Thursday, August 4, 2011

Conquering Canada's open road in a ’26 Bentley

Robin Hine poses in a motoring cap in Halifax after his Bentley arrived by freighter from England. He drove the open-air vehicle from Cape Spear in Newfoundland to Mile Zero on Vancouver Island this summer. Adrien Vezcan photograph for Canadian Press.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 4, 2011


Robin Hine slowly rolled his 1926 Bentley towards a frothy foam until the wheels dipped into the chill waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

With his car baptised at Cape Spear, Newfoundland, the continent’s easternmost point, Mr. Hine then pointed his roadster in the direction of British Columbia.

“I’ve dreamt about driving across Canada since I was a boy,” he said.


“To see my home country. To see the land and the people.”

The 49-year-old carpenter was born in Victoria, moving to England with his family at age 14. He returned to his homeland four years ago and, in late June, began a journey for which he had planned a lifetime.

His English grandfather, a man known as The Governor and who worked for Lloyd’s, the insurance company, purchased the car for £90 in the depths of the Depression. It has been in family hands ever since. Mr. Hine took possession from his father 14 years ago, but left the vehicle behind in the village of Sherington in north Buckinghamshire, near Milton Keynes, when he returned to Canada.

In late June, the right-hand drive Bentley, bearing plate RM 2586, arrived in a crate on the Halifax waterfront after a week-long voyage from Liverpool aboard the Atlantic Cartier.

“We pushed ’er out, filled ’er with gas and water, pushed the button and off she went straight away,” Mr. Hine said. “Burst into life!”

Joined by his friend, Neil Stephenson, Mr. Hine left for Newfoundland to begin a cross-continental odyssey.

He is not the first in this vast land to succumb to the lure of trying to conquer the open road. In 1912, an automotive enthusiast and writer named Thomas Wilby, accompanied by driver and mechanic Jack Haney, left Halifax in a 35-horsepower REO touring car. In those days, newspapers still referred to the vehicles as “devil wagons” and “stink wagons.”
Newspaper ad touts Chevy in 1946.

The pair sought to drive all the way to Victoria, where the local automobile association offered a gold medal to the first motorist to cross Canada. The prize was sponsored by A.E. (Bert) Todd, the son of a successful salmon canner. Good Roads Todd, as he became known, had honeymooned by driving his teenaged bride from Tijuana, Mexico, north to Vancouver, a stunt to promote the building of a Pacific Highway. (Such a route was completed in 1923, billed as the longest paved stretch of road in the world at that time.)

Wilby and Haney arrived in Victoria after 51 days, but did not get the medal as they had shipped the vehicle by tugboat and rail through the worst of Northern Ontario’s expanse of rock and muskeg. Even the flat prairie offered challenges. As the mechanic noted in his diary after leaving Moose Jaw, Sask.: “Rough going over trails, ploughed ground and gopher holes.” Their journey was re-enacted in 1997, the adventure recorded in a book by John Nicol titled, The All-Red Route.

The Todd medal would not be claimed for 34 years, when Brigadier R.A. Macfarlane and Squadron Leader Ken MacGillivray needed just nine days to motor from Cape Breton Island to Vancouver Island. (The pair departed from Louisburg, N.S. Newfoundland would not join the Dominion until 1949.) They made the trip in a new 1946 Chevrolet Stylemaster sedan powered by a six-cylinder, valve-in-head engine.

In 1960, three CBC Radio technicians drove a white Chevrolet Impala sedan from St. John’s, Nfld., to Victoria. The car was outfitted with heavy-duty shocks and springs, as well as a larger battery to power a Magnecorder tape-editing machine. The men made 23 broadcasts from 23 towns before arriving in the B.C. capital, where they presented a flask of water from the Atlantic Ocean to mayor Percy Scurrah.

The Trans-Canada Highway was not completed for another two years. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was afforded the honour of tamping the last stretch of pavement at Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park.

Mr. Hine’s Bentley chugged past that very spot, nearing the end of a long journey. After 18 days, he arrived at Mile Zero at the foot of Douglas Street before driving to Cattle Point, where he eased the tires into salt water feeding into the Pacific Ocean. The odometer read 5,456 miles (8,780.5 kilometres).

“I’m disappointed it’s over,” he said, his face bronzed by days spent in an open-air vehicle. “I’ve got the bug.”

On Wednesday, the trusty Bentley was in the garage, wheels off, accordion hood opened. It is being inspected for approval for a B.C. license plate, after which Mr. Hine will drive it in daily use. He so enjoyed his east-to-west trek he is now considering an attempt the other way.

Behind the wheel, he is a one-man antique roadshow.

A trio of CBC Radio technicians delivered nightly reports as they motored across Canada in 1960 in a white Chevrolet Impala. The Trans-Canada Highway was not completed for another two years.

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