This Triumph TR4 Survived A Legendary Road Trip
Photography by Michael Toy
The phrase “legendary car” is overused these days and brings up a few questions. What makes a legend? Is it purely opinion or universally accepted? Does it need a dollar amount attached? Is it an emotional connection or framed by circumstance? I think every petrolhead has their own secret legend and it’s totally unique to them. It lives inside as an absolution waiting to be fulfilled.
Let’s rewind to the summer of 2009, and I was a college kid living in Lexington, KY. If you have never been there and your impression is framed by crispy pieces of stale chicken in paper buckets, I’ll give you due congratulations and a shiny, “Great Job!” sticker. You should also know that it happens to be a completely bizarre place for old European cars. Simply put, every American classic has been found, restored, and subsequently worshiped. A 300SL can likely be rotting in a front yard and no one has taken notice yet.
In this magical land, it took absolutely no time to hear about an old British sports car lost in a barn for 40-years. What was it? Where was it? My legend was born.
A year’s culmination of asking around and making new friends led me deep in the hills of Winchester, KY to the driveway of a crumbling country house. Do you ever get that feeling like there’s vintage car in the air? I knew something was waiting for me, a lost machine calling out to be noticed after being erased by passing time. In the distance, an old tobacco barn loomed from the overgrowth. A peek inside and there it was: a short bubble hood, passenger side parking brake, convex gauges, and clamshell seats? Check. Rusted into the ground? Of course. I was looking at my own pre-production 1961 Triumph TR4 barn find. It would take the next six-years of unrelenting devotion until this fantasy could find the open road again.
Six years is a long time, and I currently live in Manhattan, the most unfriendly car territory of them all. Real estate agent by day and car enthusiast at all other times, I live for a good weekend cruise to the Catskills, Cars & Coffee gathering, or dare I say…Petrolicious article? Imagine my excitement when in March of this year I received a call from TR4 master and extraordinaire, Danny Morton. He was the president of the Sterling British Motoring Society in Lexington and not only helped me find the car, but continued the restoration efforts after I moved away. Truly the man behind the machine, and the machine was done. Begin: road trip planning: Kentucky to NYC.
Day 1: Mount Sterling, KY to Charleston, WV
A quick flight from La Guardia and a short drive later, the 3-day adventure finally kicks off. For a car I’d last seen in a heap of brown rust holes and Ziploc baggies, I’m astonished by the woman in back before me. Svelte European fogs, luminous slippery paint, and eye popping red-washed interior…the period gentleman’s driver we set out to revive was real. It was alive. It was mine for the taking.
The trunk was bursting with spares, as much luggage and camera equipment as it could squeeze, and a lonely AAA card. My partner Michael came along for the drive, and I must give him endless amounts of thanks for expert photography and navigation throughout the journey. We started on old US Route 60, basking in the open air with the top down. Hours upon hours of foot to the floor driving, listening to exhaust notes bounce off rock walls, and feeling the 1960s breeze was beyond intoxicating. I wish the next two days followed the same recipe.
Day 2: Charleston, WV to Washington, D.C.
Rain. Rain. Rain. Was West Virginia made of rain? Is that possible? The most massively torrential rain that I’ve ever experienced started that morning. Any sensible person would have played it safe and waited until the next day to set off. However, that morning, I didn’t even consider it. I drove a 55-year old newly restored car through multiple hours of downpour rain into the Appalachians.
I should have known something was wrong when my wipers started slowing down and the headlamps dimmed. Even this obvious sign of Lucasness didn’t raise alarm in my head and we pressed on. The rain had pummeled its way into the interior by this point, and the seats, carpets, and associated passengers were all drenched. A quick stop for gas was met with a car that wouldn’t start back up. Red flag? Nope. Just give it a good push start down the hill and we were off.
Then the wipers stopped completely. For anyone else: cue the giant, indisputable, palpable, red flag. For us? Let’s keep going and only pull the wiper switch every now and then.
About 40 more miles through the tangled and mostly abandoned mountain roads, and we were sputtering. At this point, I knew the generator was probably full of water and our time was limited. The electric fuel pump I had insisted on finally ran out of juice, and there we were, a car guy’s worst nightmare: stuck in the middle of an unfamiliar nowhere, without cell coverage, with no one in sight, in the rain, on a long road trip.
What happened next was pure miracle. After an hour, I turned the key and heard the fuel pump start back up! If we could just roll start the car down the hill and drive to the little town we passed, we would have options. We had one chance. Push. Roll. Brap! Brap! Vroom!
On presumably fumes and good luck, we coughed into an auto parts store parking lot. I bought three new batteries and we were off again to Washington. Sure, we were crazy, but we were determined. The rain had let up and I crossed my fingers as I called British car shops in the D.C. area hoping that someone would help a Triumph on a Sunday. “Impossible,” you say? I got a 10 AM appointment with British Standard Motors.
There’s arriving somewhere and then there is truly ARRIVING somewhere. I’ve never been so happy to see Washington, D.C. in my life. It had a surprise for us for the next morning.
Day 3: Washington D.C. to New York, NY
Wake up, re-pack, check out, go to parking garage, get in car. Pull car out of the hotel garage. BAM…the sound of the exhaust getting knocked off the manifold from a parking bump. How delightful.
At this point, the car was in genuinely bad shape. Still sopping wet, barely running on dying batteries, and shouting at us with no exhaust. As we limped to the shop, we met our hero for the day, Mick. Out of the goodness of his heart, he took on the role of weekend TR4 doctor. My lady in black was under the knife and I waited patiently, concerned, somewhat frightened of her recovery in the lounge. No amount of old Road & Track from the ’80s and distressed Corgi models could take my mind off our hopeless plight.
Three hours later, a beam of light appeared, and a cheery Mick has mended her enough for our journey home. I am in disbelief as the exhaust has been inexplicably fastened back. While another generator could not be sourced, the batteries were recharged enough to get us back.
Back to New York we went. In retrospect of this experience, I have never been afraid of every single bump on a highway before. I have also never had the pleasure of driving into the City at night on parking lights alone. In the end, the sight of that incredible skyline appearing made it all worth it. We were here. The car was here. Home at last.
These days, everyone seems to think about where they are going and not so much about getting there. I see so many good friends that struggle to impress the straw hat crowd… These friends rarely get to enjoy their machines, and they miss out on the special experience of trusting them. Every car you see, no matter how rusted in a field or battered in a junk yard, was once new and perfect in a showroom.
They were all trusted at some point, and these original experiences and impressions in the past created the foundation of our darling classics we love today.
I could have flown from Lexington to New York, but I guarantee you I would barely remember anything about it. The people I met along the way, the sights that I experienced, the vibrancy of the region. You simply can’t replace it. To all of my straw hat friends, I say fear not. Go ahead and take a long drive. You might break down. It might be the best thing that has ever happened to you, it could be legendary.