Mar 29, 2009

Restoration Blues

I don't know about you, but there's just something about certain cars and trucks that just makes my heart pound. Sensual lines, a certain stance, the spark of sunlight off a perfect's the American Dream. A beautifully restored antique vehicle.

Rita -- 2-22-04

Rainy Day Rita (my eternal restoration-in-progress truck) was in the shop recently. Right at the end of last summer she'd gotten to running so poorly that it was nearly impossible to keep her running. Since I was only using her on rainy days (hence the name) and to haul the lawn tractor to work once a weekend to cut grass I didn't pay much attention to it, to be honest. I knew I didn't have the money to fix her, she WAS still running enough to get me the four miles to the office and back, the grass cutting season was as good as over, and so I parked her in the garage and, sad to say, mostly forgot about her for the winter.

I know. I can hear you beating your heads against your desk, lamenting me for being a complete and utter bastard, and I deserve it. She sat there all winter and into spring, two tires slowly going flat, her fuel turning into varnish, the dust and pollen piling up on her beautiful Porsche Kiev Green paint job until it was a sort of dingy yellow-grey. Dead bugs started showing up on her dashboard and the dust inside got almost as thick as the outside layer. Even those gorgeous OEM hubcaps almost succumbed to rust.*

Well, I decided a few weeks ago that Something Had To Be Done. Money had been budgeted for repairs, the stormy spring season is upon us here, and damnit the grass is growing fast and I was sick of borrowing my niece's truck and my brother's trailer so I could perform my little contract lawn care services. So, about a month ago I borrowed my brother and his car dolly (he's the '65 - '67 Ford Mustang restorer, he who each morning passes not water but cash) and we brought my nearly departed Rita to the only mechanic I barely trust in town. Brother (yes, that's his real name) who hadn't seen me in the last six years recognised her on the road as we hauled her in and actually came out to meet us, eyes gleaming and all his teeth showing. I should have panicked and ran but I knew blood had to be spilled if I was going to resurrect my girl. I delivered her into his hands and on the spot he declared he was pretty sure what was wrong.

"'S the intake manifold. Just fixed one like this last week. They warp after four decades of runnin', you lose yer vacuum, the fuel stops flowin' and it starts to miss like that. All we gotta do is pull 'er off, grind 'er flat and she'll be good for another forty years."

Well, he wasn't right, but three weeks later, two very small but rare parts and some surprisingly inexpensive tinkering later my girl was right as rain. Mostly. There was still the tires to be seen to, you see. That's where the story really opens up.

If, in your infinite time and wisdom ever see a classic car that you think you ought to buy and restore, let me give you a single piece of advice: DON'T. Unless you are spectacularly wealthy, sleep with someone who is spectacularly wealthy or you own your own garage/body shop and are spectacularly wealthy all at the same time please just listen to me and don't even bother. Restoration of a vehicle takes so much time and money and effort that it simply isn't worth it unless you just like throwing money at something that won't ever return your love OR your investment, in which case you can come throw all that money at me.**

You see, when you buy a vehicle older than about ten years there's never a simple answer. When your vehicle is thirty eight years old and is classified by the DMV as an antique there aren't even mildly complex answers anymore. One simple thing opens up the door to dozens more. You begin to see the interrelatedness of all things mechanical and you start to realise that you're about to start throwing a lot of money at something that isn't going to...well, you know the rest.

It's like this. You buy a brand new vehicle, you drive it around for a while and you get a flat. You manage to get it to the shop, the grease monkey sells you a new tire, puts it on, you give them some money and you drive home. And you're Done. You won't be revisiting that same problem again for a very long time. With an old truck (say, a 1971 GMC Sierra 1500 Custom that you inexplicably love beyond all reason) you get a flat tire, first you have to get the engine running again. Then you pour in some fresh oil (it's been leaking since you bought it,) top the automatic transmission fluid off, and THEN you air the tire back up and drive it (carefully) to your local Sears where you bought the tires new over a decade ago. You walk in, give the man your keys and thank your past self for buying the Road Hazard warranty for $5 a tire 'way back when because it's just paid for itself--you've got two flats and they're going to fix them for free.

So there you are, sitting in the waiting room reading car magazines filled with pictures of immaculately restored 1950 Mercury coupes and 1937 Packard Phaetons and manly early 70's muscle cars with all the numbers matching and everything down to the cigarette lighter original equipment and the mechanic steps in and says "Come see for a minute, wouldja?"

That's when they show you that the back tire is worn in such an odd pattern that they've called every mechanic in the shop over for an engineering lesson, as well as inviting the rest of the folks in the automotive department over for a gander at why you shouldn't ever drive an old vehicle.

Imagine a tire that looks like the inner 3/4 of it's surface was beveled down at a five degree angle, as though someone with infinite patience and a very large metal file had simply shaved the tread just about down to the belts. From the outside it looks like a perfect tire, more dry-rotted from lack of use than worn from driving. Off the hub however it looks like someone took a belt sander to it.

That just doesn't happen on new cars.

The problem seems to be that the wheel bearings have worn so badly that they're allowing the tire to sit canted at an angle, therefore wearing down just the inside 3/4 of the tire and not the outermost bit. See, it's never just "Fix the flat and here's an extra fin if you get it done in ten minutes." No, it's "Well, we pulled the nail out and patched your tire but your wheel bearings are shot and you're gonna need to bring it back for a whole new tire after you've replaced the bearings and oh it's got a huge lump in it and it took seven OUNCES of weights to balance it but it's still gonna ride funny but golly, we had to put weights all OVER that rim to..."etc ad nausem.

This being an old truck I can just about guarantee you that when I get my dear one down to the shop and say "Replace the rear wheel inner and outer bearings and there's an extra twenty in it if you can get it done today" they'll nod and smile, and I'll get a phone call in a few hours from a guy with a sickly smile in his voice when he says "Hey, can you come down here and see real quick?"

They're going to have found that a Peruvian Transmission Weasel has moved in and has made a nest in my axle housing and has had pups, and since they're an endangered and protected species (under the Endangered Antique Vehicle-Dwelling Creatures Act of 1956) they're going to have to fly a mechanical species specialist down from Pennsylvania with special gear to gently remove the offending creatures (at extraordinary expense to me) so the bearings can be repacked and I can be on my way.

At which point something else will go spectacularly wrong, such as the bed falling off or the steering wheel disintegrating in my hands.

Don't ever restore a vehicle. Don't watch the Barrett-Jackson car auction and think that you can restore a car that perfectly. Don't watch the weekend Speed Channel truck show guys who don't ever tell you what it's gonna cost, just make it look astoundingly easy to do a frame-up restoration in their eerily immaculate garage with their frighteningly clean hands. Don't listen to Click & Clack on NPR when they tell you how easy it is to fix something yourself, and for heaven's sake don't watch Dennis Gage and his astounding handlebar mustache when he cheerily says "Don't crush 'em, restore 'em!"

Trust me on this one: crush 'em.

* Almost. I'm not THAT much of a bastard.

** In which case I'll simply turn around and throw it at my truck restoration project.


Stucco said...

Bullshit. That truck is of the era where you COULD work on them yourself. You don't need a $3,000 proprietary electronic interface to diagnose that the emission limiting exhaust sequence modulator is running over voltage spec, or some other "Johnson Rod" kind of tomfoolery. That truck of yours is probably normally aspirated, and probably has no catalytic converter. YOU can work on it. If it has drum brakes in the front, convert it to disks, and replace your bearings at the same time. You can true up the alignment with a tape measure well enough to get to an alignment machine without worry, and YOU should.

What kind of anachronistic be-mustached man are you exactly? I don't understand people who want to "fix up" things by paying others.

In other areas, I had to read one line twice- I thought you were encouraging people to throw all their "love" at you. Not pressing charges is one thing, but outright solicitation- wow. You'll get a reputation.

Irrelephant said...

Stucco, did your sense of humour freeze this winter? Perhaps a big glass of anti-freeze for breakfast would help...

Rudi said...

" the bearings can be repacked and I can be on my way."

I think they only use narwhal blubber for those packings. Because the narwhal are protected you need to make a personal deal with an Inuit who can hunt just 2 narwhal a year under his first people's exemption.

The Inuit are an amazingly resilient and self supportive people. This is unfortunate when it comes to trying to strike a deal for narwhal blubber. They already have the THINGS they need.

You want your truck so you can look manly.

Inuit men want to look manly BUT baby it's COLD UP THERE! Shrinkage happens! The Inuit language has 17 different terms for it.

So, if you want some big chubby piece-o-narwhal for you to pack your balls in you're gonna hafta lend a hand to help Nanook get a big chubby on so he can pack his balls into something too.

I'm just saying, fair is fair.

Irrelephant said...

Rudi, that's IMPRESSIVE! And sickening. Wow, you RAWK!

Clowncar said...

I can relate. I had a deathtrap of a 65 Mustang that leaked oil, brake fluid, steering fluid. Woulda leaked blood if it had any.

If you put in steering fluid it'd all leak out within a couple days, so after awhile I never bothered. Power steering by Armstrong, as some wiseguy watching me steer it once said.

Anonymous said...

Seriously looking at buying a 71 GMC 1500 4x4 right now. Mostly original. Your essay has more or less discouraged me, but maybe that's the point. If an your post is enough to make me think twice, maybe my heart's not really in it.

Irrelephant said...

CC, my brother has the same problem with his 99% restored 65. Go figure!

Anonymous, don't be completely discouraged, just figure out what you want to spend in total on the restoration and then add 50% more. It takes a LOT of money and patience unless you have a lot of connections or skills yourself.

PLUS, make sure you get a good base vehicle to work on. Make sure it's a V-8 truck with the deluxe package (bucket seats possibly, 9-gauge dash for certain) and p/s and p/brakes. A/C is nice too.