Boston Driver’s Notebook 9/15/11

18 09 2011

Having obtained a new inspection sticker for the white Barracuda, I drove it back to its garage @ Paradise, Concord, MA.  On the way home in Clyde the blue Toyota truck, there was a traffic snarl at the fresh pond rotary.  It was right in front of the building where some locally-famous falcons were nesting.

Falcon by Sweet Lil Bunny Photo

A couple of kids sat in a car broken down in the right lane.  I pulled in behind them and got out.  A woman on a cell phone told me that the state police were on their way.  I went up to the passenger window and asked if they wanted me to push them out of the road.  The young woman behind the wheel said the clutch wouldn’t work.

Just then another guy crossed the road to help.  I told him that the driver couldn’t put it in neutral, but the sceptical Samaritan wanted to try to push anyway.  We tried, as a couple of young skateboarders rolled up and wanted to help.  We had a good team, and I was considering pushing it against the resistance of the motor with our mighty four.

The pragmatic gentleman was leaning in the window past the driver’s immobile boyfriend.  He spun around, “Let’s try it now!” he said.

I imagine she had been depending on the clutch, and hadn’t tried shifting into neutral without the clutch.  With the motor not turning, the clutch isn’t necessary.   The car rolled easily, and he gave me a look.  “No common sense,” he said.  While I admired his obvious intellect, which didn’t accept hearsay evidence, I was more forgiving of the poor girl driving.  It must be stressful to suddenly have your car, and boyfriend, lock up in the middle of rush hour on Rt. 2.

The team had the task in hand, and were pushing the car into the Chipotle parking lot.  I peeled off and ran back to Clyde Barrow the blue truck which was now the obstacle for all the yuppies rushing home to sit on the couch and watch TV.

Finally the bright day dawned late in August; the start of my vacation.  It could be a long one if some more work didn’t show up.  I brought sword, guitar, bow and arrow and fishing pole down to the Tunacuda.  I was going to cast my lot with the improved but untried car.  Since my last big trip north, during which the new head gasket had failed, I had replaced the differential gear set, and most of the front end, as well as the steering gear.

Pressing on the Steering Coupler

A lot of untested parts to go wrong.  Full of confidence I left at around 2:30 PM, known for Cantonese dental emergencies  The time also known for being the last minute one could head out of Boston on Friday before the major arteries out of the cities became clogged with the malignant plaque of commuters, vacationers, and people just driving around slowly and aimlessly.

The approaching Hurricane Irene had changed the equation, adding a number of refugees into the mix,  and I inched up the hill to the Winchester Highlands on Rt. 93 North.  The car was running well, and I had the roof up against the withering rays of the bright late-summer sun.

At the Rockingham exit in New Hampshire, a lot of the black, blue, and silver foreign cars exited, and the remaining drivers became noticeably nicer.  I call it the ‘Rockingham Effect’, and it bears further study.

I stopped at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store rest stop, mainly to let the differential cool down.  I had changed the differential oil before leaving, since the gear set was brand new.  The break-in oil had been full of metal dust and a few bright chips of steel.  The new differential was a bit tight, but would wear in just right.  That or fail.

The Sure-grip Differential Arrives

A tough pre-teen got out of his SUV and spit on the ground in a macho manner.  His New Hampshire-sexy mom, teetering on high wedge-shaped shoes said, “So you just hawk a lungah on the ground for everybody to wawk on?”  I gave her a smile of approval; one must acknowledge good parenting where one sees it.  I bought some cheap gin and brandy, some vending machine peanuts, put the convertible top down, and set off for the Northeast Kingdom.

There was another quantum drop of aggressive drivers at Tilton, NH, and I kept going. The gas gauge was dropping at the expected rate, and I knew from experience  I could make it through Franconia Notch to Littleton, NH comfortably on the gas I had.  The car was starting to gell and pulling pretty well for a six cylinder.  The new steering made the car feel nailed to the ground, and it took the corners satisfyingly.

Going through Franconia Notch, the speed limit on the one-lane road is 45 MPH, which is great.  At that speed, the towering mountains pass slowly and allow you to admire all the different ways the evening sun plays on the rock.  Unfortunately there is inevitably a driver to the rear who takes as much notice of the timeless grandeur of the mountains as would a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and who takes any speed under 60 MPH in the car ahead as a sign of weakness and lascivious tendencies.  I had a jerk riding my bumper as usual, when I exited at Boise Rock, where some ancient travelers were stranded long ago. Relieved of my attenuating influence, the jerk blazed past as if shot from a cannon; making up that lost time.

Tunacuda in the Notch

I got out and checked the fresh spring that flows into a big metal cauldron, a relic of the days when a forge was located in Franconia Notch, close to an iron ore deposit.  It was dry, so I walked up the trail a ways to the picnic area.

I didn’t have a picnic.

I got back on the road, and a law-abiding citizen behind me observing the speed limit kept the speeders off my tail.

Boise Rock Spring in Better Days

I gassed up in Littleton and got a gallon of oil at the local parts store.  “I’m usually getting stuff for a breakdown, but not this time,” I said, knocking on the wood counter.

It wasn’t enough.  I had just put on an 8-track tape, and leaned back as I drove by the Moore Reservoir, just before the Vermont border, when the engine coughed, sputtered, and quit.

Sparkomatic 8-Track Player

I got out and checked the engine.  It was still there.  The wires were all attached, the carb was spraying gas.  I took a small screwdriver and pushed in all the bulkhead connectors.  It was around 6:30 PM.  Cars, trucks and SUVs sped by like drones.

“I wish you had just kept working,” I said to the inert slant six.

I sat on the guardrail, out of things to try.  I watched some people down at the reservoir pull out a speedboat onto a trailer.  Getting ready for Hurricane Irene.

It was getting late, and the engine was cold when I turned the key, and the engine roared to life.  I was going to go up the ramp to the rest area, but the engine sounded so good that I just headed back onto the road.  There is nothing that makes you appreciate moving quite like having just been stuck.

I made up a song called “Keep Going, Keep Going, Keep Going… Slant Six.”

I made it to the mountain you go up where it says “Welcome to Vermont”, and kept going past the rest area.

I got off Rt. 93 where it ends, and onto 91 North at St. Johnsbury.  There was a sign for Rt. 5 at the second St. Johnsbury exit, and I decided to take Rt. 5, a winding road north.  I regretted it as soon as I got to a red light, and sat there listening to the engine which didn’t sound quite right.

I passed a parts store, but I couldn’t tell if it was open or not.  There was a stoplight and a sign for Rt. 91.  I figured I’d get back on the big road again and make a run for it over the mountains.  The left arrow turned red just as I got to it, and as I sat through the endless light, the engine coughed and cut out again.  I sat through a couple of green arrows with my 4-way flashers on.  A woman pulled up close behind me in her SUV, and honked her horn frantically when the green arrow came back.  I looked at her in my rearview mirror and finally made flashing signs with both hands back at her, in time to my 4-way flashers.

She drove around me, and off in a snit.

Dead Again

The guy next to me asked in a slow country drawl if I wanted a push.  As the niceties require, I thought it over for a moment before I said “All right.”  He drove over to the right and pulled off the road.

I got out and pushed and steered while the helpful person pushed from the back.  Two other guys showed up, looking something like the two skateboarders from Fresh Pond in Cambridge, and I jumped in and slammed the door.  “Mush!” I said, as the niceties rather you wouldn’t.  We ended up in the gas station across the street, where the skateboarders shook my hand and exited, stage left.

The original guy asked me what was wrong with the car.

“I’m thinking ECU,” I said. .  It was a new box, but new electronics fail often enough.

I had had plenty of old slant six engines quit on me, but not like this.  I had converted from points to electronic ignition, adding a layer of complexity, an order of magnitude more ineffable than a mechanical system.

It was brought home to me when he said, “So you think it’s the computer, do ya?”

I opened the hood and he listened to it crank.  He checked for spark by grounding out the wire that goes to the center of the distributor cap.  He got a pretty big shock.  We agreed it was getting spark.   I got out and peered in at the engine.

“There’s got to be a temperature sensor somewhere…” he said.

I pointed to the temperature sender, and he pulled the connector off it.  “Now try it,” he said.

I cranked the engine and it started right up.  I shook his hand and said, “You are my guardian angel today.”  He exited stage left, and I got in and put up the top.  It was getting cold and would soon be dark.  I drove out of the parking lot, took a left, started to take a right, when the engine backfired loudly and quit again.  I pulled off on to the grass at the corner, in front of the Kinney drugstore.  A guy was cutting the grass on a rider mower, and he drove at me menacingly.  “I have bigger fish to fry,” I said to no one in particular.  “This is getting monotonous.”

I got it to run for a second to the rich sounds of an exploded exhaust system, before it gave out again.

A guy in a PT Cruiser pulled over and went through the diagnostic process with me again.  He was small and elfin with curly hair, about my age.  He agreed it was probably the electronic ignition.  He asked if I had called anybody.

“I have my cell phone, but it’s not charged up,” I said, adding “charging the cellphone” to my mental list of “things to do before leaving.”  It was right under “bring extra ECU” on the list.

Time for Things to Get Real

He held up a fully charged cell phone as I got out my AAA card.  It was getting dark, time to stop messing around.  He put in the call for me, and handed it over when a person  came on.  I gave the guy all the information, and assured him I was in a relatively safe location.  He asked if there was a number at which I could be reached.

“No I’m using the phone of the Good Samaritan,” I said.  The Good Samaritan and I exchanged a smile.

The Sky in Vermont

“Do you have an old car?” I asked him after we had rung off from AAA.

“No, I’m just old.  I remember old cars when they were new.”

I bought a six-pack of PBR talls at the gas station across the street.  I might need some beer if I was trapped by the hurricane.

I went into the Kinney drugstore and bought a phone card which I could allegedly use to make calls from my brother’s shut off phone.  It turned out that I couldn’t.   I got under the car and found the exhaust had blown apart at a loose clamp.  Had I welded it together, it would have exploded the muffler.  Score one for procrastination.  I re-clamped it together.

An old guy made a U-turn and pulled up behind me, and to save him from having to climb out, I went over to his window.  “I have a truck coming,” I said to him.

“Oh, you have a truck coming?

“What’s wrong with the car?”

“ECU.  I changed it over from points.”

“And now you’re thinking you shouldn’t have.”

I smiled ruefully.  “That’s right.  It ran great until it didn’t run.”

“That’s what they all do,” he said.

Another old guy drove diagonally across the intersection and pulled up to my window.  He let down his window.  “I got a truck coming,” I said.

“Oh, OK, you got a truck coming.”

“But thanks for stopping,” I said.  He smiled back and drove diagonally back across the street to the right lanes in front of the gas station.  I got out and stood in the dark, as the traffic lights changed to blinking warning lights just at 8 PM.  Finally a roll-off flatbed tow truck drove up.

Can't Get There From Here

Two large Vermonters got out and we discussed the usual things, what was wrong, where was I going, again, where was I coming from?

“Boston,” I said.

“You drove this whole way?” asked the second, non-driving, guy.

The driver had worked at the power plant in Everett, MA.  It was in the industrial zone across from Charlestown at the Mystic River.  Our workout area was in a furniture repair shop on the seventh floor on Terminal Street in Charlestown, overlooking the power plant back when Sifu Li was alive.

“Where did you live when you were there?” I asked.

“Actually, I lived in Nashua (NH).  I couldn’t stand the city (Boston).  I’d drive in in the morning and out at night.  If you’re five minutes late getting started, it can take you an extra hour to get there.”

I nodded ruefully.   “There was quite a bit of traffic leaving town today.  I think some of them were running from the hurricane.”

“Are you coming up here to get away from the hurricane?”

“No, I’ve been planning this for a while,” I said.

“You’re sitting on a gold mine with that car,” said Number 2.

“You’re sitting on a gold mine with that car,” said the driver.

“Well, not really,” I said.  “The third generation Barracudas are worth a lot, but these second generation ones never really got valuable.  They were starting to when the market dropped, along with everything else.”

“That’s a convertible, right?” said the driver, “you don’t see too many of those.”

“They only made like four thousand of them,” I agreed.  “Not like the Mustangs.”

“That was a lot of cars, back then,” said Number 2.

It was full dark by then, and the big truck labored up the hills on Rt. 91.  We had already passed Lyndonville.

“There’s those windmills they put up, those lights over there” observed the driver.

We discussed how they weren’t ugly, as some NIMBY’s maintained.  “One thing we got plenty of in Vermont is wind,” said the driver.

You Don't Have to be Crazy to Work Here. Well... You Do.

“We are almost at the highest point in the Vermont Highway System,” said Number 2.

“We are almost at the highest point… in the Vermont Highway System,” agreed the driver.  All three of our heads swiveled to look at the sign proclaiming the “Highest point in the Vermont Highway System,” looming out of the darkness.  I had nothing to add.

We arrived at our exit, a steep ramp down to the right.

“Last time we were here, we went right back up this hill on a dirt road,” said Number 2.

“Last time we were here, we went right back up this hill… on a dirt road,” said the driver.

“There was a bunch of hippies having a party up there, and one of them broke down,” said Number 2.  “That dirt road was some steep.”

“That dirt road was some steep,” said the driver.

I guided them to the next left across a brook and up a hill.  We crossed over the narrow bridge, right after the sign that said “Narrow Bridge,” and took a right onto the dirt road.  I looked in the side mirror and saw the car still there, well chained to the truck bed against the vagaries of the road surface.

I had told the driver that the house was 7 miles from the highway, but now I corrected myself.  “Actually, it’s seven miles down this dirt road, not seven miles from the highway.”

“Seven miles down the dirt road and over the mountain…” said the driver.  Eventually we got to the sharp turn and steep driveway of the brother’s house.

The Hideout

“Looks like you’re the first one home,” said Number 2, looking at the dark, looming house.  They rolled the car off the roll-off just where I wanted it.  We filled out the paperwork using the flatbed of the truck as a desk.  We were all comfortably over six feet tall.

“Can I buy you guys a beer?” I asked, holding out a twenty.

“Well, OK,” said the driver.  They drove off leaving me with the dark house, the dead car and a sky full of stars.  I felt pretty good.

After the hurricane, Prairie Dog, the neighbor, drove me to Newport and we scoured the six parts stores there for a ballast resistor and an ECU.  I ended up having to order the ECU, and we had to make the trip twice.  In between, we went back to the off-the-grid Prarie Dog Lair, and had some blueberry pie made from blueberries from their blueberry plantation, baked by the wife of Prairie Dog, known as “The Prairie Dog Companion.”

The replacement of the suspect parts took minutes.

Nobody Likes to See That

It ran unenthusiastically with the new Chinese/Mexican ignition until I adjusted the fuel mixture to increase the fuel richness, when the slant six sounded like it should.


Maybe it was just the adjustment, and the electronics were blameless. The backfire that had blown apart the muffler was a textbook lean backfire.  Lean in carbspeak means too much air, not enough fuel.  If the electronics had been,  in fact, fine, I could have fixed it with a screwdriver back in St. Johnsbury before AAA was called.  “Assumption is the mother of all ‘screw-ups’,”  Another rule from the machine shop wall.

Fuel problems can act the same as ignition problems, and I think I had been barking up the wrong tree with my electrical repair.

At some point I would swap in the old ECU, and field test it.      I still didn’t know what went wrong, or if I’d really fixed it, but it was running like a champ. The return trip over the mountain passes would tell the tale.




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