A group of classic automobile enthusiasts who drive vintage Bugatti convertibles pit-stopped in Choteau on Sept. 28 and 29 on their 5,000-mile journey from Saratoga Springs, New York, to Glen Ellen, California.
“I wanted them to see the real America — not New York City, not Los Angeles,” said tour organizer Sharon Strandberg of Loveland, Colorado.
Strandberg did a brief interview with the Acantha on Sept. 29 as the group was getting ready to depart for Whitefish and Glacier National Park.
She said the tour has been a year in planning. The idea of a cross-country trip grew out of their plans to attend the International Bugatti Rally in early September in Saratoga Springs. Since the friends would all have their cars in New York, they decided to then embark on a cross-country road trip along the northern tier of the United States.
There are 14 adults on the tour, including seven Bugatti drivers and a driver for the support vehicle — a large sport-utility vehicle pulling a trailer.
The drivers include the Strandbergs (Sharon’s husband is Jim), who are from the United States; and then drivers from France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland.
Strandberg said the group left New York on Sept. 11 and plans to finish in California on Oct. 9. They visited Yellowstone National Park and then drove north to Choteau, covering 280 miles in one day, to stop in Choteau, staying at the Stage Stop Inn overnight before heading out in blustery, cold weather on Saturday morning.
They hoped weather would allow them to travel over the Going to the Sun Highway, but Strandberg said the cars don’t drive well on snow so they would have to see what the weather did.
She said all of the cars being driven were built by the Bugatti company in France between 1925 and 1931. The Bugatti company, started by Ettore Bugatti, opened its first factory under the ownership of Jean Bugatti (Ettore’s son) in 1909 in an old dye-making factory in Molsheim, Alsace, France, and produced world renown racing and luxury cars.
All of the cars on this tour are convertibles and Strandberg said one of the drivers never puts his top down, no matter what the weather. She said the drivers go about 200 miles a day, and in every town where they stop, they need to do minor repairs to the engines and tires.
In Choteau, Harold and Darlene Yeager graciously opened their shop at the Airport to allow the drivers to bring their cars inside for any needed repairs. One needed to rotate his tires while Jim Strandberg needed to add oil to the gear box.
“What a nice [gesture,]” Sharon said, adding that Choteau “is just such a nice, sweet place.”
She said the cars vary in cruising speed, typically being driven from 45 mph to 60 mph with most going about 55 mph. They don’t drive the cars at night.
“They are having a great time,” she said of the other drivers on the tour. Friday night they ordered pizza from John Henry’s and had it delivered to The Livery Saloon, where they enjoyed pizza, libations and the playing of members of the Montana State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association who were in town for the contest here on Saturday.
“Everyone just enjoyed that so much,” she said, adding that the staff at the motel was very nice, friendly and helpful.
Highlights of their tour so far have included visiting the Henry Ford Museum in Deerborn, Michigan, and attending a barbecue at the home of a member of the American Bugatti Club, which sponsored the rally in Saratoga Springs.
“We’ve just had a lot of fun things,” Strandberg said, adding, “They really are seeing how friendly people in America are. It’s been very excellent.” In all the places they’ve stopped, people have reached out to help them and made them feel welcome, she said.