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The Excalibur Odyssey
Airdate: November 1972

Show Description
Early this Spring I got the letter inviting me to be the Grand Marshal of a Vintage and Antique Car Tour over the fourth of July weekend in Florida. Naively, I saw it as my chance for a truly ultimate weekend. It was billed as a real tour, not just a crown of people shuffling across a lawn looking at Model A's . . . which I suppose can be all right if you're that type . . . I'm not. The invitation came with a little map of the route, a red line starting out at Ormond Beach then angling south and west all across the Florida Peninsula to the Gulf and straight south through Ft Myers and Naples, ending up on Marco Island for a big show of the cars. Fifty cars had been invited, strictly limited to machines of special interest that could go the distance, not those gleaming brass and chrome paperweights you see at too many "auto" shows. And I was being asked to lead the whole damn parade in my 1931 Chevrolet Independence Roadster. I sat for a couple of minutes reading over the note, trying to figure out how the hell I could get my car to Florida without spending a week en route cajoling a car that hadn't been driven hardly at all in the past 15 years. I called Chuck Hanna, the professional restorer who was even then trying to. match the delicate cream paint of my car and asked him whether he thought it would make it. "It an depends." I'm enthralled by open-ended answers like that. "On what?" I asked. "On a hell of a lot of things. Like head gaskets and generators and stuff. Why don't you take it down by Auto-Train ... by the way, your car won't be ready for the Fourth." He hung up. Jesus Christ! I thought, invited to be the Marshal of the whole ball of wax and that miserable Chevy ain't gonna make it. Son of a bitch. Another near-miss. I called my old friend Gene Butera, the Creative Director of Car and Driver, and told him the whole sordid story, exaggerating a bit here and there. "You been trying to get that Chevy to run for so long I'm going to start calling it Teddy Kennedy," he said. You can count on Butera for sympathy every time. "Laugh, Butera, but I was planning to ask you to go along with me and take pictures and stuff." There was a faint choking over the phone. "What's the matter, Butera?" I hollered, "your back acting up again?" "I'll call you back." Gone was the light-hearted, ovial Butera . . . A note reminiscent of his Mafia forebearers had ended the conversation: It was a side of Gene I had always suspected was there but that had not surfaced until now. Thirty seconds later my phone rang. "I got a car." "What kind?" I answered in my Grand Marshal voice. We Grand Marshals don't drive just anything. "N'excalibur." "Nex ... what?" "N'excalibur." Gene's heavy Queens accent is sometimes decipherable only to lifelong residents of Utopia Parkway. "I haven't .seen a Nexcalibur for some time. Is that the one. . ." 'That's it." Butera roared. "The Mercedes replica." "Oh, The Excalibur!" "That's what I said. I gotta friend that distributes them." "Tell him okay, Butera. Those Old Car Cuckoos will probably croak when they see it. But it'll still look great in the parade. We're going down by Auto-Train ." "Auto-what?" It was my turn to play smart-ass. "It's this system, Butera, where they put your car on a train and you ride down with it Having parties and stuff all the way." "I never heard of it." Butera is one of the few guys I know who can manage to have his jaw hang slack over the phone. Several weeks and fifteen thousand or so phone calls later I met Gene standing outside the crumbled brick facade of the Red Ball Garage on New York's East Side. Resting. next to the curb was a spectacular snow white. Excalibur SS. It sprouted exhaust pipes an octopus and already a jostling crowd surrounded it, a phenomenon which I was to experience from that moment on until I returned the car. I will say, parenthetically right here, that of the hundreds of automobiles I have driven, the Excalibur is by far the most consistent crowd-puller I have ever known. In fact, it gets to be a drag sometimes, as I will relate -further on. But the first moment when I met Butera I. was still innocent of what the Excalibur can do to people. Gene had the top down and was running around the car shooing off bums and beady-eyed kids, all specialists in .the art of the quick rip-off. "All set, Butera?" "We better get on the road, man. It's getting late. You follow my car, and let's get the hell out before the rain hits." Butera had brought along his wife Mil and his son Steve, who ambled around, muttering about shells -and centipedes. He is a Nature freak, Which it isn't easy to be in Queens. Five minutes later we were booming south down the FDR headed for the Verranzano Bridge. Already the Excalibur was doing its deadly work. Some clown in an Eldorado roared alongside of me trying to see what the hell it was. Suddenly he realized he was in a blocked-off lane due to a gigantic 30-foot excavation. I saw a flash of a scared white face. The Eldorado slid for maybe 200 feet, leaving black smoking tread marks behind it and finally slowed to a stop with its front bumper hanging over the abyss. Then two guys driving a VW delivery van kept cutting in and out in front of me, pointing at the exhaust pipes and breaking up in uncontrolled laughter while the VW wandered from lane to lane, clanking madly. Beside me, wearing sunglasses and looking cool, was Leigh Brown, the lovely girl who is the Associate Producer of my TV show. After all, this was gonna be a true weekend and you don't Grand Marshal a parade of vintage cars alone. She was still sulking because I had refused her request to take along her guinea pig. This is a short, squat, furry animal named Conway Tweety, which gives you some idea of the conditions under which I work. "For Chrissake, quit bitching!" I yelled over the roar of the wind and the bellow of the Corvette 454 under the hood. "Keep an eye on Butera's car while I try to keep these maniacs from clobbering me." Cars zipped in and out, cutting me off, slowing and speeding up with abandon trying to figure out what the hell the Excalibur was Butera's car thundered by with Gene hanging out of the side window, frantically snapping off pictures while I tried to look intrepid with that goddamn VW van tailgating behind me so close I could hear the maracas on its transistor radio over the roar of the exhaust. Butera wildly waved me closer. For Chrissake, my left front fender wasn't more than three inches from him at the start. We had gone maybe seven miles and already it was a long trip. We spewed out of the other end of the Verranzano and within minutes were on the Jersey Turnpike headed toward Lorton, Virginia, the town just outside Washington which is the terminal for the Auto-Train. On through Baltimore, skirting Washington and finally, with minutes to spare, we wheeled down the small, almost invisible road marked with a simple sign reading "Auto-Train-Welcome." Next to the road, the passenger train in which we would ride was already filling up. On the other side, the auto transport train which would accompany us was being loaded. Hip looking guys, long hair and mustaches, dressed in white uniforms, flipped when they saw the Excalibur. After a brief wrestling match to see who would drive the car up the ramp into the specially designed double-deck enclosed freight cars, it was rolled away in the center of a line of Impalas, Galaxies, Cougars and other such mundanely plebian machines. We were given tickets something like airline checks assigning us a seat in one of the glass-domed coaches, and the girl handing out the checks asked, "When do you want dinner, 8:15 or 9:30?" "Can we get a drink?" Butera asked anxiously. "Yes, sir. The bar is open now.". We decided on 9:30, since it was already damn near 8:00 and we needed time for a couple of martinis. For your $200 fare, you, your car and up to three passengers ($20 a head for each additional passenger) get all meals and accommodations in addition to the transportation. You can even leave all your baggage, if you want, right in your car. In fact, some cars were crammed full with bicycles, outboard motors, canoes, tents and so forth. Dinner was served buffet style, with a choice of chicken, roast beef or something that looked like meatloaf. We bought a bottle of wine and sipped coffee as North Carolina rolled by outside. In the car behind us the entertainment had begun. In a dim blue-lit glass topped car, a folk rock singer entertained free of charge, of course, while we drank Jim Beam and got pleasantly warm around the edges. Steve, knocking back 7-Up after 7-Up, couldn't believe he was on his way to Florida. "Steve," I intoned, "as an old Florida hand and one who has been bitten by more Everglades mosquitoes than any living pilgrim, I can tell you, you will see creatures in Florida that you will not believe." "Didja ever see one of those walking catfish?" "My, yes, Steve, it's funny you should ask about that. You will note this small scar on my ankle, above my sandal here. I received that one night when a walking-catfish leaped out of the palmettos, snapping wildly at my ankle. I beat him off with a heavy stick but only after sustaining a nasty flesh wound as you can see. Walking catfish, Steve, have become a terrible menace. Why, once . . ." "Let's go listen to the singer." Leigh cut in. I could tell she was still bugged about that damn guinea pig. And so the night went. Some fellow travelers played cards all night; others slept, the more elegant tucked away into their staterooms and roomettes. Some drank heavily and stared out into space. The little birds in the stewardess uniforms flitted about, making things pleasant and serving free sandwiches up and down the aisles. The rails clicked as we hummed through the night, through South Carolina and Georgia. Suddenly it was morning. The houses outside were low and overhung with palm trees and live oaks with long trailing skeins of moss. We were in Florida horse country. People were packing bags and moving out into the aisles as the train slowed to a./ halt at exactly 11 :30 a.m. We trooped outside where the stewardesses, who never seem to sleep, were serving orange juice and coffee to anyone who wanted some. Within thirty minutes the pampering was over and everyone had his car and was on his own way. The Ormond Beach Hotel deserves an entire story for itself. Built in the late 1800's, great verandas encircle it and thousands of rocking chairs squeak in the cool shade. It was here that Barney Oldfield was asked to enter through the "Servants' Entrance" the night before his record shattering run on the beach. In fact, the Ormond Garage still stands a few yards away. This is the garage where Oldfield and Cannonball Baker, Henry Ford and a score of squint-eyed cigar-smoking pioneers tuned their cantankerous creations before driving them to the beach just down the street. Ormond Beach, not incorrectly, calls itself "The Birthplace of Speed." Cars were roaring down the beach here a decade and better before Indianapolis saw its first race. And when Butera and I got carried away by the nostalgia of it all and actually made a few runs in the Excalibur that afternoon at the beachfront, it looked like Old Timer's Day at the stadium. Considering' that we almost got caught by the tide, I'm sure the geriatric grandstand corps that had gathered appreciated the lengths we had gone to for authenticity's sake. By the next morning cars lined the curving driveway outside of the hotel waiting for me to start the Second Annual Mackle Vintage Car Tour. Included in the array that would continue to grow along the way were a pair of '29 Straight Eight Packard roadsters; a couple of magnificent Model A's, a 1914 T . . . And a winged Daytona Charger. Daytona is only a few miles south down the beach and the crowd gathering for the Firecracker 400 had infiltrated everywhere. Conceived by Bill Prentiss Mackle, a Public Relations man and an ex-Chicago semi-pro ballplayer, the Tour has caught on in southern Florida. For one thing, it is a true tour and not just an exhibition since all, or at least most, of the cars drive the full 280 miles from Ormond to Marco Island. At 9:05 a.m. I wheeled the gleaming Excalibur down the driveway of the hotel and one after the other the vintage and classic cars putted and rumbled into line behind me. A large applauding Cjrmond Beach crowd had assembled, cheering each car as it rolled past. I was beginning to taste just a bit of that curious exhilaration and genteel showbiz aplomb of the vintage car tourer and afficionado. We rolled down the main street of Ormond Beach behind the blue flashing lights of a couple of squad cars. It was a spectacular day with the sun streaming down out of a cloudless blue sky. We rolled past the Daytona Speedway through Deland where a couple more cars joined us. This is beautiful rolling green country, light years removed from Miami Beach and the "Fountainbleau" where Barbra Streisand heads the "Showuh of Stahs" and the sequined wedgie and the sugar daddy come to full flower. Being the Grand Marshal of a long distance tour, I discovered, is one hell of a job which, in fact, is a little like being the Trail Boss on a cattle drive. The vintage and classics were fine. They just kept rolling along. But all kinds of crazy stuff kept getting into the parade; horse trailers, Winnebagos, guys towing 40-foot cruisers and just plain rubbernecking boobs. I had to keep patrolling up and down my mile-long serpentine of coughing charges weeding out these interlopers and prodding some of my own weak sisters. Moreover, there is also a curious crack-the-whip effect that comes into play in a long line of dissimilar vehicles. Some go faster than others . . . Or put another way, some go slower than the others. The guys in the rear of the line are always bitching that you're going too fast and those up in front are yelping about how slow you're going. A Marshal has to be a completely impervious son of a bitch. I settled on 43 mph and held it there steady as a rock, come hell or high water. The big Packards, of course, were just idling over at that speed while the Model A's were comfortable, but the 1914 and '15 Ts were right at the limit. If you ever get a chance to marshal one of these affairs, be ready for the gripes, especially from the women. We were scheduled to hit Kissimee around noon for lunch, but there had been a slight miscalculation. What Daytona is to the racing world, Kissimee is to the Rodeo Cuckoo. We happened to hit Kissimee on the day of the Silver Spurs Rodeo and the town was filled with guys who had steer horns on the hoods of their Caddies and good ol' boys squirting tobacco juice all over town. They had taken over the fairgrounds where we were supposed to stop for lunch with their whoopin' and hollerin'. We wound up, a snaking caravan now nearing full strength, rattling over a single-lane gravel road into a local Little League park where we sat around and ate some of the Colonel's chicken, guzzled Dr. Pepper and listened to the dragonflies hum. It isn't often that your average Kissimee native sees that much spectacular hardware parked in the weeds surrounded by people eating Colonel Sanders chicken. At 1 :30 a squad car led us back out past the roistering rodeo and onto the highway and we continued uneventfully south, into the Lake Country and a few hours later, the whole entourage pulled into the Lake Placid Holiday Inn. By now we had almost the full 50 cars in line, including a fully restored 1936 White Motor Yellowstone Park tourist bus done in bright canary yellow. As I drove the Excalibur into a parking slot, a large lady peered down at me from the second balcony and yelled: "What's that, sonny? That's one a' them Duesenbergs, ain't that right, son? That's one a' them Duesenbergs." She was joined by a second crowlike lady who clucked at the sight of my Duesenberg. "Nope. It ain't a Duesenberg, ma'am," I hollered back up at her as I struggled away with the top, trying to get it up before the rain hit. "It ain't? What is it?" She was not one to take contradiction with grace and was now leaning over squinting at me through her harlequin glasses, her starched blue hair rustling in the breeze. "It's a '73 Pontiac Firebird," I yelled up, snapping the top into place. "Well, I'll be damned. A '73 Pontiac?" "Yep .. They ain't announced it yet, but this one's going to a dealer. They figured it was time for some restyling." "Hey, Clarence," she yelled back into the room, her voice squawking with excitement. "My God, Clarence, come out and take a look at the new Pontiac!" She peered down at me in excitement. "We got a '72 Grand Prix. Boy, they sure changed it!" Clarence, with his suspenders flapping down over his behind, came out on the balcony, took one look at the Excalibur and almost passed out. ''We gotta order one a' them, Clarence. Boy, they sure improved the Pontiac. My God, ain't that something." Clarence clung to the balcony, staggered by the sight of the '73 model. There are probably today thousands of Florida citizens who can hardly wait for the fantastic !73 Firebird that looks just like a Duesenberg. After dinner Butera, Mil, Leigh and I sipped bourbon in the darkness of the Lake Placid Holiday Inn discotheque. "What do you think of Florida, Gene?" I yelled over the feedback which seemed to be the main feature of the rock band. "Yeah!" he hollered back. "It's nothing like Queens. What were them big black birds that kept flying over when we were out on 27?" "Vultures," I hollered back. "They were vultures." Gene paled. "Yeah. They got a lot of them down here. They just wait for something to drop and then they go to work." Gene took a quick slug of his Jim Beam. "How come they're following us?" "Nobody really knows about that. They got some kind of sixth sense. They never miss. They must know something." Gene sank lower in his seat, pretending he was scratching his mosquito bites, but I could tell in the dark that he was actually crossing himself. The next morning WP. Were off before the dew had disappeared from the flame trees. Believe me, there aren't many feelings like heading a parade that winds and twists behind you, gleaming in the sun like some long metal dragon flicking its tail amid the orange groves. By 3:00 that afternoon we had downed a fantastic French picnic provided by Mackle (complete with Chefs in White hats and mounds of iced shrimp stopped traffic cold in Fort Myers and Naples, 'had left the mainland of Florida via an incredible causeway over Marco Pass and were being directed into parking slots at the Marco Beach Hotel. We had come 280 miles in 90 heat and not lost a car. (One Model A had to stop briefly with carburetor trouble, but that's nothing new for them). Steve hit the ground running. "Hey," he hollered, pointing toward a couple of porpoises rolling through the translucent turquoise water. "Flipper. There goes Flipper!", He was right. Flipper, the TV star, was actually captured right in front of the Marco Beach Hotel - which is one of the few hotels in the world serving escargot within yards of roaming cougars, black bears, bald eagles,, Everglades deer and fully-grown alligators. In fact, for years a 14-footer named Albert lived in the water hazard on the fifth hole at Marco until one day he ate somebody's French poodle. They loaded him in a pickup truck for a ride deep into the Glades where he could pick on something more his size. After a swim in the Gulf our band gathered over steaks and stone crabs in the dining room. And for the first time on the whole trip Butera was growing worried. "We gotta convince Brown that this was a real ass-bustin' job 'cause if he gets even the slightest hint that we enjoyed ourselves Hoboken is going to be as far as we get to go from now on." "How 'bout something about heat rash?" I volunteered. "Or maybe how we had to eat hogback and grits, and . . . " The waiter arrived with our baked Alaska. Steve dug in, sending up a fine spray of French vanilla ice cream. "Steve," Mil leaned over the table toward him, "you're going to have to do something about those whelks. They're climbing all over the bathroom and one of them was in the shower with me. They make me nervous. They keep looking at me." "Whelks?" I asked, peering throughthe purple haze of Gene's cigar. "Yeah. I caught a lot of whelks. You never saw such shells! I already caught about 20 buckets full. I put them in the sink in the room. A lot of them are alive." "What are you going to do with them, Steve?" Leigh asked as she toyed with her thimble full of Corvoisier. "Take 'em home.' Kids'll really flip." "Yes, that's true," Gene said, reassured once again. "You don't see many whelks out in Floral Park." The next morning the festivities really began. The Fourth of July. It seemed like maybe ten years since I'd left Manhattan and its subways and jostling lemmings. I thought briefly of what they must be doing today on the Long Island Expressway and how things were progressing among the celebrants at Jones Beach. I did not miss them. There is a little Nero in all of us, waiting to surface. A couple of thousand people had gathered to examine the cars and just wander among the owners. Vintage and classic car owners are a very special breed. They never tire of standing near their cars, just looking at them, petting them sensuously, flicking a bit of dust off a fender, caressing a radiator ornament and just standing, always looking. Their dedication is almost total. Sometimes I had the curious feeling that I was with an odd, embattled religious sect. Since I was Grand Marshal I was also one of the judges. It was not easy. Late in the afternoon we passed out the awards. The top award for the Classic of the tour went to a jet black, almost completely original immaculate Jaguar SS 100 Roadster. All day people had circled around it in awe. The Outstanding Car of the Show award was taken by a 1929 corntassle yellow Cadillac that was damn near a perfect restoration. The '37 Ford 2-door sedan in showroom condition took the cup for the Special Interest car of the tour. Other awards went to a 1914 Model T and a 1929 Model A roadster that was an absolute gem. There were many more - based on my feeling that it doesn't pay to have many losers sulking in the same hotel you're staying in, not if you're a judge. The next morning I aimed the Excalibur back north toward Sanford and the Auto-Train trip to home. On the way we passed Merle Haggard's red, white and blue air-conditioned bus heading to Lakeland for a country/western show. Leigh yelled and screamed, pounding on the dashboard. "My God, Merle Haggard's bus passed within 50 feet of us!" "Does that make up for that goddamn guinea pig?" I said. She grinned. "My God! Merle Haggard. I saw his bus!" With that, everyone agreed it had been a fantastic weekend, fantastic enough to head back to where "getting away for the weekend" can damn near blow the weekend itself . . . And sure, Conway Tweety. - Jean Shepherd
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