What I'm Driving At: What Goes Around

On the one hand, there was no way I was going to pass up an invitation to traipse along Middle Tennessee backroads in my pick of a dozen immaculate collector cars. On the other hand, I confess to a mild attack of trepidation upon learning the prewar status of these autos -- pre-World War I. Granted, the opening decade and a half of the 1900s was surely this century's last unruffled time. But watching Brentwood's Albert Menefee III manhandle the spoked wagon wheel of his 1914 Ford Model T certainly had its ruffling aspect.He chuckled mightily as he knelt beside the wooden rim and forced it to sway and groan about the hub. "We'll just run a bolt through there," he said, pointing to a gap separating two of the wooden felloes that form the rim's circumference. "That's what's great about these cars -- so easy to fix."The 1997 Circle South Tour is the brainchild of Nashville's most entertaining eccentric-in-training, Alex Joyce. Even those already familiar with his breathless enthusiasm for the old horseless beasts that thundered the roads at the turn of the century would marvel at the tour he has taken two years to plan. For two and a half weeks this month, 12 doughty couples from around the country are traveling 1,900 miles through Middle Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau in a collection of cars dating back to 1914 -- or before.The 83-year minimum age of these vehicles is inevitable, since this year's Circle South Tour is restricted to what are formally known as Brass Cars. The designation refers to the earliest machines -- horseless incunabula, really -- built in and before The Great War, when brass was plentiful and prized for its luxurious malleability. From the onset of European hostilities in August 1914, the first World War consumed brass with demonic gusto and brought down the curtain upon the original Golden Era of automobiles -- golden-hued, at any rate, if the buffer was doing his job.To step into this circle of aficionados and their cars, even for a weekend, is to step out of time. Unfamiliar names, sights, and sounds disorient and enthrall.A 1913 Alco throbs to life on a misty morning hillside outside Cornersville, Tenn. It took over 18 months for artisans at the American Locomotive Company to handcraft each Alco, and its stately luxury was, from its inception, both impressive and doomed. Yet Florida's Manny and Lucy Souza log thousands of miles three or four times a year in wind-blown grandeur. Even a barrage of backfire at one point fails to deter; Manny presses on regardless, tinkering as he must.The 1910 Packard Model 30, owned by Herb and Dorrie Lederer from Riverside, Ill., and the 1914 Locomobile driven by Phil and Carol Bray of Grosse Ile, Mich., were the pinnacle of respectability in their time. High above the road, into the wind and over the relentless throb of the open exhaust, one sails along in a manner more nautical than terrestrial. In the 'teens, such cars might cost as much as $6,000, while the humble Model T cost only $500. Assuming a simple calculus based on today's humble $15,000 Saturn, it would take $180,000 in contemporary dollars to acquire automotive status equal to the likes of Alco, Packard, and Locomobile."But you must be sure to ride a fire-breathing dragon," Joyce counseled upon noting my descent into safe staidness. Suddenly, as if awakening to Mr. Toad's wild chase after wind in the willows, I am the guest of Bob and Lee Belf from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Their 1908 Fiat touring car is the oldest on the tour and fully justifies its pyrotechnic reputation.The Fiat's massive six-cylinder engine displaces more than 500 cubic inches -- that's more than a Dodge Viper's eight-liter V10. And like the original Viper, the Belfs' car is meant for open-air driving, since skimpy fabric side curtains and the complicated canvas top are noisy, unattractive, and intended for only the most inclement weather. Some years ago, however, Bob did make one modernizing concession. A black, low-slung canvas windscreen at least channels, but doesn't altogether eliminate, air flow over the car's occupants. Apparently, in 1908, Fiat's engineers had concerns that went beyond the mere creature comforts of their customers. There was the matter of coaxing 50 horsepower from the behemoth engine block, for example, and then harnessing that power, extraordinary for its day, by means of a massive, motorcycle-style chain drive employing steel links over one inch wide.By 1914 many of these technical conundra had been sorted out -- most elegantly in the case of the Type 150 Peugeot owned and driven by Tom and Janie Lester of Coconut Creek, Fla. One of two remaining in the world, this rakish Peugeot is a genuine prototype of today's sport tourers and is scarcely five years older than Lester himself. (He turned 78 midway through the tour.)Under Lester's care, the original 7.5-liter engine now boasts 8.0 liters and an estimated 60 horsepower. Despite only four gargantuan cylinders, the car is sewing-machine smooth and stitches along at an effortless 55 miles-an-hour in fourth gear, turning only 1,250 rpm. At 70 mph and more, the car seems to glide ahead rather than roll forward. Wheels the size of an 8-year-old child sport tires narrower than the palm of that child's hand -- inflated to 60 psi, no less. Even so, the Peugeot -- with the unflappable Lester at the wheel -- skims across sweeping backroads with unflustered aplomb. At speed, handling is surprisingly neutral, the ride notably pliant. After half a day ensconced amidst luxurious mahogany paneling, leather upholstery, and brass fittings, a passenger is reminded of the car's octogenarian status only by listening to the deft, slow-motion double-clutches with which Lester changes gears both up and down.There's no contest, of course, between the performance of a Brass Car and that of modern coupes and sedans -- to say nothing of our dazzling sports cars and roadsters. Then again, no modern car quite succeeds in recreating the sense of unprecedented speed and magical, mechanical horsepower with which these horseless progenitors seduced an entire century and its rampant civilization.There was a time when 25 miles-an-hour was more thrilling than 125 mph is today. Lest we forget, it is still just possible, in one of the beautiful Brass Cars motoring blithely along, to sense how that thrill may have felt to the earliest generation of auto enthusiasts. And then it dawns on us that we will never ride this way again.

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