23rd May Teotihuacan, Mexico
We had received an email from Juan Bosco Trevino as we were leaving Teotihuacan, to say that we should call and would be met on the road
before we reached Queretaro. Our progress had been good on the fast dual carriageway and we had several telephone conversations during the day with Juan Bosco. Amanda and I had been running at the back and something told me I needed to get to the
front at a particular moment. Almost as soon as I did, we spotted a green pickup on the hard shoulder and suddenly three excited figures were waving wildly. We swung over, followed by Stan and Diana and met Juan Bosco, his son Juan and friend Eduardo.
After introductions we followed them into the city to the hotel we had chosen, where we met Alfredo Skertchly, who was waiting to greet us. We quickly checked in had a fast shower and joined our hosts in the lobby. It was agreed that we would go into Queretaro for supper and to see something of the city and its colonial past. The historic centre is really spectacular, pedestrianised and retaining so many of its glorious buildings, we walked around for a while, listening to the live music, enjoying a slight sprinkling of rain which cooled things down and cleared the air making it fresh and delightful.
We ate a very good supper and enjoyed a beer and talked of cars and Mexico with our hosts, both of whom have bodywork shops and work almost exclusively on old cars. Later we went on an extended tour of the city by car to see the magnificent aqueduct, over 2 kms in length. We also visited a vantage point overlooking the city and saw it spread as if at our feet, twinkling brilliantly in the gin-clear air.
24th May. Queretaro, Mexico
We were ready at 08.00 to be picked up for a tour of the workshops. First we visited Juan Bosco’s shop and saw several projects under restoration and some of his own collection, including a car that had belonged to his grandfather from new. The high standard of work was evident and all carried out by Juan Bosco with part time help from Eduardo.
There was a very interesting Tatra in the workshop, sadly without its original 8-cylinder air-cooled engine, but I shall make enquiries in the UK where I have a contact who has at least one of these streamlined Russian monsters.
Then we visited Alfredo’s shop where five employees work on panel work, spraying and mechanical refurbishment. There were some interesting
processes being carried out and we saw the results of a new sprayed-finish chrome, which was
a good substitute for the real thing, when the metal base has corroded and mirror-polish chrome is no longer an option. Later we visited Alfredo’s home and saw his collection of cars and workshop facilities there.
Needing to make some miles we had, reluctantly, to decline further kind offers to stay and sample more of the city. We had enjoyed our visit and the company of our two hosts who, although they had previously met, had not known of each other’s repair facilities, which were within two blocks of one another. Juan Bosco and his son Juan kindly led us from the hotel back to the highway and after several miles we stopped to say goodbye and thanks for the very jolly evening we had spent together.
We enjoyed an uneventful journey, giving us time to reflect on the new friends we had just made and think about the fellowship that comes with the antique car movement. We have enjoyed very much more than our fair share of good fortune on this journey, all due to the charm of our little cars and their battling spirit, which seems to communicate with people. We thought back to the chance encounter in Pasto, Colombia, on the forecourt of a garage one evening, when we met the sister-in law of Jaime Chacon, leading to our introduction to Hugo Suarez Fiat and from him to his brother Ricardo in Panama and on and on it has gone.
On the high ground of the altiplano we again passed under the path of the sun and later in the day crossed the Tropic of Cancer. We were now in the temperate zone and daylight hours would increase the further north we we went. We had already
begun notice that it was getting dark later, the previous evening after 20.00.
The land was beginning to be barren and scrubby as we crossed this high plain, between the two ranges of sierras, Joshua trees and cacti replacing
the more manicured pattern of crops further south. The guide book gave some impressive numbers of plant species and endangered animal species. Mostly what we saw were armadillos, turkey buzzards and Joshua trees.
We made it to San Luis Potosi by 17:00, where we were to stay at the Ibis hotel. We could see it across the highway, but the signs ran out and our fumbling attempts to reach it ended when we were flagged down by a traffic cop on a Harley. He was
understanding and compassionate as he told us to follow him, which we did, to the hotel. We were all completely worn out by the time we tumbled through the door and after a very sketchy supper and some plans for the next few days we went to our rooms to try and nail down a few issues that had been troubling us for some days.
We had been trying to arrange insurance for Mexico and the States since September 2012. We had tried all the usual sources and had negative responses. Eventually, we made contact with Johny Ginn, a broker in Texas, who had said he could help. In the end, although he got insurance for all three cars for Mexico, he had failed to get it for Stan for America. This he claimed was due to a failure on the part of the insurance company, but then washed his hands of the matter saying there was nothing further that could be done. In desperation we started to contact anyone who we knew who might have a lead for us and finally, through a contact of Guy Butcher, we managed to contact an insurance company in North America who had previously said they would not insure us, as they no longer wrote that sort of cover. This they now agreed to do, at a price which was eye-watering but, pushed into a corner, we had no option but to accept.
All that remained now was to reach Matehuala tomorrow evening, where we would meet River who was bussing down from Monterrey. That, and get my car out of Mexico and into the US with its now-dodgy paperwork, and finish the nearly 3,000 miles we had left to make it to New York on Feisty’s engine which should, by all reasonable engineering standards, not really be running with its very iffy repair in David, Panama, and Bertie’s engine which, although running OK, had now done another 5,000 miles with new rings on old pistons and no new oil control rings. The feelings we all had were optimistic, tinged with dread of the unknown. Would the cars last? Could we get the paperwork passed by Customs? How would the long miles through the US go and would we manage to make all the connections in New York, shipping, flights and accommodation?
25th May. San Luis Potosi, Mexico.
We made an early start today to miss the heat later in the day on the altiplano road to Matehuala. This was more like the desert days in South America and perhaps more like my mental image of how Mexico would look before I got here. It was evidently a poorer part of the country and other than long-distance trucks and cars, Joshua trees and the other Austins, little to see except the Sierra Madre Oriental and Occidental, which ran either side of the road, the mountains
shrouded in the haze which had obscured our view for several days now. The layering of peaks, from pale blue to mid grey, produced that deep-seated feeling of mystery which probably affects all who live in relatively flat countries such as England.
In fact we were spared the worst of the desert heat due to the overcast sky, for which we were grateful, both for the cars and
ourselves. Although not a long day, we were happy to roll into town in the mid afternoon and find our way to the Hotel del Parque. On arrival, with the now almost-compulsory trip around the block to unwind the grid system, we found the hotel lobby full of smartly dressed children and three girls in white dresses. I thought it was a wedding party but it was in fact a first communion celebration. Later, the adults appeared from the dining room and after they had all gone home, peace was restored, at least inside the building. The guide book warns against rooms at the front of the hotel, noting that “The main Plaza and the streets leading to it can be extremely noisy on Saturday evenings”. Amanda and I had a room at the front and today was Saturday, and even in the afternoon the noise of powerful boom boxes from passing cars and the appalling racket of motorcycle exhausts was much in evidence.
River had flown into Monterrey in the morning and was now on a bus to Matehuala, Diana went to meet him, while I worked on the blog and Amanda and I both enjoyed a stroll round the town looking for a haircut and to see if there was a handy restaurant. When River arrived, he came with a cardboard box, claiming it contained six selected, conditioned-in-the-bottle, English beers. Even better than that, it contained twelve new pistons and ring sets, one each for the three cars in appropriate sizes, sent out from Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, our safety net in case of further engine problems. Carefully stored in Dusty, they will now ward off the evil engine crankcase pressurisation, we have all silently been fearing.
The five of us dined together at the hotel in the end, there being no obvious alternative, drinking local dark beer and eating guacamole which were excellent, and acquainting River with journey stories that had occurred during his absence, working in the States. He was familiar with the route and stops as he had been working hard each day on producing elevation profiles, researching hotels and towns on the way to assist our progress, which had been immensely helpful.
We settled on a time to meet in the morning and retired for the night, just as a massive thunderstorm broke. This sent all the Saturday evening revellers home early and provided Amanda and me with some entertainment as we watched the impressive flow of water down the street, lit as it was by extravagant lightning flashes, up to the point where I remembered that our cars were in the underground car park. Gulp. Looking out of the window I was reassured by the sight of a high curb and the water still below that.
26th May. Matehuala, Mexico.
Breakfast together, all the trail jokes exercised and plans made for the day, we packed the cars and contemplated the ramp from the garage. Diana went first in the chummy and almost made the top of the ramp before rolling back down for a second try, with River pushing the last few feet. Stan made it first time in Dusty, benefitting from the experience of watching the chummy. Bertie made it more easily still, with its lower 1st gear. We assembling in the road outside
the hotel, Amanda joining me from her vantage point across the road, from which she had been signalling us safe egress from the garage, and we set off in the bright shiny new day, everything washed clean by the previous evening’s rain.
Still on the altiplano, with the sierras marching alongside in the mid distance, the road surface was good and we made fast progress on the dual carriageway towards the day’s goal of Monterrey, where we had been invited to join Juan Manuel Escareno,
Director of the Museo de Autos y del Transporte de Monterrey, who had kindly offered to meet us outside the city and lead us to the Museum, which is run in conjunction with the City authorities. We were a little uncertain where this meeting would take place, as the instructions were ‘that he would be waiting beyond the last toll booth’ on the main road to Monterrey. Where this was, however, we had no idea since the toll stations are not marked on the map we had.
In one of our phone calls we estimated we might be an hour or two and learned that he was already waiting, so it was unfortunate when Stan had a puncture and we were delayed whilst changing the wheel. However, practised as we now are in dealing with
roadside emergencies, it was soon dealt with and we were back on our way, descending now from the altiplano, with the mountains much closer to the road on either side, indeed they formed a narrowing corridor of impressive peaks, sharply defined and crisp in the clearer air we were enjoying.
We passed through a toll booth and there we saw Juan Manuel, waving from the side of the road. Pulling in behind his car we made our introductions, Juan Manuel had thoughtfully brought a cool-box of cold drinks, for which we were very grateful.
He gave us brief instructions and we duly followed him back onto the expressway towards Monterrey. Juan had kindly made a hotel reservation for us, but first we were to go to the car museum to see the collection.
After another thirty minutes or so, we came to the city limits and busier streets. Amanda and I noticed a classic pickup beside the road, the driver waved and we waved back, saying to one another what a coincidence, when a Mustang appeared from a side turning and joined the small convoy.
We followed Juan Manuel through many junctions, joining slip roads and crossing bridges, all the trappings of a big city traffic scheme, until we reached a broad highway of four lanes in each direction, where a modern utility vehicle joined our little band,
with an impressively eager photographer on board who hung out of the windows or sat on the window cill, his legs still in the cab.
A V8 exhaust note alerted us to heavier metal arriving and suddenly we were surrounded, it
seemed, by four Mustangs, a VW beetle, a 1950s Chevrolet, the pickup and camera car, jockeying for position and both guarding the rear of the convoy and guiding its direction. At one set of lights the four mustangs formed an Austin 7
club sandwich, each Austin being topped and tailed by their V8 cousins. The sound was most impressive, the speed less so. After a few miles and having crossed the dry river bed, we arrived at the ex-military training establishment, now a public sports facility and home to the museum buildings, where a considerable crowd was awaiting our arrival.
Parked in prime position in front of the museum building, we greeted the drivers of the other cars and were introduced to some of the waiting well-wishers. Amongst those who were waiting was Gracia Beronda Mastretta and her family, the sister-in-law of Luis Arguelles whom we had met in Puebla when he had shown us the photographs of John Coleman’s car and Gracia’s late father. Her father had at the time been head of the Austin Agency in Puebla.
We gave demonstration rides to many of the club members and River gave an interview to a TV crew, Stan then drove the reporter around the closed roads of the site.
We also spent time looking through the museum’s collection of cars, some owned by members and some owned by the club. In particular Stan and I spent some time admiring the display of five Model A Fords, a two-door and a four-door sedan, a pickup, a coupe with rumble seat and a bare chassis, a car which we could both imagine owning. In the collection is a Packard Model 110 from 1936, an example of which my father owned in the 1950s in England and I had not seen since.
We were allowed to leave the cars in the museum buildings overnight for safe-keeping, so having first repaired Stan’s punctured tyre in record-quick time, while watched by the car club members, we loaded our luggage into Juan Manuel’s car and Guillermo’s Beetle and went to supper where we were joined by Gracia and her family as well as others. After an enjoyable evening exchanging stories and learning a little about their club, we were dropped at an hotel for the night, with arrangements to be picked up in the morning.
27th May. Monterrey, Mexico.
Juan Manuel and Guillermo arrived at the hotel to collect us and take us back to the museum where the cars had rested overnight. We completed the day’s maintenance and having used the last of the oil I had taken with me, Juan Manuel was pleased to have a Halfords
Classic Motor Oil tin and a Three-in-One tin for the museum’s collection. We moved the three cars into one of the two exhibition halls and many photographs were taken and then it was time to get on the road.
Juan Manuel and Guillermo led us out
of Monterrey and we had just reached the outskirts when Bertie, began to miss-fire when accelerating. This soon became worse and I pulled into a service station to seek the cause. The points were correctly gapped but, on restarting, I shorted each plug in turn and number 1 was the culprit. On removal, it was severely sooted and as I started to clean it I found that the electrode insulation was missing hence the poor spark and miss-firing. I fished out an old plug, cleaned and gapped it and within twenty minutes we were back on the road.
Shortly afterwards our escort reached their turning point and we said goodbye to one of the most fun escorts we had had on the journey. The road was still descending from the altiplano and gradually the sierra mountains were reducing in height and opening out to reveal the rather featureless desert that extends north from here into Texas and New Mexico.
We were approaching the border with the United States and this was reputedly the most dangerous part of our trip, according to many sources. In this 100-mile corridor, drug cartels and gang warfare constitute the biggest hazard to otherwise uninvolved travellers. For this reason we had been travelling mostly on toll roads, well patrolled by both the army and the police. Indeed, 20 miles out from Monterrey, we noticed a large group of army personnel in a dozen or so vehicles, inconspicuously watching the road from a vantage point. This presence amongst others had made us feel secure all the way through Mexico and so we bowled along towards Nuevo Laredo and the border crossing.
Juan Manuel had made arrangements for us to be met outside Nuevo Laredo and an hour or so before we reached there we had several calls which confusingly came from a number other than the one we had been given and with a strong accent which was very hard to interpret on the mobile. Despite the confusion we did meet a man whose name we never did learn and later another car joined the convoy. Again, we never learnt the name of our guides, but they kindly escorted us to within a few miles of the border and then turned back. We were grateful for the assistance and give our thanks now, I hope they read this.
We had covered the 147 miles in fairly quick time, but due to the later start and our breakdown it was now nearly 16.00 and as we approached the Mexican border the weight of traffic had increased considerably. We had our passports
stamped on the Mexican side and surrendered the windscreen stickers which were part of the bond we had paid. This should ensure that we get our bonds back in the next four weeks. Then we drove a short distance and joined the mass of cars and pickups crossing the International Bridge #2 across the Rio Grande, the natural frontier between the two countries.
By now the sun had become fiercely hot and we sat and sweltered in the slow-moving queue. Having to turn off the engines whenever we could at times we resorted to pushing the cars forward the five or six feet each time, but had to give that game up when, repeatedly, other drivers took advantage of even the minutest gap to push in from the adjoining row to gain the smallest advantage. Resorting the the very British practice of avoiding eye contact we edged forward to establish our queue position.
It took an hour or so to reach the semicircle of booths, first there being Diana and River. With their American passport and green-card advantage they were able to proceed to the Customs examination check point, after it was established that no one at the check point knew how the car might be entered into the States. Dusty and Bertie were also eventually directed through with a ticket to identify us as not yet to be allowed into the States.
Feisty was directed to the Customs search line and Dusty and Bertie to the area for non-American citizens with vehicles. Although Stan, Amanda and I had all registered for the visa waiver before leaving the UK, the forms had to be filled in again and woe betide anyone who left a gap in the computer-read form with its tiny box spaces to be “filled in with black ink only, one letter to a space, caps only etc, etc. Fingerprinted and photographed twice each, we were eventually allowed to return to the cars, by which time River and Diana had also had their car search completed. No attention had been paid to the car entry and although we asked more than once “should we have an entry document” for the car, it was brushed aside unlike any of the previous eleven border crossings. This was a blessing in that the incident at the Guatemala/Mexico border with Bertie’s title document brought no consequences. However, it now left a lingering doubt about what would happen when we finally ship the cars out from New York. Ah well, we will have to cross that bridge when we come to it, perhaps like most of the other anxieties we have suffered along the way it will prove not to be problem in the end!
After one of the longer border crossings of the trip, we were now free to drive on to the hotel River had booked for us in Laredo, Texas. The Embassy Suites, a rather luxurious hotel to celebrate reaching the States, features happy hour with free drinks and tasty bar food. With less than 20 minutes before the witching hour, we made the most of the opportunity afforded and toasted our safe arrival in the last of the twelve countries through which we would travel. Never have so few, consumed so much, in such a short space of time, but we were determined to show what four true Brits and a token one can achieve when challenged. Weary from the previous day’s partying, the heat of the crossing and an hour’s consumption in twenty minutes, bed was more welcome than usual!
Tomorrow we shall begin the madcap race through the States in an attempt to reach New York to board a ship which might, we hope, allow the cars to reach the UK in time for an appearance at the Austin 7 National Rally at Beaulieu on the 7th of July. Will the engines of Bertie and Feisty hold up for the last 2,000 miles? Will Bertie’s tyres last that long, reduced as they are in tread depth? We have friends to visit in America, arrangements to make about getting home and, two weeks behind the planned schedule, new shipping arrangements to make. The next post should be from New York and the culmination of the journey successfully we hope!