Miles of Fun

“Oh, we’d never travel on a freeway,” says Sausalito auto enthusiast Martin Swig. “We only take these scenic little back roads — and California has a zillion of them.”

In 1990, Swig and a few of his classic-motorcar buddies pulled off their first California Mille, an American version of Italy’s Mille Miglia, the 1,000-mile road race that captured Europe’s attention for 30 years during the first half of the 20th century. This year on Monday, April 28, the day after a Sunday showing of classic cars in front of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, the 18th California Mille will cross the Golden Gate Bridge and pass through Marin en route to such intriguing destinations as Lodi, Incline Village, Ukiah, Mendocino and Ferndale beforewinding up back in Marin at Cavallo Point, the new Sausalito destination resort. “Sure, some call it a race,” Swig says, “but it’s mostly a lot of fun.”

This year, a record 78 vintage-car drivers will participate in the five-day event. Among them are restaurateur Larry Mindel and his wife, Debby, a Tiburon schoolteacher, who’ll be behind the wheel of their restored 1957 Lancia Aurelia B24 convertible. Mindel, a founder of Il Fornaio restaurants and owner of Sausalito’s Poggio Trattoria, has driven in all but three of the California Milles. “I love the camaraderie,” he says. “We’ll see folks we only see during this race, and after we’ll all enjoy some wonderful Italian food and wine.”

Also driving is Belvedere’s George Brewster, who’ll be accompanied by Magda Wesslund in his ’58 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint. “It has a 1600cc, alloy overhead cam, four-cylinder engine,” says Brewster, a financial adviser with UBS Financial Services in San Francisco. His favorite part of the event is the classic car show. “It’s a great gathering of guys who enjoy well-made performance cars,” he says. This year’s California Mille will be Brewster’s third.

Another third-time participant is Mill Valley’s John Horton, owner of San Francisco Toyota. But the car Horton and his dad will drive is unlike any of the other cars in this year’s event. “It’s not ‘sporty,’” says Horton. “The rules say entries must be racing sports cars built between 1927 and 1957, the years Italy’s Mille Miglia was run.”

Horton’s 1940 Buick Roadmaster Convertible, powered by a bulky in-line, eight-cylinder engine, hardly fits that image—yet it does have a racing pedigree few can match. Does last year’s “Peking to Paris Motor Challenge” ring a bell? The first such race was held in 1907 between Peking (now Beijing) and Paris, a distance of more than 8,000 miles. Several similar extravaganzas have been held, but no exact duplicates until 2007. Horton and his Buick “finished in 35 days,” he recounts, “even though we cracked an axle in the middle of the Gobi Desert.”

Fortunately, a buddy who’d left the race was nearby and agreed to loan Horton an axle: “We frantically cut it down, shaped it and somehow made it fit.” From then on, “everything went rather smoothly.” And so the California Mille’s rule was waived to include him on one condition: the 1940 Buick convertible would still be wearing its mottled coat of “Mongolian mud.”

Image 2:    Larry Mindel and his ’57 Lancia Aurelia B24
Image 3:  John Horton and friends in the Gobi Desert; 1940 Buick Roadmaster cracked an axle during the 8,100-mile Peking to Paris Motor Challenge.