By Mark Misercola
You probably didn’t realize it when you shut the bargain, but the minute you took shipping on your vintage you automatically eligible for membership at the Traumatic Roadside Experience (TRE) Club. The great news is there is no entrance fee. All that you need to do is live a UASB (an abrupt and surprising breakdown) and live to speak a whole lot about it. Every classic proprietor has had them. Long-time specialists of this “Classic Car Wars” will inform you it comes with the territory.
Truth be advised, half of the pleasure of visiting weekend cruises and car shows is swapping stories of your pride and pleasure left you left high and dry late at night on a dark road in the middle of a five-lane street, or about the top of this George Washington Bridge at the middle of a traffic jam.
A fantastic friend who has logged more miles on his vintage me likes to state “That’s what AAA is for. You pull over to the side of the road, call for assistance and bite the bullet.” I recall his advice once I begin hyperventilating about life at the breakdown lane. I am the type of owner who sweats the details. I have reoccurring questions about a car I do not own anymore breaking in a scary neighborhood I have never been around. There’s no happy ending because I actually can not push into the sunset.
I want to think I am getting better about over-reacting to chills, if just because I have been through over several traumatic roadside adventures within the last decade together with all my cars. But I don’t sleep well the night prior to an elongated drive due to what may be lurking out there on a road way, far away in the security and comfort of my own garage.
Fearing that the Unknown
What can it be I dread most? Star Trek’s Captain Kirk pinpointed it best when he stated, “The greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” And that he was just perfect. My greatest fear is that the unknown; this concealed part lurking beneath the hood or lid waiting to neglect when I least expect it. Of class, Kirk had Scotty on board the Enterprise for repairs). I do not. So fear of the unknown is a constant companion on my ordeal.
The flip side to this is that I really do have over just a few war stories to tell and a few are real head-scratchers! Here, in abbreviated form, is a highlight reel of my best-of-the-worst Classic Car War tales, compiled firsthand, straight from the entrance.
- Tranny Overboard: On how home from the largest car show in the country, the transmission in my convertible chose to give way in the middle of Interstate 84. I stepped on the gas, the engine roared, and the car slowed to a crawl. Fortunately, I managed to shore from the middle of the street into the breakdown lane without hitting anyone. Then for another 45 moments my daughter and I waited patiently to the flatbed in what felt like a ring-side chair in the Indy 500. I moved home, kicked myself for not expecting the transmission might require an overhaul, bit the bullet and had it reconstructed. The humiliation stinks just until I got the invoice.
- Smoking Steering Column: In that a futile-yet-determined attempt to reverse the damage of 30 years of sitting in a garage, I listened to my soon-to-be former mechanic that invited me to put some mileage in my’66 Toronado and free up exactly what I later discovered were just two bent push rods. “Do it,” he explained. “That’s the only way to free up stuck valves or lifters and it’s a lot better than cracking open the engine and rebuilding it.”
The automobile was really running fairly well at highway speeds daily, but roughly 25 kilometers from house white smoke began billowing up through the steering column and straight in my head within an old highway with no breakdown lane. What’s worse, it smelled like an electric fire. I freaked. This turned out to be a fantastic thing because without realizing it I eased up on the accelerator and the cottage smoke backed off so I could limp house with no gas mask. Fortunately, there was no fire, only blow-by coming in by your engine bay and through the steering column. So I bit the bullet and decided then and there to rebuild the motor. No more smoking columns, but it turned out to be a classic Twilight Zone encounter nonetheless.
- Parade Rest: Just earlier Memorial Day and just a few brief weeks after accepting delivery in my convertible, the first in a long line of faulty fuel pumps gave manner. My children were frustrated because a call went out in college the week before for convertibles to ferry local dignitaries from town parade. I told the children the car was not ready. But a buddy came by the afternoon before and allow me to replace the leaky gas pump. “Now you’re all set,” he explained. “You can take the car in the parade tomorrow and the kids will be happy.”
I don’t understand why I agreed to get it done. The weather was so hot, the top was down, and that I was not convinced that the car was dependable. But the children really are interested in being at the parade, and that I could not say no. Thirty minutes to the road the “hot” warning light on the dashboard lit up. Then the radiator began overheating and that I was not far behind. Fortunately, I managed to pull the vehicle on a side road. We waited for the parade to finish and (you guessed it) I called AAA to deliver the car home. The radiator has been re-cored and done perfectly. But since this day, the sole parades I believe seeing are on TV.
- Generator X had: On a trip to Stowe, Vermont, (the initial protracted journey in my convertible) into some regional Antique Automobile Club of America series, the generator in my convertible expired. I was shocked while the reddish “generator” light flashed to the dashboard because only a couple of months before it had been overhauled along with the electric system was doing just fine. As together with all the parade, I had the entire family , and now they had been convinced that the car was murdered. Since we had been too far from house to return, we forged ahead, working on battery power and clenched fists. When we came at Stowe the battery expired.
Repairing the generator short note in a hotel town was not an alternative. So I purchased a charger and nursed it throughout the series. The convertible earned its original Junior badge from AACA that weekend, so the trip was worthwhile. But there was the 270 mile trek back together with all the “generator” warning light on and the battery draining from the mile. I never turned off the car since I had been afraid it would not re-start.
Then following over four hours on the road the engine shut down at a stop light under a distance from the home. I was hardly able to re-start the car and made it back into the drive until the engine gasped back and the battery died for good. To this afternoon I travel with a backup generator at the trunk.
- A Really Bad Leak: My all-time favorite war story involved my initial Cadillac — a 1978 Eldorado Biarritz. It was the final of the large Cadillacs I picked up in the height of this’79 gas catastrophe because I was convinced it had “future classic” written around it. With less than 25,000 miles on the odometer, the radiator started leaking. I took it into a local radiator shop that had a good reputation and an extremely catchy motto — “the best place in town to take a leak” (honest!) .
A couple of days and $300 later, I had been back to the New York State Thruway heading at the home. But then the automobile became owned. The inside lights began flashing off and on, the power door locks jumped up and down, and the motor eventually shuddered and died. I coasted down the closest off-ramp into a dead standstill, locked in my car with all the windows closed and no electricity. What I did not understand at the time was that the key electric harness under the hood was on fire. Fortunately, the fires burnt through one of the heater hoses and the radiator fluid extinguished the flame.
As it was, the mechanic that worked on the automobile left his wrench in addition to my starter. It shorted out the Caddy’s electric system and touched off the flame. The radiator store to its own credit paid for your repair. But it required over a month to acquire a replacement exploit in GM’s Midwest warehouse to my local Cadillac trader in Buffalo, and if it was over I had been fried in more ways than one.
It’s been awhile since my latest UASB and, to be honest, I have not missed them. But regardless of how nicely my cars are operating today, I am always wary the next one is lurking around the corner. I take solace in knowing that when I’m sitting by the fireside with my grandson in my knee and he asks, “What did you do during the great Classic Car Wars?” I will not be at a loss for words.
Mark Misercola is a writer, writer and vintage car enthusiast from Trumbull, CT. He began his career as a journalist covering the auto industry for its Buffalo, N.Y. Courier-Express. He grew up in an Oldsmobile household and now owns two 1960 Oldsmobiles plus also a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. He is your co-author of”Great Grilles of the ‘50s,” a coffee table book by M.T. Publishing. And his bucket record involves a 1955 Oldsmobile.
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