It seems like lately, almost all of my new posts are inspired by something one or another of my blog-friends (usually, it seems, Lime or Suldog) has posted recently. And this post is no exception. Lime recently posted about a clunker she and her husband drove back when they were living in Trinidad. And that provoked a few of my own memories. And, well, you know how I enjoy telling stories. . .
One summer when I was in college (I think it was the summer of '77, when I'd finished my bachelor's degree, and would start grad school in the fall), I was living in a house with six or eight other guys. We all had summer jobs, and transportation to those jobs was somewhat of an open question. A couple of the guys had bikes (of the 'clunker' variety), and most of the guys could use the buses, so even if getting to work wasn't quite as convenient as it could possibly be, it wasn't a huge problem, either. But one day early in the summer, one of the guys (I'll call him Z for our purposes here) came home with a car - a '71 Gremlin with 45,000 miles, for which he'd paid $50. We were all a bit bedazzled that he'd managed to snag actual working transportation for such a cheap price; it hadn't occurred to us yet to ask whether the price might (or might not) correspond to the value. . .
The little Gremlin ran pretty roughly, but it ran. So we set about working on turning it into something that ran more smoothly and, we hoped, more reliably. Now, mind you, we were a group of college boys from here, there and everywhere, and none of us had particularly spent any time working on cars up until then. So one of the guys went to the library and picked up a basic Troubleshooting Guide, which became our textbook.
The first thing in the book was to check the air filter. It showed us how to remove the lid from the filter unit, and take out the filter ring. "Hold the filter ring up to the sunlight," it said. "If you can see light through the folds of the filter, it can be re-used." So I held the filter ring up to the sunlight. And dirt fell from the filter onto my face. So, OK - change the air filter. And the car ran a little bit better after we did that.
The next thing was an oil change, and that seemed easy enough. We got hold of a pan, placed it under the engine, and removed the drain plug, so the old oil could drain out of the engine. Only nothing came out. That is to say, no old used oil came out of the drain. Nothing at all. After a minute or two, a black glob of tarry sludge appeared at the drain hole. The sludge-glob slowly grew into a sticky black teardrop before breaking loose and landing with a *splat!* in the pan. A minute or two later, another sludge-glob appeared and did likewise. Well, that just didn't seem like the way it was supposed to be - it seemed like the used oil should flow a little more freely than that. The Guide said that we should look for a sticker, which in those days was usually placed on the door, near the latch, telling us when the car had last had its oil changed, so we looked for the sticker. But there was no sticker. Nor was there an oil-change sticker anywhere else on the vehicle. Which didn't necessarily mean that the car had never had its oil changed in 45,000 miles, but it wasn't a hopeful sign.
At this point, the Guide recommended that we run some engine-cleaning stuff through the engine as part of the oil change. So we did - put in an engine-detergent something-or-other, and drove the car for 10 miles or so. Having done that, we pulled the drain plug again, and this time, black fluid came out the drain-hole, so we were satisfied that we'd cleaned out the insides of the Gremlin's engine, and it was safe to put fresh oil into it. Which we did.
After that, though, the car, if anything, ran worse than it had before. We asked a friend of ours who knew cars better than any of us did, about what had happened, and he told us that the black sludge had probably been keeping things 'sealed up' in the engine, and that by cleaning out the sludge, we had actually opened up some of the internal leaks in the engine which the sludge had kept sealed. At that point, we started to think that keeping this car running wasn't going to be quite the simple matter that perhaps we had hoped it would be.
After that, the car suddenly wouldn't start one day. Z got hold of a battery tester, which confirmed that, sure enough, the battery was dead. So he and I went out and bought a new battery, and set about installing it in the driveway. Of course, in the course of installing a battery, you get a fair bit of dirt and crud on your hands, and whenever our hands got too grungy, we'd wipe them on our pants. Installing the battery wasn't terribly difficult - it took Z and me, working together, about an hour, and most of that was just because we were learning as we went. We finished installing the battery, and gratifyingly, when Z got in the driver's seat and turned the key, it fired right up, even if it still ran about as smoothly as a diesel locomotive.
Suddenly, we both noticed that the fronts of our thighs were burning. I looked down, and my jeans were in tatters. I rubbed at my legs to try and relieve the burning sensation, and as I did, the legs of my jeans disintegrated, leaving me with an impromptu pair of short-short cutoffs. And bright-red, throbbing thighs. It was around that time that the words, 'Battery Acid' crept to the forefront of our minds, and we mentally slapped ourselves (being careful not to physically slap ourselves with our acid-laced hands). So we tossed our pants in the trash, and ran off to the shower, to try and wash the acid off our legs. Even so, it was a few days before the burning abated. . .
Still, the car ran terribly, so we continued to work our way through the Guide. We pulled the spark plugs, only to find that four of the six plugs had their element completely encased in a little ball of carbon - no spark at all was getting into four of the Gremlin's six cylinders. So we replaced the spark plugs. Better, but the car still wouldn't start reliably. One of the guys studied up on how to troubleshoot the starter, and sure enough, he discovered that the starter was shot. So Z went out and bought a rebuilt starter, and we replaced the starter. By now, we were thinking that 'Gremlin' was a pretty darned appropriate name for this car. And Z was lamenting that he'd spent four or five times what he'd paid for the car, just to try and keep it running.
The crowning achievement of our Summer of Automotive Education was when one of the guys discovered that we had a bad engine mount, which meant that there was a huge vibration whenever the engine was running. So he went out and bought a new engine mount, and we installed it.
Now, we didn't have a hoist or anything, with which to lift the engine so we could remove the old engine mount, or situate the new one in its place. So we had four guys grab hold of the top of the engine and lean back (a little bit like sailors acting as 'outriggers' to balance a sailboat), to lift the engine off the mount, while another guy crawled up underneath to pull out the old mount, and put the new one into its place. The whole procedure only took a few minutes, but the engine was pretty darned heavy, and after a bit, the guys holding the engine up off the mount-pad were straining, and a tense dialog ensued, with the holder-guys urging the mount-placer-guy to hurry up and finish his stuff, and the placer-guy getting momentarily confused about the proper orientation of the new mount, and yelling at the holders not to drop the engine on his fingers, while the holders yelled back that they couldn't hold on much longer, etc, etc. Until finally, he yelled, "OK, it's there!" and we dropped the engine on top of it. Not exactly OSHA-approved, I'm sure. . .
By the end of the summer, the little Gremlin was running semi-reliably, although it still wasn't capable of reaching freeway-minimum speed. One of the last times I rode in it, before I moved out of the summer-house into the place I'd spend the school-year, Z was driving, and hit a pothole. And the rear window fell off. And by that time, with all that we'd been through with that stupid car, all we could do was laugh. Looking back, though, as much of a hassle as it was to keep that silly car running, all of us in the house got a tremendous education in auto-maintenance that we probably would never have gotten otherwise. . .
For a $50 initial investment, we got Z's money's worth of education, for sure. And I think Z drove that car for maybe another whole year before he finally got rid of it, so even with all the repairs, I don't think it turned out to be a terrible investment for him. . .
I know this post is already a bit long, but I also want to mention the first car I ever owned - a '79 Chevette that I bought when I got my first 'real job', after college. I bought it in the first place, mostly because it was cheap, and got good gas mileage (actually, those two qualities have figured large in several of the vehicles I've bought, over the years). I recall the salesman, when I told him I was a freshly-graduated engineer, talking me out to look at all the fancy cars parked in the front of the lot, but I just kept shaking my head, asking to see something a little less fancy, while we moved progressively toward the back of the lot. Finally, with a note of disgust in his voice, he said to me, "The only thing I've got below this is a Chevette." So I asked him to see it, took it for a drive, and told him I'd buy it. While he rolled his eyes. . .
The Chevette was actually a pretty good car for me, and, once Jen and I were married, for us. It even provided us a night's lodging on our honeymoon, when there were no rooms available within 30 miles of Munising, and we went to see the Pictured Rocks. Yes, you read that right - we spent a night sleeping in a Chevette on our honeymoon. I'd recommend that you not spend any more time on that mental image than is absolutely necessary. . .
I drove the Chevette for six years. When 2F was born, and all the seats were filled with Jen and me and two kids, the handwriting was on the wall that we wouldn't be keeping it much longer. The final blow came on a rainy night when Jen and I were on our way to a friend's wedding. I don't know how many of you ever owned a Chevette, but a common flaw in all the Chevettes of those days was that the floorboards would rust out. There was even a 'standard repair kit' for Chevette floorboards. A small hole appeared, and if I hadn't had a rubber floormat, we could have watched the pavement passing by underneath us as we drove. The hole in the floorboard was right where my heel rested while my foot was on the accelerator pedal; with the rubber mat, it was even kind-of comfortable, and I didn't think all that much about it, figuring that I'd be getting rid of the car soon, so why bother fixing the hole in the floorboard?
So, as I said, Jen and I were on our way to a wedding on a rainy evening, and dressed accordingly. Our route to the church took us to a place where the roadway dipped down to pass under a railroad track. The trough under the tracks was poorly drained, and in heavy rains, it would often fill up with water, which was the case on this night. Without thinking, since I'd come that way many times before, I drove on through the deep puddle at the bottom of the trough. And water sprayed up, away from the car as I did. And also up through the hole in the floorboard. And, since I kept the hole covered with a rubber mat, it deflected off the underside of the rubber mat. And completely drenched Jen from head to toe. Dressed as she was to go to a wedding.
We had been married about five years by then, so (I am eternally grateful) I had the momentary presence of mind to pause before reacting. It was, objectively, hilarious. But I knew that, if Jen was traumatized by it, that I didn't dare laugh. So I waited for her response; would she laugh, or cry? For a few seconds she just sat there, stunned. Then she turned to me and broke into hysterical laughter. While I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. My wife is an amazing woman. . .