By John Vander Meulen
It happens to all of us at one time or another. Maybe not much anymore, or the experience not as drastic in this age of On Star, cell phones and more sophisticated auto engineering. Sloppy repairs, neglected maintenance, running out of fuel, flat tires, do it yourself repairs; worn out parts, uninformed owners…the list is endless. It’s not all negative though; you learn something new and get to meet all kinds of interesting people. Working, once with a young lady engineer from the “La Belle Province“, I inquired as to which type of vehicle she was driving, figuring I would get a detailed mechanical description… “The red one in the parking lot, she replied.” Ok, I thought, remind me not to ask you anything too complicated.
September of 1969 found me in Buffalo visiting friends. The AMX had 12,000 miles on the clock. Negotiating downtown on a Saturday afternoon, on the way to the suburb of Hamburg, we stopped at a small plaza. After parking, a young lad of about 10 excitedly told me what I didn’t want to hear…your car is leaking! Sure enough, the water pump was leaking through the shaft seal. Spillage was prominent immediately after shutting down the engine due to internal coolant pressure. While running, coolant leakage was minimized by centrifugal force, keeping the loss nominal. The “Good Gulf” attendant in Hamburg was a nice sort of guy and in retrospect, bore a striking resemblance to Al Bundy on “Married with Children”. “Needs a special short shaft pump” he said after making a few calls. “Gotta come from Kenosha and won’t be here till Monday”. Had I been on the “right” side of the border, I might have attempted the ride home, stopping occasionally to refill. My companion dropped me off at the bus station. Not sure what it is about “motor coach depots”, but I instinctively put my wallet in my front pocket. Returning the following weekend, I had picked up a replacement pump ($26) at Wellman Motors in Oshawa, just to be on the safe side. Kept the spare in the trunk. Subsequent pumps usually lasted only about 20,000 miles, the rear seal usually being the culprit.
Fast forward some years and adventures with the car pool. One member of the group, also with Quebecoise origins, tended to drive more “emotionally” than the rest of us Anglos, probably due to his Gallic nature. This predisposed his automobiles to premature wear and tear and coupled with zero maintenance, we enjoyed a variety of transportation over the years. One particular gem was called a Ford “Mystique”. It tended to lose power gradually and when unable to keep up with traffic, we pulled over to the shoulder, shut the car off, waited several minutes and started it again. It worked! Not sure why but the rumour was the catalytic converter(s) were plugged & since the new Kawartha Casino had just opened up, they weren’t about to be replaced. Problems mounted - transmission, alternator - finally sent the Mystique to its reward. It was replaced by a 1995 Buick. Reliable transportation at last! Remember what I said about meeting new people….most of us are eager to help a fellow citizen in distress especially when it gives us a chance to use our new cell phone. Somehow helps to justify the exorbitant cell phone rates we pay. (I used it for an emergency)! This was the case when the torque convertor went out on the Buick on the way to work….no muss…no fuss…just like landing a small plane …we glided to the shoulder. Sticking my thumb out, the second car stopped. One advantage of the ubiquity of cell phones is that I didn’t have to buy one myself. Another had a minor vision variance which made it difficult for him to accurately judge speed and distance. En route to work one Sunday @ 0500 hrs, we began to hydroplane on a slushy secondary road. The 97 Tercel buried itself into the ditch after a long sideways slide that seemed to take forever.
One autumn, we decided to use the spouse’s vehicle to tour the Blue Ridge Parkway. Driving her auto very infrequently, I had noticed an unusual bearing hum coming from the engine. Removing the serpentine belt I tried to wiggle the water pump shaft, but it seemed ok. The power steering setup was off slightly, different configuration, so I suspected it of being the culprit. We stopped to visit friends in Duchess County, halfway between Albany and NYC, along the scenic Hudson River Valley. The “hum” had a “Stockholm Syndrome“ effect. We bonded. It became friendly. We arrived in Front Royal, Va., Shenandoah National Park, the entrance to the parkway. The hum had become a low growl. Now any of you who have driven the Blue Ridge Parkway know there are no services. It’s recommended that your car be in good mechanical condition to avoid breakdowns. Fuel, food and accommodation are obtained in the towns in the valleys below. Spending the night in Roanoke, Virginia, I contemplated visiting a GM dealership. Only a fleeting thought at that. Why waste a day. We exited the parkway in Asheville, NC and headed for Myrtle Beach. Driving Interstate 20 in the smoker’s paradise of South Carolina, we were on Interstate 20, halfway between Columbia and Interstate 95. The traffic was moving at about 75 mph. Suddenly the hum stopped…like losing a friend. The “charge” light came on…great I thought, lost the drive belt so ‘hot’ isn’t far behind. Being mostly a rural area, I noticed a motel sign in the distance and pulled in. Upon shutting down, the overheated coolant made regurgitating noises, the water pump plate converter and serpentine belt lying on the bottom engine cover. The pump shaft had broken off. As I contemplated the cost and the tow to Florence, SC about 30 miles distant, the motel manager suggested a garage “over the bridge”. A dead ringer for Dukes of Hazard’s “Cooter “ arrived shortly with an ancient tow truck from the town of Bishopville, about a mile away. “We’ll have it ready in the mornin” he said “and call you”. I thought “good luck”. Cadillac 4.9, FWD water pumps have an extension and because of space restrictions (pump tip is only ¾ inch from the frame) are particularly difficult to change. The wife and I had dinner at the adjoining restaurant in the company of a group of African-American agricultural workers. We stood out like a couple of honest politicians. “Cooters” boss, an elderly gentleman who resembled “Doc” on the old “Gunsmoke” series picked me up the next morning. Cash, no credit card, Bank and ATM across the street. Doc’s wife had friends in Nova Scotia and no, it wasn’t near Ontario. Friendly folks there were, sketching directions to I-95 and Myrtle Beach as if we were intergalactic travelers not yet having mastered Earth road maps. After an uneventful week in Myrtle Beach, we headed home. Upon exiting to a rest stop on I-40 the exhaust pipe snapped inches from the exhaust manifold. We were directed to a garage and rumbled into the town of Warsaw, SC. Spanish was the language of choice. The paper thin metal was unweldable , the entire exhaust system removed, the catalytic converter temporarily discarded and a new piece was grafted in. My attentiveness caught the youngest of the Central American foursome rewelding the exhaust system upside down. The tailpipe would have been pointing up. The yard was littered with automobile engines. I thought… these guys are either really good and have a thriving business or they make a lot of mistakes. We made a bee-line for home.