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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Escape From Baja - 1983 Car and Driver Road Test

1983 Mexican Torture Test of Audi 5000S, Datsun Maxima, Dodge 600ES, Pontiac 6000STE, Saab 900 Turbo, Toyota Cressida, VW Quantum, Volvo 760GLE

The following is a good read thanks to Brock Yates, Car and Driver Magazine and their archives about a comparison test they did in Mexico back in the old days. Links provided:
From the July 1983 Issue of Car and Driver

Ten gringos face floods, frijoles, and federales…and live to tell.

This affair began as an honest attempt to evaluate eight sedans in the Europe­an idiom over a 2300-mile route between Southern California and the tip of Baja California in Mexico. Decent, re­sponsible automotive journalism. Road & Track does this high-adventure stuff all the time. On more than one occasion, they have encountered over­cooked cheeseburgers and canceled motel reservations. It even rained once. As for us, it got a little more complicat­ed. In retrospect, that was to be antici­pated, when you consider that our wide­ly esteemed technical director, Donald Sherman, organized the campaign.
Before the mission was completed, the hapless followers of Sherman faced bouts of the turistas, numerous encoun­ters with the Mexican federales, a high-speed collision with a cow, floods, maroonings, the deep-sixing of a Datsun Maxima, and the consumption of more high-octane tequila and stomach-scouring Mexican food than any collec­tion of Americans since Blackjack Per­shing chased Pancho Villa.
But let's not carry this military analogy too far. If our Sherman, and not William Tecumseh, had devised the origi­nal March to the Sea, Richmond, Virginia, would be the capital of the United States and Jesse Helms would be president. So be warned that what fol­lows is no normal meander over tic byways in search of automotive truth. This, Bucky, was a freaking war...
Sunday: We leave Newport Beach (yes, yes, we know, we know) in the midst of the 49th monsoon to hit Southern California this year. Ugly nimbus clouds roll in off the sea. There are ten of us, high-type professionals all. There are eight automobiles: two American (a Pontiac 6000STE and a Dodge 600ES); two Japanese (a Datsun Maxima and a Toyota Cressida); and four from Europe, where this brand of machine was born (a new Audi 5000S, a VW Quantum, a Saab 900 Turbo, and a Volvo 760GLE). Euro-sedans. Four-doors. Priced between $10,000 and $20,000, bracketed by the likes of the Honda Ac­cord on the low side and the BMW 528e on the high. The mission: a two-day, 1150-mile, America-versus-the-world run to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja, then a one-day layover in the sunshine and two days back. Our destination to­day is an oasis in the central Baja desert called San Ignacio.
Reaching the border is simple. Our one nod to preparation is a supermarket stop to grab some bottled water. Other­wise, we exit the United States with the same level of preparation one might employ for a trip to the K mart: no tools, lights, or first-aid kits. When other magazines go to Baja, they're outfit­ted like the Afrika Korps. But we have one trump card: a childlike faith that our leader will bring us through.
A chunky guard waves us into Mexico at Tijuana. The four-lane to Ensenada is pocked with tightly radiused curves. An ancient Volvo wagon with California plates races us at 80 to 90 mph all the way to Ensenada, but none of our eight cars is even breathing hard as we stop for lunch. Our next encounter with Mexican officialdom comes in the parking lot of Hussong's Cantina, where one of the least civilized members of our group [Yates—Ed.] is arrested for recy­cling several liters of Dos Equis against a wall. Lindamood, the only one among us who speaks any Spanish, gets the cul­prit off with a ten-dollar fine by de­nouncing him to the cops as a pig.
We plunge into fast, twisty two-lanes south of Ensenada. Route 1 rides high along some splendid seacoast vistas to­ward San Quintín and then bores inland to the mountains at El Rosario. We wonder but say nothing about customs. Having blasted past the place where the Maneadero checking station was supposed to be, we may be operating as Yanqui wetbacks, without the faintest au­thorization to penetrate so deeply into the nation. No matter: the cars are run­ning well, the night is cloudless, and the road is clear, save for an occasional bus and the odd battered pickup.
Our only glitch comes when we switch cars in the darkness. Several of the party, seeking naps, double up. We drive away, leaving the Maxima and the Quantum at the roadside, and have to race back fifteen miles to retrieve them. The fact that Sherman detected the er­ror so quickly means that his plan is working to perfection.
Monday: Is B. Traven running a hab­erdashery in San Ignacio? Mr. Davis, Jr., is wearing a snap-brim felt hat, last seen on Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The tiny, dust-caked vil­lage sits in a basin clustered with date palms planted by the Spaniards when the Jesuits started their mission here in 1728. We take a leisurely tour of the an­cient stone church before rolling south. Empty roads beckon. Speeds rise. Large signs warn, "Designed to Promote Eco­nomic Development, Not for High-Speed Driving," but make little impres­sion. Nor are we slowed by the curvas peligrosas, which are generally punctuated by burned-out car hulks, rumpled guardrails, and coveys of handmade crosses. Stray cattle begin to appear at the roadside, spavined beasts that pay no heed to the passing vehicles. The im­mense steel bumpers on the big Dina trucks we pass begin to assume a mean­ingful function.
We switch cars, and impressions be­gin to gel. Sherman, Csere, Ceppos, and Griffin are delighted with the new Audi, despite its slightly sterile aura. Committed traditionalist P.J. O'Rourke reveals a quiet loathing for front-drive cars and extols the rather zany handling of the amply powered Cressida, a schoolmarm with a harlot's heart. The Pontiac and the Dodge are pleasant sur­prises. Who can remember a Detroiter that would absorb such extended hard driving without frying its brakes, boiling its coolant, and loosening up like a Hong Kong toy? The Volvo, which ap­pears to have been styled from an old Amapa upright freezer, may entice Elec­tra 225 devotees. The Saab and the Maxima charge along with terrierlike enthusiasm, while the Quantum, for all its quiet competence, becomes the wall­flower of the group.
We are ambushed by the cops in La Paz. They want a closer look at our new cars. Lindamood is brilliant as she aborts impending arrest by demonstrat­ing the Datsun's idiotic synthesized voice to the awe-struck lawmen.
It is a black night in the mountains. Our little convoy is rushing the final miles to Cabo San Lucas, when Csere nails a cow. He centerpunches a 500-pound black steer, at maybe 60 mph. Protein for the people! One wounded Dodge 600ES, but thankfully, no other injuries. We grope in the lonely dark­ness to assess the damage. The hood is shredded. The roof is dented. The car runs happily, but the radiator is rup­tured. We push the car 60 miles—pri­marily with the purposeful Audi—to our hotel. Angry guests blunt our beach-front attempt to celebrate our arrival.
Tuesday: Too much sun, too many piña coladas, but good news: the Dodge survives. Sans hood, it is ready for the run back home. Lindamood and Ceppos fall to the dreaded turistas.
Wednesday: On the road before dawn, heading back to San Ignacio. The Dodge is gaining fans by the hour. Hard driving in the mountains reveals an in­teresting fact: the automatic-transmis­sion cars—the Volvo, the VW, and the Pontiac—can be driven as quickly as and more easily than the five-speeds. Ominous clouds build in the north.
The federales nail us north of Loreto. Suspicion about the Dodge's missing hood is our downfall. The cop is a young, round-faced kid in a clapped-out Dodge cruiser with bald tires. His girlfriend is riding shotgun. The cop wants to see a report on the cow collision, but we have none. This is not a good situation. We deploy Sherman and Lindamood in the 600ES for the drive back to Loreto with the federale. The rest of us head north to a rendezvous at San Ignacio. It is raining seriously now, and thevados (low spots in the road, meant to allow flash floods to run off) are be­ginning to puddle. The storm hits as we arrive at the La Pinta Hotel in San Ignacio. The wind pounds at the palm trees, the rain hammers on the roof. We toast our lost comrades, who may be rotting in a Loreto calabozo by now, with numerous tequilas and beers.
Sherman and Lindamood arrive late. Because of power outages, they have had to scavenge gas twice to get the Dodge home. The federale adventure turned to comedy: Lindamood ended up driving the patrol car and manicur­ing the cop's girlfriend's nails, while Sherman repaired a copy machine for the cop. Weirdness in the Mexican desert has cost a meager $50 fine.
Thursday: A predawn escape is at­tempted. It is still raining. Sherman is back in command. He should have tried U-boats. Fifteen miles north of town, he crests a hill and skates into a storm-swollen vado. We arrive a few moments later. Our headlights probe into the darkness to reveal the Maxima awash in the turbulent water. Sherman has slogged ashore mumbling about a lack of channel buoys.
We are marooned in San Ignacio. Vados have flooded on both sides of the town. Aaron Kiley is briefly stranded between two gulley washers while tak­ing pictures. The poor Maxima is hauled out of the water and towed back to the hotel. A dry-out will be attempt­ed, but the fuel injection's brain has gurgled its last. Our only alternative is more food and drink in a terrific little restaurant called Quichule while we wait for the creeks to quit rising.
Friday: The parking lot floods, and we move the cars. Save for the drowned Maxima, they are running well. The Pontiac has developed an antipathy to the urine-quality Mexican gasoline and the Cressida's dash has a faint tick, but otherwise the machines have resisted every sort of abuse we could heap on them. More may be demanded, howev­er. Word filters in that the road north is devastated. Weeks may pass before we can escape. Pass the tequila.
Saturday: We devise a crafty plan. There is a back-country trail out of town. It meanders through the garbage dump and over the desert to join the highway. We will double back south to La Paz and evacuate by airplane. Our refugee party is joined by Dick Ryan—Baja veteran, ace dove hunter, and retired Northwest Airlines pilot—who, with his wife, Jody, is trying to return to Santa Barbara. An old Mexican named Luis, who wants to get to Santa Rosalía, is our guide. The seven remaining cars (the Maxima is left behind) scramble tentatively over the rocky trails.
Finally, we are free of San Ignacio, and the road is clear and dry. The federales run us down one more time, threatening a two-day impoundment, arrests for our 100-mph daisy chain, and big fines, but Jody Ryan, who is flu­ent in Spanish and one salty lady, hectors them down to 2000 pesos (about fourteen U.S. dollars). Let's hear it for police corruption. After a shower at the Los Arcos Hotel and one last assault on Mexican cuisine, we make a lucky feint past the customs officials and board an Aeromexico flight to Los Angeles.
Now all we've got to do is figure out what to do with eight stranded automobiles.
Epilogue: Ten days later, Sherman and six assistants flew back to La Paz to liberate the cars. The flood tide had subsided, and the roads were generally in excellent shape. Two days of driving put the survivors back on American soil. (The ill-fated Maxima was trailered to civilization.) There was no further contact with thefederales, and the feared confrontation at the border failed to materialize. —Ed.
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