There are many ways to arrive in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but the plan I hatched with my uncle had us piloting a 1973 Chevrolet Corvette without air conditioning across the mountains of Pennsylvania during a heat wave. What could go wrong?
Plenty, though nothing did during the drive into the Keystone State. The return home, however, is another story altogether.
Planning a Pilgrimage
Several shows across the country regularly dedicate themselves to General Motors’ plastic fantastic sports car, but few can outgun the annual Corvettes at Carlisle festival. Ever since its foundation in 1982, the three-day show draws fans, owners, vendors, specialists, and — most importantly — cars to an expansive fairground just outside of the state’s capitol.
Certainly, it drew two cars from my own (extended) family. Initially, our plans called only for my uncle’s 1973 convertible (the first year of the composite nose and the last year of the steel rear bumpers) to make the trip, but my grandfather and father decided to caravan along in the former’s white 1994 convertible. The newer car may have more amenities (i.e. power seats, modern radio, and the aforementioned A/C), but the ’73′s powertrain — a 350-cubic-inch V-8, mated with a four-speed Muncie manual with a surprisingly short throw — was more enjoyable over our hilly drive.
Both cars, however, suffer from one notable drawback: storage, or a lack of it. Between 1962 and 2005, Corvette convertibles were built without a discrete trunk. Storage consisted of a small area beneath the tonneau cover; whatever space not occupied by a folding top was delegated storage. No matter; we parsed our belongings down to the bare essentials (folding chairs, some clothing, and some detailing supplies), squeezed them beneath the top’s bows, and began our journey.
The views of the Appalachian Mountains offered by a convertible are incredible, but we were equally impressed with our view of the Vette-packed fairgrounds when we arrived early Friday morning. The property was split in half; what wasn’t packed with Corvettes themselves were chock full of vendors selling Corvette parts, accessories, knick-knacks, and anything else remotely related to the nameplate. The grounds were further crowded on Saturday; by noon, Corvettes were forced to seek parking spaces outside of the venue’s perimeter.
On paper, a one-make car show may appear to lack vehicular diversity. In reality, it’s the exact opposite. Sticking to the Solid Axle Corvette Club’s area may bombard you with C1 models, but walk a few feet outside, and you’ll be tripping over the C4 Grand Sport Registry’s display. Dig ZR1s? There are plenty — C4, C6, and yes, even a rare C3 — to be found, most parked alongside one another. Race fans can geek out over the replica C2 Grand Sports produced by the likes of Mongoose Motors, but we were blown away by the 1960 Le Mans Corvette, restored by Lance Miller and his family — so too was the legendary John Fitch, who gingerly nursed the car to a class finish during the race. As Fitch himself told it, in order to keep the car from overheating, the small-block V-8′s intake manifold had to be packed with ice between each (slow) lap.
The Big Blowout
Despite its age, we never had to resort to any of Fitch’s racing tricks to coax the ’73 to PA and back — although we did encounter a snag (or two) on the way home.
The return trip began in nearby Mechanicsburg around 8:00 AM on Sunday morning, and initially, everything was quiet on the western front. Roughly an hour into the journey, the ’73 began to ride rough. What began as a mild hop quickly transformed into an absolute pounding, producing a ride quality equaled only by a commercial-grade paint shaker.
Fearing a flat tire or a thrown wheel weight, we stopped at the next gas station. All four tires held proper air pressure, and wheel weights appeared to be untouched. We quickly found the problem — the driver’s side rear tire had a disturbing bulge on the sidewall. Damning evidence, but we elected to press on and see how it performed.
Mistake. Five minutes later, we were presented with a violent wham, followed by a horrible crunching noise and a shower of fiberglass particles. We quickly moved off the road and inspected the damage. The tread itself had almost completely separated from the tire, eating much of the rear quarter panel in the process. Painful, certainly, but instead of bemoaning the unintentional bodywork, we quickly swapped the damaged radial with the full-size spare tire, and continued our trek.
Blowout 2: Steel Belted Boogaloo
That tire swap allowed us to travel across the Ohio border, where we would then witness a rather unpleasant form of deja vu. We heard a faint squeak coming from beneath the dashboard, but until we felt the car begin to hop a few miles down the road, we weren’t entirely certain of its cause. A quick inspection uncovered a 1-inch square chunk of tread missing, and evidence that the belts were once again beginning to separate.
Enough. We called Ohio’s turnpike emergency line, secured a flatbed tow truck, and found a tire store that was open on a late Sunday afternoon. Two hours (and a sizable chunk of change) later, we were on our way once more. Thankfully, drama didn’t rear its ugly head for the remainder of the journey.
Live and Learn
In retrospect, we didn’t know the exact age (or history) of the tires installed on the ’73. Shame on us.
If you’re thinking about making the trip out to Carlisle next year, you may want to keep the following in mind:
-Practice packing: if you’re traveling in a pre-C6 Corvette, storage space is rather limited, especially in convertibles. Pack only what you view are absolute necessities, and make use of the odd cubbies (often located in the rear load floor) that GM provided you with. While you’re at it, make sure your jack kit and lug wrench are squirreled away somewhere safe — you very well may need it (we sure did).
-BYOW: $2.50 buys a single bottle of water on the field, but it also netted us a 12-pack of bottled water at a local grocery store. An extra $2 nets a disposable foam cooler. Given the warm, sunny weather we encountered, it doesn’t take a CPA to discover there’s a method to this madness.
-Book early: not only does the show field itself become quite packed, but so too do the hotels. If accommodations within Carlisle are filled, look into hotels in nearby Mechanicsburg or Harrisburg. If filled, there’s always York or Chambersburg, both a 45-minute drive from the show.
-Netbooks are nice: these small gadgets are luxuries, but a netbook or a device like an iPad can actually be useful on the field, thanks in part to the fairgrounds’ wireless network. We used one such device to check schedules, navigate the fairgrounds, share photos with friends and family, and investigate if a potential swap meet purchase was in fact a steal.
-Tires are everything: if you don’t know their age, or you see some disturbing wear patterns, don’t assume your tires will survive a long journey. It’s less expensive to spring for new rubber than it is to spring for new rubber along with a series of other reparations. Now’s also a good time to learn what modern size tire will fit your classic; asking a typical tire counter jockey if he has any GR 70-15s in stock will only result in endless confusion.