We have a long way to go today, so I set an alarm for pretty early. We hit the road without breakfast, and based solely on our experience last night, why would we torture ourselves further? The plan is to head for Page, Arizona and have our breakfast there, then check the weather and adjust our route. The roads to Page are US 160 and AZ 98. This will be my first time on the latter. Always love ticking off another blue highway off my list!
I didn’t sleep very well last night. Between the GI distress and being a tad weary after driving for three days… and then there was this:
Did I add that it was backlit by a strong light. Right. Outside. The window.
I guess this serves as decor in New Mexico.
“Soft Lubbock Breezes” is what I have always called a 20-35MPH wind since I first visited Lubbock in 1981.The wind blows here all the time. In the four years I spent there I can only recall a few hours when there was no wind. Then of course when the weather got interesting the winds would really crank up and get insane. Dust storms, thunderstorms, tornados, snow, and even snowy thunderstorms! I used to say that since there was nothing to look at in terms of landscape, the sky offered all the entertainment. Thankfully today is merely “breezy”, meaning a stiff ~20mph wind.
I have an odd compulsion when it comes to road trips; I prefer to take roads I’ve never traveled. I have a great visual memory, as well as an old Rand-McNally Road Atlas with every road I have ever driven highlighted. I left the atlas at home this trip, but I know this part of the world well enough to know the roads by memory. Looking at the possible ways to continue, with the goal of going to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I see that just about every route possible is one I have driven before. Looking a bit west I see we can take a roundabout way: US highways 67 and 87, linking them together in San Angelo, TX.
We slept in a bit, and get a slow start due to last night’s late finish. Testa Rossa wants to stop again in Brownwood for a few last trips down memory lane. I noted in the daylight the bug-splattered nose of the Coupe, and decide to hit a car wash while she’s doing all that. The species of bug that we killed by the thousands as we left the Gulf Coast has a reputation for damaging car finishes if left on too long, so I want to get them all off ASAP.
We finally get underway and begin our not-so-direct route. Clearly Santa Fe is out of the question for our destination, so we scale it back to Lubbock, which should be an easy, relaxed drive. If I were in any other car, I’d be willing to push distances and average speeds out further, but I really don’t know this car. I don’t own this car. Before yesterday I’d driven it maybe about forty-five minutes total. Why push it?
We’re actually having a great time. Testa Rossa in an amazing traveling companion. She likes the car, and is clearly comfortable. The car itself is a very pleasant platform…
Designed by the legendary Paul Bracq, the car is a 1971 280se Coupe. Based on the W111 chassis, and mated to the M116 engine it is the descendant of the venerable Mercedes-Benz luxury touring cars from the mid-twentieth century, and the predecessor of the S-class which began in 1972 and continues to this day. The intention was to build a high-quality luxury car, with power, comfort, and focus on space for two people. This is NOT a sports car. It is big, powerful, and luxurious. This particular car is quite nice. Very comfortable seats, and best of all for driving in Texas, a functioning, original factory-option air conditioning system. We made use of it all day yesterday as we left Houston and drove through the heat of central Texas. We are making use of it on and off today as well. Especially as our west- and north-bound routes has me on the sunny side of the car all day. When I first drove the car about five years ago, the steering was a tad vague, but since then my father’s preferred shop, Eurocar-Werke has fixed that, along with several other minor issues to make the car a great driver. It is hard to give you an objective summary of the car’s ride and handling as two factors are impacting it in a way that prevents me from getting a good understanding; weather and load. The weather has been clear, but very windy. Gusty winds, mostly from the side, which makes getting a feel for the car difficult. Also the trunk and back seat are loaded with items. Not just our luggage, but boxes and bags of items my mother chose to give us. My parents are moving to a much smaller aprtment later this year, so they are trying to pare down possessions, and as a good son, I’ll do anything I can to help out. If the rear looks a little saggy in photos, this is the reason why. As soon as I can enjoy the car without these encumbrances I’ll write a solid review.
Meanwhile, the best description I can give is “Comfortable.” This is a very comfortable car, and I’m beginning to appreciate the love my parents have for this fine example of German engineering and craftmanship.
My traveling companion is an amazing woman. She has achieved much in her life; an advanced scientific/medical degree, built and ran a very successful business, and subsequently sold that business to make for herself a comfortable retirement. She’s wicked smart, and can talk about anything to anyone, making them feel like they are the most important person in the room. I like to say that she is the fully realized product of feminism: Equal to just about every man in terms of intellect and achievement, yet still very much a woman who cultivates and presents her femininity rather than suppressing it.
So here she is, reclining in this comfortable car, and knitting. She loves to knit. She approaches knitting with a scientic mind, writing out algebraic formulas of what she wants to create on paper, and then grabs her needles and yarn and gets to work. Once the pattern is established, she loses herself in the rhythm of the project.
She tells me that she has never been able to knit in any car until this one, which is a great maesure of the comfort of the Coupe’s ride.
In San Angelo we turn north on US 87 and the landscape flattens, and the trees become sparse. “Think this is flat yet?” I ask, and then always follow up with “It still isn’t as flat as Lubbock… trust me.” We roll stealthily onto the Llano Estacado without ascending the Caprock Escarpment due to our southerly approach from the Edwards Plateau, so the transition is subtle. having spent four years in this region I know it when we have arrived though.
As we roll towards Lubbock I reminisce about my student days there for Testa Rossa, who attended graduate school at rival Texas A&M in the opposite corner of the state. Lubbock was a “dry” town back then, still a holdout of the bad old days of Prohibition. Ironically you could buy alcohol by the drink in dining establishments, but to buy it in any volume you had to drive out of town. I point out the the vestigal remnants of “the strip”, the place on the city limits on US 87 where all the giant drive-through liquor stores existed back then (only one remains now thirty-some years later.) We go into town and I give her a quick tour of the campus, places I lived, and various landmarks, before we head to our hotel, and then out to dinner. It is a nice, short day wrapped up with a nice meal and drinks.
The greatest of civilizations share a truly singular unit of measure: Roads. Not militaries, nor fleets, nor banking systems. Roads. Great roads are built by great civilizations. The Romans of course took the concept from rough path to fully realized and useful road. The greatest civil engineers ever, the Romans made roads that spanned their entire empire, from the edge of Scotland to the Fertile Crescent and beyond. Those roads largely still exist. I know because I lived very near one when I lived in Wiltshire in the UK. Laser-straight, unlike the crazy, winding roads the British build, this road went southwest from Gloucester, towards someplace NE of Marlborough. Now mostly paved over by the A419, it became a back-road that ran from right in front of the farm we lived on, and into the village of Wanborough. It even maintained its unBritish, very Roman straight line through the Cotswolds and the hills south of the Thames valley. Who knows what the Romans were connecting, but they did it as they did everything; ruthlessly and STRAIGHT.
As the Romans did then, so do the Texans now.
Having driven in all fifty of these United States I have to say that nobody builds roads as well, and with a Romanesque desire for Euclidean geometric precision as the Texans. If it has two lanes, why not make it four? If it has four lanes, why not make it access-limited and build multi-lane frontage roads on either side of it? While we’re at it, let’s make this thang as straight as possible y’all?
Gawd, I love ’em. Hate the weather. Could care less for their religion (Football: High School, College, and The Dallas Cowboys are the Holy Trinity of Texas.) Nor am I a fan of the landscape, which outside of a couple creases in the corners where it buts up against the Mexicos, Antigo to the south, and Nuevo to the west but, hot damn ya gotta love those Texas roads!
Testa Rossa and I get a late start out of Houston, partly to avoid morning rush hour, but mostly because we’re slow, and know we are not going that far. We plan on driving out to a family farm outside Brownwood where Testa Rossa has some memories, and some closure to seek. She was very close to an older woman there for many years. But life and issues put time and space between them, and the older woman passed away about four years ago. They had not seen each other in close to a decade, and the fact that they never had their farewells was a source of pain for her. Knowing that this drive was planned, I offered to make that our first planned stop, and she gladly accepted, made some contacts with the right people to make the arrangements.
Thirty-some years ago, I too was familiar with these roads, as I occasionally shuttled between family in Houston, and my chosen place of higher learning: Texas Tech University in Lubbock. More on that later, but suffice to say, Brownwood was on one of my usual routes back then, and I knew the way. About an hour west of Houston, we leave the Interstate and strike off northwesterly on Texas State Highway 36. This fine road, which is built to a standard that some states would only reserve for a major US Highway, takes travelers through central Texas. It zig-zags its way between the Brazos and Colorado rivers, managing to thread its way northwest without going through any of the bigger cities and towns of central Texas, such as Austin, or Waco. I chose this route back then as I do now, because you can maintain forward momentum and avoid delay. Texas Highway 36 does go through many tiny towns, each with the Texas trademark town square holding the courthouse, memorials to their town’s part in whatever past conflict (from 1845 onwards), and some unique way of going around said square. Some towns on Texas Highway 36 have a circular roundabout for their square, others have a square you navigate around, others just have theirs off to the side. The largest town Texas Highway 36 encounters is Temple, which has a nice loop road to take you around it. Overengineered roads make Texas travel pretty nice.
At Gatesville we leave Texas 36 and traverse due west to Goldthwaite on US 89, then northwest to Brownwood on US 183. The landscape is just starting to take on the slight flavors of West Texas; fewer trees and broader horizons.
Outside Brownwood, we find the county road, that takes us to the gravel road, that takes us to the family farm.
I have no connection with this place, I am merely the driver that brought her here. She has deep emotional ties to this place and that woman who she loved an admired so much. We meet the current caretaker of the property, who Testa Rossa initially mistakes for his father… ah, the genetic blessings and curses we all carry. We walk the property that hasn’t seen Testa Rossa’s footfalls in over a decade. She needs to see her mentor’s resting place, so we head for the tree.
Here beneath this tree, in the middle of the property so dear to her and her family, lies the woman who meant so much more than I could ever describe. I kept to myself and let the two make their peace and savor the memories. Afterwards, we walk the property some more, seeing places, landmarks, and objects that allow the other two to share memories, tall tales, and stories of human foibles. A bystander, I just serve as audience, and observer. As the sun sets it brightly illuminates a nearby thunderstorm an I happen to capture a moment, and a look on her face that sums up all the joy, sadness, melancholy, and happiness she is feeling…
Back at the farmhouse we talk into the night. All the words said, we climb into the old car, and drive to Comanche with Texas thunderstorms in the distance to provide a light show, where a hotel room awaits us.
A bit less than twenty years ago, my father added an unusual car to his collection. He has always been a “car guy” with a bent for European sports cars. When I was a kid, he drove creaky, leaky MGs mostly. After I left the house he tried a Corvette, and a Porsche 911 for a while. (The latter even tried to kill him once.) When he retired, he upgraded to Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes mostly. His summer play toys that he participated in dozens of vintage car tours and rallies. I was lucky enough to be his co-driver on most of the competitive rallies (as long-time readers of this blog know.) The Mercedes were a nod to my mom, who loves the marque, as it seems most “women of a certain age” tend to do. A couple of SLs from the 50s and 70s rounded out the collection. His last acquisition though was… unusual. It broke his collecting pattern. He emailed me a grainy low-res photo of the car and I laughed, thinking he was pranking me. No svelte two-seater this time. It was a big, brown W111, aka a 280se.
Still laughing as I replied to his email, I said “Dad, that’s a DENTIST’S CAR!“
But, he wasn’t joking. He had bought a 1971 280se 3.5 Coupe. It was a two-door early S-class. Truly a Dentist’s car. He and my mother drove it not only in vintage car events, but to-and-from Vintage car events all over the continent. From their home base in Texas, to and from Arizona, West Virginia, New England, etc. The car had two things his sports cars did not: Luxury comfort for long-distance cruising, and working Air Conditioning. This latter feature was a boon for events in the Southwest, such as The Copperstate 1000 in Arizona, and the Texas 1000. My father is a man who knows his limitations and he wanted to give up towing vintage cars on trailers around the country. The 280se 3.5 Coupe was just the ticket. Vintage style, and cool luxurious comfort combined.
As my father aged, he sold off the collection bit by bit. I bought the E-type from him in 2003 (to keep this kernel of his collection in the family!) and helped him sell his XK-120 online to a buyer in Europe. His other cars sold off, but the big brown Coupe stayed. For the past five years it has been in a family friend’s workshop in Brenham, TX, keeping company with race cars, Ferraris, and Jaguars. I even flew down to Houston about the time it went into storage to shoot several dozen photos with the intention of listing the for sale car on the then-nascent Bring A Trailer website. It always was delayed for some reason or another. Mostly my father knew the car had some small, but annoying issues he wanted to fix prior to a sale; slightly loose steering, a wiggly driver’s seat, an A/C recharge, etc. He is just that kind of guy.
Time went on…
Then, last year my parents sold the house they have been living in for over twenty years. All their belongings were distributed to kids and grandkids, with the remaining collapsed into an apartment. Then, as they were unpacking in the apartment, my mom had a stroke. Up until that point, my dad was the one with mobility issues. Now my mom too.
The plan now is to move into an assisted living complex, and they are once again paring down their possessions. Dad told me it is time for the big brown coupe to get sold.
Testa Rossa and I flew down to Houston last week, and spent five days visiting my folks, and my sister and her family. We picked up the 280se, and are driving it home to Bend. Once there, I’m going to finish the job of photographing the car, namely the underside and other details, using the lift in my shop. Then it is going on BaT ASAP.
Just wanted to share a glimpse of some of the roads I drove during a trip to France & Italy. More on that later. Meanwhile, just look at those switchbacks! It is all one road.