by Peter Conover
Kristi and I recently joined the Detroit Triumph Sportscar Club on their first annual Lake Michigan Lighthouse Tour.
Departing Oak Park at 7:00 a.m. (we had remembered the night before that there was a time zone difference!) on a cool, sunny Friday, we headed south. As newcomers to Chicagoland, we had never traveled further south than Hyde Park and this also was my first major drive since doing quite a bit of work on my TR-6 during the winter. As the miles rolled on without incident, I became more confident that my car was up for the trip. We were amazed at how far Chicago goes! But we knew just to keep the lake on our left, and we were off.
We met up with the members of the DTSC, as well as some members from the Milwaukee MG Club, at 1:00 pm in Muskegon, already almost 200 miles from home. The weather was glorious, and the sun shone brightly on the approximately 16 British cars assembled there. We were warmly welcomed by DTSC President Dave Snyder while we waited for the imminent arrival of drive meister Mike Bilyk. Considering the route planned, it was decided that the whole group traveling at once would be rather unwieldy. So, as some of us walked out on the jetty to see our first lighthouse (Muskegon South Pier Lighthouse) up close, about half of the group departed for the beginning of the actual drive.
Leaving the metropolis of Muskegon, we quickly fell in rhythm as we took routes close to the shoreline, affording frequent lovely views of the lake. It was soon apparent how much different the Eastern Shore is from our western shore in Chicago. For one thing, there are a lot more lakes, separate from, but connected by rivers or channels to Lake Michigan, that have to be gotten around. We were regularly skirting to and from the actual shoreline of Lake Michigan and the route offered some wonderful roads down which to run our British beauties.
Among the cars were a number of TR-3s, TR-4s, TR-6s, a GT-6, a Stag, MGBs, an MG-GT, and others that I can’t recall. It never ceases to please me the reaction a caravan of vintage cars gets when driving through small towns and villages: People stop what they’re doing to watch and wave, and there always seems to be at least one kid on a bike who looks like a potential future sports car nut. I can almost hear him saying, “I remember one day back when I was a kid, a bunch of really cool cars drove through our town. I think they were Triumphs.” And the rest is history…
The lighthouses are either in use, and therefore administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, or preserved as national treasures, usually under the auspices of a local organization. After about a 25-mile drive, we arrived at the White River Lighthouse, which is one preserved as a museum. We began to get an idea of what was to be in store for us throughout the weekend: Many of the lighthouses are in quite remote areas, so that their appeal is enhanced by the natural beauty surrounding them, not the least being Lake Michigan itself.
Our day was to end at Ludington; on arrival, some of us broke off from the group to find our respective B&B’s; the remainder ended up at the Ludington North Pierhead Light, before traveling to their hotel. Ludington was hosting an antique car show that weekend, but there didn’t seem to be any of the British variety represented.
The next morning, Kristi and I found ourselves glad that the first part of the route, a 10-mile trip to Big Sable Point Lighthouse, was mostly in warm sunshine, and not in the cool shade. Our trip not only afforded some more stunning views of Lake Michigan and it’s shoreline, but also of approximately 800 marathon runners. I for one felt a little bit guilty tooling along in my motorized hobby, while they exerted themselves physically. But then I thought, “Hey, I’ve had to exert myself for my hobby too!” Besides, they didn’t look like they were having too much fun.
Upon arrival at the parking area, we found out that to reach the lighthouse, we had to hike about a mile and a half. My guilt dissipated. The hike to the lighthouse through the dunes was well worth it. The Big Sable Point Lighthouse itself turned out to be one of the highpoints (pun intended) of the trip. The tower was open to the public, and a rather strenuous climb to the top (my guilt was completely erased!) not only gave an astounding view, but a real taste of what the “lighthouse life” might have been like.
The 30-mile trip to Manistee and a planned lunch stop went fine until our last turn from Route 31 onto the side street where the restaurant was located. We heard the squealing of tires and an impact. A driver had apparently run the red light and hit a pristine MGB! Thankfully there were no injuries, the police arrived quickly and reports were made. Although the damage to the MG was heartbreaking, the car was still driveable, sustaining damage to the rear bumper, right rear body panel, and tail lights. The other car, something American with a lot of fiberglass body panels looked a lot worse.
After the accident, the group managed to get up an appetite for the fine fare at the Lighthouse Brewing Company. Kristi and I limited our tasting to two samplers of their excellent varieties. Afterwards, we took a look at the Manistee North Pierhead Light.
Out of Manistee and little behind schedule, we headed north on Michigan Route 22, a fantastic road in terms of sights and driveability, and which turned out to be our main route for most of the rest of the weekend. The group turned off south of Traverse City to their hotel, Kristi and I continued north through town onto Mission Point Peninsula, where our B&B was located. After getting settled we continued five miles up the road to Old Mission Point Lighthouse. The peninsula has farms and wineries touting tasting rooms, and not much else. The next morning we woke up to another lovely day and a silence that neither of us had heard in a long time. The birds seemed loud, until I turned the key on our TR!
We traveled back through town to the group’s hotel, but found only the wounded MGB in the lot. Our B&B breakfast and the 20-mile drive had caused us to miss the group’s departure. Undaunted, we forged ahead, trying to guess which route the group had chosen. We backtracked 40 miles to Point Betsie (the stunning lighthouse there is the one that you have probably seen pictures of in advertisements for Michigan vacations), but we found no sign of other British autos. Another sightseer at the lighthouse had seen two white TR-3s heading the other direction about 15 minutes earlier. We weren’t trying too hard to catch up with the group, but when we paid our fee to drive the Stocking Scenic Drive within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the ranger told us a lot of British cars were about 15 minutes ahead of us. At one of the overlooks, we were joined by two other TR-6’s that had also been touring separate from the main groups.
An onlooker asked if the cars had been rented. Met with confused looks and the response that no, they’re ours, she said she thought it strange that three vintage cars exactly the same were in the same place at the same time! Although we all know the sight of our Triumphs assembled en masse is quite a wonderful sight to ourselves, it’s fun to imagine what this must look like to someone who is not part of the group!
At the next pullout, Kristi and I took one of the marked hikes through the dunes, so we were alone again. Shortly after, we encountered the main pack in the lovely town of Glen Arbor just finishing ice cream cones, having had lunch there. Although Kristi and I also stopped there for lunch, we passed the group, stopped for souvenir shopping, a little later on our way to Grand Traverse Lighthouse, the last of the weekend.
According to the ranger at the park, we were not the first to arrive. We told him with a grin that we were certainly not the last! The Grand Traverse Lighthouse complex has been lovingly restored. Standing on the tip of the peninsula, with Lake Michigan stretching out on both sides, there is truly an “end of the road” feel to the area.
The group having “caught up” with us, we toured back to Traverse City, stopping for a group photo. Since Kristi and I were staying that night back in Ludington, before our ferry ride the next morning, we bid our farewells and thanked the members of the DTSC for inviting us.
The next morning, I watched somewhat nervously as my car waited to be driven onto the immense ferry SS Badger. The first driver turned away, indicating that he couldn’t drive a stick. Soon after my little car was swallowed up into the bowels of the ship, and we went on board for our trip across Lake Michigan. The four-hour crossing does not really save any travel time: We could have driven back around the lake to the Chicago area faster. However, the ferry trip let us avoid retracing our less than stunning route south of the lake, and it gave a sense of continuity by making the trip somewhat circular.
Near home we were met, not surprisingly, with a traffic jam on I-294. By the time we arrived home, we had driven about 800 miles. My car had performed well. Kristi and I agreed that the trip had been a success, and we look forward to similar experiences in the future.
Peter and Kristi are Texas Triumph Register members transplanted to Chicago.
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