Fall Driving, From the Top Down

By John F. Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 16, 2002

As my father and I were nearly to the top of Virginia's Reeds Gap, the shiny red 1959 MGA roadster we were driving seemed to shrug and give up, losing the battle with the increasingly steep grade of Route 664. We pulled off to the side of the road, killed the engine and watched the first suicidal leaves of autumn do their fluttering swan dives.

"I think we might've blown the head gasket," Dad said.

If you understand that sentence -- and it is a sentence that bespeaks a certain kind of genteel, if doomed, adventure, like "Gentlemen, it is time to eat the dogs" -- then you might enjoy doing what we were doing: buzzing up and down the back roads of the Shenandoah Valley in a classic British sports car.

As it happened, we hadn't blown the head gasket. And after we'd turned the car around, nursed it to the bottom of the slope and sat with it for five minutes in the parking lot of a gas station, it didn't give us another spot of trouble that weekend.

But if it had, we wouldn't have cared. It wasn't our car. And that is the beauty of Sports Car Rentals, the business that John Pollock has run in Batesville, Va., for the last six years. For about $100 a day you can have the British car experience without actually having to own a British car.

Pollock used to buy, renovate and sell hydroelectric power plants. Now he rents out seven classic convertibles, four of which are only about 20 years old (a Triumph TR7, Triumph Spitfire, MGB and Fiat Spider) and three of which are from what might be called Sunday driving's Greatest Generation: the MGA, a 1957 Austin-Healey 100-6 and a 1960 Triumph TR3.

Dad and I were interested in the TR3. That was the first car my father ever bought, as a college grad about to enter Air Force flight training school. It was the first sports car I ever rode in, albeit surrounded by the comforting cushion of my mother's amniotic fluid.

The idea was that Dad and I would rent the Triumph and muse about the profound hold that pretty, impractical cars have on us both.

But anything involving sports cars, especially British sports cars, is susceptible to a last-minute change of plans. Pollock's TR3 was in the shop, victim of a seized differential. Instead, we took the MGA, perhaps the most gracefully proportioned of the three old roadsters. The fenders flow from front to back in a sensuous curve that meets in a wasp waist worthy of a Gibson Girl.

There was a hint of fall in the air, if not yet on the drought-stricken trees, as Pollock went through the rules (100 miles a day, no smoking, come to a complete stop before shifting into first gear) and handed us a map on which he had marked his favorite driving roads.

I graciously let my father drive first.

The thing I like about driving an old car is that it makes you think. You have to pay attention all the time, resulting in the sort of hyper-awareness that I've always assumed descends on a transcendental meditator.

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