By Mark Yanni
The Bottom Buster Motor Tour is one of the free California road tours that have popped up to try and fill the void of our dearly departed No Frills Iron Bottom Motoring Tour which died in 2008. The annual NFIBMT, run by “No Frills” Ed, attracted gearheads of all sorts. It was not uncommon to see everything from a pre-war Lagonda to a Citroen Mehari in the parking lot of the Black Oak Motel in Paso Robles where the faithful converged for overnight stays. The Mehari is the French answer to the Mini-Moke, but with fewer amenities.
The NFIBMT tour began with about a dozen cars for the first event and ended with 117 cars at the tenth and final one thanks to the legendary disorganizing skills of “No Frills” Ed. At the end of each day of the old NFIBMT, a couple who owned an Olds Vista Cruiser provided free refreshments. They decorated their station wagon known as the “bar car” with plastic grape vines and dispensed beer and margaritas from the tailgate.
The Bottom Buster Motor Tour includes many features of the old NFIBMT, including meeting at the Rose Bowl at the ungodly hour of 7 AM. I believe the early start time is to ensure that the participants are either comfortably retired or unemployed. I arrived there shortly after that time on April 23 in my 1974 Pontiac Grandville. It was overcast, and drizzling rain fell on a handful of vintage vehicles parked there including an MGB-GT, an Austin-Healey 3000 and two Datsun Z-cars.
At the place where the participants congregated, stood the legendary leader of the NFIBMT, “No Frills” Ed. He was without the megaphone that he used to address the large and diverse crowd of drivers and navigators that showed up for his events. The participants for the Bottom Buster Motor Tour could fit around one booth at Margie’s Diner.
I was warmly greeted by Ed who remembered the Pontiac vs. Cadillac challenge that occurred in the Black Oak Motel parking lot a few years earlier. I beat Joe Harding’s Cadillac by three inches. No, not in a race: It was a simple contest of length, measured from bumper to bumper. My five-mile-per-hour battering rams gave me the edge on the older Caddy’s svelte chrome bumpers. Ed was invited by the organizers to be a passenger in the Austin-Healey. It’s a bit like hiring a Kardashian to come to the opening of your trendy new nightclub: if you are going to put on a motor tour in California, it can’t hurt to have Ed ride along.
My usual co-pilot, Marty, was due to appear in his MGA, which he recently acquired under mysterious circumstances. He claims that it was given to him for free by an ex-girlfriend who felt guilty about breaking up with him 30 years ago. This is preposterous. Anyone who has met him knows that no one would feel guilty about breaking up with him. He arrived in style in the MGA, top down, with apparent indifference to the threatening skies and light rain. Wallace, one of the leaders of the Bottom Buster, handed out sticky pastries and made the usual speech about safety and warned us not to drive 140 MPH. This speed was not likely with any of the vehicles assembled here, unless they were dropped out of a C-130 cargo plane. One of the organizers named Patty handed out the route sheets and we were off.
Marty and I were at the back of the pack, trying to hang with the others because we did not have navigators. We stayed with the others when they merged onto the 210 freeway. I called Marty on our walkie-talkies and asked him his speed. He reported doing 75 MPH. The Pontiac’s speedometer read 50. Later, using my GPS unit, we discovered that my gauge was low by about 8 MPH and Marty’s speedometer was just plain crazy. His unit eventually decided that 60 MPH was a nice round number and the speedometer still reads 60 MPH with his car parked at his house.
The MGB-GT up ahead was getting smaller and smaller. The tour was slipping away from us. Damn, where is the Mehari contingent when you need them? And then they were gone. Exactly 10 minutes after the start of the event, we were on our own.
We took the 150 through Ojai and the rain came down harder. Deciding it was time to put the top up, Marty pulled over. We set a new record for installing an MGA top in inclement weather. The task took just 20 minutes and resulted in only one injury: Marty pinched a finger in the amazingly complex three-bow frame of the MG. The top of an MG was only provided so the original car dealer had an answer to the question: “What do I do if it rains?” It was never intended to be installed on the vehicle. When I asked about the side curtains, I was assured that they were stored safely in his garage.
Marty climbed back in and we sped away. The rain picked up and soon he had pulled over again. Balance is one of the signs of great engineering, and the MG windscreen is a fine example of this principle. Precisely the same amount of water was shooting in from the bottom of the windshield as from the top. Half of a roll of duct tape did little to stop the in-car shower, so Marty suggested that we switch cars. Going from the 1974 Pontiac to the 1959 MG is eye-opening. The Pontiac has several modern engineering enhancements such as an electric convertible top, electric window, air conditioning and something called brakes. I discovered the MG’s lack of friction devices at the first stop sign when I drifted halfway through the intersection before rolling to a leisurely stop. The squawking sound coming from the walkie-talkie was Marty’s voice yelling: “DRUM BRAKES! IT HAS DRUM BRAKES!” I believe it has drums, but I still question the theory that there are actually brakes inside of them. We eventually made it to Paso Robles and only had to bail out the MG once or twice.
On day two of the tour, we decided to leave the Grandville behind and both rode in the MGA. The weather was partly cloudy and the sun broke out in mid-afternoon. We drove through Fort Hunter Liggett, one of the most beautiful places in California, and then took the steep descent down Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to Route 1, north of Big Sur. About half way down, something started to smell. My God! There are actually brake shoes in there and they are burning up! We pulled over to let them cool off, and when we were ready to resume the descent, we discovered that the starter wasn’t working. We just coasted down toward the Pacific and popped the clutch. The little MG started right up. This technique would work fine on hills but two old guys with bad backs would not be able to start the car on flat land.
We enjoyed the “all hands dinner” at McLintocks Saloon in Paso Robles. Our group was sitting at one table. I remember when the old NFIBMT crowd filled the entire restaurant. The organizers of the Bottom Buster Motor Tour announced the dates for next year. When I offered to spread the word, they were not interested in my help. They were afraid that too many people might want to participate. This is not unlike my situation: I don’t get my nose fixed because I am afraid too many women might throw themselves at me.
We spent day three driving home and trying to keep the MG running as much as possible. The starter issue turned out to be intermittent, and we never got into a situation where we had to bribe a homeless fellow to push start the car for us.
I hope they continue holding the Bottom Buster Motor Tour. Maybe 117 cars are too many, but six cars are definitely too few. I don’t know if I’ll join them next year. I miss the days when owners of cars from every country and almost every decade responded to “No Frills” Ed’s invitation, and showed up at the Rose Bowl at 7 AM to drive 1000 miles of back roads of California in three days. I miss the Olds Vista Cruiser, too.