Editor’s note: The National Geographic Channel’s two-hour special, Driving America, debuts on Memorial Day at 9 p.m. (EDT and PDT).
It was more than a year ago that Matt Bennett called to discuss his latest wonderful yet wacky idea. He wanted to put me on television. Me, the guy with a great face for radio.
Matt, whose face has appeared on TV, and several times because he also is an actor with New York theater credits, heads Silent Crow Arts, a television documentary production company in New York City. Silent Crow’s shows have included Mad Scientists, Barnwood Builders, Garbage Moguls, Deadliest Catch: The Bait, and After the Catch. It also did the live coverage of the amazing Lambrecht car auction in Nebraska.
The company was responsible for The Next Big Bang, a show about the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which meant Matt and his team were there beside the physicists when they turned on the supercollider not knowing if it would produce scientific discoveries or if it would blow up the entire planet.
I’d known Matt and videographer Daniel Mc Keown for more than a dozen years. I think we first met when Lynn Mann of Michelin invited us and a few other journalist vagabonds to take part in some automotive or environmental adventure. It may have been in Europe, or was it in the Brazilian rain forest, or maybe it was in China or some other exotic location?
You’ve heard of the Michelin Man. Well, Lynn was the Michelin Woman and invited us to all of those places, and to others as well, in pursuit of various stories.
So in early 2014 Matt calls and tells me that he’s putting together a TV special about Americans and their love for their cars and wants to pick my brain and even show my face. He introduced me by email to Russell Pflueger, who will write and direct the program. Russell and I have had several long telephone conversations about Americans and cars, and about research material and story ideas.
Some months later, Daniel and Russell, production manager Doug Bruce and I arrived at Traverse City, Michigan, where I had convinced Jonathan Klinger to convince his boss, McKeel Hagerty, to let us borrow the Hagerty family car collection for a few days.
Which meant that while Daniel and Russell and Doug and sound man Rich Brauer and maybe another technician or two crowded themselves into a rented minivan, I got to drive a 1915 Ford Model T and then a 1962 International 4×4 pickup and a 1960 Porsche 356 Speedster and a 1963 split-window Corvette and a 1956 Ford Thunderbird and a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS and even the pride of the collection, McKeel’s immaculate, all-original and marvelously unscathed (and to Klinger’s great relief, it remained unscathed throughout my drive) 1966 Jaguar E-type roadster.
And to talk about my experiences as I’m driving them amid the blooming cherry trees and along lakeshore roads up and down and up and back again on the Old Mission Peninsula that bisects Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay.
From time to time I was allowed to escape from driving behind the minivan to explore each car’s dynamic capabilities.
One thing I had not anticipated was how each car seemed to trigger a song in my mind. Even though I was in a Model T Ford, not a curved-dash Olds, the tune and lyrics triggered were, “Come away with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile…”
While in the T’bird, it was the theme song from the TV show Laverne and Shirley. In the ’63 Corvette, it was the Route 66 theme. But not Bobby Troup’s “Get your kicks…” but Nelson Riddle’s music for the TV show starring Martin Milner and George Maharis.
Various James Bond themes played in my mind while I drove the E-type. Strangely, the only music in the Camaro was the sonorous sound of its V8 engine exhaling through the car’s exhaust system. Nor was there any music in the big International pickup; lacking power steering, it required all my concentration — and strength — just to turn it around a corner (Klinger later admitted it might have been helpful had he noticed the tires needed to be inflated before I drove the truck).
My favorite car/song combination was the Porsche Speedster and Francis Lai’s haunting theme from the A Man and a Woman, director Claude Lelouch’s amazing 1966 French movie starring Anouk Aimee, Jean-Louis Trignant and a Ford Mustang.
While the T’bird would be my choice for a cross-country road trip, the Speedster was my favorite car to drive, though truly, to fully enjoy the experience you would need someone, someone special, next to you in the passenger seat.
Which brings me to this: At one point during the full-day’s driving, I noticed Rich laughing and soon Daniel and Doug were laughing and looking my way as well. When we stopped to change film, or maybe it was to change cars, I asked them what was so funny.
You must have forgotten you were miked, they said, and you were just singing away.