Driving 12,000 miles across the U.S. in a 1965 Lotus Elan walks a fine line between bravery and stupidity. So says Ross Robbins, who recently did just that. But don’t think for a second that the 77-year-old Robbins is unwise.
“There was a quote from Charles Kuralt that really, really stuck with me,” Robbins says over sandwiches and pie at the Historic Village Diner in Red Hook, NY. “‘My legs are still strong enough to stand in the trout stream, my lungs are good enough, I can walk across a long meadow to get to the trout stream; if not now, when?'”
It’s a sentiment a lot of us are feeling. Robbins is a lifelong road-tripper, a vintage racer, and a Lotus fanatic, and this was to be his most ambitious undertaking.
“Pandemic was ending. I figured the traffic wouldn’t be quite as heavy. I had my shots. I thought, if not now, when?” he says. “When you’re young… you think you have this entire candle yet to burn, but when your candle’s shorter, you don’t know how short it is. Is it this tall, or is it this tall, or is it that? And I have friends that are younger than me that are no longer with us.
“I don’t know what the odds are. And I don’t want to be maudlin about it or anything. I just want to celebrate that I’m still fit, I’m still energetic. I still have a passion to do this.”
Robbins owns two Elans, the ’65 Series 2 and a ’91 M100, the often-overlooked front-drive roadster developed with GM money.
“Of the two Lotuses I had, [the M100] felt like cheating,” he says.
In the spirit of making life just a little more difficult— incidentally a neat summation of British sports-car ownership—Robbins elected to navigate with an atlas, employing a smartphone mapping app only when truly necessary.
Robbins figured that, as this would probably be his last major road trip, an appropriate route was required. He’d already gone up and down the Mississippi River and coast-to-coast in this little Lotus, so why not hit the northeasternmost, southeasternmost, northwesternmost, and southwesternmost parts of the contiguous states accessible by car? From his Colorado Springs home, Robbins would first drive to Key Largo in Florida, up to Madawaska in Maine, then back home to recover. Then it was off to Jalama Beach in California and up the coast to Cape Flattery, Washington. All this while avoiding interstates.
One of Robbins’s longtime inspirations, and someone who eventually became his friend, is longtime Road & Track columnist Peter Egan, whose writing on American road trips and English sports cars is definitive. Robbins also wanted to use this trip as an opportunity to raise money for Roundup River Ranch, a Colorado summer camp for kids with severe illness. So he started a blog at xcountryelan.com to both document the trip and bring attention to his charity of choice.
“I thought it would be a discipline for me to notice instead of just drive,” he says. “If I had to report, I’d have to be a better observer. So it was an incentive to be a better observer.
“Second thing is if I was going to try and write this down afterwards, there’s no way I could remember all the details. So if I did each day, that gives me a fighting chance to be able to create a tale out of it later on, if I choose to do so. Three, because I’m raising money for the kids, a lot of people are interested in how it’s going to go, and are checking in with me and cheering me on.”
The car itself needed minimal prep work: new tires, oil/filter change, fluid flush, belts, hoses, and a few other small things. Robbins packed extra belts and hoses, too: “because in East Bumwad, South Carolina, NAPA’s not going to have a lower radiator hose for an Elan. But they got a mechanic in East Bumwad who can put on a radiator hose.”
As It turned out, Robbins needed a lot more Lotus specialty parts. But that was largely down to bad luck; just days before our rendezvous in New York, Robbins blew out the Elan’s right rear shock somewhere in Virginia.
“I was crossing this railroad crossing and there was one rail that was bent up,” Robbins says, “and I happened to just… If I’d have been a foot to the right, no problem. If I’d have been a foot to the left, no problem. The thing stuck up… and I hit it.”
Thankfully he was able to nurse the car to RD Enterprises in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, the major Lotus parts distributor on the East Coast. Owner Ray Psulkowski dropped everything to help.
“He had the time. He had the parts—I mean, nobody has more parts east of the Mississippi than Ray—he had tools. He had a lift. And he had the expertise,” Robbins says.
With help from another Lotus mechanic, Robbins and Psulkwoski replaced most of the right rear suspension, then decided to do the left side, too, as a precautionary measure. After a few days, Robbins was back on the road, the Elan healthier than ever.
A similar thing happened out West when the Elan’s clutch hydraulics failed in Death Valley. It was a big problem, but JAE Parts, the major West Coast Lotus parts distributor, was able to get Robbins a new clutch master and slave cylinder on short notice, and a local Honda mechanic installed them. Beyond those two hiccups, the car ran fine. Considering that most old Elans probably don’t see 12,000 miles in a decade at this point, that’s a good result.
Robbins stayed true to his word, writing about the trip every day on his blog. He met a lot of people along the way and was greeted by fellow Lotus enthusiasts all over the country. A little over 11,500 miles were added to the Elan’s odometer, and 34 states visited by the time all was said and done. Fuel economy was an impressive 30 mpg.
“I am really glad I did this trip,” Robbins wrote after arriving home after over a month on the road. “The planning of it was a beacon of hope last year when hope was hard to find, and the doing of it was even better. I found that what holds us back is usually overstated and what makes us go is usually undervalued.
“Mark Twain said it best: ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.'”
With the country slowly emerging, battered and still fighting through the COVID-19 pandemic, the road is more appealing than ever. The question “if not now, when?” might ring truer now than it has in most of our lifetimes. Perhaps Robbins has hit upon the only right answer.
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