“Al, at the wheel, his face purposeful, his whole body listening to the car, his restless eyes jumping from the road to the instrument panel. Al was one with his engine, every nerve listening for weaknesses, for the thumps or squeals, hums and chattering that indicate a change that may cause a breakdown. He had become the soul of the car. ”
-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Driving an antique car is often an act of faith. Unless one is an ASE certified mechanic, every mile put on a historic vehicle is a leap into the unknown, carrying one further away from help and closer to an expensive problem. It forces one to become intimately familiar with all of the complicated moving parts that make things work, if for no other reason than to be able to tell a mechanic what to look at first.
Peer Pressure has spent the majority of the winter slumbering like a bear in her cave, waiting out fierce December winds and wet March snows. Winters are always hard when starting carbureted engines. I don’t have a trickle charger yet, which means I’ve got about five good tries in the battery before I have to bust out jumper cables. Usually I pour a little gas in the carburetor to get the fuel system moving, and that does the trick. Whenever the roads are dry and salt-free, I let her idle in the driveway for ten minutes, then get her out for a trip around the block to spin the tires and get fluids moving through everything. Then she goes right back in the garage.
Meanwhile, I’ve been driving modern, fuel injected vehicles which start instantly and glide over the road at lightning speeds. They have clean carpeting, clear glass, warm heat, and soundproofing. I’m removed from all of the smelly mechanical bits that make things work; modern cars have been engineered to make me forget there’s even an engine attached to the vehicle: This vehicle is powered by unicorn farts. They are appliances, and we take their very existence for granted. And we become ignorant of the clanking, whirring, gnashing machinery that makes it all possible.
When spring comes, I pull the Scout out onto the road, wind up the engine on longer trips and listen intently to multiple different noises. That tapping–are those lifters starving for oil? I gauge the familiar droning of Mud Terrains on pavement. I parse squeaks from the rear of the chassis. Is the exhaust sounding a newer, deeper note this year?
Other cues I pick up from the vibrations through my feet and hands. How does the clutch feel? Is that wobble a flat spot in the tire, or is that just an oscillation at speed? Is the engine straining above 50mph? The brakes are wearing unevenly. Does the shift point feel different this year? It feels like the steering is wandering more today.
All of these reactions change my relationship with the road. Every trip I take in the Scout at the beginning of the year is carefully considered. Do I have enough gas to make it there and back? Do I have a backup plan if I break down? What’s the number for towing and recovery? All of these questions make me appreciate the ride a lot more; I’m in tune with the machine and the road, instead of just gliding over it, there and back.
I bought my first Scout used, 20 years after it was built, and drove it 75+ miles home the same day, on faith that the seller was honest (he was) and the truck was in good shape (it was). One month later I drove it 2 miles down an empty beach at Assateague, an empty corner of the earth where AAA does not make house calls. It got me home. Ten years later I put even more faith in an older truck bought at auction with absolutely no provenance, using the 5-50-100 rule to shake out the kinks (500 miles is a long trip on those tires), and it’s run strongly ever since. I’ve had my issues, and it’s given me problems, but most of those were due to my own stupidity, and I’ve been able to make it home without calling in a tow truck.
I don’t know if Steinbeck had it right or not. Rarely do I feel like I’m the soul of the machine; more often I feel like my truck helps me rediscover my sense of adventure. Will I make it there and back? Maybe not, but it’ll sure be an interesting story.
Some kind of crazy front is blowing through this evening, sending the temperatures down from an agreeable 65˚to somewhere in the low 30s. What the hell, man? Just when I was thinking I could leave my winter coat on the rack. We went from having the windows open to shutting the storms down to keep the heat inside. Oh, well.
Grandma and Renie are coming down this weekend to visit, which has us running around cleaning the house in preparation. It will be great to see them for the first time since Christmas, and I know Grandma is probably levitating off the floor with excitement. Hopefully the weather will warm back up so they don’t have to suffer a wet March weekend in Maryland.
The CR-V is at the shop with new ceramic brake pads waiting to be picked up tomorrow morning; I bought rotors and pads last weekend with the intention of changing them, but when I got the grindy side up on the jack, I couldn’t get the caliper to release the rotor. Instead of bashing it with a BFH, I wisely decided on calling in the pros, and they got it done today, no muss, no fuss. Certain things I’m willing to take on myself, but any monkey business with important systems like brakes I’ll happily farm out.
I kegged my latest batch of IPA, called Sinistral Warrior, on Sunday, and it’s carbing in the cooler this week. I’ve pulled two glasses from it so far, and it’s tasty–and strong. I have to remember to throttle back my intake because it tends to hit me rather quickly. Next up is getting some time to bottle the pumpkin, which has been sitting patiently since the end of December, and ordering a session IPA from Northern Brewer for the next batch. I also cut my 4″ shank down to 3″ last weekend. It was a lot easier than I thought it would be–maybe 5 seconds with a metal blade on the miter saw, and 2 minutes with a file to clean up the threads. Now, when I install tap handles in the front of the kegerator, the tubing and inlets won’t be in the way. Half the fun of owning a kegerator seems to be hose management.
I haven’t looked at Facebook in about two weeks. I popped on there this evening to answer a question (I get alerts in my mailbox, but rarely respond to them) and lost a half an hour; nothing much has changed. I talked about creating more and consuming less at the beginning of this year, and haven’t done much to change that yet. I could come up with lots of reasons why, but the truth is I just haven’t.
I have a lot of things to work on this spring; that is only one of them, and the least important.
This post is one in a series based on a format at another website; much like music, I can measure much of my adult life with the cars I’ve driven.
Ate Up With Motor recently did a comprehensive history of the Honda CRX, a car I owned for a brief while and the sale of which I still regret to this day. Which leads me to the next chapter in my automotive history…
My CRX was a hand-me-down silver HF model from my girlfriend’s father, who had driven it, given it to her, and then let her brother rag it out for a while before parking it in his driveway and then offering it to me. My B2000 was blowing oil and beginning to get expensive. I had a desk job as a designer, having gotten out of the contracting business a few years previously, so I did what any 20-something male with disposable income would do: I sold the truck and bought a beat up sportscar.
It had about 90k on the odometer when I got it, the CV joints were already bad, the brakes were shot, it needed some muffler work, and it smelled like cigarettes and feet. I put some money into repairs, got it running reliably, and, unbelievably, got three years of dependability at 40mpg. It was a stick, and first gear was a dog. But once it was at speed, it was a blast to drive–nothing like the pickup.
It was beat up, sure. Her brother had obviously tried to drag faster and lighter cars, played tag with trashcans and mailboxes, spilled coffee, ash, fast food, and bongwater over every inch of the carpet. It rattled and squeaked. The wiring behind the radio was a rat’s nest, left over from multiple hack installations. The AC worked as long as the car was in motion, but the minute it stopped I had to turn it off. This foreshadowed future problems with overheating in Baltimore traffic and a pattern that repeated itself with several other cars until I bought the CR-V.
But, I could fit two mountain bikes under the hatch, park it in a shoebox, and the money I saved on gas more than offset the thirsty V-8 of my first Scout. Where was the downside?
In its third year, it began to show its age by leaving larger and larger clouds of blue smoke behind, and soon it was burning through a quart of oil every two weeks. The rings were shot, and I was living in the city with no tools and no garage to effect repairs. Regretfully, I placed an ad in the paper and sold it to a guy who told me he was planning on setting it up for SCCA racing against MR2s.
Had I been thinking smarter, I would have driven it up to my sister’s house and parked it in the chicken barn out back until I could have afforded a rebuilt engine, but hindsight is, as they say, always 20/20.
This weekend, I went up the Carlisle truck show, and I packed for it like I was doing an extended tour of duty with the French Foreign Legion. I’d been up there with my old Scout back in 1998 or so and the two things I remember about it were that it was blisteringly hot and that I was overwhelmed by the amount of people, vehicles, and stuff for sale. So I packed extra oil, coolant, transmission fluid, water, and gas. We bolted the soft top back on and left it down in case of rain, put the bikini top up, and packed chairs, a cooler, two toolboxes, the spare tire, and fresh coffee.
Friday evening Brian H. stopped over to help me get Peer Pressure put back together, and once again I wouldn’t have been able to get it done without him. In about two hours we got all three seats, the Tuffy console, and the roll bar back in place along with a bunch of smaller assorted stuff. I’m OK with the bed liner but not thrilled with the results. I think because it sat for three years some of the chemicals were going bad, so the mixture didn’t come together the way it should have. I also had some issues dialing in the pressure properly so some of the coverage looks like snot. But Saturday morning we were ready to roll bright and early, and the truck ran like a top.
The ride up was uneventful and strange–because we didn’t see one other show-going truck until we got into the town limits. Years ago I was passing all kinds of modified and antique vehicles, either there to show or to visit. This time there were none. It got to the point where Brian and I thought we’d come on the wrong weekend.
Once we got in the fairgrounds, the view changed: trucks as far as the eye could see. And mostly newer stock. Lots of late-model pickups with bolted-on accessories like tires and lifts and air dams and lights–lots of lights. Rows of lowered mini trucks (Yeah, I guess that’s still a thing; I figured it died out decades ago) sprinkled with the odd antique. There was no rhyme or reason to the organization other than a few club groups here and there, so the makes were in random order. Pennsylvania is a mecca for antique cars of all shades, more so than Maryland in my opinion. Every time we drive through we’ll see some kind of pretty muscle car or hot rod out for a cruise. Apparently there aren’t a lot of antique trucks up there, or they’re boycotting the show for some reason, because the pickings were slim.
Our club showing was excellent, however. They set up a tent toward the grandstand and we had 25 trucks lined up fender to fender along one row, so you knew where the Internationals were. Lots of people would walk down the row and stop until someone older in the group would say, “Hey lookit them Scouts!” and launch into an explanation of what they were.
We met up with Brian T. and walked the grounds for a while. My favorite section had to be, without a doubt, the customized van area, where several survivors of the brutal 70′s were parked in all their airbrushed metalflake glory. After some lunch we wandered back and hung out with the club folks, where I picked up my new steering wheel. Brian and I sat down and talked quietly over some beers; we were both overstimulated by the people and sights and needed some quiet time to recharge, which worked out really well.
I drove Brian H. back to his place and peeked in at the engine he’s selling me; we have to hump it from his back shed around to the front of his house, get it onto a truck, and up to my place. Then we have to get it back off, into the garage, and up on the stand. I have no idea how the second half of this procedure is going to happen yet.
The girls got back from a birthday party about the same time I did, which was perfect, because I got to help get Finn into bed and relax a little with Jen before we all fell asleep.
Sunday I spent a good bit of the day catching up with yardwork and cleaning I’ve neglected for the past two weeks; it felt good to get the shaggy lawn and hedge trimmed and vacuum the floors and put things away where they belong. It was better still to spend time with the girls. We capped a glorious sunny day off with a walk around the neighborhood, following Finn on her bicycle as she pedaled up and down hills, sparkly tassels blowing in the breeze.
I had a three-day weekend planned in order to complete a long-standing project on the Scout, and I learned a couple of valuable lessons during the process. Originally my plan was to gather a couple of other guys together to do a group thrash on three or four cars at the same time, figuring several people can accomplish a lot more in a short period of time than a single person in several days. The first thing I (re)learned was that I need to ground my expectations in reality and refactor exactly what I think I can accomplish; my rule of thumb with house projects has been 3 times the estimate in cost and duration. Cars don’t seem to be much different. I’d originally planned on having someone come in and soda blast the exterior, prep it for paint, and shoot color on it in a 3-day weekend, but I scaled my plans back to prepping and shooting the bedliner I’ve had stored in my basement for 2 years. The sheer scale of that project almost killed me.
Friday I got to work early and ground out a good portion of the existing paint but got slowed down by uneven surfaces and thickness. My good IH buddy Brian H showed up in the afternoon with another angle grinder and a willingness to help, and between the two of us we finished cleaning out the tub, washed it, etched it, and laid down the first coat of POR-15. We stood around and shot the breeze for a while, enjoyed some cold beer, and packed up the garage. That evening we hosted Kirsten for some drinks and conversation about her website design, and everyone fell into bed exhausted.
Saturday Will stopped over with his daughter Alina, a playmate of Finn’s, and while the girls tore the house asunder we fetched Will’s Austin Healey from its parking spot in Arbutus and got to work with grinders on the fender lips. Glenn and Christi came by not long after that, and the three of us traded beers, grinders, and conversation through the afternoon until the clouds started forming. My neighbor passed by with his shiny Corvette, and I waved him into the driveway with a cold beer. The second thing I (re)learned is that car guys are everywhere, and cars are a fantastic way to meet new people (and bring different people together). Between a rusty truck, a rusty British sportscar, a not-so-rusty Japanese import (there in spirit) and a shiny American sportscar, we all found common ground and easy conversation. As the rain started falling, we put my tent up over the Healey and Will applied rust encapsulator over the metal, finally deciding to leave it overnight instead of driving it back in the rain.
Sunday Brian T. drove over from Chestertown with his compressor, and he helped me tape the Scout up in preparation for bedliner, until we realized we couldn’t shoot it. Brian stopped over a little later to check in, and Will came by to ferry the Healey back home. It was reassuring to have so many friends offer their time and support with the project, even though we couldn’t finish it, and that’s the other thing I (re)learned all over again: I’ve got great friends, I’m blessed to share their love of old, rusty objects, and it’s hard to express how much I owe them all.
Monday morning, I’m sore, a little disappointed (I won’t be able to get the chemicals I need overnighted—they’re being shipped via UPS Ground) and my hands are chewed up, but I only spent about an hour behind a computer in three days and I accomplished more than I thought I would. There’s a feeling of satisfaction from that kind of job that’s hard to come by with my daily employment, and while I don’t think I could run an angle grinder 40 hours a week, it sure felt good to finish that part of the job.
Finally, I have to send huge public thanks go to my loving wife, who took on Finn, her job, and company for all three days while I got some ya-yas out. Thanks baby.
Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.
This video is interesting for many different reasons, the primary being that my mother owned a baby blue 1966 Buick Special convertible almost identical to the featured car. (Hers may not have been a V8, however).