Thursday, December 1, 2011

Final Drive: When Things Go Bad

What follows is a true story and the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

In the winter of 1992 a friend mine, Pete, had the bright idea of going into the specialty car business. His bright idea came shortly after inheriting what was at that time, a decent sum of money. His idea of “The Specialty Car Business” entailed buying a kit car, specifically one that is tailored after the AC Cobra. Pete, being the fiscally parsimonious type, decided against having it shipped to his house, but thought better of it and wanted to go out to Fargo North Dakota to pick up the car. Had this been after 1996 when the eponymous movie of this location came out, I would have had fair warning. Such was not the case.

At the time, I was between jobs, so Pete asked if I wouldn’t mind riding along. As long as I shared driving chores, he’d pay for the motels. Not being afraid of frugality, even if it wasn’t my own and always up for an adventure, I said yes. I should have known better. In February of 1992 we started off in Pete’s 1972 GMC K20 pickup, pulling a trailer that we would use to transport the kit car back. It was an open trailer, single axle if I recall correctly.

We left Long island in late January of that year and headed west on US 80 across Pennsylvania. The first sign of trouble came in Ohio. At a rest area, I decided to take a look under the hood, checking the oil and other pertinent vital signs as I was suspect of the truck due to it’s age, Pete’s general lack of concern for anything mechanical and his penchant for making a dollar chase a dime. To put this comedy in perspective, Pete graduated Embry Riddle with a degree in Engineering. Anyway, while checking things under the hood, I noticed that the coolant recovery tank, AKA radiator overflow tank was bubbling over. To those that work on cars, as I had,  one would make a couple assumptions: One, the thermostat was stuck or two, there’s a leaky head gasket somewhere on that engine that is pressurizing the cooling system, thereby forcing coolant out of the radiator. When I asked Pete about it, he said, “it does that all the time”. (Note to reader, when someone says this, while it may be true, use your better judgement.)

Like a true victim of Stockholm Syndrome, I went along with my captor, I mean companion, and said, “ok”. At that point, I figured I was already almost 500 miles from home, so I might as well continue on. What was the worse that could happen anyway, break down? If it did, I could always hop a Greyhound bus back to Long Island, so away we went. The trip out there was fairly uneventful as we stayed in Youngstown Ohio and Madison Wisconsin on our way out to Fargo. I had never been through the mid-west before, so it was a new experience for me. The people were much friendlier than back home as evidenced by the pretty girl tending the check-in at the flea bag motel we stayed at in Youngstown. I had never seen such a happy woman, particularly one that could pass for Jennifer Anniston’s sister and when questioned as to the source of her happiness, she said “you two are the first guys I have seen all night”. Well, that made me completely forget about the radiator overflow. The way I saw it, a sharp New Yorker could be running this place in no time and things were looking up.

Well, things weren’t looking up for long. In fact they were looking up for only another 48 hours or so. On a cold night riding across the Red River Bridge from Moorhead to Fargo on I 94, I looked out the side view mirror as a normal check and I saw a large white plume exiting the left exhaust pipe. A quick check of the passenger side view mirror revealed that a plume was not exiting the right side exhaust (the truck had true dual exhaust). In a very short amount of time I surmised that not only was something amiss, but that indeed, we had struck water and in the worst possible way. Luckily, we were at our final destination, so we stopped at a Select Inn in Fargo and pulled for the night. The radiator was down coolant, which confirmed my intuition, in my mind. I would have to wait until morning for further diagnosis as Pete would go to the new owner orientation at the the manufacturer of the kit car, while I worked on the truck.

The next day, and remember this was the end of January so the temperature was in the negative territory, I pulled the plugs and sure enough, cylinder #7 spouted green. I contacted Pete with the bad news and told him that I’d have to remove the heads for root cause analysis, which I did. It turned out that Pete’s 4 bolt 350 was in fact a 2 bolt 305. The hint was the lightweight head castings and it was confirmed not only by the bore diameter, but by the fact that the head gaskets were indeed head gaskets for a 350 as the bore diameter of the head gasket was 4 inches versus 3.736 for the 305. Whoever had done the engine work believed it was a 350, but never questioned gap between the bore and the head gasket. The head gasket was blown around the water passage at 1 o’clock, which was leaking into piston #7, which is on the driver’s side, all the way in the rear. We were able to have the heads milled, proper head gaskets procured and I reassembled the top end of the engine, again in subzero weather. I cannot say enough about the fine folks from North Dakota and Manitoba Canada, who came out to see if I was alright and offered me hot chocolate and coffee.

This particular incident was a tremendous learning experience for me on many levels. While it was fortunate that I was able to perform the repairs and we had the tools to do so, the incident did not have to happen. Bad things do indeed happen to all of us, sometimes through no fault of our own, but this one was preventable. First off, taking a 20 year old vehicle halfway across the country should have been thought through more thoroughly. Pete didn’t have the truck long and he obviously didn’t know it well in terms of what worked, what didn’t and what needed attention. The coolant recovery tank bubbling was a hint. I will say I take some of the blame, because I did know better and didn’t act on it forcefully enough, but I think I paid for that by fixing the vehicle, which taught me a lesson, which is, if something is wrong and you know it, say so with extreme prejudice. When I discovered the first evidence of a problem, We should have turned around in Ohio as we would have made it home. Hind sight is always 20-20.

My advice for taking a trip with any vehicle is:
  • Know thy vehicle. If you are mechanically inclined and do your own maintenance, go over the vehicle extensively, to be sure that it is ready for the trip. Do all routine maintenance and inspect everything that you could reasonably think might break or fail. If you are not mechanically inclined, have a trusted mechanic go over the vehicle and service it prior to the trip. 
  •  Buy some sort of road side assistance through the AAA or your insurance policy. Also, I would advise that you should budget money for repairs that could arise on the road, especially if the vehicle is not under any manufacturers warranty. If you can’t afford to fix it on the road, you probably shouldn’t be there.
  • If you are mechanically inclined as I am, bring tools along, and I would also suggest a repair manual as well. Trust me, unless you fix cars day in and day out, you won’t remember torque specifications, torquing sequences and other specifications that may be important in a repair. Also bring along a Volt/Ohm Meter, some wiring, various solder-less connectors,  fuses if your vehicle uses them and electrical tape. 
  • I would also suggest a scan tool for the computer. On today’s vehicles, they are almost a mandatory diagnostic tool when troubleshooting problems with a vehicle. Two overlooked items are food and water. Bottled water is cheap, so having a couple litres shouldn’t be a problem. As far as food goes, jerky is something that works well, as does other dried foodstuffs that can keep without refrigeration. MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) are favored by some as well. These are food rations used by the military for field use. While not as good as eating at Emeril’s, they are more than sufficient in a pinch.  
  • I would also suggest not only having a cell phone, but a laptop as well with a cell card, MiFi or a cell phone that can tether.  Google is a great asset when trying to figure out what is wrong and manuals or other information on your vehicle can be stored digitally on your laptop. In those cases where you are out of cell range in the middle of nowhere, SPOT ( has satellite products that can save your bacon in an emergency. 
  • Last but not least, make sure someone knows where you are going, when you are leaving, and when you are expected to return.

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