Ringing 2012 with the Mount Hamilton Drive

One of the cardinal rules about driving an old Porsche is offering someone who has never experienced it, a ride.  Pelican Parts, a well known LA area Porsche Parts on-line and catalog sales business, held their annual New Year’s Day tour starting in remote part of Northern California to enjoy other Porsche, friends and amazing views.  What would be a better way to ring in 2012 than a sporting adventure up Mt. Hamilton, located just east of San Jose?

I invited my good friend Charles Hastings to be my navigator and photographer.  Having him on this drive, in some ways, more or less forced both of us to refrain consuming heavy libations wearing tuxedos, blowing party horns and dancing to 80’s music the night before.  Thus, we were both awake by 0600, and out the door by 0730 to arrive at a start location in Livermore, California by 0845.

The best part was neither of us felt a bit cold, only that we noted that morning with seasonal early morning bay fog that hugged moderate elevations.  This particular year, and less than nine hours into a year of world healing, the only bad weather would be located in Florida leaving this area of California a dry wintery warmish climate.

It was pretty crowded by the time we got there.

Exactly on schedule, the Chevron Station in Livermore was crawling with Porsches of many types.  There were a combined mix drivers of various Porsche club organizations, non-organizations and even some from track school.   There was a number of assorted Porsche 356, 914, 944, 911, 930, 935, 996, 997 and even one Lamborghini “Mugliao”.

.

It was fun to meet the variety of new drivers, whom I’ve never met, while others, I’ve never seen before, ranged from age, gender and race.  The cars also varied greatly, some appearing to be daily drivers while others see to catch that rare opportunity to stretch legs.   I was more than surprised to see smiles from so many that I have got to know through the years.   With such a captive audience I did not hesitate to introduce myself and passed out various local Porsche shop coupons.  My friend and navigator Chuck pulled out his trusty digital camera and snapped shots of many cars, without the bias of certain models or cost of automobiles.  This was exactly the kind of way I wanted to experience today’s drive.

We were sternly reminded that today’s drive was a tour, and that though we didn’t expect to see any black ice or moisture on the pavement on the way up, we were warned there could be some.   If you were able to glance at a provided map they had emailed everyone, you can see the 22 miles to the top was loaded with hairpin turns and long sweeping uphill curves.  The summit was Mt. Hamilton, and also the location of a scientific observatory which is more than famous photograph of Andromeda Galaxy, Lunar Surface or Haley’s Comet.

Charles Hastings is a good friend of mine.  We shared great times attending Holiday events, needless to say being the life of the party at times.  Charles has had an amazing passion for anything outside one’s regular day and after a concurrent wish that I had to have a passenger for this drive, he responded “Pick me, Pick me!”   Bird lover, animation expert, lifestyle aficionado, photographer and story teller; I confirmed his joining me at his very own “New Years Eve; Eve Party”, allowing that then the actual New Years Eve would be freed up when he was at his house.  Most particular was while at his house that evening, I see a painting on the wall.  So interesting that paint, technically solid and composed with care of an obvious master of art.  The painting was of him and his most dear wife Joanne, in a forever glance.   What was more bizarre was that I said to myself, “hmmm I wonder if the artist that painted this would be here” without any provocation or clue that in a few instances after that, this rather tall and fit man holding a plate of turkey came out and introduced himself as the artist of that paint.  “Hello, my name is Zimou Tan” he said… “I noticed you were looking at my painting”    I took a double take looking at both Chuck and JoAnne, then peering once again at the large framed canvas, absolutely flabbergasted… I ment, what would be the chances that I would get to meet the artist at that one moment?   “Nice work Zee- uhhh?” I instantly replied, still confused and bit dazed….   He noticed this name was not typical, not that I would remember typical names either and said, with a big happy smile “Just call me Zee” While he smiled again.  So there at Chuck’s party I am in conversation with Zimou sharing remarkable interactions with each other.    I couldn’t even begin to say how much he inspired me both artistically and with a sense of fate of hitting it off.

Jumping in start the drive.

The Chevron Station Beyond as we pull away

It was fun to start up my 911, the valves sounding completely tuned, voltage regulator and injectors.  The front windshield cleaned, we followed a single file array of colorful Porsche leaving the parking lot.  It was fun to see Chuck excitingly firing off digital images of the ride, as actually it was my first time I could have a tour recorded.  One by one the cars rolled in motion taking a hard right up towards the ominous mountain top specked with the tiniest white dots at the very top.  We flashed by a nearby town zipping through traffic lights and spending up the gears to further grind into a flow of motion.  I could no longer see the lead car, and being towards the front of the pack, no longer see the rear cars either.  We snaked through town vibrating parked cars enough to set off car alarms.   With so few people out and about that very morning, still I would witness pedestrian heads turned and people freezing in their tracks.   It was just about then did I notice we began our slight climb.

Livermore’s beautiful countryside is teamed with vineyards, livestock and lots of farms.  Fences of many shapes and types line the perimeter of the lots as did walls, or simply open brush and gladdened with oak trees.   The familiar shapes bumping outlines of Porsche in motion added to that particular morning serenity.   Little by little we started into the outskirts of the foothills that all signs of civilization diminished into rolling hills with sinuous road curves winding around and around.  Wooden barns dotted the landscapes gridded by fences and changes in vegetative textures were met by engine rumbles and eager drivers fixing for an adventure.  Trees and bush magically arranged as if there is a mastery of compositional art.  It didn’t even sound that foreign to hear the growls of horizontally opposed pistons and cylinders push crank and chain to a transaxle and pinned axle and then to fat Fuchs.  Third to Fourth, fourth to third, third to fourth and back again went over and over till there was no tomorrow.   Still the top of the mountain would peek between vista and views.

“Hey, I can make a few movies with this camera” Chuck said excitingly and sure enough that is exactly what he did.  Turning his camera on he wasn’t worried that the 911 wasn’t bumpy or swayed too much.  Instead he aimed the camera out the front windshield and photographed the car directly in front of us.  The roads were so curvy we could only see two or three cars in front of us, but there were more than that.   I looked at my speedometer and could see were had been driving at the near top of the car’s safe capacity.  Unfamiliar with this road, I knew I would not be the guy to run into over steer issues.  Smooth, precise, and patient I was keeping up with the car in front of me.   It was very cool seeing them snake in progression uphill winding and venting its way further up.

Driving uphill on switchback curves takes a quite a bit of attention.  If you drive an old-school Porsche with no power steering or brakes, it won’t take very long to notice driving is more sport, hence chore. You have to control your line, keep a good speed, and turn in and out of curves while being very careful to set yourself up for the next curve.  This is a bad time to be sipping lattes or trying to fuss with the radio.  You need to keep the gear ratio at a happy medium and should you need to downshift you need to be 100% ready to do so.   Not every single curve will have a guard rail and not always will you be given the chance to make any mistakes in turning, spinning out, shifting or keeping your speed up.  There are plenty of places to have distractions as well, such as the cars around you front and back, views, on-coming traffic, bikes and any road debris such as rocks or branches.

My favorite spots is driving the longer sweeping straightaway, getting the car out of 2nd and 3rd gears for a bit, revving to 5000rpm or so.  Out the window the scenery becomes a neat blur and you start to tunnel into setting up for next curve.  It is also fun to watch the car behind you disappear and you rush away from them while climbing up on the car in front of you.   Once the curves return after the straightaway, then it is back to work again on the tight curves uphill and then the mountain starts to steepen up and you then get sense changes of elevation.   Mount Hamilton is the highest mountain in the San Francisco Bay Area.  From its highest point and clear day, you can easily see downtown San Jose, San Francisco Bay, Yosemite National Park, the Pacific Ocean, Half Moon Bay, Big Sur and all the way past Calistoga and its nearby volcanic peak of St. Helena.  At 4196 feet tall, it is home of the Lick Observatory perched searching midnight skies.   Having the City of San Jose in its neighbor has never been a preferable neighbor, as evening light pollution destroys the needed darkness for astronomers to pick out the faintest of galaxies or even planetary bodies from known possible solar systems.  At every so often, you can see the white telescopes and towers jet from the tip of the mountain.  Chuck would again, be with his camera photographically capturing the Manzanita brush, Oak and Elm Trees that frequent the area from the moving car in continued hairpins up the hills.   So few clouds were in the sky, and whatever opportune the sun burst through the winter trees, it did.  From shadow to sun, from sun to shadow, the harshness of glare needed to be cut down with dark shades.

Stock 911 suspensions on curvy roads seem crisp, yet stiff compared to just about any other car in world.  On the most vintage Porsche, the suspension is soft, but never the less, you can feel and hear the bumps.  The car is like a riding on the back of a meat grinder lumping on one side while it squeezes out fresh hamburger through the other.  This act mixed with the continued grindings in lower gears drowned in Swepco 501 Transmission fluid can take a toll on one’s boy.  There is nothing less than what can be said about the products and parts that make up any classic car except if you have the wrong stuff, beware.

As like so many of these tours I have been on before, cars start to slow down and then pulling along side of the road.  Picture taking opportunities happen as so the discussions regarding the weather, the night before, and even how one is feeling at this very moment.  Associated to this similar feeling has to be the variety of proud Porsche ownership, seeing the expression of what will happen next.  It seems the leader, whom provided us with a list is pointing and counting cars.  Noticing that over 30 are missing he is on the cell phone with the “clean up” car stating there has been an accident. With rumors flying and looking at the end of the line the Lamborghini made it but so strange having many cars gone.  Chuck even remarked recalling that were should have been way in the front, but now, it’s almost seems we are a good third way back.   “Oh here comes some -counting 8, still missing 22”; and when it pulled up a driver the rumors echoed… “it was that upgraded Porsche, with the low profile tires; the driver reaches for his thermos and smacks the hill hard, ripping his tires from his rims.” “he is done for today, and has someone remaining behind to help him till gets a tow truck”   “hmmm..well said another, what happened to the rest of the cars, surely we still had many more than who is here?” “Oh yeah, them” said yet another driver. “from at the beginning they turned left, instead of right and took a bunch of drivers with them.  It seems they are not going to continue.”

Chuck spoke to few of these guys and others seemed eager to find restroom.   So after some interesting conversation, we decided to forge forward.   I didn’t know of expectations beyond that point only that I noticed as we moved forward the curves were getting tighter, and the cars were moving a lot faster.   Quicker and quicker up the hill they went as almost a pulse reaction.  In my case, I kept my cool, as I know how treacherous bending in the roads can be.    I never heard my tires squeal, but I knew if I did, I was moving too fast.  The perspective of the views got even higher, and taller.  Hand over hand, toe and heel, I stuck my car solidly on the line and up the hill it went.  As if there was a cadence in patterns these cars got closer to each other and some ahead of me started to pull away forward.  I was thinking “are you crazy” and then telling Chuck “its impossible to really learn curves, you should always treat them as if it were the first time you drive them… especially on anything but a closed track. It was fun to have Chuck on top of the photography, because it was here I immediately knew I had to stay on my wits end.  The road became less and less forgiving as I noticed that in order to keep at the cadence, you had to negotiate the entire road.    Actually, I kept it down and I was keeping my eye on the flow of traffic.  It was interesting that I noticed at in one instance, I could see drifting off the line would throw you either into the mountain or off of it.   The cars in front of me started to leave me.  I was hanging on close but my car being a 1969 didn’t have that similar forgiving suspension system in cars 40 years newer. The same was with my 911 brakes, because at this point I needed to maintain a good level of farness with the car in front of me. If I had to brake too far back, the car riding my tail would be extra anxious and if too close, I would be having similar actions of smacking the car directly in front of me.  Light and dark, dark and light, as going in and out of the trees added to the hypnotic frenzy driving the now sunny morning hew clearing away from any slight fog.   I could see that the roads, had a winter dry to it, but it wasn’t like hot sticky roads one might be very familiar in summer days.

Chuck and I were noticing just how high up the valley we were.  We could clearly see the white domed observatory with huge telescopes less than a few hundred yards over us. Winding roads zigzaged for 22 miles from the mountain's base. Banking a few turns as the drivers got even higher, the tree line separated itself from the  top of the mountain.  “Hey, look, brake lights”, as I then had this once again feeling that another photo shoot was in order.  I thought to myself, but so near the top, how odd.  It too didn’t seem to be that rolling slow down, but a complete stop and cars pulled hard off the road.  Chuck exclaimed “pass these guys and go on up” and of course I felt maybe since he had any medical background it would be a good idea.   There I saw, two men just crawling up the hill, one or both dazed.  Then looking again, it was the number 3 driver very dazed and the other guy helping him cross right behind us.   I pulled way up, towards the very front parked and ran back.

I looked down the hill where those guys climbed up.  Sure enough a Porsche about 80’ down a steep embankment mashed into Manzanita brush with its hazard lights on.  People who where held up and waiting got the word and in disbelief were more than relieved they were not part of this specific mishap.  What had happened is a well known principal known as “oversteer”. Oversteer is fancy word for if an when a rear engine car “spin-out” might happen, found to be common in the 911. The weight distributed rear engine in any Porsche 911 makes one’s car a giant pendulum laying on the ground.  If you maintain a moderate rate of speed, around a curve, the car works great.  The minute, however, if you have any speed on it, and that you turn too suddenly, it is like the rear wheels no longer have much surface contact to the road, and pretty much your car’s rear end will fly around the curve and the car will spin out.  With any hope, this kind of spin out will happen with no guardrails, trees, fences, steep hills and or people.  The car spins with no control to stop the motion.

There this driver was, at the top of the hill, dazed getting a little bit of medical help from from nurse, also one of the drivers.  He admitted having too much speed being in third place and spun his car hard to the right, and forcing it to over correct.  He also got it to a complete stop, but the car was not motionless enough (or the road not wide enough) that all it took was locked brakes and 5 mph.  Off the edge he went.   Looking at the rocks, I am certain it was a very bumpy ride down.

“How did he do that?”

“He’s done this specific route several times”

“He is lucky to be alive”

“He was driving too fast”

 

All were the silent thoughts in various people’s heads.   To see him at the top of the hill was a great relief.  The car, not him, could be replaced.   It took hours, but it took a rather large tow truck to pull his car up the steep 80’ embankment.  He said his car was drivable home, and said much of the damage was done by the tow.

                                

It might be as an added note, that not to drive fast, and you never have this exact problem, but say you wish to pull off a Steve McQueen maneuver, the following would work.   Drive very fast into a curve, but as you turn into the curve, knowing your tail will fish out, simply add a lot of gas, feathering the toe/heel… then just before you start to fish tail, turn hard away from the curve making up for the fishtail and presto, you are back into making the turn.  Your car evens itself out and you are out of trouble.

 

As one of the first cars to get to the top of Mt. Hamilton, we decided to park away from bikers and other cars.  It took a short hike to get to where the white domed telescopes awaited.  The clear sky is a testament in getting above the cloud line and thus, while maybe the rest of the bay area would be socked in fog or rain, Mt. Hamilton would be clear ready to view night skies.  The cars at the very top parked together.  People lurched over walls, and perused the massive cosmopolitan of San Jose below.   More surprising would be the overabundance of bikers that started from the mountain foot and rode uphill for the better part of twenty miles.  Clicking around in clip bike shoes and colorful stretch nylon outfits with helmets and gloves interacted with drivers and cars.

Getting off the mountain was exciting, and Chuck could tell I had a certain control on the downhill.  We passed bikers going up and heading down.  Weaving in and around them without risking suffrage would be if one was skillful in shifting and curves.  Being on the brakes all the way down would smoke them, while staying in a shifted gear would be difficult and hard on the engine.  It didn’t take very long as we got down the mountain.  It was closer to 1300 when we finally were able to race home, happy to let the car effortless roll on the freeway.   I went to bed that night early, Jan 1, 2012, to somber into a deep sleep.

The nicest thing about Chuck was an opportunity to meet his artist Zimou.  It took less than a week, but Zimou was very excited to talk to me about his art.  I must admit that immediately, after looking at his webpage on my trusty broken screen iPhone, that I could see pure classical talent.  The images, sharp, did not lie about how he handles oil.  The next thing was watching Zimous Utube videos on how he made these magical masterpieces setting up a camera behind him recording his every move.  My first video was of how he painted an older man’s portrait.  I’ve never seen anything like it… and furthermore I could immediately see the improved paintings he had made for Chuck and his wife JoAnne.    It didn’t take long to get my motors running.

I’ve been attributing much of my Porsche background to what was a little known Independent shop in downtown Oakland California.  My car, its history, the way its been set up now all can be associated to A. Bauer Repair.  The place is small and when going in you don’t get the fluff of superficial Porsche posh, but rather the nuts and bolts of putting together everything from renovate, modified and serviced Porsche.   “We handle basically all models, since in essence, there are huge differences, the act of making adjustments and changing parts are similar.  We are more than happy to work on older Porsche models and new ones.”

The shop had changed its location from a smaller 2500 square foot location to over 7500 square feet.  Inside there are offices, metal fabrication shops, storage, mechanic bays and a neat area reserved for artists.   It isn’t very hard to look at the differences of art and Porsches even if one’s car spins out on a bad over steer and ends up with a bumpy ride down a slope.  I have to admit the pretty view to see the blinking taillights of a crashed car.  Corporate, independent, testing of mechanical boundaries, shapes and colors of cars, inventions for modifications, driving style all can have considerable artistic values.  Most all these so called artistic fluctuations didn’t come from me or the shop but was purely based on remarks and comments made by art patrons that flock the shop ever first Friday of every Month.  Our shop happened to be moved to ground zero of where thousands also flock to become introduced to artists, designers, and street vendors. “One night, we were late opening our rollup doors which we had only partway up” stated Chris Lanzentella to me, “ and people were diving under the door to get in”.   It is clear that people find it important to identify arts to race cars and visa versa.  It seems what they see has less to do with subject matter than it would with the execution of creating the art.   When at first it was just cars that were featured, to more recent times where fine artists would hang work, a common thread would be finding that fine line between mechanics and thoughts.  “Its all about invention, presentation and one’s background in the theme of racing” was a past featured artist for this first Friday Art MurMur walk Roberto Pallazo.  Roberto is an LA Artist that has been here in Oakland twice to share his point of view.  “Discovering a simple secret for giving your oils the strongest foundation possible” would be A. Bauer Porsche latest perspective on an artist that showed in the garage’s artist space.   There were a couple of times when we had an abstract interpretation of the concept of Porsche been presented showing the results of power and energy spent.    Another time I even produced some pen and ink sketches showing Porsche in front of newly designed houses.

The magic of Art MurMur is not the cars, or the artists, but the people who come to associate cars and art as one entity.  Its people, who think and experience and thrive a history never letting or forgetting our past from slipping past, I think this is exactly why, like Zimou’s art, reflects mastery.  This mastery is then reflected in the drive, the experience, the ownership in one of these great machines.   Its not about fortune or about having the means to own one of these machines, but rather is a living in an era where excellence is still respected, a revival.   Whether danced, built, written, a song, a poem, a painting is always that mix of perfecting elements to an experience of a way someone dreamed transportation.   Who can forget that one scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey with the PanAm spaceship had such elements of perfection?   Who could argue the solo drive to the ominous schoolhouse in Bolinas not bring an essence of escapism.    The entire adventure is about this Escape.

Tito Young.

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