History of the Alaska Highway
When great journeys of history are discussed, such names as Columbus spring to mind, along with Magellan, Captain Cook and Admiral Peary. Often the vehicles of exploration become as famous as their misters - witness the Santa Maria, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Norge. Well, as of now you can add to the illustrious list the name of Hal Hennesey, together with his vehicle, the Morris Minor 1000!
I have just completed 12,085 miles of not-altogether-trouble-free driving around North America. Object of this six-week trek: to prove that an automobile weighing less than a ton is capable of transporting half its weight anywhere in the world - and do it a lot faster than the average yak caravan. Furthermore, Hambro Automotive Corporation of New York, importer of all British Motors Corporation cars and sponsor of the venture, wanted to show the diehard doubting Thomases of America that small imported cars are not toys but genuine automobiles which can be driven anywhere by the average motorist. For this purpose they chose the least mechanical minded motorist in the entire world. Me.
My specific instructions, intoned by young Tony Birt of Hambro — who thinks up these schemes as part of his public relations job - were these: "Keep the accelerator on the floor at all times except when passing schools and churches. Give the car all the mistreatment you both can stand - try to wreck her without actually colliding with anything substantial. We want this to be the most grueling ride since Ben Hur!"
I doubt that either the Morris or I lived up to these tongue-in-cheek expectations, exactly; on the other hand, I have heard of less exciting trips. (For example, there was that Air Force chap who accidentally hooked his chute in the tail of a C-47 and was dragged 100 miles.)
Anchorage, Alaska, was my farthest point of penetration and base of operations in the 49th State. Around this unbelievable frontier town composed largly of neon signs, alcohol and good spirits, I drove my earthbound satellite into virtual orbit, leaving the road at will to go scampering up to a glacier terminus - and sometimes finding the glaciers smoother than the Alaska roads. Never were so few horsepower called upon to do so much as I reined all 35 of them up to an ice-locked stream to fish for my dinner; or galloped across a frozen Nevada desert while some crack shot crankpot pelted my flanks with 30 calibre slugs; or skidded 50 yards down a Saskatchewan highway and longed for a mountain to stop me; and, finally, on the last day of the trip, to run into weather on the New York Thruway that made Alaska seem like Eden Roc with parkas.
Naturally, what with my being a professional sportsman, the entire venture was heavily flavored by hunting and fishing and the possibility of enjoying them while driving a small car halfway around the world. That is, if, after returning to New York, I did not trade in my rods and guns for a set of golf clubs, the trip would be considered a success . . . Well, I still have all my rods and guns. But I'm not so sure I have all my faculties. Here's why:
The troubles were mostly human rather than automotive. They started when I was forced to make a last minute substitution for my photographer, due to domestic problems. His, not mine. The substitute's name was not Janson Fuller but we will call him that. Among his attributes Janson numbered a camera, a strobe attachment and a driver's license. I saw all three with my own eyes.
Thus it was that on October 20, Anno Domini 1958, we three - Janson Fuller, I and the Morris - sped westward across the George Washington Bridge. It was the desire of our sponsor that we drive the 4500-odd miles to Anchorage without stopping, thereby making the outbound journey one of endurance as well as economy. When reminded that he had neglected to install relief tubes in the vehicle, Tony Birt relented. "You may," he conceded, "pause briefly for these annoying if necessary little functions. Now if we could only arrange for some kind of inflight refueling system -"
He finally decided we would also have to stop for gas, now and then.
I drove for the first ten hours. Halfway to Chicago I turned the wheel over to Janson and moved into the passenger seat. My co-driver promptly swerved the car into the lane of oncoming traffic. A natural error, I assumed; it would take him a few minutes to become accustomed to the Morris and its sports car wheel ratio.
It took four days for me to realize that Janson simply would not do. He still could not keep the car in the right lane, nor could he stop it without stalling. A few close shaves convinced me that it would be suicidal to allow him to drive up the Alaska Highway under winter conditions - or any other conditions. And, just like that, Hambro's endurance run from New York to Alaska was knocked into the realm of Might Have Been. And if I were unable to get a photographer between Winnipeg and Alaska, the whole venture might go by the board.
Meanwhile, destiny in another shape was getting into the act. In Chicago the car was serviced by Jack Nakagawa's enthusiastic crew at S. H. Arnolt's. A routine check convinced the boys that a leaner needle in my carburetor would enable me to better weather the vicissitudes of cold climate and high altitude, by leaning out the fuel mixture. As I said before, I know a lot less about an internal combustion engine than I know about the internal organs of a komodo lizard. If the authorized representatives of Hambro Automotive said I should have a racing needle, that's what I'd have!
It was installed and, as I sped northward toward Canada, I imagined that the Morris performed better than before. During this period, of course, I was more concerned with the disaster involving the relief driver-who-could-not-drive
I did make one note, however, that now seems especially significant: Top speed before Chicago - 70; top speed Chicago-Winnipeg - 65. Jiggling mixture adjustment nut helped some, not much.
From Winnipeg, Manitoba, I drove the 370 miles to Regina, Saskatchewan, alone, while Janson Fuller returned to New York and oblivion. In Regina, as I stopped momentarily at the Post Office, a Morris Minor sedan whizzed alongside and from it emanated a British accent: "Hi! Welcome to the Canadian Wild West and let's have lunch!"
Neil Johnson, owner of Morris and accent, had been a B.M.C. agent in England, now was a strong factor in the local sports car club that boasted 55 members. It so happened that one of these 55 was a pro photographer, and when Neil heard of my photo problem he made a sympathetic phone call.
Twenty-four hours later I was on the road again. With me was photographer Dave McKenzie, 26-year-old possessor of an Austin-Healey, two cameras, a number of wins in about two dozen races, and a three-weeks vacation. Since my Alaska trip coincided with his paid vacation, he had no objection to being paid twice for the three weeks as my photographer-driver. He proved adequate at both functions, especially as driver. For the first time in a week I was able to stretch out in the back of the station wagon and sleep as we sped across the Great Plains of Canada.
Dave also taught me a thing or two about driving. His tips, plus actual experience, made a better driver out of me in three weeks than had my previous twenty years of over-the-road "Detroit-type" driving. Prior to this my only experience with a "real" automobile had been the two-year ownership of a Mark V Jag, which I had driven like a Michigan bundle-buggy. Three days with Dave McKenzie and I was shifting down like a veteran of Le Mans, even slam shifting now and then for kicks (it's a cinch in the Morris, and fun!).
At the end of the three days we had reached Dawson Creek, British Columbia - and the beginning of the Alaska Highway proper. Between Edmonton, Alberta, and Dawson Creek, there is a 400-mile stretch of alleged road that is spiritually a part of the Highway since you can't get to Alaska without driving over it - or going far out of your way - and since it is even rougher than the famed "Alcan". Along much of this route paving operations are under way, and at times it is smoother and faster to go across the open plain!
The facts and figures on the Alaska Highway are almost as fascinating as driving over it, and easier on the kidneys. The original road, before civilian improvements, cost $140,000,000. The 133 bridges and 8,000 culverts along its length if placed end to end, would reach 57 miles. No one knows - or tells - just how many men died during the construction of this road, most of them drowning in the treacherous mountain streams that held up the works every few miles.
In November, when the two groups of builders, one working southward from Big Delta - the northern terminus in Alaska - the other northward from Dawson Creek, met at a place called Soldier's Summit, at Milepost 1061, they cut a ribbon stretched across the road. It was 15 below zero yet the 250 hardened vets had reason to feel warm inside. They had opened a 1500-mile highway begun only eight months earlier - one of the greatest road-building epics since the Romans laid down the Appian Way.
Originally constructed as a lifeline to Alaska - in case the Jap subs should knock out coastal shipping - the Highway has since proved its peacetime value a thousand times over. Most of the route - 1221 miles of it - runs through Canada and is gravel surfaced. If you think this makes for a rough passage, you're right. Especially during the Spring and Fall when rain gouges out deep potholes every few yards. In the summer you have dust resembling the nightmarish stuff that bogged down the North African war, and in wintertime the road becomes a 1000-mile glacier. At all other times it is relatively passable.
The appropriation necessary for paving the entire Canadian section is sure to be forthcoming by next year, what with Statehood and all that. So that much of the flavor that makes the Alcan run exciting is soon to be lost. (What's good for General Motors - or British Motors - is good for the country, but not good for sports car enthusiasts!)
The Alaska Sports Car Club likes the road the way it is. Effervescent Polly Johnson, spark plug of the A.S.C.C. wants to stage North America's first really international European-type road race in 1959, and will do so if present plans materialize. In a manner of speaking, the first attempt at such a race has already been made. In mid-1958 two small cars, a Volvo and an MG, ran from Anchorage to Dawson Creek and return. Only the Volvo got back, thus winning by default. Surely a better planned and staged affair would draw a goodly crowd, maybe even become a yearly institution, like Le Mans. It will be interesting to see what develops in the Land of the Midnight Road Run.
My personal race up the Alaska Highway lasted for three days. Continual driving can knock off a day (24-hour days, I mean) but I had a lot of interviewing to do en route. Here's one of my conclusions: For the all-around sportsman, I say that British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska make for the finest country anywhere. The hunting is superb, the mountain climbing ideal; winter sports are unparalleled; and as for road racing, only the sparse population and remoteness keeps this great Northwestern region from being a Mecca for the racing enthusiast. Statehood will make a big difference in this respect as more people settle along the Highway and in Alaska itself.
The highest point on the "Alcan" (no longer its official name) is about 400 miles north of Dawson Creek at 4,250 feet. You don't really cross the Rockies on this route; you sort of sneak around them. As for the temperatures encountered, they ranged from 40 above to about 25 below during the month I actually drove the far northern roads - November. The extreme cold came high in the Alaska mountains in a bitter wind. The performance of the Morris at this time was not impaired. The performance of Hennesey was. The following incident may be useful for those planning a high latitude journey.
One of my many projects was to go on a caribou hunt and, if possible, kill a caribou. With a bow and arrow. Now, those of you who read the "men's" magazines know that many a deer is killed each year with bow and arrow, and all of the more dangerous game has fallen to the unerring archer. Ninety-nine percent of these kills were registered in close cover at short range. Killing a caribou in open country is another thing - especially if you happen to be a lousy shot like I am.
After I had crossed the high caribou country in the Morris with ease, Pilot-guide Eldon Brandt of Anchorage (the best in the business, by Heaven!) flew me in his little Super Cub to a mountain top in the Talkeetna range where, after stalking a herd of caribou for five hours, I got close enough to nail a buck. Sixty yards was close enough only because I couldn't get any closer - and for me that is a mighty long shot!
All right, so I had my caribou buck. My point here is not one of hunting but of weather. During this entire day-long affair, the temperature stood at minus 23 degrees. In the ten-mile wind that beset Eldon and me, it was thirty below zero by our thermometer. My clothing consisted of thin flannel shirt, a wool slipover sweater, ordinary khaki trousers, wool socks and boots - and underneath this I wore a suit of down-filled underwear. It was this that kept me comfortable throughout the hunt, plus a pair of woolen skiing gloves (can't wear mittens and handle a bow). I was comfortable, that is, until the time came to dress the caribou. Pulling off my glove from my knife-wielding hand, I tore into the carcass. Naturally, my hand got wet.
Within three minutes, my fingers were virtually frozen! The pain proved intense and I could not open my hand to release the knife. It would have been badly frostbitten had I not jammed it under my armpit to thaw out. As for Eldon Brandt, old sourdough that he is, he just laughed and laughed. He also finished dressing out the buck!
In other words, the Alaska cold needn't bother you if you take sensible precautions: Dress in light wool backed up by down-filled underwear and don't get wet. That goes for hunters and sports car drivers.
As for driving, I'm afraid that most European small cars are inadequately equipped when it comes to keeping their passengers warm in cold climates. The heaters are generally too small even with a cold weather thermostat. Also, unless your car is in the high-price brackets, it may be subject to drafts around door and window. You can do something - not much, but something - about this by installing extra-heavy insulation at strategic spots. The car that is warm and cozy in New York or Chicago can be an animated ice box at ten below zero! And if you're a station wagon camper, you have to take double precautions due to the extra area to heat. There were times when, sleeping or trying to sleep in the rear of the wagon, we were encased in an eighth-inch layer of frost on the metal work and windows, while up front the driver was more or less comfortably warm.
By the way, remember that I am discussing winter conditions on the Alaska highway. Not many people can think of good reasons to go driving in those parts between November and March; in fact, we met only one car every fifty miles or so, most of them local folk visiting their next-door neighbor. Of course, "next-door" could mean a thirty-mile drive, and if you broke down midway, it could mean a pretty uncomfortable hour or more. During a winter's night it could mean death by freezing.
One thing that that startles, even shocks, city visitors to the Far North is the friendliness of the people. It seems that the sparser the population the better are the human values. You'll discover this if, on your Alaska run, you should run into trouble. Like I did. I ran into a snow bank at forty miles per. It was around three A. M. and I fell asleep at the wheel. Why? Because I was tired - and no more questions, please.
Anyway, had the incident occurred a half mile back on the road I would have hurtled into a thirty-foot ravine; a mile up ahead and the car would have disappeared in the waters of Teslin Lake. As it was, I awoke to find myself jammed against the wheel by virtue of Newton's Second Law, Dave sprawled in a heap beneath the dashboard, and a mountain of snow obscuring all things. Convinced that we had indeed plunged into the lake and were slowly settling to our doom in the icy waters, I clawed my way to the outside.
The temperature was minus five or six and we could not use the heater since a ton of snow had been jammed into and around the engine upon impact. Digging our way out was next to impossible without a bulldozer. Thereupon we wrapped ourselves in our bedding and spent a miserable four hours. Until dawn.
The very first truck that came along, a Yukon Oil Company tanker, stopped without being flagged. The driver tossed us a chain, put her in low-low-low gear and whoosh! - we emerged from that snowdrift like something out of Cape Canaveral. Object lesson: don't fall asleep at the wheel on the Alaska Highway unless you're very tired and are surrounded by four-foot snowbanks.
But from British Columbia to Alaska, if you so much as turn off the road to examine a soft tire, the guy behind you will most likely pull alongside and make sure you're okay. You can get to like a country - and people - like this.
I liked Anchorage. And so will you - unless you happen to be a bluenose type who thinks all the world should punch a metal time clock and report its daily activities to the D.A.R.F or Anchorage is composed of 60,000 individualists who migrated - or were born - there because they - or their fathers - thought that there is still room in the world for people who like to act, and especially think, as they damn well please, while conforming to the letter and spirit of all the laws of God and man. Amen.
Scratch the average mid-westerner and he'll look up your police record. Scratch an Alaskan and he'll punch you in the mouth. Bearing this in mind, you can see why they're going to have one heck of a sports car fraternity up there once things get moving. Because of the very nature of the participants, events in Alaska will have an extra measure of excitement. This was hinted at in Anchorage when I contacted Polly Johnson and told her I wanted a picture of her Alaska Sports Car Club for SCI. "Sure, c'mon over," she invited - "I'll send a guide for you!" (All of Polly's statements end in exclamation points.)
I needed the guide. Polly's home and incidental H.Q. for the A.S.C.C. is a half dozen miles out of Anchorage on the shore of Sand Lake - wherever that is! The guide got us there okay and we found about twenty cars lined up on the thick ice of the lake, drivers at attention beside them. It was quite touching. But no sooner had our shutter clicked than the drivers leaped into their machines and with the familiar roar, an impromptu race around the lake shore - on the ice - took place.
This was something new for me, so I joined them in the Morris. Fun? Man, you have no idea how wonderful it is to zoom at sixty across a lakeful of ice, turn as you near the rock-rimmed shore - only to find that your wheels alone turn, but you don't! But then the half inch of packed snow furnishes just enough traction for your tires and you edge around somehow - to do the same thing across the lake, until eventually you get on to it and find yourself able to duplicate the hi-jinks of these smart-alec little sports cars, and finally you get too close to the lake center and a loud long c-c-r-rack! sounds above the motor's roar and follows you back to home base where you gallop up onto the shore and they tell you that the ice cracks all the time and is quite safe so long as you keep moving.
You keep moving. Up to the house and a cup of coffee in front of the fireplace. After two weeks in Anchorage and environs, I was ready - obliged, rather - to return home. The long way. My route: south to San Francisco, then across country to New York. It was to be a 7,000-mile journey in all, visiting B.M.C. dealers en route.
Dave McKenzie had to fly home to Regina before I left Anchorage; however, I had all the still photos I needed. On the way back I would need someone to handle the Bolex, since I was committed to a couple of TV commercials. Here again I encountered photographer trouble. The fellow I finally hired - the only one in Anchorage who could find time to go along - could drive rather well, but he and a 16 mm camera proved to be utter strangers, a fact I discovered well after we started back.
I could never understand why, although I get along really well with paleontologists, machine gunners, obstetricians and criminologists, I always have trouble with photographers. ... So I took my own damned movies! Before leaving Anchorage the car was checked by the new B.M.C. dealer there, Bill Woodward, and his staff. They found that the rough treatment I had given the Morris resulted in the need for a new set of plugs. "You're collecting carbon like an anthracite miner," said Bill. "Whatever you're doing wrong, you'd better stop!"
I told him I was burning "regular" gas for the first half of the trip. I would continue to do so until San Francisco, then would switch to high test. Woodward shook his head, muttering, "If regular gas is doing this to your engine, you'd better not wait till Frisco." Calling him a calamity howler, I bid Bill and Anchorage farewell and headed back down the Highway. Inside of 300 miles I knew something was radically wrong with the Morris. It was obviously running on no more than two or three cylinders and had about as much pep as an 85-year-old nudist. When the trouble began, soon after departing Anchorage, I'd thought it was condensation in the gas line. By the time I realized the truth it was too late to turn back.
We barely made Whitehorse, capitol of the Yukon Territory. There we met the best service department in the entire 12,000 miles - and the smallest. Jack Mutch and Pierre Gaudard, a Scot and a Frenchman, respectively, with close to a century of mechanical experience between them, ripped the tiny engine apart and went over it with a variety of unearthly instruments that included a stethoscope. "Look," they said at length, and showed me where a defective plug installed in Anchorage, through no fault of the installer, had burned and dropped its electrode into piston number two, bending and rendering useless the valve.
I remained in Whitehorse overnight while the boys unbent the valve. The Morris sounded like her old self again when we resumed the voyage, while the parting words of Jack Mutch rang in my ears, "Ye'd best switch to Ethyl gas, laddie, what with a' the carbon yer gettin'."
On the return trip, as on the outbound leg, I maltreated the little station wagon something awful. Since Dunlop Tires was one of our co-sponsors, I rammed the car into potholes indiscriminately, and skidded across snowless stretches unmercifully. The more my driving improved, the better workout I gave the car. That the transmission held up at all is a solid testimonial to British workmanship and ingenuity. Now I understand why they won the Battle for Britain back in 1940 - the front line of defense was manned by BMC mechanics!
In Seattle, after six days out of Anchorage, my fourth and final photographer left me to return home the easy way. I was photographer-less, and happy, for the rest of the way to New York. Since I was also driver-less, I did the final 4,285 miles alone, sleeping mostly in the car when exhausted, and losing 12 pounds.
It was in Nevada, somewhere east of Reno, that I was shot at, twice - and hit. Crossing the desert on Route 40, I spotted buzzards circling about a mile off the road. Since it was open range country, I turned off to investigate. I reached the vultures but before I could inquire into their deviltry, there came an explosion from up front. Certain that I had thrown a rod or run over a land mine, I halted, got out, and - whang! - there sounded another explosion. This one came from the door, no more than a foot from my hand, and it gouged an inch-long dent in the metal. The bullet - for such it was - richocheted off and spanged away across the desert. On the fender I saw where the first had landed.
The only cover was a hill about 400 yards away, which meant that my unseen assailant was either a mighty good shot, or was firing magnetic bullets. I gave the circling buzzards a last look, and all sorts of wild west storybook plots entered my mind. But before a third bullet did likewise, I high-tailed it out of there. I have no objection to being a hero - but I want to do it where some poor underpaid reporter can write a story about it!
Needless to say, I escaped with my life.
In St. Louis, a couple of days later, the long-coming climax of this journal was reached. Nothing dramatic, mind you, jusf a plain routine climax. What I thought would be a plain routine check-up at Continental Cars Distributors turned into a "quick valve job". It seemed that the well-meaning Chicago lads who installed that lean needle in the carburetor had caused the car to run too lean for 10,000 miles, much of it on regular gasoline. This had resulted in a loss of three-to-five miles per gallon and a resounding lack of performance. Frankly, I had thought that the little vehicle had performed right well all this time.
But from St. Louis, on to the end of the trip, I learned differently. That wagon leaped forward like a thing possessed, as though to make up for lost time! The 800 pounds of luggage and flesh it contained was as nothing now; I realized that I had missed out on a good deal of driving pleasure. The final figures for the entire run, in view of the unfortunate circumstances, require qualification out of fairness to the car. Here they are:
Distance: 12,085 miles.
Average speed: 45 mph.
Mileage: 36 mpg.
Flats: 4, largely due to faulty mounting, 1 puncture.
Gas consumption: 348 gals. at 350 gal. Elapsed driving time: 268 hrs.
The mileage was, after all, under winter conditions in a car loaded with nearly a half ton cargo, including passengers, and impeded by that needle that had no business being in the carburetor! Significantly enough, the Morris averaged a full 40 miles per gallon between New York and Chicago outbound, and since the valve job, a trifle under - on high test gasoline.
My recommendations to the manufacturer: For really sub-zero temperatures, a huskier heater is desirable, plus better insulation of doors (this goes for all small cars in the low-price bracket) . An improved latch for the hood (okay, bonnet) . And a tougher covering for the deck; metal objects tear the present fabric under rugged conditions. In so far as comfort is concerned: he who expects Cadillac specifications in his family auto will be disappointed in one costing a fourth as much. Still, I managed to drive from 400 to 700 miles a day without undue fatigue. In fact, having driven the same distance in cars of the Cadillac class, I venture to say that I was less tired in the Morris, simply because the "cradle" effect of the Detroit battleships is conducive to sleep. You have to drive these little foreign buggies - it keeps you alert.
I suppose there are numerous statistical elements to the Alaska junket that might interest sports car fans; however, my purpose - and that of Hambro - was not so much to compile a record of dry figures, but rather to show that it can be profitable, speedy, safe, more or less comfortable, and fun to make such a long trip in a car of less than a ton heft; and that, in addition to the above considerations, the Morris Traveler, or station wagon, is especially ideal for the sportsman-tourist.
Question: Would I drive a similar car to Alaska again, strictly on my own?
Answer: Indeed, yes. I would ride a llama there if it was the only way I could get back to Alaska! I hope, in this article, I've managed to give you some idea why.