Mulholland Highway a ‘Snake’ of a road
Story: Barry Green /Photo: Dawn Green
AS a 1960s schoolboy, Barry Green spent his hard-earned pocket money on Racing Car News and Sports Car World, monthly enthusiast magazines he would studiously pore over at the expense of any text book. Little wonder then that reading about fast cars and motorsport led to a four decade career (not out) writing about same, initially as freelancer then author and professional writer. His exploits are captured in two recent release books, The Best of Drives 1 and 2, each a first-hand compilation of nearly 80 drives on some of the world’s greatest roads and circuits. This story is but one . . . (Headshot photo - Ernest Litera)
Drive - Mulholland Highway, California, USA, 58km
Car - 2015 Dodge Challenger SXT Plus
TODAY is one of those all-too rare days where we bounce out of bed.
Today, we drive the Mulholland Highway.
Disregard the ‘Highway’ nomenclature, this is no serviceable, but mundane, point A to B traffic carrier.
No, Mulholland is a highly regarded driver’s road that dispels any notion of the USA not having roads with corners.
Just check it out on YouTube, particularly the section aptly-named The Snake.
For the record, MH starts in Calabasas, north of the San Fernando Valley, and runs 60km along the backbone of the Santa Monica Mountain range to the Pacific coast.
From where we overnighted, Westlake Village, it’s a convenient schlep via Decker Canyon Road (SR23) – a cracking bit of blacktop itself – which links with Mulholland about 11km inland.
But, for the completeness of the drive – to say that we’ve driven it from end to end – let’s start at the junction of MH and the Pacific Coast Highway, about 27km north of Malibu.
After a mandatory shot of the signpost, it’s hands on the tiller at a quarter-to-three and right foot down.
A big, American two-door coupe, 2015 Dodge Challenger SXT Plus, to which a recent refresh brought legendary, 1971-insprired styling (muscular looks, Coke bottle hips); 8-speed auto replacing the old 5-cog slusher; restyled spacious interior and capacious 459-litre trunk (boot).
And, while short of the muscle and grunt of the halo SRT-8 model, our SXT Plus’ Pentastar 3.6-litre V6’s 227kW and 363Nm and ability to cover 0-100km/h in 6.5 seconds isn’t too shabby, either.
I’d read in Popular Mechanics magazine that Mulholland at this end makes for an ideal introduction to the road ahead, the early miles being a succession of wonderfully long, gentle, mostly climbing corners.
It’s also less trafficked than the Calabasas end, which is closer to big city LA and from where most Las Angelites start.
And so, it proves.
To all intents and purposes, we have the road to ourselves with just the occasional car and odd cyclist heading either way.
And then, from around a bend streaks a yellow, fully faired kart with another right behind.
There’s no engine sound, so I surmise that these must be pedal, or battery powered.
Clumps of two and three others fly by, then a couple of guys sans shirts and helmets zip past at warp speeds on skateboards!
By now, MH has truly started to declare itself, first by way of a right-hander that deceptively tightens, and then one switchback after another.
We re-join Decker Road briefly before turning right again onto Mulholland and head towards its legendary 3.2km of tight, tortuous technicality, The Snake.
They say there’s 21 turns in total but, being a male, I can only do one thing at a time, so counting while I drive is out – it’s all about maxing out on savouring this wicked bit of road.
Depending on which way you’ve come, ascending, or descending, at the head or tail of The Snake is its signature feature, Edward’s Corner, which derives its name from The Rock Store’s celebrity owner, the late Ed Savko (more on The Rock Store coming up).
Located just before The Lookout (Squid Point), where everyone gathers pre-op or post mortem of their drive, this 180-degree hairpin demands respect.
Not because it’s the most demanding corner but because the constant-radius decreases on exit and flatters to deceive.
No coincidence photographers and videographers stake it out on a weekend.
A little further on, at 30354 Mulholland, is the aforementioned fabled, weekend breakfast and lunch hang-out, The Rock Store.
This is a place of legend, once frequented by canyon hinterland resident and King of Cool Steve McQueen on regular blasts along Mulholland on his Triumph motorcycle or Jag XKSS in the 60s, and these days by that ultimate celebrity rev-head Jay Leno.
Today, right now, there’s no Leno in, or astride, one of his gobsmacking, four or two-wheeled collection but, probably more importantly, nor is any discernible LAPD or Highway Patrol presence.
If The Rock Store is a bit too busy or full-on for a quiet coffee, then Cornell just up the road is the go-to.
Cornell came into being as a tiny 1890’s mining town.
While those days are long behind, it’s now a place that attracts residents cut from the cloth of metal and wood-working artistic expression.
A Dodge truck parked outside The Old Place, built in 1884 to serve as Cornell’s post office, makes a great partner for a happy snap with the Challenger.
It’s said that you hear and smell the red oak-grilled steaks a sizzlin’ before you see them at The Old Place, but it’s not well-endowed with space so you best book ahead if planning on eating there.
We didn’t, more’s the pity.
Next time – and there most definitely will be a next time.
The canyon roads above LA are too darn enticing to be driven as a one-off.
And how did the Dodge meet the challenge (pun intended)?
On Mulholland, its 3.6 V6 felt never short of response or urge, the steering well-weighted despite electric power, and grip and balance impressive for a big unit some 5m long.
It should be said that Mulholland was but one drive in a 26-day, 2500km jaunt, from San Francisco to Las Vegas taking in the Napa Valley, Virginia City, Monterey, Palm Springs and a 200km section of the old Route 66.
Overall, the Challenger showed itself well capable as a grand tourer.
The ride quality, given the tall, 20-inch rubber, proved surprisingly compliant; the smooth-shifting, 8-speed auto helped return respectable mpg numbers and the interior was not just comfy and roomy, but its cool, retro-look dials and red leather trim complete with perforated seat centres and exposed stitching, made for an accommodating and pleasant place to spend the best part of a day.
Most importantly, we could drop the Challenger into the fore- mid- or background of a photo opportunity, action or static, and it looked right at home.
In fact, when sweeping past that hot-bed of trick auto and moto-mania activity, The Rock Store, on a busy Sunday morn, the Dodge even earned a military salute from a patched biker.
Basic price: $US29,995. Engine: 3.6-litre DOHC 24v V6. Power: 227kW @ 6350rpm. Torque: 363Nm @ 4800rpm. Transmission: 8-spd auto. Weight: 1739kg. Drive: Rear-wheel. 0-100km/h: 6.5sec.