It's just after 6.30am on a chilly spring morning, but Adelaide's biggest temporary car park is already chock-a-block. Ranks of old Toranas, Valiants, Morris Minors, EH Holdens and MGs are drawn up like an invasion force – a Dad's Army of classic cars, family jalopies and curios such as a mustard Datsun 120Y with a prosthetic leg strapped to its roof. Is this a family heirloom or a bizarre art installation, I wonder?
Despite the early hour, Barratt Reserve, just north of Glenelg, is in full party mode as people decked out in hippie wigs, paisley shirts and crushed velvet pants pose in front of immaculately restored Kombi vans, Mustangs and Ford Capris. Those travelling in pre-war vehicles sport flat caps, tweedy jackets and sensible shoes. Photos taken, we charge off to food trucks for a quick bacon and egg roll and a hot cuppa.
Welcome to the annual Bay to Birdwood, a genteel procession of classic cars, motorcycles and trucks that wends its way from the shores of Gulf St Vincent, through the city and deep into the Adelaide Hills. Now in its 38th year, the car run is one of the biggest events on the local calendar. Some 70,000 spectators line the route or pack into the Birdwood parklands for the Concourse D'Elegance, a parade of polished chrome, sparkling duco and white-walled tyres.
Despite the soaring value of classic cars around the world, Bay to Birdwood remains a staunchly egalitarian affair. Immaculately restored sports cars (I count half a dozen E-Type Jaguars, plenty of Aston Martins and an extremely rare Jensen Interceptor) rub fenders with humble family wagons and battered farm utes.
"This is one of the world's great classic motoring events," says Michael Neale, chairman of the Bay to Birdwood committee, as we climb into his bright red 1970 MG. "There are 1750 vehicles lined up in this park and as you can see we've got everything from Toranas to Aston Martins. Everyone follows the same route – we only separate vehicles into different categories when they are judged in the concourse."
This absence of automotive snobbery is refreshing and owes much to the event's not-for-profit status (all proceeds go to charity and most of the staff are volunteers), but also taps into South Australia's passion for the internal combustion engine. More than two years have passed since the last Holden rolled off the assembly line in Elizabeth, but the state's love affair with cars shows no signs of waning. Apart from the annual Clipsal 500, South Australia hosts a number of historic car races and rallies, including the celebrated Collingrove Hillclimb for vintage sports cars in the Barossa.
As we cruise along ANZAC Highway, I'm struck by the sheer number of people lining the route and their enthusiasm. Most have brought fold-up chairs, thermos flasks and picnics, and are clearly here for the duration. Riding in the MG is also delightfully nostalgic – as a boy in England I'd always lusted after a sports car that seemed effortlessly stylish but still held the allure of danger, with a top speed of 108 miles per hour.
After almost 50 years of continuous service, the soft-top MG is running beautifully, although the cabin is pretty cramped by modern standards and creature comforts such as air conditioning, GPS and heated seats are conspicuously absent. As my host Michael knows only too well, however, owning an ageing motor is fraught with danger.
"Classic cars fill you with joy and despair," he says. "The first year I took part in the Bay to Birdwood an early model Holden burst into flames shortly after we left Barratt Reserve. The poor owner spent most of the day on the side of the road. Very sad."
For anyone who appreciates timeless design it's easy to be wowed by the sheer beauty of some of the vehicles chugging through Adelaide's wide boulevards, but Bay to Birdwood is not just about collectable assets and sought-after marques. Each vehicle is like a mobile time capsule, with a unique human story. They are cherished like a valued member of the family or a fragment of someone's misspent youth.
Spend a few minutes walking up and down the ranks of parked cars, utes, scooters and vans in Barratt Reserve and you'll discover a treasure trove of memories, anecdotes and family folklore associated with each vehicle, no matter how grand or humble.
"This is a fully imported Ford Capri MK1, which I bought new in 1971," says its proud owner, decked in a white Levi's jacket, purple bell bottoms and white vinyl belt. "In my opinion it's one of the most beautiful cars Ford ever made. I have no idea what it's worth today but I would never consider selling this car. We've grown up together."
On the other side of the oval I spot a two-tone Morris Major hitched to what looks like a home-made trailer called Ruby. There's a typewritten note stuck on the passenger window: "My name is Morry. I'm a Series 1 Morris Major. I was purchased from Kendall Motors in 1958. In 1964 a young 16-year-old lass from Laurieton bought me and we have been together ever since. I have helped raise three kids and six grandchildren."
Australia has a unique relationship to the motor vehicle, one forged by energetic people trying to tame a wide, brown land. Indeed, some commentators believe the rugged go-anywhere vehicles of the 20th century helped define Australian masculinity.
"Throughout the era of Baby-Boomer optimism, visions of men in Holdens trailing plumes of dust on dirt tracks, finding happiness in just burning miles or bush bashing or the joy of taking the family on a long drive to the beach seemed to define a settler Australian birthright," writes Dr Georgine Clarsen from the University of Wollongong. "Later generations grew up with a much more mundane experience of cars."
In a small way, Bay to Birdwood captures the spirit of those earlier, carefree motoring days when Australia's country roads offered adventure and freedom – and the men who drove these rugged machines were Chips Rafferty types who could rewire an alternator with their teeth and plug a leaking radiator with chewing gum and spinifex.
By late morning we're free of the suburbs and chugging our way into the hills. Little gaggles of spectators pop up along the way as we pass through Tea Tree Valley, Inglewood and Gumeracha. Race marshals are on point duty so there's no opportunity to let the MG off the leash. We enter Birdwood at a stately pace, park under the gum trees and are rewarded with fresh pork pies and steaming cups of tea.
While some of the drivers make a quick pit stop and then head off home, the majority stay for the afternoon festivities based around the National Motor Museum – these culminate in the Concours d'Elegance and Fashions in the Field competition. Visitors will find a pop-up food court, live music and plenty of tents selling local craft beer and wine. Entry to the museum, which houses 1600 rare vehicles, is free.
Our relationship with the motor car is changing. Millennials would apparently rather play the latest video game than tinker with an oily engine. We should be grateful that Bay to Birdwood celebrates, and preserves, this important slice of Australia's cultural heritage.
Mark Chipperfield travelled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission, Mayfair Hotel and Bay to Birdwood. .
With its rooftop bar, central location and super-efficient staff, The Mayfair Hotel is the obvious choice of accommodation in Adelaide. The converted 1930s art deco building offers 170 rooms and suites. Doubles from $219 a night. mayfairhotel.com.au
The 2018 Bay to Birdwood takes place on Sunday September 30. The drive is open to any car, motorcycle or truck built on or before December 31, 1959. Entry is $55 for motorcycles and $69 all other vehicles. Interstate car owners must arrange their own transport to and from Adelaide. Entry forms can be completed online or downloaded from baytobirdwood.com.au
Spectators can position themselves along the 70-kilometre route from West Beach. Victoria Square offers an excellent vantage point in the city, but for a total classic car experience, make your way to The National Motor Museum in Birdwood. The nearby park hosts live music, food outlets, fashion parades and the Concours d'Elegance. Doors open 10am. See motor.history.sa.gov.au