were so close I could reach into a storefront for an espresso without stretching my arm out straight. I swear I could file my nails on the [stone] side walls.”

“It’s Day 7. Cindy and Pete are heading for England so we will be three cars for the duration.”Side note: Pete had his car, a righthand drive Austin Healey 100-6, for sale in the states with no offers so, he’d made arrangements to put it on consignment in England. When he got off the plane on his flight back to the States, he had a call waiting that his car had sold for almost double what he’d been asking at home.

Cernobbio, Italy: “Georgio, an Italian member of the Austin Healey Club, takes us to the shrine to bicyclists—an Italian cycling Hall of Fame, way up on a mountain overlooking Lake Como. Magnificent.”

“Day 13: We finally have mastered the moving caravan. Unfortunately, we have just a week left.”

The final night: “We’re all subdued at dinner, a bit tired physically from the crazy day [leaving cars at pier, consolidating luggage] and also mentally trying to recall all the rooms, all the meals, all the car troubles, all the laughs. How do we top this? Don’t think we can.”

Dominic Falconeiri, who had the original idea for the trip, had a last word on the experience, one that would have saved the $2,000 round-trip shipping charge per car.

“We made only one big mistake. We should have left the cars here and come back for them next year.”

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