Drive, She Said

Our new car columnist feels the need for speed on a road trip for charity in Northern California.

 

 

“Here you go, lucky lady, your Benz is right over there,” said the chipper Park’n’Fly shuttle bus driver as he handed me the key. It was a rainy morning in Oakland, CA, but as I stepped off the shuttle, I forgot about the hair-frizzing weather and the luggage I was dragging. I was ogling my ride for the next three days in the salacious way some people look at strippers.

 

To be clear, this was not just any Mercedes. It was the 2019 Mercedes AMG S63, a flagship grande dame sedan with all the sopping luxury (and then some) of a private jet crossed with the searing performance of a rare-air sports car. Throw in next-gen tech and leading semi-autonomous capabilities and you’ve about got the picture. 

 

Why was I privy to such a lovely beast? Because I had committed to participate in a three-day road rally, the 2019 California Adventure. It’s an annual fundraiser hosted by Drive Toward a Cure, a charity that raises money for Parkinson’s research by appealing to petrolheads like me. Twenty-six vehicles were convening, each with a driver and a navigator, to explore the soulful ribbons of pavement between San Jose and Yosemite National Park.

 

 

Bruce Canepa’s extraordinary shop and museum in Scotts Valley, CA

 

 

If you’re not conversant with road rallies, then here’s the shorthand: they are like a backroads bike tour except in cars. Each trip is comprised of a relatively small group of people drawn to two things—gorgeous locations and stunning sheet metal. You generally motor from one posh hotel to the next, with lots of speeding, passing and general motoring mayhem in between. So, the premise of this particular event was genius: get automotive ne’er-do-wells to do what they love best—driving like the wind in all manner of vehicles—all in the name of scientific research. 

 

I pushed the start button. The sexy growl of the biturbo V8 filled the S63’s interior. Then I sat back to take it all in as that mighty engine purred: before me was an expanse of quilted leather the color of just-whipped zabaglione and equally as intoxicating. In contrast to the expanse of delectably creamy hide were long swaths of undulating “Black Piano Lacquer Flowing Lines Trim” (I love German translations to English), all tastefully bound together with brushstrokes of chrome. I intended to shamelessly enjoy every decadent detail before I turned into a pumpkin 72 hours later, returning my chariot to its rightful owner.

 

 

The rally’s official kickoff was in Scotts Valley, CA, home of Canepa, an extraordinary restoration/modification/fabrication shop and museum, owned by racer and collector Bruce Canepa. There, he and his team modify, restore and sell vintage cars and race cars. They also build state-of-the-art transporters for said racecars and the A-list vintage cars they restore. If you have a need for speed and an appreciation for exceptional craftsmanship, this is nirvana.

 

Despite the pouring rain, the Canepa parking lot was already full with my driving comrades and their rainbow assortment of cars by the time I arrived. Preening alongside one another were air-cooled Porsches, a McLaren 600LT, an Aston Martin Vanquish, a ’70 Corvette Stingray, a ’53 Jaguar XK120 and a 2019 Acura NSX, to name just a few. I was already secretly gloating as they all eyed my supersized sedan, thinking I’d run at the back of this pack. Ha!

 

 

Clutching and Cramping: The tour blasted through Bear Valley en route to sleepy Groveland for a fine al fresco lunch—especially deserved by the manual gearbox guys, including a ’71 MG B

 

 

 

After Deb Pollack, founder of the event, checked us in, we went to peruse Canepa’s showroom. It was full of special Porsches of all flavors from 1960s to a 2015 918 hybrid supercar, an Audi Sport Quattro, a Lister-Chevy prototype, and on and on. All for sale! (I personally hate “shopping” for things I can’t possibly afford, a reason I don’t linger around haute couture or fine watch boutiques.)

 

Next, we went upstairs to tour Canepa’s motorsports museum, which is open to the public. What a smorgasbord of racing one-offs and legends alike! There was an important ’69 Porsche 917K—a world sportscar champion—parked next to an ’85 Porsche 962C (which may matter as much as spit to you but trust me in the flesh they’ll both give even the most dispassionate viewer goosebumps). There were Salt Flats hotrods, a 2015 Le Mans-winning Audi R15 TDI prototype, a Lancia rally car, etc. 

 

Dozens of storied machines, most of which Canepa has personally raced.

 

We then sauntered through the working areas of Canepa’s horsepower kingdom. There was another 1969 Porsche 917 race car, this one for sale for a mere $25 million, if you happen to have some spare change. As far as I could see, there were stacks and rows and prides of other important vehicles. When it was time to leave, it was all I could do to compose myself enough to climb back into my S63 and full-throttle the short way to our lunch stop in Mountain View, CA.

 

 

Drinking After Driving: John Frey, left, who drove a 2016 Porsche 911, and Tod Willson, right, who braved the tour in a 1953 Jaguar XK120

 

 

Post a particularly good mushroom ravioli, we marched to an unmarked contemporary building, a shrine to the gods of internal combustion, and this one, dear reader, you’ll not likely get the chance to see, alas. The owner of the collection is John Mozart, the kind of guy who has so much money and such good taste in cars that you might as well put your pencil down, because you’ll not fathom it any more easily than I can.

 

Mozart’s collection—no photos allowed—left me speechless. Two Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Best of Show winners greeted us, a Bugatti and an Alfa Romeo, each more beautiful than the other. There was a Phil Hill Ferrari Testarossa that nearly made me weep, its pedigree was so profound. There was a whole gallery devoted to dozens of “Brass Era” cars (a category embracing early American motorized ingenuity from 1890 to about 1917) that blew my mind for their quality, rarity and craftsmanship. 

 

And I don’t even like Brass Era cars.

 

From Mountain View, we all drove to the Fairmont in San Jose for the evening. I was glad to settle in—it’s exhausting to take in so many unobtainium cars all in one day. 

 

 

The British Are Coming! The rally’s sole McLaren — a beautiful 2019 600LT — made fine work of the Sierra National Park’s curves

 

 

That evening, the group went around the room, sharing why we were on the trip. These were good people who love great cars and whose lives have been touched by Parkinson’s and were there to help make progress on eradicating a terrible disease. People had traveled from ten states to participate in this, the fourth running of the rally.

 

Dinner was lovely, but the next morning it was time to get down to serious driving business. My husband, Bob, having arrived late the night before, had the unenviable job of navigating (and withstanding my cornering) as we took off from the hotel, route book planted in his lap.

 

When I took a sudden, hard left-hand turn, he exclaimed: “Whoa! The seat just hugged me!” The Mercedes’ dynamic bolsters literally mean that the sides of the seat automatically paddle-flap like a pinball machine in sync with the g-forces and radius of every turn, buffeting your from body sway. It’s uncannily like sitting on someone’s lap—a trained athlete, perhaps—their arms wrapped around you and holding you in place every second. It’s addictive. 

 

I had 603 horses and 664 pound-feet of torque to put to use, so don’t hate me — although a few fellow drivers may have as I rocketed past them. 

 

We headed to a fairgrounds for a “special stage driving test.” That meant a huge open parking lot with a maze of orange cones set up to drive around at speed. Although tracks are my thing, screeching around cones in one of the biggest cars in the event wasn’t sounding fun.“Want to get out of here and get to Yosemite ahead of everyone?” I rhetorically asked Bob.

 

 

Posing topless: A 2019 Mercedes E53 cabriolet eating up Sierra grandeur on the final leg of Highway 41 heading toward Yosemite

 

 

For the first stretch, we were in farming flats. It was the perfect time to tinker with our S63’s bells and whistles. First activity: an in-seat workout, with the sultry Mercedes lady-voice talking us through shoulder, core and butt exercises. The choice next was one of the six massage settings — yes, you are reading this correctly — we liked the “Hot Relaxing Back” one best. 

 

Our S63 also provided a world-first: an Energizing Comfort mode. Sounds simple enough, but I’ll let Mercedes explain it:  “ENERGIZING Comfort is a world-first for a series production vehicle that systematically uses the functions of the climate control system (including fragrancing), the seats (heater, ventilation, massage), the console heating as well as lighting (64 colors, ten color worlds and three different lighting zones) and musical atmospheres to enable a specific wellness set-up tailored to the mood and needs of the driver.” Exactly how I would have phrased it.

 

Mercedes even provided aromatherapy: a crystal atomizer nested in the glovebox intermittently scented the cabin with “Freeside Mood,” an inexplicable yet not unpleasant proof point of German engineering and nomenclature. 

 

Soon enough, we began the climb toward Yosemite. The roads became narrower and curvier the closer we got to our evening’s destination, the Tenaya Lodge. The temperature dropped from the 70s to a chilly 43, but the enormous outdoor wood-burning fireplace by the main entrance offset the chill. 

 

The following day, a detour due to a road closure took us through crazy-beautiful bleach-blond hills polka-dotted with dark green oak trees. We screeched and revved and oohed and aahed through all the natural beauty, only missing a turn or two. But those mis-turns set us back just enough that we were sure we’d arrive at the lunch stop behind most if not all of the pack.

 

 

california adventure

El Capitan’s terrifyingly steep face (left) just before Mother Nature’s surprise downpour on the last day

 

 

Beauty in the Beast: Sue’s $180,000, 2019 Mercedes S63 sedan, a truly awesome machine

 

 

Yet when we pulled into the parking lot of the Groveland Hotel in Groveland, CA, just outside of Yosemite, we scratched our heads as to where everyone else was. I hadn’t passed a single car since taking the detour; had we missed lunch?

 

Turns out we were the first to arrive, a twist of fate we still can’t explain. After twenty minutes a couple of cars pulled in. By then, Bob and I were in the hotel’s whisky and bourbon-tasting bar, listening to the bartender’s passionate descriptions of each elixir (note to self: come back here!). 


With gray skies and cold moisture hanging in the air, we bombed our way into Yosemite, and were immediately gratified with the park’s dramatic vistas. We pulled over to see the epic proportions of El Capitan (scene of the Free Solo documentary) Half Dome and the Bridalveil Falls. We were awed by the grandeur of Mother Nature’s immense sculptures. 

 

It was time to stop looking and go for a hike! We parked with El Capitan in sight and began our trek. So much for planning: almost immediately cold rain began to pelt us and the clouds above thickened, shrouding El Capitan’s chillingly vertical rockface. We returned to the Mercedes’ warm cabin. The rain began to fall in sheets. As we snaked toward the park’s exit, we watched hikers huddling under trash bags running for their cars.

 

That night, the last of the tour, the organizers had arranged a silent auction of goodies ranging from, among many, a VIP tour of the McLaren factory (with two nights at the Belmond London Hotel),  a three-night package at the five-star Miraval Arizona Resort, the BMW Driving School for two, and Piloti-James Hunt edition luxury driving shoes (for such a good cause, Bob and I stepped up and bought the latter two). In addition, there were all sorts of raffles (books, bedding, high-end stereo equipment), awards and prizes throughout the evening. The buzz of camaraderie and shared adversity filled the air as each team recounted the day’s highs and lows to all who would listen. 

 

Sue and her slightly traumatized husband Bob, whose life possibly flashed before him on more than one occasion…

We awoke early the next morning to begin the sobering jaunt back to Oakland, only to find a winter wonderland outside our window. It was snowing and clearly had been for hours. Outside in the parking lot, snowflakes accosted my eyes and quickly coated my hair. I found our beautiful beast, her black obsidian exterior cloaked in white. I used my jacket sleeve to scrape off the worst of the weather as the snow continued to pummel. Cold and damp, I headed to the lobby to find Bob and our luggage. 

 

With slush building up on the edges of the windshield wipers, we wound our way down off the mountain and back into the humdrum of real life. The snow turned to a hard downpour, making us glad for the Mercedes’ surefootedness.

 

It was painful to relinquish my new favorite (monster) toy back at the Oakland airport, but it only shored up my resolve to participate in Drive Toward a Cure’s 2020 event—on the East Coast this time, during leaf-peeping season in October. 

 

So yes, you’ll see me next year (probably approaching fast in your rear view mirror) if you sign up. 

 

Go ahead, I dare you.

 

 

 

 

Cost of participation was $5450 for one car, two people and three nights, all-inclusive. 

 

Check DriveTowardaCure.org for further information on the 2020 Northeast Adventure. And to learn more about their tremendous work.

 

And, if you don’t own a sporty or collectible car or don’t want to ship one you do own, through DriveShare by Hagerty you can rent a collectible car for use during the rally. Because Hagerty Insurance has been a sponsor of the event since the beginning, they also contribute a portion of your discounted rental rate to the charity.