Road Trip Revival: Part 5
Norm and I left Baltimore pretty early on Sunday morning. If you were in the area, you probably saw us. The smoke pouring from Norm’s exhaust was hard to miss, but we motored on anyway partly because I think Norm and I were in denial of sorts. “It’s not that bad. A little white smoke never hurt anybody. Fuck it. Let’s go.”
I took the lead so as to avoid the smoke screen and the thoughts of doom it brought on. However after 100 miles or so, we couldn’t ignore the state of Norm’s car any longer. He called my cell phone to report that the transmission kept shifting in and out of third gear. His voice was strained.
I pulled over at the first convenient spot and we checked the tranny fluid level. The dip stick looked as if it had been dropped off in some desert surrounding years ago, so we added some ATF and got back on the road. Norm called to report that the tranny was shifting fine again and we continued on through the Washington D.C. area, but it wasn’t long before I heard his voice again.
“Pull over. Soon.”
So I did and I got out of my car just soon enough to hear Norm slam his door and mutter something about junk yards and the fate that lie ahead for his ’64. By this point, his car was leaking anti-freaze from the overflow, the tranny wasn’t shifting, and the only people willing to drive behind him were those intent on dying from smoke inhalation. In fact, the only thing thicker than the smoke was the tension in the air.
The whole scene made me wonder about long distance road trips and the spirit of adventure. “This shit is supposed to be fun,” I thought. “But somehow, this isn’t fun at all. It’s stressful. And kind of scary.” Norm is a pretty damned good friend of mine and I know him well, but every man has his breaking point. And it’s that breaking point that had me nervous. There was no way to be certain what Norm may do when he finally gave up the ghost. Murderous rage? Suicidal cliff dives?
The possibilities were boundless and they all seemed to end in places that I didn’t want to find myself in.
Again, the tranny was dry as a bone. As his rage began to bubble, Norm poured more ATF and muttered more obscenities. In an of effort of self preservation, I got back in my car and waited for the signal to move on. While doing so, I started thinking about automatic transmissions and the ultimate destiny of the fluid that makes them run. Where in the hell was Norm’s ATF going?
We must have driven 20 or so more miles when I got another call from Norm. “I’m ready to try something. Pull over again.” We did and that’s when it happened. In a moment of clarity, Norm grabbed a Leatherman tool and began sawing away at one of the seemingly thousand vacuum lines that grace a first-gen Riviera engine bay. On one end of that vacuum line was a carb port. On the other, a modulator connected to a valve on the transmission that more or less tells the tranny how much load is on the engine and which gear it should be in.
Once the line was cut, Norm stuck a stick in the carb’s vacuum port and then fired the motor. The tension in the air immediately lifted and was replaced by jubilation. The curtains to the smoke show had closed. In the midst of the worst kind of despair, Norm used the tools available to him and reasoned his way to see the ultimate problem and the simplest solution – the above mentioned modulator had failed, allowing the motor to pump ATF from the tranny into the combustion chamber. The result was the white smoke that poured from the exhaust and a thirst for ATF that couldn’t be quenched. With the line cut, the modulator was taken out of the equation… It just meant norm had to manually shift his tranny from here on out.
And suddenly, the allure of a cross country road trip in an old car became perceptive. The sense of adventure doesn’t come from the failures and hurdles. Instead, it comes from over coming those issues and, no matter what, never giving into that urge to just quit.
As Norm and I motored on through Tennessee the rapture stemming from our success continued to grow. At one point, the old radio in my ’65 came to life and picked up NPR out of Nashville. For a solid hour I was in a blissful trance fueled by both the stories of “This American Life” and the scenery along I-40 through Tennessee. It was one of those “car moments” that you only get a handful of times in life when you realize that you aren’t some crazy bastard with a glutton for senseless punishment that only an old car can provide. Nope. You are reasonable man in search of an obtainable dream – one that you just realized. It was beautiful.
We ended the first day of our travels in Nashville at a motel that can only be described as overwhelmingly unpleasant. It was the kind of sleeping establishment that leaves all thoughts of going sockless at bay and resigns you to wondering about the room’s previous habitants and the legality of their business there. It was a hooker’s den. No doubt. But no matter either as we wouldn’t be there long.
The next morning did, however, start a little later than we had planned. Apparently, both Norm and I needed sleep and we did just that until about 8:30am. We skipped breakfast and got on the road, but within a few miles aft the hotel, Norm lost another tire. It was then that we decided we had had enough of that horse shit and stopped at the first tire store we could find to replace all of Norm’s 20 year old rubber.
That stop allowed us some time to eat breakfast, but also put us behind a terrible accident around the Memphis area. We sat in traffic and along a marked detour for what seemed like hours – moving only a couple of feet every few minutes or so. Riviera’s don’t have temperature gauges, just idiot lights, and the state of the unknown was agonizing. Who would boil over first? What were the consequences?
Amazingly, there would be none. Both cars handled the hour-plus long idle session with ease and by mid afternoon we were knocking on Little Rock’s door. It was then that I think both of us started to really fall for our cars, but we were hesitant to admit it as the “breakdown jinx” forever loomed. Norm’s car was running flawlessly, but mine still had a pretty intense vibration at speed. I was certain it was a carrier bearing and that my miles were limited, but I pressed on with a window down to drown out the noise.
That afternoon and evening seemed to fly by. We ate up miles like a fat kid eats M&Ms and with no further thought to it. Just as a 1963 Riviera advertisement had promised, we were touring in grand style and with unmatched comfort. By midnight, we had reached Texas and all worries of a jinx had come to an end. At our last gas stop, Norm proclaimed his love and beamed with pride. Hell, I bet he forgot all about the a/c debacle by the time we hit Waco. It was just a glorious night.
I rolled into my driveway at 2am – 2,121 miles from the Good General’s house. Looking back, I don’t know if the trip could have gone any smoother. It still amazes me that Norm and I were able to take two cars that had been in hibernation for 20 years, drive them over 2000 miles, and face very little in the way of hazards. It really is a miracle of obscene proportions and one that I’m eternally grateful for. “It was,” as they say, “A trip of a lifetime.”
But lets get down to brass tacks gentlemen. Before I left, I held a little competition and promised an award for the guy that most accurately guessed the problems we would face on the road. Lots of you guessed tires and, technically, you were right. But only one guy gets the prize and I reserved the right to make that call.
On the dawn of our first evening outside of Nashville, I bought a headlight to replace one that had gone bad on my car. Of course, in order to change the headlight on a ’65 Riviera you have to pull apart the linkage that opens and closes the clamshells. In doing so, I skinned my knuckles. Congratulations “bb1970,” you are the lucky winner. Enjoy the admiration of your peers.
And I guess that’s it. That’s the story of the “Road Trip Revival” as seen by Norm and myself. The story of my Riviera, however, is far from over. A stock car, after all, is nothing but a blank canvas.