Monday, October 27, 2008

In Hard Times and in Good....

Oh boy, well a lot has happened since my last euphoric post 2 weeks ago. My old girl has hit a major road block. Two Saturdays ago, I blew a head gasket heading up the Conejo Grade from Ventura to Los Angeles. I was headed to the twice yearly Mopar auto show and swap in Van Nuys CA. The actual event snuck up on me and when my friend and mechanical sensai Jeff emailed
that it was going down, I decided I HAD to go. Not only had I not seen Jeff, Mondo & Ed (The three dudes that really get the credit for resurrecting my first Dodge, Ol' Blue) in over a year, the Fall Fling is THE Mopar hook-up in So-Cal. I knew that there I could pick up nearly every part I am lacking on this new wagon. Also I could oggle the amazing cars in the show and have a sense of pride that indeed, this year I had brought my own bad-ass Mopar.

But Alas, none of that was to happen. Instead I spent the entire Saturday trying to get the car back to home base after an unexpected overheat that resulted in a blown head gasket. The Conejo Grade is a big steep incline that cuts through the mountains like a gateway to or from Ventura County. I have never owned a car that has effortlessly gone up this hill. In fact, my tow truck driver from that fateful Saturday said "If there is a weekness in a car, that hill will find it". I sure found that out the hard way. Half way up the grade the car was losing speed like mad, I shifted into second (its a 3 speed) and made the last bit of the hill going about 25, it was awful. The whole time I was eyeing my heat gauge. Sure enough by the time I hit the top I was near the "danger zone".

I exited in Agoura Hills, not really the most friendly town for jalopy breakdowns. I got plenty of scorn from the Mercedes, BMW and Hummer owners while I had the hood popped up and steaming in front of the water pump at a local gas station. I called Jeff and he diagnosed it as a blown head gasket over the phone. The car was still drivable so I limped to a Jiffy Lube to get some sort of flush to rid my engine of all the radiator fluid it took on. They patched me up enough to head back to Ventura. I had a stop in Thousand Oaks to replace the upper radiator hose which had expanded to twice its size during the over heat. From there I went down the grade and caught traffic in Camarillo, where I exited the 101 and discovered a completely flat passenger-side front tire. After that I called it quits for the day and phoned AAA.

I got towed home and as soon as the car was deposited in the driveway my spirits sank. I knew this was a big deal. For modern cars with aluminum engines, a blown head gasket is often a death sentence. My hope against hope was that I caught the overheat before it got too bad and minimal damage had occurred. The Dodge has the infamous slant six motor, which is of course cast iron. It can take a lot of abuse before it is a lost cause. That knowledge was my only hope. Now all I had to do was build up the courage to take apart my own engine!

My dad and I delved into the process this last weekend. We tore down the engine to remove the head. We had to take apart alot of stuff to get to that stage. We bagged and numbered everything. When we pulled the head and spied the head gasket, we as amature mechanics thought that it looked fine. When you hear the word blown to describe something you imagine smithereens. In actuality it was a very subtle pattern of unusual wear on the gasket, the head and the block. I had to have a seasoned mechanic, Fred point out the not-so-obvious to me. Now the next step is to have the head resurfaced at a machine shop. There are a lot of other projects that popped out of this Pandora's box like a radiator rebuild & thermostat replacement to name a few.

I feel a little better about the situation now that we have gotten an idea of what needs to be done to put Lucy (Oh yeah, that's her name!) back on the road. I have to locate a good/affordable machine shop and once that's done, we can start reassembling the engine. The sooner we can get that done the better because the longer we wait the less we will remember about how we took it apart! Till Lucy is running again, I'm on the Schwinn. I ride to work and back all week, about a mile and a half one way. My boss asked me why don't I ride a moped instead (we have 4)? I told her that seeing as how all my modes of transportation are vintage including my 70's Schwinn, I figured the bike is least likely to break down on the way to work! I don't really mind pedaling to work either, I am getting some killer exercise and not spending a dime on gas. Which is good because every penny is being absorbed by the Dart!

Monday, October 13, 2008

My Dart beginings...

Yay! I got my Dart wagon back from the carburetor shop. Boy did they do a great job! They rebuilt the carb and it is now so clean when I first laid eyes on it, I thought they replaced it all together. The also had to tap out and re-thread an old bolt holding in the choke housing to the engine block. They then replaced the whole apparatus on that one. They put in a new in line fuel filter and some new gas lines leading to and from the filter. They lastly replaced a dodgy (no pun intended) wire heading to my coil. They did one fine job with the tune up and now the wagon is much more road worthy and has been starting right up each time. She's purring like a giant kitten. I will be driving her to and from work and hope no new problems will manifest. I have my eye on some new tires too, just waiting for my next pay check!

Now enough about the new-old car, lets give credit to the past Darts in my life. The whole love affair started when I found a late 60's model Dart in a Cars for Causes auto yard. It was several years ago and way before I had even an inkling of mechanical knowledge. Immediately I was head over heals. It was a 4 door sedan, probably a '68 or so, all red, inside & out. Immaculate condition. The only hitch, it wouldn't start. That didn't keep her from telling me her name though, it was Beulah. She was a big girl. Big and beautiful. My Dad was with me on the lot. We were looking for mopeds not cars. He saw Beulah and loved it too. He told me he had owned a Dart and a Valiant when he was a younger man. He loved those cars. He was all for me to buy it. (My dad is unusually pro crazy mechanical projects come to find out) the boyfriend I had at the time was not so enamored. He told me I would be bringing home an $800 paper weight.

That's right, $800! Oh, how I wanted her. I went back each weekend for about a month, to visit with Beulah and I quickly befriended a dude who worked there. He assured me that these old cars had very little that could go wrong on them. That most likely it was a small problem that kept it from running. As enticing as that was, I had no idea how to work on it and had zero dollars for endless mechanics. Then, finally the disapproving boyfriend went out of town. I had made up my mind to bite the bullet and buy Beulah. If I was to have an $800 paper weight at least it would be a beutiful one! As soon as my day off rolled around, I drove out to C4C. I ran into the yard, cash in hand looking for my Dart. I'm here Beulah, where are you??? I hurried over to her spot in the yard and all I saw was an empty parking space and some old oil stains. What? Where was she?? I looked desperately around the yard, maybe they moved her to the back--nothing! I found the dude who worked there...

"Where's my Dart?", I pleaded.

"Some one bought it yesterday" he said, "they connected some wires and it started right up. They drove it away."

My brain realed, they DROVE it away???? All I could do was stare at her empty parking space. I looked up to the heavens, "BEULLLLLAAAHHHHH!" She was gone.

I do not have any photos of this car. All I know is that she was beautiful and she was the one that got away. It was a valuable lesson though, the universe will provide for you when the time is right. Beulah wasn't meant to be mine, but she was meant to plant the seed in my mind. Over the years weeds grew in my brain and I knew that ONE day, I was meant to have a Dart. It would happen, but not until the stars had aligned.

The only record of Buelah I have is a few pages of a comic that I had started. I will dig those out and post them here. Long live Beulah, I know you are out there somewhere, in good hands.

xoxox, Amber

Coming Soon: The Mighty Blue

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Pushing Forward

Right on schedule, my old Dart has had a break down. There must be some sort of magic in these cars that give you a taste of the open road just long enough to keep you hooked. I had just taken her into shop class and replaced the points & condenser Tuesday night. Yesterday I drove to work, to lunch and right when I left work.....vahhhhhroooommm...sputter...llllvvvmmm....plbbbt. Stopped. In the middle of the street.

I was only about 30 feet from work, barely away from my parking lot. I tried to start her but no dice. Its this carburetor problem that we were aware of --I think--I hope. Luckily, John my heroic BF was right around the corner he had stopped into the shop to bring me my swim suit ( I had water aerobics after work). I called him, Turn around! I'm dead in the water! I pushed her outta the path of direct smashing by oncoming traffic. John pulled up behind me and turned on his hazards, something I lack in the old car. I don't think they had thought of that yet in 1963. Either that or hazards were an option along with such things as seat belts & back up lights. We rolled her into a parking lot and went through the routine of amateurs trying to figure out what was wrong. After nothing brought her back to life, we rolled her down to a shop called "My Mechanic". Surprisingly they were open after 5pm so I went in and discussed my problem with the owner of the shop. Never before have I met such an unsympathetic mechanic. He was nice enough but reminded me that carburetors are a dead technology (no pun intended) and that he grew up in the "fuel injection age". Then he and his off-roading cronies deftly ignored John & I while we gave her a few more tries at starting. Never did he once cast an eye over at the immobile A-body parked cockeyed in front of his shop.

We called our pal, Fred a genuine mobile mechanic. He is such an awesome dude and so down-to-earth he makes any mechanical hopeful feel like they actually have hope. He gave us some suggestions and sympathetically told us that he doesn't really work on carbs either. Earlier in the week re recommended a couple of ways to skirt around our carb problem, just to keep her on the road till we could take it to a shop. Now that those magic tricks stopped working, we needed professional help. There is only one carburetor shop in all of Ventura and luckily it was only a few miles away. We called AAA and arranged a tow. Then we called Pacific Carburetors to check out their business hours. It was now 6:00 and I was certain I would be getting the answering machine. I dialed out and when the machine finished its canned response I began to leave a message. Hi, my name is Amber and I have a 63 Dodge Dart that we are towing.... Right then a human voice is on the line...Hello? Oh, sure I'm still at the shop. We are closed but I'm still here bring it on in. Wow.

We had the tow driver deliver her to Pacific Carburetors. My car looked relieved to be up on the flatbed, getting a free ride. I told her not to get used to it. The guy at PC was there alright, sitting at his desk waiting for us. He received us with the utmost kindness, not perturbed that we had brought a last minute problem to his door. We chatted a bit about the car and about how I'm taking a beginning automotive class. What a cool guy. No wonder Fred recommended him! John and I left the keys with him and looked around the automotive center we were in. Tires, Body work, Upholstery. We considered just leaving the car here for a month and having her tricked out all in one stop. That would cost thousands though so we trained our eye on the tire shop. I do need new tires. We went into their shop, which was also surprisingly still open. We talked to the guy in there, also surprisingly nice. Turns out he and the PC guy are working on each others cars that night. He told us he would find some tires for me. Sweet.

John and I then jumped in his trusty Ford Ranger and went out to dinner to celebrate my car breaking down. Well not really, but we were hungry. Maybe we were celebrating the good guys out there. The ones willing to greet you with a warm handshake, a kind word and welcome you in, even if it is after hours.

Coming soon: the diagnosis!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

My Girl

***Note: This Blog submission also appears on my Octopus Moustache blog***

I'm in love--in love with a car. As it turns out, its not just one car either, it is more like a type of car. In a world of automotive cliches there are Ford people, Chevy people, VW people, and among the ongoing list you have your Mopar people. I am officially in the latter category. I am a Mopar girl. Mopar encompasses Dodge, Chrysler and Plymouth makes and models. The word itself derives from Motor Parts. Hence, Mopar. I'm not really sure how it happened, not just my preference for Mopar but the whole darn thing. How did I become a junior gear head?

If I were a dude it would be a bit less befuddling. Dudes have a built in love of cars. I'm not a dude though, I'm a 29 year old female who has just within the last 5 years discovered the art of turning a wrench. I can pin point it back to the mopeds. My dad scored a free Vespa Piaggo that launched a whole stable full of the little buggars. When he dragged the first one home it was He and my two brothers who tooled on it till it sputtered to life. I remember them all in the backyard messing around until the sun went down. Where was I? I'm pretty sure I was doing my hair (a mohawk at least). I guess I had other things on the mind. When I rode that first bike though, everything changed. The work they had put into it resulted in something fun--that you could ride up and down the street at a raucous 30 mph. It wasn't until I got my own moped that I realized it takes almost more work than fun to operate them. Soon I was the one in the backyard cleaning a carb till the sun set on my back. I met a lot of awesome people, all gear heads in some way or another within the moped community. I realized that there were lots of people keeping these things alive. Suddenly I was doing it too. We could all swap advice & tricks I was actually learning how to do stuff on my own. It felt great! Soon my one bike became 3 and 4 and I was officially a junior gear head.

The cross over to automobiles was a huge leap. At first it was way more than I could handle on my own. I had run off and impulsively bought a '63 Dodge Dart for $600. The car itself had an allure I somehow could not deny. It ran well enough on the test drive but as soon as it was in my name, it collapsed in the driveway. There it sat for a couple of months. I was making calls to friends from the moped community seeking advice and finally my bestie, Robin told me to tow it to LA where he would help me get it up and runnin' again. We did some "hacker" type stuff, Robin's version of Mac Gyver meets Mad Max. I was sent on my way back to Ventura and had a pretty awful break down. I made it to Burbank where the car was stranded. I called my friend Jeff who graciously towed it to his friend's auto shop. There I met the coolest most on-the-level bunch of Mopar guys. They knew and loved the Dodge Dart in and out. Jeff is the type of auto genius that can tell you a part number from memory. Amazing. Those guys took the helm and each weekend for two months I went to City of Industry and we wrenched on that old beater. By the time it was finished I essentially had a new car in an old body. They christened it with a beautiful blue engine paint job to match the name of the car, Ol' Blue.

I drove Blue back to Ventura and settled into the ownership of a 45 year old vehicle. Once dialed in Blue's trusty 170 Slant Six never let me down. There were some minor problems but nothing I couldn't fix my self once I knew what was wrong. I even survived a rear end collision in that car but that's another story entirely. It took a lickin' and kept on tickin'. I drove it nearly every day for three years. I was smitten and the deal was sealed that I was a Mopar fan.

In those three years I finally realized that my friends & family aren't always going to be on hand to help me out, so this semester I signed up for an automotive class at the college. Its a good thing I enrolled when I did because just this last week I purchased a "new" old car. I had almost-inadvertently, mostly-on-purpose discovered another cool classic car that I was dying to have. I had to make some deals with the powers that be to get the new car. I sold my Ol' Blue who ran as good as ever but was looking worse for the wear to a fellow who had always wanted a Dart. The next day I went to LA to pick up my dream car.

It is, get this...a 1963 Dodge Dart! Starting to notice a trend?? The real deal breaker is that in addition to being in better shape than Blue, it is a station wagon. Yup. The coolest in my opinion of all the models. Now even though she's nicer looking, I am basically starting over with the mechanical aspect and this time I'm on my own. I have of course already had mechanical problems. I replaced the water pump and some hoses on day one of ownership and then had a bout with it not starting which turned out to be a carb issue. The good news is, we can take our cars into class! Tonight we replaced the points in the distributor together. The look on everyone's faces when I pulled my throaty slant 6 into the bay was priceless. Every guy in there (I'm the only girl) wanted to know what make and model it was. Most of 'em had never seen a 3 on the tree before and some had never even seen a carburetor! They were all amazed by the spacious engine compartment, by the accessibility of all the parts and her smooth 60's styling. Yup, me and my girl wowed those dudes.

Its all starting to sink in now. The fact that I have committed myself to keeping this beast alive and that in return it is committed to getting me around town in style. In the history of cars there is no other motor as famed for reliability than the slant six. Nor is there any other car with the bulletproof reputation of the Dodge Dart and I know that together we are going places.