Surfing: Old Man's Rocky Break

By Larry Saavedra

    Somewhere along America's coast, maybe at Jersey's Clam Alley or Oregon's icy Cape Kiwanda a surf trip is brewing. Historically, surf trips are shaped, distilled and defined by friends looking for the best waves of their lives, wherever that road leads. 

My journey began at a break simply known as Old Mans.


Old Mans Break

The closest thing to paradise in California when a south swell breaks big.

     The bamboo and palms grow wild at Old Mans. Always have. Hasn’t changed a bit and I’d been coming here since the late 1960s.

What has changed though, are the campers. Now they arrive in salt-rusted motorhomes of every shape and size. And they park facing the swells inches off the sand.

Like always, there’s two sets of waves to watch. The biggest are far outside the shore break, a big paddle past the waves that pound the sand. The outer break is always the best, especially at Old Mans, where the crowd tends to thin out the further out you paddle.

This trip began with a simple hunger for glassy waters, good food and camaraderie. Nothing more. This is a recipe unique to surfers, who rally behind the notion that surf is where you find it and that everyone is welcome. No amount of prestige buys into the club. There are no rituals, no dues, and no bad vibes, mostly.

Yet, as you grow older your priorities change and so do the responsibilities. None the less, surfers always make time for a surf trip with friends. With great expectations and equally keen attitudes, Benjamin, Keith, Erik and Milt unpacked an aging motorhome and eyed a camp site as I was rolling up in a 1986 VW Vanagon. They waved me in.

They were men in their ‘30s and ‘40s, but looked like school kids waiting for the first day of summer to start. The crashing waves pierced the air, which triggered their excitement.

Yep, Old Mans hasn’t changed much. It’s sandwiched between Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and the now shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. If that didn’t scare away the tourists, the difficult rocky shore did. But for surfers, you can’t find a better place to have fun, despite the fact that you are drifting in an unknown environmental soup once your toes hit the water. No one really knows how much damage the nuclear plant did to the surrounding ocean life. But what mattered today were the waves.

The morning on the water passed quickly and we were drained. Hours seemed like minutes. Everyone of us were catching our fill of waves. One by one each of us made our way into shore to let the smack-talk fly, like embers burning off the wooden pallets tossed in the fire pit. It was around the campfire where the group met Jeff, the firefighter from Arizona and another visitor from London, who never properly introduced himself. But it didn’t matter.

     "Did you see me on that one?" someone shouted, as the fire pit crackled in sync with the guitar tunes piped outside the motorhome. "I had this unbelievable wave and this thing was huge," another said, the voice barely audible over the collective skepticism.

But that is essentially what the surf trip is about; the thrill of victory... no matter how exaggerated or colorful. With surfing everything happens fast. Onlookers might become the witness to greatness or the wipe out. If someone didn't see your ride, chances are that it never happened the way it was described. But none of this diminishes surfing's soul.


Ron Howard's RUSH: A Movie Review

By Larry Saavedra

    Crash, bang, boom. Most car movies are expensive demolition derbies, leaving a wake of flops smoking by the side of the road.

In fairness, there are well-deserved exceptions. Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1966) and Le Mans (Lee H. Katzin, 1971) actually got it right from an enthusiast’s point-of-view. The 2010 documentary Senna ( Asif Kapadia) definitely turned it up with an inside approach to the life of the best Formula One driver ever, Ayrton Senna, although sadly, it was a disappointment at the box office. The movie Fast and the Furious did fantastic at the box-office, however, the story was frequently driven by computer-generated imagery of unfathomable proportions and a colossal marketing budget catering to teens with no where to go on a Friday night.

    The chance of a racing enthusiast seeing a factual feature film, realistically depicting one of the most dangerous sports in the world, is about as likely as Justin Bieber getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    Now along comes Rush, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon), written by Peter Morgan, starring Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth. Briefly, it’s a vivid re-creation based on the true story of the merciless 1970s rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

    In real life, both Hunt and Lauda had much in common, including being sons from wealthy families. However, as the story suggests neither family approved of racing and so both Hunt and Lauda fended on their own, scraping together the finances to pursue a sport that they prized. As Rush brilliantly delivered, they differed in how they went about pursuing a career in racing and how they managed their careers once they made the leap to Formula One, a heady place to be back in the 1970s.

    By all accounts, the British-born Hunt saw racing as a venue to pursue beautiful women, many of which he shagged, even while his racecar sat on the grid moments before the start, or so the legend goes. Lauda was the focused car tech, more concerned with the engineering mechanics of the machine than the circle of wide-eyed groupies that racing attracts. Hemsworth as Hunt and Brühl as Lauda portray their characters so masterfully that if you close your eyes for a second you’d think you’ve been transported back in time.

    According to the website, “There were no special effects and stunt drivers were piloting replica and real historic F1 cars,” generously loaned to Mr. Howard’s production. However, I question the CGI (effects) statement from After seeing the movie, I don't think that's possible. Nevertheless, making it more authentic, the Formula cars raced around tracks like Nürburgring; an obvious nod to Frankenheimer’s style of capturing the action of real race cars on actual tracks by artistically mounting cameras to embellish the fast-pace of the sport.

    Like Grand Prix and Le Mans, Rush will find an audience in the U.S. because when the editing is flawless and the music is impeccably scored, there isn’t much that can go wrong. With a budget of $38 million, the movie relied on the story, not just the action to grab audiences and drive the conflicts between Hunt and Lauda. Thanks to writer Morgan the gamble to pen a screenplay without too many theatrics of a little known space in time (1976 Formula One season) paid off.

    In my eyes, the movie had lived up to its expectations, albeit, sequences of events that happened between Hunt and Lauda were occasionally misplaced. However, that’s simply Hollywood taking license with the timeline.

    Overall, the friction between Hunt and Lauda got ripped from the pages of racing history, and brought to the big screen with all the intensity of being there watching it unfold like it was happening all over again.

    Rush is a movie that runs on all cylinders.

Editor’s Note: In the U.K. Rush opened to rave reviews. It opens across North America Sept 27th. As a member of the Motor Press Guild, Larry Saavedra screened the movie along with other accredited automotive journalists in Los Angeles.


Hollywood's Stormy TV Series

By Larry Saavedra

     Somewhere in the sea of cantilevered lots next to Universal Studios, Sean Casey, the star of Discovery Channel'sStorm Chasers was knee deep in smokin' hot metal shards, makinglast minute repairs to his TV side-kick,  lined-up curbside like an zamboni ready to plow down the neighborhood.

     Storm Chasers is one of the cable network's most watched shows and its success is largely due to the real-life drama Sean and his fellow foul-weather buffs encounter during tornado season in the Midwest. But the real stars of the show are two purpose-built Mad Max-like vehicles that can sustain a direct hit by wild 180-mph winds.

     For reality TV audiences, Storm Chasers is gearing up for the best season ever as Sean frantically attempts to rebuild his tornado intercept vehicles, dubbed TIV 1 and TIV 2, into something that will safely bring him face-to-face with a large tornado-all for the love of science. Or, so we're told.

     Sean's story is based around the premise of shooting an IMAX documentary on the subject, but that leaves us to wonder if theatrical entertainment, not absolute science, is the motivation for taking life-threatening chances. In either case, Discovery's Storm Chasers is extremely addicting.

Island Fever

     The idea behind Storm Chasers was invented while he was shooting a documentary on Christmas Island about crab migration. After 20 years as a filmmaker and while stuck on a remote island one more time, he hit on a concept to turn his IMAX camera on Tornado Alley.

     "I was getting island fever," Sean recalls. "And it just so happens that they had this little library on the island and I visited it often while I was waiting for the crabs to begin their migration from the jungle to the beaches. One of the books I read was on storm chasing, and the idea of doing an extended road trip in the Midwest on the subject fascinated me.

     "When I got back to the states, I contacted Dr. Josh Wurman, who leads one of the most aggressive tornado science teams there is. That was back in 1989 and we've been doing this ever since." From that first encounter, Sean and Dr. Wurman worked on the 2004 IMAX release Forces of Nature. Continuing their quest, the storm chaser and the scientist ultimately collaborated on the series with Discovery.

Inside The TIV

     In the eyes of anyone who loves both the bizarre and mechanical, the TIVs are right up there with something only Hollywood could dream up. The tornado intercept vehicles (TIV) are a combination of Mad Max meets Batmobile, crude, creative works of engineering that true automotive geeks love. Yes, they are street-legal, but laborious to drive.

     Layers of weld pour over cold blue steel, as anchors, bolts, and other camouflaged protruding pieces of aged hardware jettison in every direction. All have a purpose, but appear lethal nevertheless. And all this while driving under the full barrage of a tornado blowing your way.

     Think of the innards of a military tank and you get the picture of just how forbidding it is inside a TIV. But underneath their thick steel skins, they are technically trucks, not tanks. TIV 1 (the original storm chaser) built in 2002 from a two-wheel-drive Ford F-450 chassis with a 7.3L diesel took years to complete at a cost of around $80,000.

     The idea behind it was simple-create a prototype that would allow Sean the ability to film a tornado at the point of impact, by making the vehicle as heavy and low to the ground as possible.

     To understand what happens inside a tornado, just think of The Wizard of Oz and you'll begin to understand Sean's medieval designs. The most dangerous F4 or F5 tornadoes can have winds up to 300 mph with girths that are a mile wide. These tornadoes can rip a two-story structure off its foundation, traveling on land at 50 mph or faster.

The TIV Structure

     As Sean explained it, the original TIV 1 concept called for the Super Duty donor truck to be stripped down to the engine and chassis. They used 1/4-inch steel for the flooring and tubing that makes up the inner framework. The exterior skin is 1/8-inch-thick steel with the side windows made of 1/2-inch-thick Lexan.

     The material for the front windshields is 1 1/4-inch-thick Lexan. The driver compartment and the turret where Sean operates his IMAX camera are double walled with another layer of 1/8-inch-thick steel. For science, TIV 1 sports a sonic anemometer, a blade-style anemometer, and instrumentation that measures outside air pressure, temperature, and humidity. TIV 2 has additional science monitoring equipment on board. TIV 1 has a rebuilt ATS transmission with the Five Star torque converter that's critical to keeping TIV 1 going through the rain-drenched dirt roads of the Midwest, where most of the filming happens.

     Substantially more work went into the making of TIV 2, a turbocharged Dodge 3500 chassis with a Cummins 6.7L diesel. From lessons learned while building the first vehicle, Sean's team has added a third axle and entirely new running gear for stability.

     It is all-wheel drive to the 10 wheels and has much higher ground clearance than TIV 1. Each differential has a locker for maximum traction on the chase. Like an off-road rig, TIV 2 uses beadlocks to keep the tires from peeling off. TIV 2 also has a Dana 80 out back that's been gusseted for strength.

     For the TIV 2, Sean came up with a steel flap system that hydraulically lowers heavy skirts to the ground to minimize the airflow under the vehicle when they encounter a tornado that could potentially lift the vehicle into the air. But the design has proven limited, according to Sean. And he is already replacing much of the thick steel panels with lighter aluminum where structural integrity can handle such a swap.

     Like its predecessor, TIV 2's windows have three layers of polycarbonate materials sandwiched together with tempered glass for protection. ATS Diesel stepped in and retrofitted TIV 2 with an ATS SubZero intercooler for the turbo, a Five Star torque converter, an upgraded transmission valvebody, Water Boy water injection, and an Epower performance tuner. The 16,000-pound rig rides on an airbag suspension to soften the jolts of the open road.

     "ATS Diesel has been a big help in building these new, improved storm chasers," says Sean. "They did a lot of work to these vehicles. Nothing on these rigs is stock anymore. The original builders we hired for the TIVs must have watched too many twister movies because they were way too heavy to drive," he said. "They slapped them together, and now I'm redoing them to lighten the load."

     What comes from this TV project is anyone's guess, but Sean's goal is to unravel the complexity of a twister for audiences to see on an IMAX screen. And as Sean likes to tell it, he could be the first person to film an actual impact of a large tornado in IMAX.

     But if the intercept vehicles fail, Sean will go to Plan B, a Baja-style 4x4 concept with giant articulating links in the rear and a massive A-arm suspension up front. Another concept Sean is exploring is an arrangement with King Shocks, where giant screw-type probes activate and burrow in the ground to serve as anchors prior to the point of impact.

     "We will ultimately go much lighter, and faster. Any chance I get to film tornado, I'll take," Sean said. But does the reward warrant the risk? Like the rest of us, you'll have to tune into the Discovery Channel to find out how this story ends.

Image by Larry Saavedra. Photograph of International Harvester in front of the 100 year-old Cook Barn in San Juan Capistrano, CA. Update, a year after this photography was taken the Cook Barn burnt to the ground in a fire still unsolved.

Image by Larry Saavedra. Photograph of International Harvester in front of the 100 year-old Cook Barn in San Juan Capistrano, CA. Update, a year after this photography was taken the Cook Barn burnt to the ground in a fire still unsolved.

Solved. The Mystery Behind Wally Byam's long missing Harvester

By Larry Saavedra

     Wally Byam's rag-to-riches story began with a humble travel trailer he dubbed the Airstream. Now decades later, the company he launched in the 1920s called Airstream has since gone onto become part of Americana, and in the process made Wally a very rich man.

     Finding anything that even remotely belonged to Byam, the founder of Airstream, can fetch serious dollars, and seasoned treasure hunters have looked far and wide for one particular vehicle, the truck that put Byam on the map.

     The vintage 1959 International Harvester A-120 before my eyes had loads of documentation suggesting it was one of the original tow vehicles used by Airstream founder Wally Byam during his Cape Town-to-Cairo African Caravan Adventure in 1959 — making it a significant part of RV history, if the story proved to be true.

     Wally Byam and 106 people in a caravan of 41 trailers traveled for 221 days on a 14,307-mile journey through some of the worst terrain imaginable to introduce to the world a new trailer called the Airstream. Of all the 41 tow rigs used on the expedition, 31 of these were International Harvesters, similar to the one on these pages. On the trip there were 85 adults and 21 youngsters.

     If this particular International Harvester was the real McCoy and it could be proven that it was Wally Byam’s support vehicle, or simply on the expedition, it could be worth a small fortune in the eyes of collectors.

     Judging by the cobwebs in the engine bay and the cracked red-and-white paint scheme, the truck looked like it had been parked in someone’s barn for decades. I confirmed it was indeed a 1959 International Harvester A-120 Travelette (six cylinder), and the engine and interior were true to the period. But the paint scheme didn’t match any of the vintage photographs of the vehicles on that famous African trip, though the documentation being sold with the rig suggested otherwise. Something was indeed wrong, and I wanted to find out what, why and by whom.

     I made a few phone calls to learn more about Wally’s famous caravan to Africa, the Far East, and Europe, as well as the International Harvesters that supported him along the way. I discovered that International Harvesters were used on several of Wally’s trips, not just the excursion through Africa. So even if this International hadn’t been in Africa, could it have traveled elsewhere with Byam’s caravan?

     If anyone knew the truth about Wally Byam’s caravan, it would be Dale “PeeWee” Schwamborn. (Dale’s mother Helen Byam Schwamborn was Wally’s first cousin.) “Peewee” as he’s known in Airstream circles during Wally’s life, went on three different expeditions with Wally, and he is acutely familiar with the International Harvesters of that era. After all, Dale was the official “scout” during Wally’s adventures, and he knew every vehicle on the journey in painstaking detail, down to the color of the paint.

     After emailing Dale several high-resolution images of the vehicle in question, I got a swift reply that would put a new twist on the story, redirecting us on a road that I never expected to take.

     Dale was blunt. The International Harvester, with all its proposed documentation, was a replica. A fake. A phony. Or, as he put it more delicately, a “facsimile” of the original. Dale cited various reasons and compared the paint scheme, rear body panels, lettering, and other telltale signs against Wally’s original gold-and-white tow rig. The Harvester I had photographed didn’t match any of the other Harvesters that went on Wally’s adventures. “We did have a red-and-white support truck,” Dale added.

     I learned that the decals on the door were clearly an afterthought and were not authentic to the trip. What finally convinced me that this vehicle was a replica was an email that I received shortly after speaking with Dale. The email said, “Members of the Airstream community had seen this particular Harvester listed on eBay years ago. Yet, when confronted with a barrage of questions, the seller allegedly admitted that the vehicle was a replica and that it was not intended to be authentic.”

So that leaves me to ask, why would anyone build a vehicle to look like it belonged to Wally Byam?

     The only fact that I could absolutely confirm is that it was a ’59 International Harvester A-120, and that alone would be worth something, but only a fraction of the amount the real Wally Byam International Harvester would fetch.

     Someone suggested that the A-120 I photographed that day in a dealer’s classic car lot, might have been customized as a promotion by Airstream sometime after the African adventure, or by someone who sold Airstreams in the United States. It’s a good guess, but that’s all it was, a guess. To this day, the true heritage of this red-and-white IH A-120 in the above photograph remains even more of a mystery.


Flight of the Condor


     Our next story about authenticity of a vehicle took us to Cooperstown, New York, where publishing sales executive, Scott Timberlake, stumbled on a classic 1971 Ford Condor, the one and only motorhome made by Ford Motor Company.

     Ford indeed produced a motorhome starting in 1962, when the Condor debuted at the New York Auto Show. It was based on a 15,000-pound Ford truck chassis (M504) and was powered by a Ford 390ci big-block V-8 engine and three-speed Cruise-O-Matic transmission. It wasn’t very fast or agile, using a leaf-spring suspension out back and heavy-duty shocks at all four corners. But it was loaded with amenities inside and out and had plenty of options. For instance, the Condor featured a convection oven, heaters, up to three separate AC units, a built-in vacuum cleaner, roof rack, trans cooler, an awning, tables and chairs, oversize fuel tanks, and even a steel rollcage. It was sold through Ford dealerships for about $23,000, but never really caught on with public. As one reviewer of the time period said, “It was built to last.”

     The Condor had a loyal following who appreciated the futuristic design. In fact, we learned that race car drivers Bobby and Al Unser once owned a Condor and had it painted to match their team colors back in the 1970s.

     Follow the Paper Trail Apparently, other famous racing teams from the 1970s seemed to gravitate to the Condor. Judging by the graphics and paint, Scott’s Condor appeared to be once owned by McLaren Racing, and most likely was the unofficial hangout of some very high-profile racers.

     The telltale signs of its racing pedigree include the “pupaya” paint scheme (orange) and traces of a McLaren white with dark blue logo on the exterior body panel. But perhaps the clincher to this mystery that verifies its connection to McLaren Racing is what Scott found tucked inside the motorhome.

     Stuffed in with the factory paperwork was a Toyota Grand Prix racing timing sheet from Wakins Glen in 1978 with the names of Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Mario Andretti, who were making headlines at the time on the racing circuit along side McLaren.

     We’ll never know the exact history of this Condor, but it appears to have lived a high-speed life with some of the world’s most celebrated racers of the time.