Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bits of Metal: Part Two

My first car wasn't even a car. It was a truck. And, not just any truck. It was a used postal truck, with the driver's side on the right. It was called a "Step Van" because it had a step where the passenger seat would have been. It looked like a smaller, weaker, whiter UK version of a UPS truck.

Oh, and of course, it needed a lot of work.

I bought this bit of metal for what was a huge sum for a recent high school graduate with no job. I can't recall the exact figure, but it was over $1000. Ostensibly, I was only paying half of this because my friend Bryan was going to split it with me. We were also going to drive it out to California, after we fixed it up. Well, my friend never paid his half. We never fixed it up, and we sure never drove it out to California.

Well, instead of going to UT Journalism school with the full scholarship I'd been given, I chose to spend the last bit of savings from my two jobs on that truck. The engine needed to be repaired--twice--but I had no clue how to do even the simplest task like changing the spark plugs or the oil. We paid to have it fixed and wasted the rest of our money on the interior. Actually we struggled just to tear out the interior and never found the time or energy to upholster in in that lush 70's style that we imagined when we bought it. It never made it past the dream state, and two months after I bought it, the transmission fell out while I was driving it. I had to pull over and leave it on the side of the road. I tried to sell it, but eventually had to pay someone to tow it away so I wouldn't get a fine from the city.

When I came back from Paris the first time, I went to work at Gianni's and eventually saved up enough money to buy a '61 Ford Falcon convertible. I can't recall what it cost, but I do recall paying cash for it and getting it from a guy who had kept it garaged in a big home over on Balcones drive and called it 'Spooky'--which was the name of a hit song in the late seventies. It had red leather interior and the all the chrome and bling that the car designers of the late fifties and early sixties could hang on it. It was sharp.

The Falcon also had a motorized convertible top which actually worked. I used this car as my daily driver for over a year and sadly I never realized what I had or I'd have taken better care of it. Still knowing nothing about working on cars, I abused this old car way too much. I had it worked on several times until I could not afford to keep it running. Among other things, the radiator was broken, and eventually it was no longer drive-able. With the Falcon in the driveway under a car cover, I went back to my bike--the Raleigh Record I bought in high school--and it sat in my driveway for several months before I sold it to my friend Alex just before going back to live in Paris in 1980.

I didn't sell that bike, that sturdy bit of metal, thankfully, and took it with me to Europe--twice. I rode it many hundreds of miles through the streets of Paris, and once from Paris to Chartres. As a city boy, the Record was my mode of transport, and good one at that. I didn't even dream of owning a car until I came back from Paris for good in 1981. I couldn't have dreamed of owning this, my third car, mostly because owning it was a nightmare.

"Skylab" was a 1964/65 vintage Beetle Bug, painted white with some red trim around the bumpers. It wasn't mine or even a car I thought I'd ever own when I first rode in it. It was named Skylab. It was given that name by it's previous owner and my roommate, Henry whose roommate prior to me had actually owned it before Henry and who had worked on the Skylab project. When Henry moved to Houston (and Valery moved in with me) I bought Skylab from him.

Henry was driving Skylab when I moved in to his house on Duval street on my return from Europe. It was by watching him work on it that I first learned my way around a VW. To say that Skylab was temperamental was to understate the case by an order of magnitude or more. It was actually just barely functional, and that was on a good day. The starter/battery combination failed so often that if it wasn't parked on a hill, we had to push it to get it started. I think it was even on that very first morning, when Henry and I went to breakfast in Skylab that I got my first dose of heavy exercise after a meal. Not something I wanted to repeat, but, sadly, I did just that, way too many times at all time of the day and night.

Years later, I knew it was finally time to give Skylab up when I got a ticket from the UT Campus police for driving it backwards down a street at night in front of the art building. I wasn't actually driving, I explained, I was coasting backwards till I could pop the clutch and start the engine. The cop was sympathetic enough to my plight to allow me to leave the engine running, but reasoned that the situation still warranted the fine. I don't recall how or to whom I sold that bit of history, but I am sure I got more out of it than it got out of me. Well, sort of.

I was 'driving' Skylab when I met Valery. She was driving an old Corrola with a bashed in right front fender onto which she had painted stars. Just before we got married, Valery and I ditched our pieces of well, you-know-what, and got a '82 Renault Fuego from a neighbor of Henry's first wife's parents. The previous--and first--owner had been an astronaut, so he kept the car looking brand new. It wasn't your ordinary car, though. For one thing, it was French. Whi buys a French car? Who works on French cars? One dealer did, in San Marcos! Fortunately it never needed a lot of repairs, but when it did, they were very expensive.

The Fuego was a funny sort of hybrid sports/family car. It was turbocharged and had a retractable soft top--not exactly a convertible but way better than a sunroof. With the top back, you could actually stand up in the front seat--something Valery did for a picture or two while we were in Europe.

Yes, we took this car to Europe for our honeymoon. After we got married, we really wanted to go to Paris and see Europe. We also wanted the freedom of driving around in a car. We looked at our finances and figured that for just a little more than we would have paid for a couple of three-month Eurail passes, we could afford to ship our car over to Europe. So we did. We drove the Fuego down to Houston where it got put on a ship bound for Manchester, then we flew over and claimed it. We drove that car from Manchester to Crete and back to Southhampton, where we put it back on the boat for Houston when it was time to come home.

The only bad things that happened to us and that car were having the license plates stolen in Paris and Lyon on the way out and a minor fender bender in Paris on the way back. We drove it on some narrow mountain roads, the 'Autostrada' in Italy, the streets of London, Paris, Milan, Florence and Athens and many miles in between. It made it back from Europe with everything but those license plates,and we drove it for at least three or four years after we returned. It was the car we brought Pierre home from the hospital in, and it may even have served the same function when Maddie joined us.

When I was in graduate school, with two small children, we traded in the failing Fuego with it's almost non-existent rear seat for a nice, well-kept maroon '71 Beetle. This car appeared to be perfect mechanical shape, with no rust or body damage of any kind. The interior was aging but not destroyed or rotting and the engine seemed to be in great shape, capable of going thousands of miles more. Thinking that the power-train wasn't something to be concerned with, once again I spent my savings on fixing up the interior. I bought new seat covers, carpet and a headliner. I bought all new rubber seals for the body, windows and engine compartment. When I finished, it looked awesome. The car was a real cherry and I really loved it. For about a month.

Then, the engine threw a rod.

At the time, I had no idea what a rod was, how it could be 'thrown' or even what that meant. I really had no clue about how my car worked. Oh, I was clever enough to replace some of the bits and pieces that were attached to the metal, but I had never really worked on the metal itself. And when that engine blew, I knew it was time to try.

Now, part of that decision came from stubborn parsimony; after all I had just fixed up the outside and I would be damned-- a prophetic notion if ever there was one--if I'd just throw it away. I also just could not afford to pay for a new or even a rebuilt engine, and a new engine was going to be the only way to get this car back on the road.

Unless I rebuilt the engine myself.

Now, since I had owned Skylab I had owned a copy of "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive" by John Muir. Millions of VW owners learned how to care for their cars without ever actually knowing much about auto mechanics because of Muir's excellent, well-written book. In this book, Muir didn't have as his goal teaching us--clueless mechanically dis-inclined ex or soon-to-be-ex hippies--how to repair cars in general. He set out to show us how to keep our Volkswagens on the road, even if we had a Bug, a Bus or a Ghia. Thanks to Muir, we didn't have know what that 'thingy' was or why it was there or how it worked. What was important to Muir was showing us how to get it out, how to clean/fix/replace it without much time, knowledge or tools. And, in the process, I came to know something about auto mechanics and grew to love it.

Thanks to Muir, I learned the art of adjusting the tappets, the relationship between the distributor and the engine timing and how to replace the ignition wires without screwing up the coil. In time, I even learned what and where the coil was.

But after all the 'fixing' I did on Skylab and even after redoing the interior of my '71 Bug, I had still had never even contemplated taking apart the engine, let alone putting it back together. But Muir had a chapter on how to do just this and I thought--just as he no doubt intended--'well if he can do it, so can I.'

Next: I did.

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