"It'll be interesting to see how an open sports racer
works as a cross-country touring car..."

Northeast by Westfield

SOUTH OF AMBOY, California, the Mojave Desert is not really sports car country. It looks like a good place for an A-bomb test or a Sabre-Jet attack on a giant mutant spider. It is mirage country, where everything shimmers in the distance, and you cross the white and dazzling salt flats of Bristol Dry Lake half expecting T.E. Lawrence to come riding out of the heat waves. The roads through this territory run straight as the crow flies, only it's too hot for crows and there's nothing for them to drink so there aren't any.

There aren't many open British sports cars, either. In fact we were nearly alone on the highway, which on an afternoon in early June was positively humming with heat. My wife Barbara and I were on our way to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. We were cruising across the Great American Desert in a small English car, designed a quarter of a century ago to run on narrow green lanes and mist shrouded race tracks in a country where sunlight is about as common as a lunar eclipse. I was behind the wheel, watching the water temperature gauge with one eye and trying to remember if there was any place in England where you could drive upgrade all day in 110-degree weather. I didn't think there was.

This particular English sports car was a Westfield. The Westfield is a replica of a Lotus Eleven, a very successful sports racing car from the late Fifties and one of the cars that made Colin Chapman a household name in households that love fast, agile, nice-looking cars. Just three weeks prior to our trip, the Westfield had arrived on Road & Track's doorstep as a disassembled, unpainted kit. Driven by some kind of tangential homing instinct, I'd spent all of my nights and weekends virtually living in the R&T garage, subsisting on a health fad diet of Coke and cigarettes, trying to assemble the car in time to make the June Sprints.

No Midwesterner, fallen-away or otherwise, likes to miss the Sprints, which is an annual rites of spring tradition held at what may be the most beautiful sports car track in the country. The event is half SCCA National and half medieval festival, drawing a huge number of entrants from all over the country. An added incentive, if we needed any, was that our friends Chris Beebe and crew would be racing his D-Production Lotus Super Seven.

The night before we left on this grand trip I was still working on the car (proof that work expands to fill the time allotted) when our Editor Emeritus, Tony Hogg, stepped into the lighted chaos of the R&T garage. Tony was especially interested in the project because he had owned and raced an Eleven in England and Europe during the late Fifties. Tony lit a cigarette and asked how things were going. Pieces of the car were still scattered all over the floor.

"Almost finished," I said. "The car has to be ready to go tonight because Barb and I are leaving for Elkhart in the morning."

Tony raised one incredulous eyebrow. "You're driving that bloody thing all the way to Elkhart Lake?"

"Yes," I said. "It's going to be sort of a motorcycle trip on four wheels. The Westfield doesn't have a full windscreen and the convertible top isn't in production yet, so we're taking rainsuits and helmets. It'll be interesting," I added, "to see how an open sports racer works as a cross-country touring car."

Tony gazed at the Westfield for a few moments and took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette. "I should think," he said in his best detached British way, "that it'll be just bloody awful."

Awful, of course, was a matter of perspective. Barb and I had crossed the country a half-dozen times on various motorcycles, so the prospect of leaning back in a comfortable seat, largely protected from the wind, seemed relatively luxurious. The Westfield also had more luggage space than most motorcycles. There was storage space on the wide armrest panels inside the doors and on the floor beneath the arched knees of driver and passenger. The rear body section swung upward, revealing a flat tray that was part of the floor pan. This area was subject to dust and water spray from the rear tires, but luggage could safely be wrapped in plastic garbage bags and lashed to the frame and spare tire. The Westfield was not the Globemaster of cars, but we wouldn't have to leave our toothbrushes behind.

The only slightly awful part was taking off on a 5000-mile journey with an untested car, with virtually no time to run the engine in. Adjustments would be made on the road. I packed enough tools to field-strip the car if necessary and repair nearly anything en route. Fortunately the Westfield is a very simple car held together with only a few conventional sizes of nuts, bolts and other fasteners, so the toolbox was small.

I finished the car at midnight, drove it back to our house and packed what few clothes I needed. I told Barb we should get up at 4:00 a.m. and leave in the early morning darkness to avoid crossing the Mojave in the afternoon heat, so we set our alarm and went to bed.

Getting up at 4:00 a.m. sounded like a much better idea at midnight than it did when the alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. We went back to sleep and eventually got up at 9:00 a.m. By 10:30 the car was packed and we pulled out of the driveway into a clear, hot summer morning; mad dogs and English car, off toward the noonday sun.

Part of the plan on this trip was to avoid Interstates at all cost, so we crossed the California desert part way on Highway 62 and then turned north toward Amboy. This is all 2-lane blacktop that runs through such oases as Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms and Essex, with miles of cactus, Joshua trees and empty desert between.

By the time the freeways of greater and lesser L.A. had spilled us onto these emptier roads, it occurred to me the Westfield had a remarkably good highway ride for a taut, light sports car. Not nearly as jittery as might be expected.

The added weight of our luggage no doubt helped, and the car cruised serenely at 60 to 70 mph with a sort of hunkered-down bantamweight Cadillac feel. A bit too hunkered down at times. Even with the front springs jacked up all the way on their platforms, the lowslung oil pan occasionally scuffed the pavement and random dead things.

Otherwise, the Westfield made a fine highway car. The side-mounted BSA muffler gave out a lovely, throaty purr. Even at 75 mph the cockpit was relatively tranquil. (Don't ask relative to what. An N2S Stearman, maybe.) There was some backdraft on the passenger's neck, but the headrest/fin did a remarkable job on calming the air around the driver's head. In normal driving position you looked over the windscreen rather than through it, but the plexiglass deflected nearly all of the wind over your head. Stones and insects, however, refused to follow the wind flow, so goggles or a helmet with a face shield was nice, especially around gravel trucks.

Until about one o'clock in the afternoon the car ran perfectly, with the water temperature needle centered on Normal. After that the desert temperature climbed to just over 100 degrees and the needle moved halfway to Hot. When we started a long upgrade climb near Yucca Valley the needle pegged itself solidly on Hot. The intense engine heat, aided by an exhaust header that wraps around the front of the left footwell, also began to warm up the driver's compartment. The pedals got hot and the handbrake lever began to burn my leg, so I wrapped a sweatshirt around the handle. We stopped at a country store, parked under a tree and got out to cool down for a while.

I poured down a quart of Gatorade and raised the Westfield's hood to look things over. I smelled gasoline and discovered that the exhaust header heat was boiling fuel out of the float bowl on the rear SU carb. Willard Howe, the U.S. Westfield importer, had warned me this could happen on blistering hot days, so I had cut a vent in the aluminum bodywork behind the carb to let the hot air out. This, obviously, was still not enough. The Westfield was a brand-new car, untested in this climate and being driven on a true shakedown run, so I began a list of small improvements and modifications to be made when we got to Chris Beebe's shop in Wisconsin. I got out a notebook and wrote: " 1. Asbestos heat shield for driver's footwell. 2. Improve heat shield between carbs and header. 3. Make cold air duct for carbs. 4. Move radiator into nose with full shrouding and fit electric fan."

I poured some cool water on the carbs and we took off: climbing and warming our way over the Bullion Mountains and down onto the flats of Bristol Dry Lake.

In Amboy we came across an inviting gas station with a willow tree and a CAFE sign with red letters 12 ft high. A perfect place for pulling off the desert. The cafe was cool, bright and polished inside: lots of stainless steel coolers with that sweating, refrigerated look. We had iced tea, soup and coffee with a side of ice water. "This is a nice place," Barb said. I was nodding when a man with a pressurized canister and nozzle asked us to move our feet so he could spray the crack along the bottom of the counter.

"What are you spraying for?"

"Roaches."

"Talk about service," I said when the man was gone. "You won't find roach spray much fresher than that."

We filled our almost-empty fuel tank and calculated our mileage at 44 mpg. Not bad for a fast car with a new engine. The tank held only 5 gal., but with that mileage we didn't have to start looking for gas stations much before 160 miles. The Westfield's small frontal area and aerodynamic shape certainly didn't hurt its fuel economy: at highway speeds the car felt almost as if it were traveling through a vacuum, and its ease of acceleration at passing speed added to the sensation. With the big MGB wire wheels and the standard 4.20:1 Sprite rear end, the engine was turning a fairly relaxed 3700 rpm at 60 mph.

We passed through Essex, California (pop. 150); one of those places that makes Paris look like a huge glamorous city near a nice cool river. A sign on a building said, "Thanks to Johnny Carson, Essex has TV!" I figured there was a story there somewhere, but it was too hot to stop and ask.

Turning onto the inevitable Interstate long enough to get ourselves out of California, we headed down I-40 toward the green banks of the Colorado River, past the rock spires of Needles.

On the Interstate the Westfield attracted an incredible amount of attention. People rolled down their windows to ask what it was, elderly couples smiled and waved and a Bible school bus listed to one side as all the children ran to the windows. Cars followed, passed, dropped back and followed again to get a better look, and people going the other way on the Interstate actually honked and waved from across the median. Wherever we stopped, the Westfield created a minor interrogatory riot.

Nearly everyone asked (1) what kind of car it was, (2) what kind of engine was in there, (3) was the engine in the front or the back, (4) how much did it cost, (5) what kind of mileage did we get, (6) where were we going to and coming from. and (7) what were we going to do when (not if) it rained. A few fully grown people asked if they could just please sit in it for a minute. At a gas station I helped a husky, sunburned 50-year-old farmer in overalls slide down into the passenger seat. He looked around himself and said to his wife, "Now this is all right." I felt as though we were barnstorming the first airplane across the country. I think we could have charged money for rides. The car had some elusive magic of shape and scale that stirred the imagination.

We passed through Kingman and late in the afternoon began climbing into the cool green Arizona mountains. After a day in the desert the pine country of the Prescott National Forest was like an-other planet. Just after sundown we swerved to avoid three deer crossing the highway and decided the nearby town of Williams would be a good place to stop for the night. We checked into a motel, covered the car and walked off in search of a stiff drink.

In the morning I got up early to retorque the cylinder head and adjust the valves on our green engine. An Australian gentleman walked out of his motel room and said, "Ha! A Lotus Eleven! With the car cover on in the dark last night I told my wife it was a D-Type Jaguar. Nice car, either way."

We stopped for fuel and the kid at the gas station walked around the car, obviously looking for an emblem or some sort of make identification. He finally got down and read the word engraved in the knock-off hubs, and I saw him mouth the word, "UNDO." I thought for a moment he was going to ask the classic question, "What year Undo is that, mister?" Alas, people are more sophisticated these days, and in the end he asked, in his best Steve Martin imitation, "Now what kind of a dang deal is that?"

Barb took the first stint at the wheel and we headed up to the Grand Canyon in clear, cool morning weather. The car was running beautifully. When we entered the National Park. people seemed to be leaving in droves, but we were almost alone going in. I hypothesized that Editor John Dinkel was holding court at the Main Lodge, telling his favorite puns. We drove to the rim of the Grand Canyon and I tried to stifle my usual pathetic reaction to the wonders of nature, in which I lament at having the wrong camera lens. Barb said, "I wonder what the Indians thought when they first of t walked up to the edge of this canyon." 'Probably, `Wait'll the white man sees this. The eviction notice is practically in the mail.' "

On the winding road out of the park we came up behind our nemesis, a parade of big dumb lumbering motorhomes. I noted with interest that these things all have names to suggest speed and grace, like Flying Arrow, Golden Eagle and Apache Brave.

We passed through the Hopi Indian Reservation and the beautiful red pastel rock formations of the Painted Desert, which was almost as hot as the Mojave Desert but slightly dustier. The heat in the Westfield's footwell at noon was astounding. I considered stopping at a supermarket and propping a frozen turkey against the gas pedal. That way my feet would stay cool and dinner would be ready by the time we got to Durango.

Just across the Colorado border we pulled into the town of Cortez right on the tail of a huge parade passing down Main Street. It was Frontier Days or Yahoo Centennial Days or something. We passed through just after the parade, and the street was still lined with people, several of whom were sober. We drove down a 3-mile gauntlet of whistling and shouting citizens. Most, I'm sure, thought we were part of the parade, a late entry. We smiled and waved at everyone, and Barb said, "I wonder if I should sit on the back deck of the car and blow kisses."

I looked at some cowboys who had just staggered out of a bar and said, "Better you than me." We crawled through town and emerged on the other end with the temperature gauge pegged, inhaling vapors of hot horse apples sizzling on an overheated Austin sump.

Climbing back into the Colorado Rockies, we made it to the old mining town of Durango by sunset and checked into the beautifully restored old Strater Hotel. We put our luggage in the room, which was done up in grand 19th Century style-hardwood wainscoting, brass bed, stone pitcher and bowl, etc. - and went out for a Mexican dinner. We came back later and watched The Thing on our 19th Century color TV

After an early Sunday morning start into a cool, slightly misty day we stopped in Pagosa Springs for breakfast at a Main Street cafe. As we sat drinking coffee, the cafe's clientele defected en masse to the sidewalk for a look at the Westfield. The lady at the cash register said, "I hope you folks aren't too hungry for your bacon and eggs. That's the cook out front lookin' at your car."

People driving home from church were double-parking their cars and pickups, jumping out in their Sunday best suits and cowboy boots to look at the car. We went out and joined the throng.

It was hard to know what to call the car when people asked. Westfield/Lotus Eleven was a little unwieldy, so we usually picked one or the other and said it was made in England. The engine was another problem. If you told people it had an MG engine, they'd whistle and say, "Whoo-eee! I bet that thing really flies!" If you admitted it was an MG Midget engine, they'd say things like, "Ha! Probably smaller than my kid's Suzuki dirt bike engine. Bet she gets good mileage, though." Caught off guard, we found ourselves describing it, variously, as an MG, MG Midget, 1275 MG Midget, Austin, Austin A-series 1275, Austin-Healey, Sprite or BMC engine. For the sake of consistency, Barb and I collaborated halfway through the trip and agreed to call it an Austin Healey engine, as that seemed to provoke the loudest murmurs of approval.

East of Del Norte we cruised steadily downhill through an ever-widening valley and I had the feeling we were about to be spit out of the mountains of the gold- and silver-mining West onto the prairie and cattle ranch West. The car was humming along perfectly and it was still spring in the mountains. The cottonwoods and aspens had that lacy green look and the meadows were in bloom. It was odd, here and there, to see rustic old ranch houses with gigantic parabolic TV receivers in their front yards, like an Eighties update of Gene Autry and the Radio Ranch. It looked all wrong.

Near Monte Vista we hit a dust storm that looked from a distance like a moving river of fog about 600 ft high. We drove into it to find big pieces of thing blowing across the road, mingled in with the stinging sand. Tumbleweeds went by so fast they weren't even tumbling. We passed an outdoor movie theater and 1 explained to Barb that in order to hit the screen the projectionist would have to aim 20 ft to the left to correct for wind. "And on a bad night," I added. "the movie ends up in Kansas."

The river of sand died away so we took our helmets off and put our caps and sunglasses back on. It was more pleasant to drive without helmets, so we reserved these for rain and gravel storms.

On the other side of Alamosa we passed a hitchhiker who was walking along the highway with his thumb out. He was so drunk that a gust of wind caused him to weave and totter into the road ahead of us. I swerved and narrowly missed hitting him. He was wearing a stars and stripes backpack, a great big felt hat with a pheasant feather in the band, a fringed leather vest, bellbottoms with decorative stitching at the cuffs, and he looked about 48 years old, sun baked and hard as nails. One of those unfortunate ramblin' alcoholics who's inherited all the unwanted regalia of the not-so-recent past. I wondered what would happen to him. It's a very long stagger to the next town anywhere in eastern Colorado, and hard to get picked up when you're losing a drunken battle with the wind.

Highway 50 took us into Kansas, following the green willows and pretty towns along the Arkansas River. I'd been through only the corners of Kansas before, so most of my preconceived notions of the state were based on the opening moments of The Wizard of Oz, with its flat, sepia-toned landscape and evil tornadoes. In the early summer, at least, the Kansas we saw was a farmland of rolling green contours interspersed with small towns that radiate a wonderful quality of permanence and dignity. Our route across Kansas was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip.

The presence of evil tornadoes, however, is no myth. We stopped for lunch in Jetmore, Kansas and noticed some very dark thunderheads building up in the northwest. I asked a farmer at the cafe if tornado season was over and he said, "hope. Just getting into full swing." As we left town a yellow biplane crop-duster swept across the highway in front of us, flying against a backdrop of dark clouds and distant pitchfork lightning. Hitchcock would have loved it.

I looked around at the sky and thought, this, by God, is real weather. Not like in California where it just kind of creeps in and sits on you. In Kansas you watch the weather at work around you like some kind of big unpredictable machine where thunderheads and shifting winds are the moving parts. Advancing clouds have a relentless quality; you can look around the broad horizon and see several storms developing at once.

Unlike the mountains. where you are often locked into a single route of travel, the plains are mapped out in a great grid of highways, so by zigzagging across the state you can play checkers with the weather and miss the worst storms. As in checkers, of course, sometimes the weather jumps you and wins. And in Kansas, sometimes the weather comes along and blows all the checkers right off the table.

At five o'clock in the afternoon we ran out of zigzag options and found our-selves in the middle of a blinding thunderstorm illuminated by tree-ripping lightning bolts. It hit us so hard and doused us so completely we didn't bother to get out any rain gear. I just put my foot in it and headed to the closest motel in Junction City. There we turned our room into a vast drying rack for clothes, sleeping bags and tools from my water-filled toolbox. In heavy rain, it turned out, the rear tires churned great quantities of rainwater up into the rear bodyshell. so that it ran down our seatbacks like a waterfall and filled the car. I added, "5. Needs inner fender wells" to my improvement list.

The morning after the storm was cool and clean with a sky the color of morning glories. Willard Scott, on our motel TV, said there'd been 25 tornadoes in the plains states the previous day, with more on the way. As we headed across the Missouri River, however, there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Northern Missouri was our first exposure on the trip to real sports car country. Narrow winding roads, hills and steep valleys, 1-lane bridges and trees forming a tunnel of shade over the road.

It was also the most dangerous section, because farmers with tractors and manure spreaders were not ready for us. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for the specter of a small white bomb of a car with blue racing stripes to come drifting around a blind corner or bearing down at high closing speeds. We weren't driving too fast for the Westfield; just too fast for pickup trucks and hay wagons with a relaxed indifference to the centerline. After a few close calls we decided to slow down and live to enjoy the scenery. The Westfield was in its element, running cool and handling the road flat and quick as a go kart.

On Highway 6 1 saw a sign for a place called Novinger and turned off the road, down the town's main street. My parents had lived in Novinger for a couple of years before I was born. My dad had bought a small weekly paper there with his Navy savings at the end of World War 11. 1'd heard so many stories of this little coal mining town that it existed larger in my imagination than the places I'd seen myself.

It turned out the coal mines are closed now and the only people living in town are those who work elsewhere. We drove down a ghost town main street of dusty, boarded-up storefronts, peeling paint and faded signs. It looked like the town where Bonnie and Clyde tried to rob the bank and found it closed. A heavy-set young man with, believe it or not, a Mohawk under his seed cap and a T-shirt listing Ten Excuses for Not Having Sex gave us a tour of Main Street and pointed out where all the stores had been. He couldn't remember a newspaper office ever having been in the town. We stopped for a drink in the one open bar, and no one in there remembered either. Novinger was like a lot of country towns we passed through. It was a little too small to support commerce, so people just gave up on the idea of having a town and quietly moved away. What remained was a house collection, with bar.

Driving into southern Iowa at sunset; we passed a slow semi on a long hill. I casually looked up at the driver as we passed and was greeted with a blinding flash of light. As my vision recovered I realized the driver was grinning and waving a small Instamatic flash camera at us. He gave us the thumbs up sign and backed off so we could pass. As we pulled ahead another flash was fired at our backs. We drove into Ottumwa and found a motel with blue dots all over it.

In the morning I checked the oil. It was down a half-quart, after 2000 miles of driving in hot weather. Our best mileage up to that point had been 52 mpg (Kansas tailwind) and our worst had been 43 mpg (Colorado mountain headwind). None of the nuts and bolts I checked had loosened up, and after five days the car was running cool and strong. Valve clearances hadn't changed since Williams, Arizona, and the plugs were a nice tan color. The points looked good, timing was spot-on and the oil pressure was still at 55 psi hot. I'd left California fearing the Westfield night be a slightly fragile, fussy sort of car on a long trip. Now, a few hours from the Wisconsin border, I'd begun to think of it as a remarkably tough, durable machine. Most of my constant listening, checking and adjusting had been wasted effort. As we slid into the car on the sixth and last day, it was like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. The sound of the engine starting on that clear summer morning was pure music.

We crossed the Mississippi near Dubuque at mid-morning and headed into the green Ozark-like hill country that is southwestern Wisconsin. My growing up in that area has nothing to do with a personal opinion that this is some of the most beautiful country on earth. It was shaded valleys, rivers, red barns and villages all the way into Madison. From there we drove the back roads to Elkhart Lake, passing through pretty towns like Greenbush and Glenbuelah, and all of a sudden we found ourselves braking and downshifting into the city limits of Elkhart Lake, something I'd first done 18 years ago in my green TR-3. We motored down the shaded village streets, past the lawns and white porches of Siebkin's hotel and headed south toward the gates of Road America.

On the seventh day the Westfield rested beside the track. Chris Beebe and his Lotus Super Seven did all the work, winning the D-production race in a hard-fought battle. About 30 of us who like to celebrate such things retired to our traditional campground on the shores of Lake Michigan, pitched tents. ate grilled bratwurst and drank Bohemian Club, the official beer of southwestern Wisconsin Lotus Seven owners and their ilk. In the morning all evidence suggested we'd had a good time.

When the race weekend was over, Barb had to fly back to California and her job, so Chris Beebe agreed to drive the Westfield back across the country with me. Before leaving, we worked on the car for three days at Chris's shop in Madison. We made a new heat shield for the carbs, ducted air to them, moved the radiator forward in the nose and added shrouding, bolted a piece of asbestos to the driver's footwell, installed some inner fenders over the rear wheels and jacked the front ride height up with taller springs. (Several of these improvements have now been made by the Westfield people.)

The return trip was pleasurable and uneventful, and we made the 2200 miles without having to lay a hand or wrench on the car. Our small mechanical improvements worked wonders, eliminating the Westfield's few irritants. The engine ran cool, the rear SU no longer overheated, the footwell was incapable of roasting a turkey and the oil pan didn't bottom on gum wrappers and lost coins. Chris had a great time and said he hadn't seen people so intrigued with a car since he and his father took a trip in an XK-120 Jaguar in the early Fifties.

The best piece of road on our return route was a stretch in the Colorado Rockies, 110 miles of mountain switchbacks and hairpins between Montrose and Durango on Highway 550. When we pulled up in front of our hotel in Durango, Chris said, "I've been trying to think what car might have been more fun to drive on a road like that, and I can't think of any."

I couldn't either. The Westfield had some of the oddball charm of the TC Chris and I had driven to Road Atlanta the year before (R&T, April 1983), but it was faster and the steering worked. The racing car heritage, too, had an appeal. Looking over that low windscreen at the sleek front bodyshell, sitting in a stark aluminum interior and listening to the raspy exhaust note as you downshifted into a corner, you needed a firm grasp on reality to remind yourself that this was not the last Mille Miglia. A helmeted passenger sitting next to you with a map on his knees did little to dispel the image.

The Westfield was just outlandish enough that you didn't mind any discomfort shed out. Other sports cars had become more civilized by small degrees until they were so much like sedans that people could no longer remember why they wanted a sports car in the first place. No one, if he were honestly building a car for sport, would load it down with carpets and courtesy lights and 40 pounds of window-winding mechanism. Maybe, I suggested to Chris, sports cars really are supposed to have nothing added that doesn't' make them go fast, and every so many years someone has to rediscover that. Like the people in England who make the Westfield.

When we got back to L.A. late on a Friday afternoon and finally pulled into our driveway, we were neither relieved nor happy to have the trip over. Tony Hogg, rest his soul, had been wrong when he said the Westfield trip would be just bloody awful. He was only kidding, of course. He had spoken mainly for effect, with a glint of good humor in his eyes. Tony himself had been a true enthusiast of everything automotive that is pure fun. He knew better than anybody that driving an open sports car across America's back roads in summer is further from being awful than nearly anything.

- June 1984 Road & Track

Preceding R&T Westfield article: Building Westfield's Lotus 11 replica


Westfield Eleven Sports Racer