Florida Road Trip 2019 – Part One

In truth, I’ve never had any great desire to visit Florida. While I’ve always been fascinated by the Louisiana Bayou, the nodding donkeys of Texas and the beat of Nashville, the palm trees of The Sunshine State have never really spoken to me. And yet, here I am at 37,000 feet staring down at another ‘plane, careering through the sky at 500mph on my way to a two-week sojourn around the southern-most state in America.

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Naturally there is some motor racing action to enjoy and a useful calendar fluke has permitted us to plan the IndyCar season opener back-to-back with the Sebring 12 Hours, which this year has opened its doors to the World Endurance Championship for a mouth-watering weekend of endurance racing. These headline events offer the perfect backbone to a couple of weeks out of the British winter and exploring a state which in my mind was a glorified retirement home for middle America. I hope to have my preconceptions smashed apart.

The timing of Virgin Atlantic’s daily flight from Manchester to Orlando is perfect: we leave England’s rainiest city late morning and land in Orlando mid-afternoon. It makes for a long day but assimilating to local time is a synch, even if I spend half the holiday waking at 4am out of sheer mindless obstinance.

A 2018 trip to the Daytona 24 Hours means that Orlando International Airport is relatively familiar and we’re soon selecting our hire car from a predictable but uninspiring selection of white goods. Sadly funding cuts in the Motorcardiaries household have precluded anything V8 motivated so we settle for a Nissan Rogue Sport. We struggle to find anything vaguely rogueish or sporting about the Nissan during our trip but it is quiet, comfortable and my phone connects easily so we can press on with Spotify streaming a heavy metal soundtrack of our choice.

It’s a warm, sunny day and our itinerary is far from ambitious. A short drive out from the Orlando suburbs due east to Titusville and we’ve selected our accommodation solely on the basis that it houses an IHOP restaurant. Shallow perhaps but one doesn’t travel to America for small breakfast portions.

We have little time to explore Titusville, though it does claim to have an historic district. The sun is setting as we grab a cab down to an independent brewery called Playalinda, whose combination of food and ale has been torturing me on Facebook for the weeks preceding our trip. While the sky is magical, so too is the house burger, especially when accompanied with a few pints of Robonaut, their signature American red ale. Golden skies and golden ale: I’m warming to Florida already.

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As terrific as the beer is, our stated purpose in heading east is to visit the Kennedy Space Center. This part of the state is all about space travel and it dominates a huge chunk of coastal real estate. The drive is typically Floridian with massive arcing bridges to cross as the lines blur between mainland and island. The centre itself sits, rather surprisingly, in a conservation area and we spot a turtle basking as we turn into the car park.

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At its most basic, the centre tells the story of America’s exploration into space. The tone is slightly unexpected, though. This isn’t a patriotic tale as such. It’s more sincere than that and the reverence is for the medium and the endeavour of those involved – not for the nation which has facilitated it. More preconceptions smashed.

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How much time you would wish to devote to the centre is entirely personal but I find the whole thing fascinating and have deliberately not researched too heavily in order to maintain an element of surprise. A bus tour takes visitors off site and out to explore the wider area. We turn out of a junction, facing an enormous building. Our guide proffers, to our collective amazement, that it is fully five miles in the distance. The vehicle assembly building (VAB) was the largest in the world by volume at the time of its construction. It looms ever larger during the five mile drive.

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The VAB exists on a scale that one cannot reconcile with any other building. On plan, the size of an Amazon distribution centre but the height of a skyscraper, it’s as impressive as the vehicles themselves. In fact, you quickly gather that facilitating space travel is just as hard as flying the rockets themselves. Moving the vehicles from the VAB to the launch pads has required groundbreaking mechanical and civil engineering – just as much as physically getting the craft out of the earth’s atmosphere. For one grounded in a career in conventional commercial construction, it’s an eye-opener.

We pass several launch pads, including 39A, used by SpaceX for its Falcon 9 launch scarcely 24 hours previously. Adjacent is the pad NASA will use for manned missions to Mars. Today, Cape Canaveral is a commercial venture and NASA, as a government agency, is facilitating efforts in the private sector just as much as it is undertaking its own exploration. There’s a tangible sense of excitement in the air about the future of space travel. Florida 2019.008Florida 2019.009Florida 2019.015Florida 2019.011

The obvious highlights of the visit are the staggering, gargantuan Saturn Five rocket, dissected and displayed in another cavernous building; and the space shuttle Atlantis. The Saturn Five hall tells the story of the Apollo missions as America sought to reach the moon before the USSR. Now a 50 year-old story, the scale of the craft and its accomplishments retain their shock-and-awe factor. So huge is the Saturn Five and so otherworldly (quite literally) are its achievements, no regular references can apply.

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Having grown up with Shuttle flights occurring on a semi-regular basis, I’d never previously paused to consider how ground-breaking this craft was. Able to land under its own steam – and crucially fly multiple missions – the Shuttle was every bit as technically challenging as the Saturn Five. Today Atlantis enjoys its own Floridian retirement. Having flown 33 missions in 25 years totalling 125 million miles (it’s worth reflecting on that number), a dignified retirement feels to be the least it deserves.

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Our trip closes in the IMAX theatre with a film which once more smashed preconceptions. Notionally it tells the story of life aboard the International Space Station, though its greatest impact is environmental. The depletion of the polar ice caps and rampant deforestation is easily observed from space; the beauty and frailty of the planet laid bare. While America’s president seeks to deny climate change, it’s impossible to emerge from the cinema without a profound sense of loss. Let us hope that global common sense prevails before it is too late.

Feeling rather emotionally drained and fuelled by little more than ice cream, we saddle up the Rogue Sport and head south. We have a good chunk of driving to cover this evening as the sun starts to set over the east coast. The drive is unmemorable – another magnificent dusk aside – and the roads are peppered with the usual fast food joints, RV vendors and adverts for gun shows. While America can often feel unnervingly familiar, its differences to our British homeland can be equally stark.

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Our destination is Miami and we arrive under cover of darkness. The passage over from the mainland to Miami Beach is spectacular with twinkling skyscrapers dominating in all directions. We emerge into a town possessed. This is Spring Break and the pace of life – even at 11pm – is exhausting. We wander a couple of blocks to find a pizza and the streets are full: cars, motorcycles and people abound. There’s no shortage of wealth on display though it’s hard to say exactly how it may have been accrued. It’s a relief to head back to the hotel bar for a nightcap; perhaps we’ll have the energy for this level of activity tomorrow.

We have deliberately chosen a hotel at the southern end of Miami Beach, it having been cited as marginally less frantic than the 20 blocks immediately to the north. We find ourselves in a charming, verdant, residential area. The houses are varied but attractive, the sidewalks clean and the palm trees plentiful. A fine breakfasting spot scarcely five minutes’ walk from our digs provides a snapshot of a privileged existence. Here, the pace of life has slackened slightly and young mums share the morning with students and hurried business types. Porsches, Maseratis and Range Rovers proliferate; meanwhile the skies are blue and the sun beats down relentlessly. Freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice flows freely and the coffee is good. Perhaps there’s more to Miami Beach than just bling.

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Heading to the southern-most point of Miami Beach reveals enormous condo blocks and beautifully maintained public spaces. Older residents enjoy the prolific benches and the welcome sea breeze, while many mentalists are running and cycling in the midday heat. One lady takes a break from her jog to relax on some rocks with her feline sidekick – something of an unusual exercise partner, though the cat in question appears to be having a terrific time.

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The sea is blue and the beach is perfect. Bathers are plentiful and the distinctive pastel lifeguard towers give South Beach an aesthetic all of its own. One doesn’t need to wander far to find the incredible art deco strip. A mix of hotels, bars and restaurants, this is the heart of Miami Beach – its calling card and delivered with an addictive Cuban backbeat. It’s also the craziest part of this crazy city. More cars, more motorcycles, more people, even more white Rolls Royces: the strip is jumping, even at lunchtime. In a bid to fit in, we sink a couple of frozen margaritas which seem to take the edge of the surrounding carnage. As stunning as the buildings are, we feel somewhat relieved to survive the strip unharmed and slink off to a quiet section of the beach to replace our English winter tans with customary scarlet.

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If South Beach is brash, noisy and fuelled by booze, so Brickell is brash, noisy and fuelled by commerce. Miami’s ultra-modern business district feels a world away from the salsa beats and old school art deco purity just five miles away over the water. This is an area bristling with confidence and ambition; luxurious shops, ostentatious tower blocks and thousands of high-end cars speak of an area whose inhabitants have embraced capitalism and run with it. From a purely developmental perspective, it’s incredibly impressive, especially the opulent Brickell City Centre – a huge retail development boasting high-end shops and ornate koi carp pools. For anyone with an interest in the built environment, it’s incredibly impressive.

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All that said, it doesn’t take long to reach parts of Miami less blessed with wealth and optimism. We grab a cab out to Wynwood, the city’s burgeoning hipster district. Wynwood, though, exists as something of an oasis in a desert of deprivation. It’s tough to see boarded-up houses and vagrancy so close to an area which so boldly displays its success. Nowhere in America seems immune to this phenomenon but here $25 million waterfront properties sit just a few miles from an area where access to food and shelter appears to be a forlorn hope for many. It jars heavily with the apparent paradise of South Beach.

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Wynwood itself is a remarkable place which has risen to fame for its street art; the whole area being sucked along in the slipstream caused by the popularity of Wynwood Walls. These are the hub of the district, with perhaps 20 large walls given over to different artists. The results are spectacular and easily justify the effort to cross town. Elsewhere, every square millimetre of flat, vertical surface throughout Wynwood is covered in street art. For the most part the quality is high and the huge areas mean that the artworks are spectacular in their scale. Visitors wander slack-jawed. Even the local cement works has been decorated by the most daring artists.

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Bars and vintage shops proliferate and the burgeoning US craft beer scene is alive and well. Growler becomes an instant favourite, with 100 beers on tap.

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Wynwood is perhaps the perfect demonstration of gentrification: counter-culture which develops such critical mass that it hits the mainstream. In spite of those living out of shopping trollies just a couple of blocks away, we see Ferraris and McLarens cruising through the neighbourhood. It won’t be the last time we are faced with such an abrupt juxtaposition this week.

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Rather going against the grain of my usual road tripping preferences, we double-back on ourselves slightly and head north from Miami Beach and up to Fort Lauderdale.

Several years ago, I learned of a precious 1960s Ferrari living incongruously in the bowels of a sprawling flea market just outside Fort Lauderdale. Owned by charismatic and controversial former racer Preston Henn, Swap Shop allowed him to amass a vast fortune, which he prudently invested in supercars and a race team. Rather than hiding his wares away in a private warehouse, he chose to display his collection at Swap Shop. Sadly Henn passed away in 2017 but his legacy – in both a commercial and automotive sense – remains visible at Swap Shop.

The flea market was created to offer a revenue stream to Henn while his drive-in movie theatre sat unused during the day. Something in the order of 15 separate screens still exist, served by huge, baking Tarmac car parks. The sun is merciless and the whole place feels scorched and dry. A short walk among the outdoor stands confirms that the vendors are selling because they need to – not necessarily because they want to. The goods for sale are far from the luxurious end of the spectrum. Brickell City Centre’s boutique shopping this is not.

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Heading inside reveals the true incongruity of Swap Shop: A swathe of modern supercars greets visitors seeking shelter from the unremitting heat. Porsche 918, Ferrari F40, Enzo, et al. Henn might have been 86 when he died but he was obviously a man still possessed of automotive fever. Among the recent cars are several earlier treats including the 512BB convertible s/n 31975 which Henn bought nearly-new from France.

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The highlight of this display is the 1983 Daytona 24 Hours winning Porsche 935-L. This unique car was built by ANDIAL and became one of the ultimate 935s, featuring Moby Dick-aping longtail bodywork and a unique spaceframe chassis. In a remarkable career it was driven by Al Holbert, Doc Bundy, AJ Foyt, Derek Bell, John Paul Jr, Andrettis Mario & Michael, Hurley Haywood, Bob Wollek, Jean-Louis Schlesser, Walter Brun, Don Wittington and – of course – Preston Henn.

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I’ve been fortunate to see the ANDIAL car once before in person – at the 2018 Rolex 24 where it featured as a static exhibit. But to see it resting at home is a totally new experience. Families shuffle by, more interested in browsing mobile phone cases at a local stall than the legendary slab of motor racing history in their midst. It’s bizarre and yet somehow utterly beguiling. It’s so unexpected and so utterly without precedent that Swap Shop is infinitely more fascinating than any conventional car museum. And it’s free to enter.

Diving further into the belly of Swap Shop, we follow our noses to try and find the true jewel in Henn’s glittering collection. The car which first alerted me to this crazy place was the Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale s/n 6885. This car took a class win and third outright at Le Mans in 1965 as a successor of sorts to the 250 GTO. It remains unique and pundits argue about whether it might actually be the most valuable car in the world, with insane values attributed to it. Unless offered to the market, we’ll never know its true worth but it must be the only top-tier Ferrari which lives in such humble surroundings.

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Swap Shop’s visitors are not typically affluent people and the sight of 6885 – could it be worth $100 million? – existing without due reverence is plain bizarre. Do they understand what’s in front of them? Do they care? Or perhaps they know exactly and are simply proud that one of their own earned sufficiently to spend lavishly and display his treasures for their enjoyment. Whatever, it is a confounding juxtaposition but one which I find utterly compelling.

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6885 is undoubtedly the highlight of the remarkable Swap Shop collection but it is displayed alongside Michael Schumacher’s 1999 San Marino grand prix-winning Ferrari F399, the actual Miami Vice Testarossa (s/n 63259), Henn’s howling FXX Evo, 365 GTS/4 (s/n 14539 complete with Competizione engine) and a couple of more recent acquisitions. I prowl the perimeter high and low, drinking it all in. It is without compare and I can only hope that the family decides to keep the cars together to enable more enthusiasts unfettered access to this extraordinary collection in the most ordinary of locations.

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Swap Shop is one of the most unusual places I’ve ever visited during my years of chasing important motorcars. It is peerless in terms of the quality of the collection on public display and for sheer incongruity. I would urge all petrolheads to visit and perhaps buy a little something. I think it’s what Preston Henn would have wanted.

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