Each year around June, a group of car enthusiasts gather in Michigan for a 1,000 mile journey to play with their cars. Last weekend, the Michigan Mille staged the 14th annual running of the event with 70 participants and nearly 50 vehicles spanning muscle cars to high performance exotics and everything in-between. This year’s event, led by Mille Founder and former Chrysler executive Steve Shugg headed South, from the Pontiac Michigan rally point to the Hocking Hills of Ohio and some of America’s greatest roads for spirited driving, and great fellowship. But more than fast cars and great roads, there’s a bigger story about the cars and how they bring us together. And how the car enthusiast hobby is faring against a future of nanny controls safety technology and autonomous vehicles. Over 1,000 miles and 4 days, we get more ideas on mobility and the car hobby.
After an evening barbecue hosted the night before at Steve Shuggs Milford home and wonderful “car barn”, the group had breakfast at the newly restored headquarters of LBI Limited in the old Oakland Press building in Pontiac; the young crew of thirty-something classic car dealers have done an amazing job of creating a hip, loft-like car emporium and their business is flourishing as Boomers are spending their kids’ inheritance on fun cars.
Our first stop upon leaving LBI Limited was the incredible private car collection of Larry Smith, founder of Autometric Collision. Larry’s collection featured approximately 50 drool worth collectibles in his obscure and elegantly decorated warehouse. From Concours classics, to American street rods, and european performance exotics to muscle cars. If you can imagine an iconic car from any period, chances are Larry has one example if not two; indeed, some collectors would cherish just one original first-edition Shelby Mustang, Larry has twins.
Then we were off to Central Ohio. My ride for this Mille was a recently purchased BMW 4 series coupe and I followed my high school buddy Joe Elsasser down the old Dixie Highway and across the Ohio border. I couldn’t help but think about our high school days when Joe and I slung bondo and paint at old Mopars and Mustangs in my parents’ garage. I saw Joe’s taillights most of the way across the Ohio border given the impressive 840 horspower from his Dodge Demon. To my surprise though, Joe wasn’t piloting the Demon but rather his heavy-footed 78 year-old brother Carl, a former Detroit Dragway champ who can still make a fast car dance.
It was largely an uneventful and often rainy ride except for one of our gang which would receive the first citation from a Michigan municipality for a moving violation. The millenial pilot of the Subaru WRX would later receive the Barney Oldfield Award for his high velocity bravado at the events’ award ceremony to applause and laughter as he unrolled the lengthy citation the officer provided at the scene.
Rolling outside of Columbus we would get our first glimpse of the amazing Hocking Hills. Long sweeping curves roll into tight corners that lead to wide open spaces of Ohio’s farmland. We couldn’t wait for the next day’s drive.
Upon arrival, I got an early Father’s Day present with a big hug from my son Spencer who drove in from Chicago to be my co-pilot. Spencer arrived in an interesting Mille car; a two ton 600 horsepower BMW Alpina B7 he consigned from the BMW fleet where he works. Despite a 0-60 of 3.5 seconds, we deem the ride more Grey Poupon commercial material than a Mille ride. After cleaning up the 4 series we join our Mille friends for a great meal. At dinner, we meet the pilot of a Boxster S wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Save the Steering Wheels”, a reference to the the threat of the coming of autonomous cars.
Ironically, he tells us he works for a company doing safety sensor work for current products as well future autonomous vehicles. Turns out he wears the shirt regularly at casual Fridays as a reminder to his loyalties and passions. Yes. Autonomous vehicles are a regular conversation topic at the Mille.
The sun came out and with a Columbus tourist bureau day of 72 degrees, we head into the Hocking Hills and experienced spectacular driving. Son Spencer took the first turn at the wheel and you could spot the grin on his face from a mile away as he sawed the wheel and worked the go pedal of the Beemer’s brilliant and sonorous Twin Turbo inline 6, one of the last of a dying breed of I-6’s in an industry going headlong toward the drone of 4 bangers.
Spencer and I agree that there is nothing like your heart racing as you dial in a fun car at speed…the full concentration of spirited driving and the feedback the car is providing. We climb and then dive into steep roller coaster hills where the cars ahead appear and disappear like bouncing bobbleheads. We would chase a limited edition Jaguar SVR with 540 horsepower through the hills on our way to our stop at the spectacular Old Man’s Cave where legend has it a recluse lived in this picturesque area of caves and waterfalls.
We hiked the tricky narrow trails around the park and ate our boxed lunches at the bottom of one of the falls. Back in the car we switch up drivers and the play list. With the sunroof open and windows down, we belt out the lyrics to some great road tunes.
Along the way we meet up with Vic Rivera, a Michigan Mille veteran who is the pilot of another race prepared Porsche Boxster S. Later that night we reminisce the days ride and Vic humbly tells us stories about his impressive Porsche collection that includes 12 original 356 models, other assorted 911’s and an amazing collection of original stock Porsche parts. So impressive in fact that Porsche enthusiast Jerry Seinfeld calls him regularly for rare parts. Vic has a great laugh and decked out in one-off car shirts and designer driving shoes he looks and acts half the nearly 80 years it says on his drivers license. And he can still drive the wheels off his Porsches.
At one point, we stop for a pit stop and agree the roads are so good that we need to turn around and drive them again. So we added another 20 miles to the route with the Boxster and Jag F-Type joining our BMW for another turn on the ride.
When we arrive at the Columbus Marriot, we park the cars for the night and form a big tailgate circle where cigars and adult beverages are shared along with great tales from an interesting and eclectic crowd that includes young buck car engineers to a retired couple in their street rod Chevy and a Federal Judge and a retired Army colonel that co-drive a Dodge Hellcat with U.S. Federal Judge license plates; a car, which no surprise, has ever received a citation from the local municipalities.
The rain would return but it couldn’t dampen our spirits as we headed back into the lush Hocking Hills. On this day the roads would grow a bit tighter, with decreased speeds as we meandered through small villages and towns of Central Ohio. Indeed, Spencer names this route the “Hillbilly Highway” and we would join a father and son group driving a vintage Jaguar XJ-6 and Triumph TR-8. We were amazed at the grace and pace of the old mid 70’s XJ-6 floating through the twisties with ease; and we are told it’s the benefit of an all-new suspension on the old girl. Jaguar’s Sir Lyons would be proud of this Brown’s Lane product still soldiering on in the hills of Ohio.
We agree we like the previous days route (and certainly the weather better) but it’s another great day driving fast cars in the pristine hillside. That night, we ventured to a restaurant where Mr. Shugg presented various awards to the cars and drivers. Steve shares that the destination for next year’s event will be on home turf as we venture to pastoral Traverse City. After the event, Spencer and I Uber off to the downtown district of Columbus where we sample some of the local color. The streets were packed and it rained like crazy but we are impressed with the electricity. We return to the hotel and crash in our beds.
After a “somewhat late night” along Columbus’ main drag, we wake up to see but two BMW’s remaining in in the hotel parking lot as the other Mille cars were up and at ‘em and on their way home. It’s Father’s Day and Spencer offers to take his dad to breakfast at a quaint diner in town.
Thinking back on the event, we talk about the roads and the people. Today, we both journey back home. I head to Michigan. Spencer to Chicago. But this time the drive is all business. Direct routes via straight 2 lanes and Interstate highways. Back to work on Monday. Aaaaargh.
This is the first drive in the last few days we aren’t looking forward to. Indeed, we’re dreading the traffic, construction zones and tedium. The kind of driving most Americans do on a daily basis. Here, the car is often part of an A to B drudgery that is part of our normal grind. Spencer and I agree an autonomous vehicle would be a great way to get home on Day 4. The irony is rich. We are engaged and enthusiastic drivers carving turns through the previous days and now seek to dis-engage. But isn’t that where we are today in the world of mobility? Much, or most of the driving we do just isn’t pleasant.
Thinking About What’s Next
In the final analysis, it’s true that the hands of big government and regulators are slowly trying to pry our hands off the steering wheels. And perhaps our “Save the Steering Wheel” friend is right. Maybe we should be concerned that autonomous “robot cars” are coming for our driving pleasure and freedom.
To a driving enthusiast there is nothing like the locked in feeling of diving into a curve, the feedback from the steering wheel and sound of a well-crafted motor. But for the other, shall we say majority of driving, maybe it’s time to let technology take the wheel for stop and go traffic, construction zones and mundane commutes. And, in some cases, semi-autonomous features like BMW’s Active Driving Assistant are already mitigating the headaches of stop and go commuter driving by making the vehicle handle the chores of “boring driving”.
Thankfully, fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles are still years away; but know this, the robot cars are coming and to many the human piloted car is an enemy. In the meantime, we’ll keep carrying the torch for our friends that love to drive fun cars on great roads. If you haven’t done so lately, find a nice stretch of road. Roll down the windows and blast some good music with your trusted co-pilot. And congrats to Steve Shugg and his support team for making the Michigan Mille one of America’s great car events.