In ’59 Dauphine, trip may literally be Alaska or bust
Mechanic got widely derided car for $200
The Renault Dauphine wasn’t a car. It was a punch line.
Take it away, Time magazine, which named the thing one of the 50 worst cars of all time:
“It was, in fact, a rickety, paperthin scandal of a car that, if you stood beside it, you could actually hear rusting. Its most salient feature was its slowness, a rate of acceleration you could measure with a calendar.”
And right now, Jonathan Burnette of Austin has his punch line pointed toward Alaska. Good luck with that, guy. He’s planning to leave Tuesday. And because Burnette will be busy driving, the Dauphine will be posting updates as technology allows on Facebook. You can try searching for “Dauphine Destiny,” then clicking on “Alaska Renault Trip” under “Likes and Interests.”
Not that driving to Alaska is as big a deal as it used to be. The roads are better — whereas in bygone days they barely existed in places — and technologically, cars are better, more comfortable and more reliable. Two things remain unchanged. It’s still, strictly speaking, a long, long way. And say what you will about traffic in Austin, but: no bears.
This does not deter Burnette, a single man of 48. And to understand why, you need to know a couple of things about him. First,
Continued from A he’s a mechanic with decades of experience who’s specialized in working on imports of a certain vintage with quirks and character. In addition to his 1959 Renault, for which he paid $200, he has a Matra Bonnet, a turbo diesel Renault Fuego and two others in the yard of his house off North Lamar Boulevard. He accumulates these things the way some people adopt old dogs with three legs. (He vigorously defends the honor of the ’65 Chevrolet Corvair, the model made infamous in Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed.”)
And if you believe in destiny, he is quite possibly fated for all this. His late father, Lawrence, who taught industrial arts for many years at McCallum High School, came home with a brand-new Renault R10 on Halloween 1968.
“I blame it on him,” Burnette says.
(Fun fact: The Dauphine was originally to be named the Corvette. The name Renault settled on is the female form of “dauphin,” a French royal title.)
Another thing you need to know about Burnette is that he’s a pretty easygoing guy who’s done lots of long road trips and isn’t wedded to modern niceties like automatic transmissions and air conditioning.
“It doesn’t have AC, but that’s only going to be a problem for one day,” he says. “I’m going to start out early in the morning, and I’m not going to stop until it’s cool.” (He’s going to try to make it to Colorado Springs, Colo., some 850 miles away, the first day. The turnaround in Alaska will come after he visits Denali National Park, Fairbanks and Anchorage. He expects the whole journey to take about a month.)
So you might think it’s a little nutty to take a car that rolled off the line the same year that Castro toppled Batista. Burnette has heard it all: “People say, ‘You’re crazy.’ I’m like, ‘Eh. It’ll go.’”
Jonathan Burnette, 48, plans to head out Tuesday in his 1959 Renault Dauphine on a trip to Alaska. He expects it will take about a month.