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"Blake put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry dad. That’s not a rock chip. That’s a memory mark. Every time you look at that you’ll be reminded what a special day today was.” I about started crying right then and there. This was an eight year old teaching his old man the meaning of life. It’s the adventures, not the things that count.  I’ll never forget that moment."

The Greene Mille

by Mark Greene 

 

Honest. I had no intention of purchasing another “toy” car. Really. 

 

The phone rang and on the other end was John Willhoit, owner of Willhoit Auto Restoration in Long Beach California. John restores some of the finest 356 Porsches in the world. His shop is filled with delicious old 356 and 911 Porsches. These are the makes and models I’ve been in love with since childhood. But there is one old Porsche I really love. The 550 Spyder. 

 

“Hey Mark. You interested in a Beck Spyder? You told me a while back that you would like one.” 

 

Chuck Beck has been building replica Porsche Speedsters and 550 Spyders for some time. Before he sold his business, he was also making Porsche 904 replicas with 911 engines. I would love to have one of those, in silver, with a 2.7 liter 911 engine, please. But I digress. His Speedsters and Spyders usually run with VW engines and VW parts on board. The frames are tubular and the body is a fiberglass shell. Given the right power plant, these cars are light, quick, and a ton of fun to drive. 

 

“Hey John. Thanks for calling. Tell me about this Beck.” 

spyderatjohns 400x269 

Spyder at John’s

  

“A customer of mine had me custom build the car using as many original Porsche parts as I could find. The engine is out of a 1956 Porsche Speedster and we did some modifications to give it more power, like Duel Dellorto carburetors and a Porsche transmission. The seats are Speedster seats and the gauges are from a 356. Even the steering column is out of a 356 and the steering wheel is a Werks. The wheels are 356 five-lug rims with the hubcap retentions shaved off and they are painted. The car is stunning in silver with a hint of gold, just enough to make it warm. Porsche wool, square-weave carpets, blue spears on the rear fenders, fluted headlight lenses, and rear deck leather latches make her really sweet. The owner needs money now and he’s willing to let her go for a fraction of what it cost to build the car.” 

 

“Email me some photos today John” was my quick reply. 

 

Within a day, I was on an Alaska Airlines flight to Long Beach from Seattle International Airport. John picked me up at John Wayne Airport in his VW Thing. How cool is that? I was in a topless Thing, SoCal sunshine on my face, and on my way to see what would become my next toy. The Beck was even better than I imagined.  

 

It was like a brand new 550 Spyder, without the 4-cam motor of course, and without the half million-dollar price tag. They are millions of dollars today, but this was over 12 years ago. The check was written and travel plans were made to return in two weeks after John did a fluid exchange, new belt, checked the vitals, and got her ready for a 1,323 mile road trip. The plan was to drive up Highway 1 back to Gig Harbor, Washington. 

 

Once back home, I knew that neither my wife, Jill, nor my daughter, Paige, had any interest in that kind of drive in an open car that had no top, no heater, no radio, no spare tire, and would ride like a race car. “My hair will get messy!” Not a problem for me. Thanks to my parents, I have no hair. 

 

“Hey Blake. Want to go on a road trip with your ol’ dad?” 

 

Blake was 8 years old at the time and I had been taking him to vintage races, car shows, and car dealers since he was born. His eyes lit up. “Let the planning begin!” 

 

The first thing we did was to officially title the trip as the Greene Mille. It was a tribute to the famous Mille Miglia race in Italy that was established by the young count Aymo Maggi and Franco Mazzotti. Automobile marques of all types were raced on public roadways in Italy from 1927 until 1957, from Brescia to Rome and back. Jill sewed Mille Miglia patches on our matching red Porsche caps. We reviewed Google Maps and began planning each day, making sure our daily travels were around 300 miles and scouting out cool places to stop and visit along the route. Plus, I wanted to make sure the hotels we stayed at had safe, preferably covered, parking. 

 

Because the Spyder sat so low and Blake was so short, I needed to come up with something to elevate him enough to be able to see out of the car. After deciding against a stack of phone books, I called John. I asked him to measure the passenger seat and to make note of any angles so Blake’s mom, Jill, could fabricate a booster from whatever design I came up with. We got some thick foam padding and cut it into a shape and size that would provide comfort, safety, and visibility. Jill found some dark blue gabardine to match the Spyder’s dark blue vinyl and stitched it up with silver piping. Blake was now sitting tall and comfortable, the custom design three point safety harness securing him perfectly. 

 

With Blake being 8 years old, I wanted a way to engage him in the trip and provide him with a way to participate. I told him that the Mille Miglia was a race with teammates where there was a Pilota (the driver) and a Navigatore (the navigator). So we created sheets that Blake would use to track the oil pressure, oil temperature, and calculate the gas mileage every hour while tracking our progress on a road map. The documents were adorned with the Mille Miglia logo and an easy to use check-box system. I taught him how to calculate the gas mileage and he was armed with a highlighter to track our progress on the map. All this on a cool, carbon fiber clipboard complete with a stopwatch! We even found a 1000 Miglia sticker on eBay for the Spyder’s windshield and Pegasus horse stickers for each fender, just like the race cars had. 

1000Mille 

1000 Miglia 

 

John picked us up at the airport in his Thing and off we went to his shop in Long Beach. There, the Spyder was waiting, ready for her road trip. We stuffed all of our things into the tiny trunk and behind the seats and climbed into the car. Pulling on my string-backed driving gloves, I asked John, “Well, we have our cell phone, sunscreen, hats, spare parts, sunglasses, and maps. Anything else we need?” 

 

“A great attitude!” John replied. “I can’t believe you’re doing this trip in that little car with your son. Call me if you have any troubles.” Part of me wondered what he knew that I didn’t. 

 

Blake and I had agreed on a few Greene Mille rules: 

  1. We were going to have fun no matter what. Frankly I was expecting a break down given this car had not been driven much.
  2. Since it was a custom build, there are almost always issues. If we saw something cool, we stopped to enjoy the proverbial flowers.
  3. We keep to the speed limits. Your children are never too young to instill safe driving habits.

 

And off we went! 

goldenlady 

Golden Lady

  

I forgot to mention our protector, the Golden Lady. The Werks style steering wheel that John had installed on the Spyder is a wheel often used in the 550 Spyder and RSK60 racecars. The center of the wheel was fitted with a special “Golden Lady” horn button. There were several optional horn button designs back in the day and this one is pretty cool. We decided she would be our protector for the trip, kind of a St. Christopher of sorts. When I later sold the car, I kept her and she’s framed and hangs in Blake’s bedroom as a keepsake of our Greene Mille adventure. 

 

Our first stop was a friend’s apartment in Westwood. From there we would leave first thing the next morning and drive west on the 10 to Highway 1 in Santa Monica. My friend, Steve, had underground and secured parking and given that the car had no top and no way to lock it up, this provided me a good night’s rest. One problem. The drive down into his underground garage had a steep incline off the street. The Spyder was very, very low to the ground with a clearance of only six inches. We high sided on the transition from the street to the garage. Oops! We got out and rocked the car back and forth until it was free and tried again using an angled approach. Mental note: this car is LOW! 

 

The next morning the sun was out in L.A. and we headed west on Highway 10 to the 1. Starting in Santa Monica and then cruising up through Malibu is one of those iconic drives on the west coast. The combination of fresh, salty ocean air and the SoCal sunshine was absolutely blissful. We began getting thumbs up from passing drivers and Blake decided to keep track of them on his Navigatore document. One tick, two tick, three tick. It was pretty cool. As we left the craziness of Los Angeles, the traffic died down and soon we were enjoying the Pacific Ocean views to the left and the Santa Monica Mountains to the right. We stopped at a few lookout points including Leo Carillo State Park and Point Mugu State Park for photo ops and to simply enjoy the grandeur of the big blue Pacific Ocean. I had to keep pinching myself that this was real. I was actually doing this. 

 

Our first planned overnight stop was Morro Bay. But before we arrived, there were plenty of fun places to stop and enjoy. Where Highway 1 turns away from the coast at Gaviota State park we drove up the 101 to Solvang, a beautiful little Danish town that gives you the feeling that you’re in Europe. We enjoyed some delicious Danish bakery and the photo ops with the Spyder in front of the European architecture was really cool. 

 

Back to Highway 1, also known as the Cabrillo Highway, we cruised through twists and turns, passing Vandenberg Air Force Base and eventually ending up back on the coast at the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve. We stopped for lunch in the little beach city of Pismo Beach and it was fun to see the crowd of onlookers who would gather around the Spyder. We soon learned that every gas stop was not a short fill-up-and-go. Almost everyone wanted to know about the car and the story about our travels. It was fun to share these stories and Blake got to add more tick marks on his “thumbs-up” tally every day. 

 

Highway 1 cuts inland again after Pismo due to the Montana De Oro State Park, but eventually we ended up back at the Pacific Ocean in Morro Bay, our first overnight stop. I had found a hotel that had underground parking so the car would be protected. I brought a custom car cover so at night the car could be tucked in and protected from the ocean dew and prying eyes. There was a built-in battery disconnect switch; the kind where you pull the red key out to prevent would-be thieves. When we arrived I pulled out a little bottle of spray-on detailer and we proceeded to clean the day’s bugs off the nose and windshield. Then I saw it. There was a paint chip on the front of the car! 

 

Blake could see the frown on my brow and asked what was wrong. 

 

“Our first rock chip. Darn it!”  Then something really amazing happened. 

 

Blake put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry dad. That’s not a rock chip. That’s a memory mark. Every time you look at that you’ll be reminded what a special day today was.” I about started crying right then and there. This was an eight year old teaching his old man the meaning of life. It’s the adventures, not the things that count.  I’ll never forget that moment. 

 

The next morning we headed out early for our next stop, Hearst Castle. We parked well away from the other cars, covered the Spyder and went on two of the many tours at old man Hearst’s little abode. It is an unbelievable place. When we returned to the Spyder there was a car parked next to ours and a family was standing there, lifting a corner of the cover, taking a peek. 

 

“May I help you?” I asked. 

 

The father, in a heavy German accent, apologized for taking a look. He and his family were from Stuttgart and recognized the shape under the cover. We talked cars for a bit, took pictures of each of them sitting in the car and a family photo in front of the car as well. Pretty fun making friends in a remote place, but that’s what cars do. They bring enthusiasts together no matter where in the world they are from. 

 

We motored on toward Carmel by the Sea, stopping every now and then, taking photos along the beautiful drive at places like Big Sur and, of course, we took a photo with the beautiful Bixby Bridge at Castle Rock. When we got into Carmel by the Sea, we slipped off the highway down Ocean Avenue into town and had an early dinner. Then we entered the iconic 17-Mile drive at the south gate and took our time along one of the most scenic drives in the world dreaming what it would be like to live in any of the magnificent homes along that drive. It was so much fun that when we got to the exit gate past The Inn at Spanish Bay, we turned around and did the drive again going the opposite way. New views and perspectives made it well worth our while. 

 

We left Monterey and headed toward our next night’s lodging, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Adams, the gentleman who married my wife Jill and me. He and his wife have a home in Santa Cruz and were gracious enough to allow us to stay with them. He even pulled his car out of the garage and let us park the Spyder inside for the night. After a delicious homemade meal, we walked over to The Boardwalk Amusement Park and rode the Giant Dipper roller coaster and ate cotton candy. That evening we sat on the beach and watched Paul Revere and The Raiders play on the stage. Yes, the original band. They even played SS396. Perfect!

 

The next day we headed toward San Francisco. We were just south of Ano Nuevo Bay when closing fast in my rear view mirror was a new Porsche Turbo. He slowed down just enough to stick his hand out the sunroof and give us his thumbs up. Add another tick mark, Blake. Then he throttled up and flew into the distance. Not long after that a CHIP (California Highway Patrol) came flying by doing at least 90. Not too much longer we arrived at the scene of our friend in the Turbo pulled over with two CHIPPERs behind his car. He gave us his thumbs up as we passed, although he didn’t have the same smile on his face as he had when he passed us earlier. 

 

“I don’t think I’ll count that one, Dad.” Said Blake. 

 

We took time to drive through Golden Gate Park and enjoyed some of the sites. Then we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. The view looking up from our open top car at the majestic towers was spectacular. We pulled off at Vista Point to enjoy the magnificent view of the bridge and San Francisco. 

 

The Spyder had no top or heater and it didn’t matter. The weather had been spectacular, sunny every day and actually a bit warm at times. The sunscreen and Greene Mille Porsche caps did their jobs. It got a bit warm in the afternoons and Blake would snap the tonneau cover in place (there was a zipper down the middle separating the driver’s side from the passenger’s) and it would give him some sun protection during a nap. When I told him what the tonneau was called, for some reason he heard the word “banano.” So he started calling it the banano cover. We still laugh about that today. 

 

We drove into Sausalito and found a restaurant with outdoor seating on the sidewalk. There was a parking spot right in front of the restaurant. Perfect! As we were enjoying a delicious meal a large tour bus pulled up across the street and out of the door came a large group of Japanese tourists. They immediately descended upon the Spyder. Blake looked at me with worry. I got up and walked over because a few of them were a little too close for my comfort. The tour director asked me if this was “James Dean’s car.” I smiled and said “Yes, sort of.” One of the guys asked if he could sit in the car. “Sure, I’ll take your picture.”

Big mistake. I spent the next hour taking photos of every one of those tourists sitting in the Spyder. Blake ordered dessert and ate it all. I never got to finish my sandwich. But, it was worth it to see all the smiles and, once again, we had new friends from across the ocean.  We enjoyed some time in Sausalito and drove north to our next night’s lodging in Garberville, home of what was once the largest redwood lumber mill in the world. 

 

When we rolled into Garberville it was getting a little late and the hotel I had made reservations at had given away our room. Thanks a lot! The guy called around town, which is about as long as a few football fields, and found us a room at one of those places where there are a bunch of little cabins. I believe that’s where the word Motel originated. Our cabin was all the way at the end of a long driveway. As we passed the other cabins, each had a big ‘ol Harley Davidson motorcycle parked in front with guys wearing leather, bandanas, and big black boots, sitting out on their cabin’s porch. Blake looked at me and said “Those guys look scary.”

“Just look forward, we’ll be okay.” I replied. 

 

When we got to our room, all the bikers were walking our way. I have to say, I was a bit concerned because these guys looked like the wild bunch. One of them walked up and asked about the car, who we were, and where we were going. Turns out it was a bunch of white collar bankers, business guys, and so forth, on their annual “Hog Ride.”  Cue up the movie Wild Hogs. We ended up going to a pizza parlor with them and playing pool. Blake thought it was pretty cool to be hanging out with bikers and when he called his mom that night, told her how we spent dinner. She said “Give the phone to your father right now!’ Pretty funny. Looks can be deceiving. And once again, the car introduced us to a new group of friends. 

 

The next morning was foggy and we planned on heading up the Redwood Highway to the Avenue of the Giants and the Redwood Forrest. Our biker friends were doing the same thing, so after a hearty breakfast we followed them through the trees. It was pretty amazing with all of those bikes and the majestic trees climbing up into the fog. The whole thing was surreal. We pulled off and waved goodbye to our friends when another CHIP drove past from the other direction. He pulled over and turned around, pulling up to our car. He walked up and Blake thought we had done something wrong. The officer said “Pretty cool seeing you in that group of bikers. Tell me about your car.” We talked for a bit and he gave us his business card, telling us if we had any problems while in California to call him. Again, the car brings us another friend. He gave us his thumbs up as he drove away. Add another trophy mark for Blake’s tally. 

 Blakeandspyderinforest

Blake and the Spyder somewhere in the forest. 

 

Seeing the little Spyder parked next to those giant trees was really incredible. Unfortunately, the Drive Thru Tree was closed that day. How do you close a tree? Well, they did so we missed out on that photo op. Regardless; it was a really fun drive in a convertible, especially looking up at those huge redwoods.

 

We continued north to Crescent City and Blake noticed a cutoff road, 199, and some caves we could go explore. So we decided to take a detour and headed up 199. 

 

Blake had been tracking our fuel up to this point. I was told that the car had a 10-gallon tank and when we had stopped for gas, I was puzzled because our mpg calculations were not adding up. We were getting 33 mpg consistently but when the gauge read empty, the car only took 8 gallons. I figured the float in the tank was not adjusted correctly. The mystery was about to be solved. As we headed up 199, Blake mentioned that the fuel gauge read empty. I told him not to worry, that we still had another 66 miles or so left and we could go to the caves and then we would stop at Cave Junction. Well about 5 minutes later, the car stuttered and stopped running. We pulled off next to a beautiful river flowing alongside the highway. It was then that I noticed my cell phone had no bars showing due to the mountains. Uh-oh. 

 

I opened up the bonnet and looked at the engine like most guys do along the road when a car quits. I was trying to figure out how far we were going to have to walk to get help and the thought of leaving the car on the side of the road was worrisome. And I wasn’t about to leave Blake with the car.

 

Every time somebody would drive by, we would wave, and they would give us their thumbs up but, they would keep on driving. Check off another mark for Blake on his sheet. 

 

“Maybe we are out of gas, Dad.” Blake said. 

 

“No, I don’t think so. We should have at least two gallons left. It must be something else.” I replied. 

 

I stumbled about, scratching my head, wondering what was up. The fuses were all okay, nothing leaking from under the car. Hmmmm.

 

“What is that little glass thing dad?” Blake asked. 

 

“That’s the fuel filter.” 

 

“If we had gas, wouldn’t there be gas in there?” Blake said. 

 

Once again, the kid was smarter than me. I grabbed a flashlight, opened the gas cap and looked down into the empty tank. My “Hello” was met with an echo. Turns out the gas tank held only 8 gallons, not 10 like I was told. A wave of relief came over me because I had been starting to wonder if our journey was over.

 

Not long after we realized our dilemma, a guy in an old beat up car pulled over and asked if we needed help. He looked like someone from a horror movie. You know, that guy who comes out of the woods with a large, rusty machete or chain saw eager to chop off your head. He was a pretty rough looking guy.

 

“We’re out of gas.” I replied. 

 

“Well, I live pretty close by and I have some gas in my tractor. I can get you some. Let’s go.” 

 

We got in his car and drove off up the road as I looked back at the Spyder wondering if it would still be there when I got back. Then I started thinking why on earth didn’t we just stay with the car and ask him to return with the fuel? Doh! Not far up the highway, he pulled off and drove down a dirt road lined with dense trees and into the woods. I have to say, Blake and I looked at each other with worry as we got deeper into the woods. Every horror film I had ever watched flashed through my head. Jason and the movie Friday the 13th came to mind. We arrived at a pretty beat up old mobile home with a barn behind it and junk scattered all over the place. We got out and walked toward his barn. Hanging from the rafters were all sorts of metal chains and saws and who knows what. Yes, we had walked right into a B-rated horror film.

  

“If I say run, you run as fast as you can back down that road,” I whispered to Blake. 

 

It turned out that he actually had a gas can. We siphoned two gallons of gas out of his tractor and he took us back to the car. We emptied the can into the tank and offered to pay him for the gas, but he wouldn’t take our money. 

 

“Happy to help. Have fun with your son. He’ll never forget this trip.” Said our “Jason.”

  

My wife still frowns when I tell this part of our story. 

 

While continuing up the Coast Highway toward Coos Bay Oregon, I noticed the oil temperature was climbing. I had picked up the speed a bit and when I slowed down the temperature would cool. Getting a little worried, I pulled over along the Pacific Ocean at Kronenberg State Beach to enjoy the view and think about why the oil temperature kept climbing. While we sat there a guy pulled up in an older VW bug. He came over to talk about the Spyder. Then he said, “My brother has one of these cars. Have you noticed when you go over 70 mph that the oil temperature climbs? 

 

Are you kidding me? We are in a pretty remote spot, and not too many Beck Spyders were built, but a guy whose brother has one finds us. He told us his brother learned that in the original 550 Spyder design, the air inlets placement in the rear of the car didn’t allow enough hot air to exit the engine compartment. His brother had installed an internal fan so he could hit a switch under the dash and suck the hot air out when he drove at higher speeds. Pretty cool chance meeting on the side of the road. Serendipity! 

 

We spent the night and laughed about our encounter with “Jason” and told ghost stories while the Spyder slept under her cover in the hotel parking lot.

 

We woke up early the next day, enjoyed a robust breakfast in a local diner, made a long day out of our final leg of the journey, and pulled into our garage late that evening. We were a little sunburned and a bit wind burned from 5 days in an open car, but it had been an adventure that neither of us will ever forget. The Spyder never let us down, without our help, and drove like a top. 

 

I kept the car for several years and we enjoyed participating in many tours around Western Washington with our local Porsche 356 Club. However, as time and changes in life affects our automotive buying and selling decisions, I sold the car to her next caregiver. The money went into the kid’s college fund. The last I heard, she lives in Chicago, with a retired vintage racer. 

 

Blake has never forgiven me for selling the Spyder and I must say, after writing this story, I have to put her on the “I wish I still had that car!” list. 

 spyderathome 400x301

Spyder at Home

 

Mark Greene is the former president of Griot’s Garage and hosts the podcast series Cars Yeah at www.carsyeah.com.  This story will be appearing in the Old Car Nut Book 2 edited by David Dickinson.  Read more about the book series at http://www.oldcarnutbook.com.  

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