Of Small Pubs and British Cars – Jim Taylor

Yeah, this really happened. Not so long ago, we were in northern Florida visiting friends. The music was great and they were wonderful hosts.  Although they were not able to accompany us on our last day in St. Augustine they did provide an insider’s list of things to do and see, and we followed their suggestions mostly.

St. Augustine is a beautiful old city and one that knows its heritage well. The downtown area compacts modern business and government facilities together with general commerce, historic structures, tourism, a large college and an attractive waterfront. We spent the day strolling and investigating the many craft shops and art galleries  as well as visiting the famous Castillo (fort) and admiring the many examples of Spanish and early southern architecture in the town.

Our friends had recommended places for lunch but left us on our own for dinner. Having reviewed the tourist literature in the hotel earlier, we had noted three English pubs with St. Augustine addresses — each claiming to be more authentic than the next.  Two seemed to be right in town and we were looking for them on our walkabout. We never found one, and the very nice lady at the other said they didn’t take reservations but they also knew they had a large gathering coming in that night, so our chances didn’t look good for walk-in seating.

So, then what? Back to the hotel, grab a bit of a rest, clean up and set the GPS for pub No. 3’s address. On a whim, I called ahead for reservations, just in case. “Oh, no!” said the woman with her polished British accent. “It’s a pub; there are no bookings! Just pop in and you’ll see.”  I could tell from her accent and attitude that this was going to a be a fun night. Shortly, we set  out for the Kings Head Pub, about 12 miles from the city center.

We found the place standing alone along US 1.  It was hard to miss with the red double-decker bus parked out front and the Union Jacks flying in the wind. It was apparently once a house or cottage but now it’s a welcoming stop for Anglophiles of all stripes, and flags of the Kingdom hang from the rafters. Like most places with a cultural patina, the interior was a cross between Grandma’s parlor and her attic.  There is little wall space not covered by a picture, flag, tin sign, or row of commemorative mugs.

The woman on the phone turned out to also be the landlord (owner) who greeted us at the door, admired my Scotland polo shirt and found us a table in the small, cozy room. Several other groups and couples were in various stages of their evening meals and drinks.

While waiting for our drinks, I noticed one of the wood pillars in the room was covered with plaques bearing familiar logos – MG, Triumph, Jaguar and others. I couldn’t read them at the distance but the symbols stood out.

“What’s with all the car plaques?” I asked when she brought our rounds.
“Oh, those? Several car clubs meet here and we have a grand show out back every year.”
“Wow! Very nice,” I said. “We have a ’61 MGA and a classic Mini.”
“Do you?!” she said, lighting up with interest. “Well, the president of one of the clubs is right over at that table; would you like a chat? I’ll talk you up to him.” She crossed the room to check with him and was right back. “He’d love to have a word.”

And so we did. After introductions (and I have since forgotten every name)  I conveyed greetings from the DVC to their club. It turns out the gentleman and his family party were mostly Triumph folks, as was their club, but it all came out well. One gentleman in the group also owned a Mini, and somebody else’s college-aged daughter really wanted an MGB.  She learned to drive in a TR but “just likes the MGB.”

The clubs in the area are  smaller than our DVC,  the president told me, and they are a bit more ingrown than what we see here; there isn’t much participation in other clubs’ events, nor mixing of the marques at shows or driving events. He did note a problem common to all, though: lack of the next generation coming into the hobby. “I’m not sure where any club will be in ten years,” he said. “We lose members every year and the cars get sold on, often out of state, because the children have no interest in owning them.”

We chatted a bit more, then I thanked all of them for their time and  returned to our table. I was just getting to the bottom of a fine ale a few minutes later when the same gentleman strolled over to our side to follow up on a point made earlier. Our conversation continued, and we spoke of cars and clubs and events and tracks and everything else.

As we went back and forth, another gent sitting at the table to our right was finishing his meal and sipping a cocktail. “Well, if you guys are talking about MGs, can I join in?” he said. He introduced himself, turning out to be a resident of Ontario, Canada who races an MGB in a variety of vintage events on the East Coast. He popped up a picture of his race car on his cell phone and I’ll swear I’ve seen it at Lime Rock.  He’s also a participant in the on-line forums of the MG Experience. Small world.

The Triumph folks were ready to leave so we ended our conversations, shook hands all around and went back to what we had come for. The other gentleman and his wife were finished soon after—they wished us well, promised to “see us at the track” and also departed, leaving us to our entrees and ales.

Our dinners were excellent in every way, but were not more memorable than the chance encounter with a variety of like minded BritCar owners.  Our third-on-the-list choice for dinner had provided an unexpected evening of camaraderie, conversation and shared stories. Where else but in an English pub? Authentic, indeed!

Earlier in our visit one of our hosts allowed that “… at this stage in my life, I might like to get a sports car.” When he’s ready, I know right where I’ll send him to meet some good people,  and it’s not too far from his house.

Jim Taylor

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