TREMONT — Peter Brown didn’t always commune with antique cars. For many years, it was a side business within his Portland-based repair garage that set a new course for his life.
“I made quite a niche for myself,” Brown said in a phone interview from The Forks, where he also is a river guide. “I’m not a restorer, I’m a mechanic.”
Brown, 65, is now the head mechanic at the Seal Cove Auto Museum. He will be relying heavily on his ability to make a car hum after he and Ford Reiche Jr., 64, set off Wednesday, June 20, from Buffalo, N.Y. in the 2018 Hemmings Motor News Great Race. Brown will be sharing stories and information about the trek on the auto museum’s social media sites.
Scheduled to take 10 days, with pit stops in 17 cities, the Great race covers over 2,000 miles and will end in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is the 35th year for this long-distance, time-speed-endurance rally. Bar Harbor is the overnight destination for participants on June 28. All 118 vehicles will be on display downtown.
“It’s not a race, it’s how accurate you follow instructions,” said Brown, who participated with Reiche in the rally for the first time in 1989. “To go to a stop sign, you have to slow down, and they don’t calculate it that way … That’s why the navigator is usually smarter than the driver.”
All vehicles in the Great Race date from pre-1972, including the custom restored 1930 Ford Model A Boattail Speedster that Brown and Reiche are driving.
There were nearly 5 million Model A Fords released between 1928 and 1931, Brown said. It was meant to be the working man’s vehicle. At the time, its capacity was advertised as 20 miles per gallon. It has a 10-gallon fuel tank.
For the custom boattail speedster, Reiche’s father constructed the wooden body on the Model A frame over the course of two or three years. After completing the project, the nonagenarian let the vehicle sit for a few years without taking it for a spin.
“It looks great, but they hadn’t driven it,” said Brown, who applied his mechanical expertise over a few months to get the car to drive as well as it does.
There are no windows, doors or roof on the vehicle. Brown, who will be driving, and Reiche, the navigator, will be outfitted with aviator goggles and caps while on the race route.
“If it’s going to be raining, we’re going to get real wet,” said Brown, who has been training for the competition. “We’ve been driving the wheels off it for a month.”
The training is for the car, to make sure the car runs well, but also for the drivers to learn how it works in order to calculate accurately during the rally.
“All you gotta do is have a soft tire, and your speed will be off,” Brown said. “The car needs to be rock solid. You can’t have a blip. You can’t have a flat tire, or you’re screwed.”
Participants are not allowed to use maps, cell phones, GPS or any electronic navigational tools, including an odometer. Analog odometers and stopwatches are allowed.
“Typically, we are at 35-45 mph,” said Brown about the 88-year-old car that could top out at 60 mph going downhill at full speed. “That’s really, really difficult. It would really be beating on the car.”
Because of the precision required, each car is timed from the moment of take-off each day until it arrives at its destination.
“The organizers verify their clock against an atomic clock every day,” said Brown, adding that start times are exactly 1 minute apart.
Because of this, the cars will take nearly two hours to come into each town where they stop for the night. It will be like a two-hour parade, he said.
Some roads may be blocked off to keep open areas for the racers, event organizers said.
The Great Race follows a different route every year.
When Brown and Reiche participated in the race in 1989, they had a memorable experience even before setting off on the course. During their training, the month prior to the race, the 1932 Rolls Royce 20/25 they drove caught fire due to friction between a battery cable and fuel line.
Brown and Reiche were able to repair the vehicle in time for race day, but radio personality Paul Harvey dubbed the car the “Roasted Rolls.” That great race began in Norfolk, Va., and ended on Main Street of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
This is the first time the race will travel throughout New England.
Brown can be found at the Seal Cove Auto Museum each Monday and Tuesday. His stint with the museum began on the board of directors. After he was on the board for five years, the museum’s mechanic retired, and Brown convinced the board that position was a better fit for him. One of his days at the museum is working with volunteers to teach them about working on the vehicles.
“Many of those cars are known all over the world,” Brown said of the collection that mostly dates before 1916. “It’s a very significant collection of cars.”