A man, a van, a canyon, Malibu: The mad midnight technical trial of a Transit Connect

The evergreen pursuit of overland speed leads folks to the expected places. Stingrays, Shelbys, a rainbow of subprime-financed and mileage-limited leased German sedans for the temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But some of us have things to do. I can’t carry hundreds of pounds of electric organs, speaker cabinets, and their attendant toolboxes and accessories in a Challenger—ignoring that I gigged on a bicycle and a Harley Sportster for years. You make do with what you have, after all. But an increase in live rig size meant a commensurate increase in road rig size. I also like to enjoy myself while driving. That’s why I keep around a Ford Transit Connect van.

The TC is the one to have, if you must have a cargo vehicle. Among the compact vans, it’s king. Forget the brutal Econolines of our youth. It’s like driving a Focus with an echo in it. While others of its ilk use languid continuously-variable transmissions, minuscule engines and ancient beam-axle rear ends, the second-generation Connect has independent coils and shocks all around, a six-speed automatic, and a zingy double-vari-cam Mazda engine that isn’t a time-bending flux capacitor, but enjoys a caning and sings a catchy tune when the cams wake up.

I shod old Vanna White with a new set of Cooper tires last week. It was certainly due, what with a sidewall gash in one, a roofing nail in another, and the fronts starting to look like Michael Chiklis. I’m hard on equipment. And what, to paraphrase Super Troopers, does a wheelman do before taking his equipment out in the field? He tests it. As a responsible driver and product of the old days on Martha’s Vineyard, I had to find the limits of adhesion. For my own safety, of course. I needed a technical trial.

Sarah and I were due for a date night, and the Saddleridge Fire was consuming everything north of the 118 Freeway, blanketing the San Fernando Valley in smoke. Why not run for the hills? My standard circuit goes Las Virgenes to Piuma to Rambla Pacifico to Las Flores to the Pacific Coast Highway, or the reverse. It’s the stuff of Ariel Atom or F-16 fantasy. The turns don’t only yaw left and right; they pitch and roll too, at decreasing radii too tight for belief. Your ears pop and you have only a hint of a guardrail keeping you from the maw. Just the place to drive a van to its limit.

We get off the Ventura Freeway and head south towards Piuma Road. It’s an easy ride by Malibu Creek, which not a year previous was scorched by its own blaze. The traffic melts away as they head up Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Canyon. By the time we reach Piuma, we’re alone. I’ve got the transmission in Sport mode. This sharpens up the throttle, holds the gears longer and downshifts on deceleration, or, if I like, lets me shift manually. Such a time we live in that a florist’s van would have this. The 6F35 transmission, an imperfect box jointly developed by Ford and GM which is rather grouchy when cold, seems more in its element when it has some heat inside of it and some twist in front of it.

I flick the high beams on as we begin the ascent of the legendary Piuma. It is ink-black out. Sarah has got Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam on the radio. I enter the first switchback at about 40, and Vanna finds second as I keep the power on through the turn. No singing from the Coopers, no understeer or jitters. She is planted. I’m already impressed. Sarah is not. “BABE,” she yells over Donald Fagen. “What?” I answer. “I’m finding the limits of adhesion.” I tell her to turn the music off as we enter the real hectic parts of Piuma and I go into manual mode. I’d rather drive by ear than by tachometer. You need to keep the motor on the boil and yourself out of the gully. Total concentration.

Vehicles of my past have set the bar pretty low for what Performance means, but my biological gyroscope is sorted. I know what feels good. The turns are getting ever tighter on every axis with every foot of elevation. It’s strictly second-third-second shifts on this stretch. Old sports cars like the early 911s had first gear tucked away on a dogleg for just this reason; this is where the action is. The tires are warm, and the twin-cam song is echoing in the canyon like Michelle Phillips. Not a hint of plowing, not a whimper. Even in turns where I fully expect the laws of physics to tap us on the shoulder, she digs in. So I push a little harder. I never could have taken my Sportster this fast up here, damning with faint praise though that may be. No tiny-wheeled Nissan NV200 or fiddly Ram ProMaster City could imagine life in this envelope. These tires and this Transit were the right buy. A van, for Christ’s sake, does the canyons! Sarah is hanging on to the door with wide eyes. Those lateral Gs. Several large Sprinters on garden party shuttle duty pass ploddingly in the other direction. I dip the lights and the speed. “We’re certainly the fastest van up here tonight,” I say. “Are they driving by ear too?” Sarah asks with just a soupçon of sarcasm. Vanna is flattening Piuma.

We reach the summit and stop for a break. I’ve apparently broken a sweat. The smell of hot Coopers fills the rare air and we gaze into the Valley. No fire can be seen. The Pacific is a vantablack void to our south. Shortly, the woof of a couple new 911s on the same canyon dash rushes past us. Best they get a few minutes ahead of us, lest they be embarrassed by a front-wheel drive cargo van with 169 horsepower.

Down Las Flores we go into Malibu. I let the transmission shift for itself now. We catch up to a large Mercedes sedan and an Audi SUV, who eventually find their ports of call and the road opens back up. I forgot how treacherous this side of the canyon is—the technical trial would prove its worth here. We enter an unthinkable kink just a tick too jazzily, one where the camber of the road changes as wildly as the direction, and I feel the front end start to let go. But it’s a forgiving push, nothing sudden or unrecoverable. This turn would have been a lot for any sporting mount. The swish of the tires gives way to a yowl. I’m not sure if the stability control intervened, but I’m too focused to watch the instruments. This is good rubber on a good chassis. A nice progressive transition—very safe. Just keep your cool. Gentle inputs and corrections when these things happen. Ease off the power. Slight straightening of the wheel. Perhaps a bit of assistance from the electronic drivetrain brain. It’s a dance. Sarah gasps, but before she knows it, we’re back on course and headed for spicy ramen on the Westside as “Home At Last” plays. “We found the limit of adhesion,” I say.

Vanna White at Piuma Road, Malibu, CA, October 12th, 2019

Author: Bunny Butler

I'm the last of the good old-fashioned steam-powered trains.