Gambler 500 Offers Cheap Excuse to Off-Road a 1983 Toyota Camry ""
Posted on: June 22, 2017

The 1983 Toyota Camry LE
-Built for a life of grocery getting and highway cruising, the 1983 Toyota Camry LE my friend Gus and I had bought for $500 was now rumbling over off-road trails in northern Michigan. Considering the car is eligible for an antique license plate, it had been handling this new life with surprising aplomb. Until we tried to force it through a small pond of standing water.

Gus was driving as we headed straight for the 25-yard-long brown puddle, and I yelled for him to wait and reconsider. We all stopped—Gus and I in the Camry, and his fraternal twin, Guy, who had been following us in a 1991 Buick Roadmaster with a friend. As far as we knew, this heavily wooded trail was the only route to a campsite where hundreds of crap cars were to gather as part of the Detroit Gambler 500, the reason we were in this situation: Two guys in a rusty front-wheel-drive four-door hatchback with off-road tags, hopping through sand and dirt trails, chased by a Buick Roadmaster leaking a trail of oil we could have followed back to the road.

A 1991 Buick Roadmaster prior to entering the Detroit Gambler 500.

A 1991 Buick Roadmaster prior to entering the Detroit Gambler 500.

Always Be Gambling

The gist of the Gambler 500 is this: Find a vehicle for $500 and gamble on the likelihood it will make it through two days of adversity. Although the “requirement” is that entrants spend $500 or less on a car or truck, enforcement isn’t rigid. Those who already owned an off-road vehicle could, presumably, show up in it. And some did just that.

But the essence of the Gambler 500 is to send cheap or forgotten vehicles on rugged misadventures. “Always Be Gambling” is the tagline. “The less capable the better,” said Tate Morgan, who founded the original Gambler 500 in Oregon in 2014 and now oversees some 30 loosely organized events nationwide.

“Cadillacs in stock form are a perennial favorite,” Morgan said. “I have a Crown Vic and a Miata parked next to my house right now, and I think those two are excellent choices because they’re rear-wheel drive, so you can have fun at any speed.” He said he has also found success with a Nissan NX (with T-tops) and a Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Gambler Caddy

One of Tate Morgan’s early Gambler entries. (Photo by Tate Morgan)

Keep It Free

Only 14 vehicles participated in the first Gambler 500, which ran through the desert and mountain landscape of eastern Oregon. But a traffic-jamming 411 cars and trucks registered for the recent Detroit Gambler 500. Morgan credits the abrupt rise in popularity—he expects even more cars for the next Oregon Gambler 500—to a YouTube video that was viewed millions of times when posted on the a sponsor’s Facebook page.

Morgan’s original vision for the event included three primary elements: a navigation component, off-roading, and cheap or interesting cars. These aspects did not all exist together in any other single car-culture event—at least they didn’t on the cheap. So Morgan said an important aspect of the Gambler 500, now a registered LLC and trademarked, is that it remains free to enter.

“So even that poor 25-year-old kid who works at McDonald’s can bring his Geo Metro out,” he said.

The Detroit edition was added by Tom Nardone, a businessman known locally for a variety of fanciful and philanthropic pursuits such as founding a lawnmower gang that cleans up city parks pro bono. Easily bored, Nardone said he was thinking of heading to Burning Man this year but didn’t want to spend an entire week away from his wife and kids. He founded the Detroit Gambler instead.

“This thing said that if you want to do your own Gambler, just do it,” Nardone said. He emailed the website and was given approval an hour later. “[Morgan] said the only thing is, it has to be free.”

Nardone floated the event on social media, and interest was almost alarming. On the Facebook event page, more than 1200 people pledged to attend. Nardone and Morgan opted to “let it ride,” Nardone said. “Once you figure you got 100 or 200 cars, 400 is not an order of magnitude different.”

Gambler 500

A Ford Festiva and Honda Accord, model years unknown, seen in Detroit’s Eastern Market.

A Caravan of Weirdos 

Following Gambler tradition, Nardone released GPS coordinates and waypoints for the route on the morning of the event. Hundreds of cars and trucks, many crudely painted and oddly decorated, gathered in the northern Detroit suburb of Troy on Saturday, April 29. That’s where I first assessed the Camry’s competition.

My personal favorites were the car-to-pickup conversions (carried out with varying degrees of welding ability), such as a Honda Accord, a Saturn SL2, and a Chevrolet Malibu. They all had been hacked somewhere around the B- or C-pillar and turned into open-bed rigs. Some totally capable off-roaders also showed up in four-by-four trucks that would prove very useful later.

Nardone’s route wove past Detroit urban sights such as the former Packard plant and then headed into the wilds. A whole caravan of weirdo vehicles streamed up Interstate 75 toward state land near Houghton Lake, about 175 miles to the north.

Gambler 500

A Chevrolet Malibu, one of several sedans converted into pickups.

“Power” Mode

The first off-road trail on the Detroit Gambler 500 route was sandy. Gus and I sent the Camry into it with childlike wonder and ignorance. We had test run the old FWD car with stock tires in a chewed-up alley behind Gus’s house in the city of Hamtramck near Detroit, albeit at low speeds, and agreed that it probably needed new shocks. We did nothing to remedy this. But once off-road, it was surprisingly capable. A 1983 C/D instrumented test of the Camry noted:

“There’s even something noteworthy hidden away deep within the Camry’s rear suspension. A compound top-bush­ing arrangement feeds spring loads through one path and shock-absorber forces through another. The design marks a coming trend that will allow fin­er tuning for improved ride comfort.”

At the wheel when we entered the sandy trail, I made sure the three-mode selector on the 34-year-old automatic transmission was set to Power rather than Economy or Normal. C/D had noted this mode selector as another novelty when this fully loaded Camry was new:

“In the Normal position, the electronic brain chooses its own compromise of comfort, fuel economy, and acceleration performance. If the driver selects the Power mode, upshifts occur at roughly 15 percent higher rpm.”

Renault Gambler

A Renault Encore, model year unknown, that was part of a traffic jam on a sandy trail.

Traffic Jam in the Sand

We didn’t get very far into the sand trail before there was a large traffic jam. We stopped the Camry and got out to survey the situation. Some guys in a late-1990s Jeep Cherokee said that only four-wheel-drive vehicles were making it through deep sand on a turn up ahead. They had already towed several cars and were going back for more. Several Gamblers began to turn around, muttering that “no one’s ever gonna finish.” A similar sentiment entered our car as evening was drawing near and we had barely tested the Camry’s skill set. We agreed to skip ahead a bit on the planned waypoints and go directly to a GPS coordinate linked to a trail with “brown dirt” that we assumed would be more manageable. You know what they say about “assume”?

At first, it was just the Camry and the Roadmaster out in the woods, with the latter badly leaking oil after bottoming out on one of the jump-off tests on a concrete slab in Detroit earlier in the day. What was initially a slow leak would prove to be a Roadmaster killer.

We were no longer following the Detroit Gambler 500 official route, but Morgan said later that ideally the Gambler 500 spreads cars apart so contestants rarely see one another. Nardone told us afterward that one change he plans for next year will be to address gridlock on the trails by making several events concurrent, spreading groups of Gamblers to different waypoints, all starting from a base on a central campground. “A stuck front-wheel-drive car would hold up 10 cars,” he said of the inaugural event.

A Ford Ranger, model year unknown, seen before the Gambler 500.

A Ford Ranger seen before the Gambler 500.

Flooded

We got stuck once in mud (using a tow strap, the Roadmaster easily pulled the Camry free) and another time in deep, soft brown dirt. But that 25-yard-long puddle would prove to be too much. After staring at it for a few moments, Gus decided to gather speed and head straight through. Always Be Gambling, right? Gus got the car up to 40 or 50 mph before entering the mud pool, at which point brown water sprayed up onto both sides of the car and splashed heavily onto the windshield. We got about three-quarters of the way through the water before the Camry slowed, and the engine whined and then died.

We thought the car was sinking, so we leapt from it as water flooded into its footwells. Gus wandered ahead on the trail and discovered the campsite, where he enlisted the help of a man with a late-model Ford F-150. The truck easily pulled the Camry out while the little hatchback’s rear wiper swiped back and forth as if in victory.

That win would be short-lived. The car just went click-click-click when Gus turned the key in the ignition. The good Samaritan in the F-150 towed us all the way back to the campsite. Several people suggested we take the spark plugs out and dry them off, but we figured we’d wait until morning. Mostly, we were tired.

Matt Nortier and Ryan Root were the 2017 Detroit Gambler 500 Grand Champions with their 1991 Ford Festiva GL .

Matt Nortier and Ryan Root were the 2017 Detroit Gambler 500 grand champions with their 1991 Ford Festiva GL. (Photo by Tom Nardone)

Rest in Power, Roadmaster

On Sunday morning, after a raucous night on a state-land campground that included a one-wheel ramp for the more daring Gamblers, I tried to start the Camry, and to my delight the engine tried to fire. But it took maybe 10 cranks and some mashing on the gas pedal before it finally roared to life with a plume of white smoke billowing from under the hood. The car had always been loud, but now it was especially throaty, sounding more like a lawnmower than a sedan. There was a series of challenges planned for the day, such as a hill-climb and a speed test, but our group opted just to head back to Detroit.

By that point, the Roadmaster’s leak was profuse. Guy bought several bottles of oil before we set out on I-75 Sunday morning, and we stopped periodically to refill the crankcase. The car made it about 100 miles before the engine seized just north of Flint, hometown of Buick. Guy unironically rolled it to an oil-change shop; a few days later, he sold the Roadmaster to a salvage yard for $50.

Camry—and Gambler—Live On

But the Camry lives. Maybe it will make it to next year’s Detroit Gambler 500. Nardone said interest is already building. “I’m not sure how you stop this from becoming a 2000-car pileup,” he said of the feedback he’s gotten post–Gambler 500. The Gambler 500 is almost too much fun, I told him. How do you keep it from becoming too big or from attracting the attention of forces that would want to shut it down?

Morgan said the larger events will continue, but smaller, more niche ones will, too. And he noted that some Gamblers may choose to put a cap on entries, such as one in the Ozarks that set a limit of 75 vehicles. But as for shutting down Gambler 500s altogether, it is too late, he said, “because the idea already exists.”

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