By Brad Hicks
The murmur of the crowd was drowned out each time a participant approached the starting line.
Each drop of the green flag was greeted with the squalling of tires. The roars of the engines dissipated as the cars climbed higher, the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit along Bill Garland obliterated in the process. In a flash, the vintage vehicles disappeared from the spectators’ views.
The East Tennessee Model A Restorers Club’s annual Hill Climb returned to the Town of Unicoi on Friday, April 28, bringing with it the event’s traditional sights, sounds and vast array of Model A and Model T Fords, as well as vintage speedsters.
Friday’s event marked the eighth time the Model A Hill Climb has been held in Unicoi, and this year’s contest drew participants and onlookers from as close as Unicoi County and Washington County to as far away as Texas and Canada.
At its essence, the Hill Climb is a race. One by one, participants line up to see who can make it to the top of the hill along Bill Garland Road in the shortest amount of time. The racers taking part in the timed solo races are typically able to complete the one-tenth-of-a-mile course in less than 10 seconds, often exceeding speeds of 55 miles per hour.
But the Hill Climb isn’t open to just any vehicle. As Hill Climb Chairman Ken Miller explained, only four-cylinder Fords dating prior to 1934 are eligible to compete for prizes. The cars are mostly restored by the racers themselves.
Similar events are held throughout the U.S., Miller said. Miller was involved several years ago in establishing an organization known as F.A.S.T. Southeast, a splinter group of the national F.A.S.T. group, which is headquartered in California and whose membership is made up of old Ford enthusiasts.
Since F.A.S.T. Southeast was established, the group has held hill climbs in not only in Unicoi but also Chattanooga, as well as other states including North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio.
Friday’s event was the first time a hill climb had been held in Unicoi since 2015.
More than 20 drivers from all over the country made the quick trip up Bill Garland Road during this year’s Hill Climb. Participants were allowed the opportunity the morning of the event to get in a few practice runs and make the necessary tune-ups before the official timed runs began at 1 p.m. Drivers were allowed to make several official runs, with their best times and speeds counted.
Vehicles taking part in the competition are broken up into several classes, including late- and heavy- body style stock classes, a touring class, a modified class, Model T classes, and speedster classes.
Miller said Bill Garland Road offers just the kind of topography hill climb participants desire, regardless of the class in which they are competing.
“We like to have a grade,” Miller said. “This is a 10-and-a-half-percent grade, but it’s not necessary. Sometimes you can’t find a hill that we can block off or close traffic on so, sometimes, we have to have a flat hill climb. And that’s all right. Times are usually a little quicker on a flat hill climb.”
The winners of each class received “attaboys” and plaques, earning bragging rights with victory, Miller said. But Miller said it is the fellowship among the antique car enthusiasts, whether they be drivers or spectators, that keeps people coming back to the hill climb events.
“The camaraderie among people is real good,” Miller said. “Most of us, not all of us, but most of us, have known each other for years at different events all over the country.”
Gray resident Kenneth Hedrick said it is this sense of camaraderie, along with the opportunity to look at the vintage cars owned by other participants and spectators, that brings him to the hill climb year after year. Hedrick, who was competing in his third hill climb in Unicoi, made the short trek up Bill Garland Road in both his 1929 Model A and 1924 Model T.
“It’s just the old cars, the camaraderie with all the people that you meet,” he said. “It’s not just my cars, I like looking at all these cars, whether they be a stock one like this one over here or a speedster or whatever, a pickup truck. I love old stuff.”
Friday’s hill climb was the first Unicoi County resident Melissa Peterson, who got behind the wheel of a 1930 Model A Coupe to compete in the timed runs. Peterson said the objective is simple – slam the accelerator as hard as possible.
“I loved it,” Peterson said. “…It was so much fun. It gets your adrenaline going when you’re starting up that hill.”
Although this was Peterson’s first hill climb, she was already quite familiar with vintage cars. She was encouraged to participate by her boyfriend Mike McIntosh, owner of Model A Macs located in Unicoi.
“When you date him, you date the cars,” Peterson said. “That just comes along with it. They are so much fun.”
Miller said while the attendance for past hill climbs has been better, this year’s event still managed to draw a solid and enthusiastic group of competitors and spectators.
“It’s purely for the sport of it,” Miller said. “As I like to tell people, when we were little boys we played with cars, and we just never got out of it. As we grew up, the cars did, too. We got bigger and so did the cars, but we still play with cars.”