By Claire Walla
“Let’s go for a ride,” Earl Gandel calls out as we stood next to his ’59 Austin Healey 3000.
The little white convertible looks like a toy. I had never been inside such an automotive relic. Though I’ve certainly seen antique vehicles in passing and appreciate mid-century charm, I never really understood the deep-seeded dedication some have for their vehicles.
But, as this weekend marks the annual Bridgehampton Road Rally — when cars throughout the east and even some from out west will zoom to the Hamptons to participate in the hybrid poker/road rally before parking for a veritable auto beauty show — I wanted to learn. There’s no better person to turn to for a local automotive education than Earl Gandel.
Gandel managed the Bridgehampton racetrack until, after 35 years in operation, another group took over the circuit in 1984. Through his 14 years’ experience at the track and, coincidentally, because he lives in such close proximity to the site of Bridgehampton’s rich racing history, Gandel is somewhat of an expert on the area’s storied racing culture.
When we met, we would be retracing the route of the old-fashioned road rallies that were all the rage from 1949 to 1953. And we would do so in Gandel’s Austin Healy.
This is a pretty small car to begin with. But once inside its metal shell, the phrase “can of sardines” quickly came to mind. After bending so low I practically fell into the passenger seat, I looked out through the miniature windshield, which seemed slightly lower than eye-level, and felt the car’s motor rumbling in the center console mere centimeters away from my lap.
How is this car possibly road-worthy? I thought.
“There’s not a lot of great comfort in this car,” Gandel submitted with a grin. “But it’s not built for comfort. It’s built for performance.”
And with that, we were off.
The gear shift is no more than a straight stick in the center console, and it makes loud mechanical gurgles each time Gandel shifts gears. After cruising east at a comfortable speed along tree-lined Church Street, which runs parallel to Route 27, we came to Ocean Road, where the historic rallies would begin.
“The road goes the same way it did back then,” Gandel shouted over the wind, which was hardly abated by the car’s pint-sized windshield as we drove along Sagaponack Road. “And the houses are all in the same place.”
The engine rumbled louder as we hugged the curve at Sagg Road, making no mistake we were shifting gears. We passed the Sagg Main Store, which Gandel also reminded me had been there back in the 40s. Part of the appeal of re-tracing this route, he added, is that it doesn’t take an overactive imagination to envision what it might have been like to take part in one of Bridgehampton’s old rallies.
Even the bridge for which Bridge Lane is named feels as narrow as the one there at mid-century. (The bridge was rebuilt in the early 1990s, but maintains much of its original scale. Perhaps that’s why I always felt like my modern black Jetta morphed to the size of a Hummer whenever I crossed the tiny structure.) We slowed as we approached the hump.
“There are pictures of cars going over this bridge and getting airborne!” Gandel shouted with glee when we had crossed. “All four wheels would come off the road!” He was equally animated as we approached Ocean Road. Pointing to the hedge-lined house directly in front of us, Gandel said, “People would slide off the road and into that hedge all the time.” (Later, he told me one of those erratic drivers was radio personality Dave Garroway.)
Despite the initial awkwardness of its slender size, I was beginning to see the appeal of this car. As a matter of fact, I liked it for its size. It was almost like the car was built to fit the contours of its passengers. There was little room for anything else, including my messenger bag, which I had brought along for work purposes — it seemed rather extraneous lodged up against my feet. There was no room for excess.
Gandel, who said he had always wanted an Austin Healy, said he also enjoys the car for its size, but he also admires it for its history. “You can out-perform this car easily with today’s vehicles,” he admitted. “But, this is an antique. It’s a little more interesting than its newer counterparts.”
Gandel’s long-time friend Bryce Schiller, visiting this week from Arizona, is also a car enthusiast. In fact he traveled to the East End from Tuscon, Ariz. just for the rally. His car — a 1949 Triumph 2000 roadster — came by sea and took 10 days to get here. Schiller said he’ll probably ship it back after the event.
“When I lived in England, this was in about ’64, I saw a guy in Chelsea in a white car [a Triumph],” Schiller explained. “He looked like he was having a good time. So I said, ‘someday I’ll have a car like that.’” And nearly 40 years later he did.
Gandel and Schiller will bring their cars to the Bridgehampton Historical Society (BHHS) at the Corwith House Grounds this Saturday, October 1, where they will embark on BHHS’ 70-mile rally. Any car manufactured prior to 1959 is invited to participate at an entry fee of $75, but Gandel noted that the historical society will make exceptions for notable cars, “like a ’79 Jaguar XJ6,” for instance.
The road rally will not be timed, as most rallies are, but drivers will follow a secret course extending through the East End for which they will only be given clues on the day of the tour. Drivers will stop at various locations to pick up clues and answer trivia questions. And they will collect one playing card at each stop. At the end of the race, drivers will use the cards to compete in a large-scale game of poker.
Gandel said the East End — in addition to bolstering “the start of speed racing in this county” — is unique because the landscape has largely been preserved. That’s part of the thrill of this weekend’s rally, he continued, and it’s what sets Bridgehampton apart from racing centers in other parts of the country: “That’s really the difference.”