Beyond the Brewery: Driving With Van

Van Havig has been a car guy since he was three. His first ride, acquired at sixteen, was an old Buick and an automotive blind alley. His second vehicle, an Alfa Romeo also acquired at sixteen, set him on course for the kind of unreasoning love to a single company only car guys ever truly experience. A little over two years ago, he bought a new (vintage) Alfa, but in a perverse twist, the seller got caught committing fraud. While his slow prosecution unfolded, the car sat, sans title, in a legal purgatory in Van’s garage and was only recently liberated into his custody. Not long after it came out of storage, he agreed to take me on a drive.

I met Van in his office at Gigantic Brewing, where I found him poring over a map on the computer. He had charted a course that would take us through the rolling hills and winding two-lane roads of agricultural Washington County. Satisfied with the route, he hit print on the computer. I was to be the map-keeper and we would rely on paper, not GPS. Van is not a phone-in-the-hand kind of navigator.

“We are known as ‘Alfisti,’” he would later explain of the underground tribe devoted to Alfas. They populate websites and track the comings and goings of vehicles on the market, share information about parts, and generally fawn over their cars. Like any community, there are subgroups and cliques; different people favor different models and eras. Van first learned about Alfas when he was a teenager and read a story in Road and Track about the ten best cars under $5,000.

If you are not a car person, the words Alfa Romeo may bring to mind something small, sporty, and possibly convertible, all sensual Italian lines. Those kinds of Alfas exist, but it’s not what we found parked out behind the brewery. Van’s model is a Giulia 1300 Super, and of the three attributes I expected, only “small” applied. It’s an upright, boxy little car with a surprisingly formal presentation; the kind of car from which you expect to emerge a man in a gray flannel suit.

It’s also no great shakes in the speed department. As we proceeded, stop and go, down Highway 99, the engine revved to a high whine, with just enough rumble to make me wonder if it was hiding something. “How many cylinders does this thing have?” I asked.

“Four,” he replied in deadpan.

Van Havig is known for his vividly laconic personality—if that’s a thing. His sense of humor borders on the Dada, and he is fully committed to it in the manner of a method actor. He is so committed that one senses there’s a much deeper level to the bit that only Van can see. This is, after all, a man who named the intentionally small brewery he started with Ben Love “Gigantic.” When he had first mentioned an interest in cars I waited to see if he was putting me on. And, when he said the car had only four cylinders, I waited for him to punctuate the line by flooring the gas and sending us rocketing down the road. In fact, he had been flooring the gas, and we were going as fast as a 1971 four-cylinder car could go in second gear with 89 horsepower.

That’s why I love this car! It’s always better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.

Before long we were off the main road and zipping down one of Oregon’s spectacular back roads, threaded between fields of hazelnuts and wine grapes. Van was periodically stymied by commuter traffic, as the odd minivan or SUV wallowed out in front of him. He’d lay off the gas, wait until the car turned, and open up all 89 horses to the road. Driving four-bangers is not like dragging muscle cars. They demonstrate their capacities on sharp turns and squiggles in the road, nimbly darting around turns bigger cars must brake to tackle. They also require quick work by the driver on the gearshift, because a mistimed shift either delays progression to higher speeds or lugs the car down as the engine labors in the wrong gear. Good drivers know to shift just before a turn so the car can accelerate rapidly, using the force of the curve as a slingshot to propel it once the road straightens out. Big cars require a lead foot; small cars call for full-body engagement.

At Bald Peak.

Van, a lean six foot three, looked like he was playing a pipe organ as we sailed along. He kept his eyes on the road, but chatted casually. “I call myself a B+ driver,” he said. By this he was comparing himself to the entire population, including professionals. An avid autocross driver, he has even won a few regional championships. In autocross, drivers make timed solo runs through a course of plastic cones, matched up against others with similar cars. “The guys who win national championships are A drivers, the best. A- drivers are just below them. I’m a B+ driver.” On this scale, Matt Brynildson and Mitch Steele are A brewers, and a B+ brewer would have the best brewpub in town. B+ is very good.

I had forgotten how much more active old cars are. We had the windows down (no air-con), and the thin film of metal around the car let in sounds of the road, the engine, even ambient sounds like birdsong. Modern cars are sealed enclosures of automation. Barely more is required of a driver than steering, and the conditions of the outside world are no more real than a YouTube video. Despite its small size, the Alfa’s motor was a vocal companion, purring sometimes, howling others. Even moving at 35 miles an hour felt exciting, like inhabiting a Jean-Luc Godard movie.

We stopped at Bald Peak and stretched our legs and then set back for the rest of the loop. The late-afternoon traffic had turned nasty, and so we decided to wait it out at a pub where we ended up talking about Zinedine Zidane, among other important topics. On the way home, we took the freeway, which allowed Van few opportunities for clever driving. I had hoped he’d take one of the windy roads around Terwilliger so we’d get a little more action, but before we got there, Van’s phone rang: the manager at the Champagne Lounge (Gigantic’s taproom). Someone had gone crazy and smashed the mirror in the men’s room. The police were on the way. He’d be there right away, he told her.

The glamorous life of brewing reasserted itself.