Monthly Archives: May 2013

Interlude: BMC Edition

His soft round face and the white, tight cropped ring of hair around his head made him look a little like a worn-out Q-tip. Chubby, broadcloth over sansabelts. A nobody. He showed up while I was post coitally napping to buy some old MG parts I never used on my Datsun.

-You don’t like these much, I take it.

I don’t get his meaning. He points to my ancient motorcycle pile. I blush and stammer a bit. He laughs warmly and his middle waves.

-When I was young, I had a Bridgestone, if you know what those are. The twin. And one day I was doing a seat stand.

It’s hard to imagine this man young. And this old fat man in front of me could no more do a seat stand than I could breathe fire but there was a glimmer in his eye that said this was real. The mist of memory. He gestures to an unnoticeable spot on his finger and I bend forward to pretend to look.

-The whole bike landed on my finger there, and flipped over me. The triple tree on those was stamped so when I stood up I just grabbed the front wheel in between my knees and twisted it back straight again. Kicked it and drove off. Nothing injured but my pride.

And his pinky finger. I laughed and laughed and cut him a good deal on the parts. He said he’s gonna put it on this weekend and part of me hopes he’ll drives past, his little british car farting noisily through its new headers.

Jeepster: Gearhead Interrupted

It started with a first generation GMC S-15 Jimmy seen out of the back seat of the old Accord. Red over white, with a roof rack, and a swingaway spare tire with a metal gas can. The big flat sides and big windows, like a van kinda. But with big donut offroad tires and fender flares, not captain’s chairs and wood paneling. I liked it. My mom made fun of the name in some oblique way. My fascination with the Tonka Toy shape stuck, the unfortunate pubescent association of the General Motors truck and my mothers implied penis humor completely destroyed any youthful ideas of getting that as a first vehicle. So back to the original, neverending debate: DeLorean DMC-12 or The General Lee. Both timeless classics!

When I was first learning to drive my father was insistent that I learn how to drive “the right way” and I frequently had to perform wide ranging vehicular learning exercises. Memorizing the grid of streets miles in all directions and performing an oil change. Driving around a parking lot at high speed backwards, then launching forward and doing emergency stops until he was comfortable that I understood how the car handled. Understanding just happened to coincide with concerned shop keepers gather and pointing and trying to get license plate details. Ohhh memories. Anyhow, he took an opportunity with a neighbor’s 2nd Generation 4Runner, red again, and owned by pack a day smoking alcoholic idiots, so it was DESTROYED inside and probably outside too. I struggled to adapt to operating the clutch pedal and gear shift at the same time as I first experienced the dune-buggy like handling of a spring and shackle lifted four-bah-four with a three beer alignment, but it undeniably had… it. I binked a curb and it just went blorp and RAN UP IT. The hoonage potential was electrifying but the horrorshow handling and my own ineptitude with the clutch found me struggling and stalling it twice getting it back into the driveway. I walked away from it sweating and cursing, but the next time somebody asked if I could drive stick I said yes and I’ll be damned if I couldn’t. And now I knew that you could buy a truck and drive OVER stuff with it. LOGS AND SHIT. Epic knowledge for 16.

When I bought the baby truck, aka the Taliban truck, I originally dreamed of it as a 4×4 SAS project. Buy an old Datsun, do a leafer front and flip the rear axle plus Dana twin stick. Really, read the forums. It sounds great. Lots of finished rigs to look at. Tons of people have done an L20/L18 to a 4 speed and a Dana 20 with some offroad-shop fencepost driveshafts and had a ton of fun buggying, and it seemed like a laugh, especially when I was driving around in my 2007 Versa. “So easy” I thought, “I’ll just buy an axle and kinda line it up and weld on the eyelets square! But first lets get these weird old doors out of my attic and these old tires to the dump.” And there she sat. I helped a couple folks move with it, did a brake job and threw a Pertronix on it and my brother in law helped me put a weber carb on it. It ran like a top but eventually it needed wiring work and I bought a hot rod harness for it but never really… started on it. It seemed very hard now, to get all this petrified kingpin nonsense off and put a straight axle on the front.

I don’t even know how to weld really. So I’d have to learn that for starts.

And if I’m gonna rewire it I have to probably paint it. So I’d have to learn how to paint I guess. Red maybe.

And so I abandoned it. Well, I sold it, and dickered with the guy the way you’re supposed to when you’re done with a project car but I was glad to see it go. It was just too original and complete for me to be fucking around with and the only things I could do to it would lower its value. I was only gonna be bad to you girl, you weren’t meant for turbos and fender flares. Bosozuku dreams and stance-u? God I was gonna fuck it up.

And so I started finally looking for my red 4×4. It didn’t have to be red. But it had to be 4×4, automatic because I’ve clutched and shifted my way to my last back spasm, with room for four people or two and dogs or cargo. And it had to be small, I wouldn’t have any GMC Yukon class barge shitting on my driveway forever and since Chevy killed the Colorado that crosses off any modern GMs. I’ve had Fords and they’re fine but the Escape is a Hairdresser McSoccermom, and just as I mentioned re: Yukons, I don’t do fatties so we can write off the whole Explorer-Plus range. Dodge Nitro just… yeah lets just not talk about the N-word or the Durango for that matter. The Grand Cherokee is a porker that has only gotten uglier and more horrible with each passing year, the Liberty is the middle-manager but swears he’s gonna start camping someday counterpart to the Escape. So Daimler Benz Chrysler Renault whatever the fuck they are now, Pentastar Financial’s car branch has nothing to offer either.

So we’re out of modern “domestic”, patriotic and American economy supporting vehicles to purchase. On to the furreners and the old shit. Honda still makes a great minivan, even when they call it an SUV so no thank you to anything that’s not an Isuzu rebrand. While we’re on the topic of Isuzu – whatever they have now is huge and whatever they had back in the day was a little too rough and ready for me in the trim department. I wouldn’t turn down an old Trooper/TII in good shape but gooood luck finding that y’all. A Mercedes Benz G wagen? Hot. Like baller hot but what the fuck am I? A baller? And it will ALWAYS COST YOU MERCEDES MONEY PLUS A 40% MARK UP FOR BEING WEIRD TO FIX. A Subaru of any height or vintage won’t ever really be a 4×4, even though I hear they’re just a killer car. I may still own one of these one day, I love me a good boxer motor. Daihatsu Rocky? I mean of course I’d drive it, it looks like a GI Joe toy but when’s the last time you saw one of those that wasn’t either ridden to shit or about to be?

Unmolested first gen S-15 GMC Jimmies like I saw as a kid (and their GM Partner Platform vehicles) just don’t seem to exist anymore. I don’t know if the rust worm ate them, they started giving away Rancho lift kits with the purchase of a case of Skoal, or they all just got driven till they smoked and traded in during cash for clunkers but it seems like that first generation S-10 Blazer isn’t as plentiful as its counterparts in the SUV world. And that 4.3 v6 has a not great rep everywhere for like… everything. And the 700r4, at least back in the day, had a horrible rep when pushed. Nobody bought them with an iron duke 2.5 and a slushbox. The second gen is ugly as balls so big old mehquake on the classic GM options. Plus I just have a hate on for the General, second rate when new, the cars also seem to disintegrate in value faster than most of their peers. Bleh.

Ford Bronco is too big except for that super early 66 style. Ugh so hot, but too expensive. Again, who am I? The Bronco II has potential, the windows on the back are like… huge. They wrap onto the top of the thing like a greenhouse. But it apparently also rolls over onto its back like a dog that wants belly rubs and I like staying upright most of the time when driving so I guess Ford’s dead to me now too.

An old friend had a Jeep Cherokee XJ, I can’t remember if it was a two or four door, but it was definitely fun to drive. I did the ball joints and tie rods on it for him because he had some mysterious shake at speed (I now know it was probably the track rod bushing, which I didn’t check/know to check). He paid me half the cost of the 20 ton Harbor Freight press I bought to do the job, which sits 10 feet from me today, dozens of ball joints and harmonic balancer seal savers later, one of the least frequently used but undeniably lifesaving when pressed to service (do you see what I did there do you see it) tools in my shop. I remember the job being startlingly easy for a then-contemporary car. Working on my folks’s Honda was a comparative nightmare of hoses and wires, and every other new car seemed to have more crap to take off to get to normal service items. And it wasn’t like my old cars either, the Benzes and Opels and Corvairs and the like – they were simple but also not really built for fleet service. They were cars. This was more like doing a service on a tractor, it kinda WANTED you to be able to take it apart with regular tools. Like that was a design goal. I dug that a lot. In fact I ended up doing more of the front end than I originally told him I could because it was just so easy to get at. We got it aligned up the road and took it out for a spin and declared any shakes solved (it wasn’t, I don’t think, and he went on to replace other stuff, transmission mounts and motor mounts and the like), but his little white truck left an impression for sure. Dre sure seemed to like it too.

So I started shopping for my Jeep.

Next problem (and blog post): Uhhh the turn signals won’t cancel after you turn. We’ll talk about trying to navigate the parts catalog and car company politics.

Gearhead: Ongoing

The last few articles have been written with some authority because I am authoritatively good at basic, entry level mechanics. If it’s running I can keep it that way as long as the parts are available, and if the parts aren’t available I can kludge with the best of em. But I did not get here by playing it safe and sticking with what I knew, and I’m not that guy now. I bite off more than I can chew, I’ll keep a kludge far longer than is needed, I’ll endure a week of bus rides over a busted up back, and try to rush eight hours work into the two hours between work and dinner, or just make a rookie mistake that costs me $50 and two hours to fix.

Anyhow, I’m here to talk realness about cars, because working on them is hard work, it is difficult unless you have the right space to work on them, and it takes a lot of time, patience, screwing up, and fixing it. This one isn’t about what order you should put your wrenches on your hand truck or any kind of high mindedness about what vintage or origin of cars is easiest to work on. This is about the fuckups, kludges and failures.

My 68 Datsun, long suffering with little reward, now sports an enormous oil filter of unknown vintage which happened to be on the shelf when last I was feeling oil-changey. Actually that memory has a somewhat vintage feeling itself, now that I think about it. Maybe it’s time to fix that. It’s a big filter, I probably added a half a quart of capacity to the motor by using it and it fits right in the vehicle’s character, having been rescued from a barn only to find new life as the world’s most reliable dump runner. Sometimes if it screws on you gotta see if it works, sometimes you find out that the only difference in most older domestic oil filters is how tall the can is. Other days you spend five hours removing an exhaust manifold to replace it with a header, and then spend two hours putting that manifold right back in because the dozens of people online who swore up and down they had one in theirs were just lyin’. The difference between getting duped and learning something is all in measuring it yourself. Get out the visual aids if you have to. Getting in the car once is better than getting online a thousand times.

And it’s important to reevaluate your projects from time to time. In the time between when I started this article and today, the world’s most reliable dump runner has been sold and I upgraded to a 94 Jeep Cherokee. I need a dump runner less and less and a 4×4 more and more. I read a LOT about doing SAS swaps, how to mount a transfer case in an old 2×4 frame. It was fun to read about and fun to think about but when it came time to answer whether I wanted to have a hot rod Dodge or a hot rod Datsun finished, the answer was Dodge. So off to the next guy she goes, earning me $50 over my purchase price and not even washed.

And now about the Zebra. Princess Shamwow is stalled right now, well… not stalled but it appears I’m still digging my way to the heart of it’s problems. I tried to take it down the block to get some lugs busted off and it died 50 feet from my driveway, and hasn’t been able to drive more than 50 feet since. The battery just dies, there’s a huge short somewhere, I finally get it back into my driveway and begin digging into the harness. Despite the presence of super heavy duty “fleet wiring” on this particular dart, the main harness bulkhead power wire is shorted somewhere, and melted into the adjacent circuit at the firewall. The alternator is hot from the effort of welding wires together and the battery is only saved by the shittastic positive cable. I was dreading this, worst case scenario: I have to rewire an old car. Suck ass. Time to throw that piece of shit away right?

Ehhh nah. It’s cool, actually, I had a 12 circuit harness laying around already (these things are filthy cheap now and pretty good) and it only took me like 2 hours to pull every wire out of the car and cut off all the custom-looking plugs. It took another two hours to pull the forward and rear cable bundles through to their loom hooks. I will not lie — It’s gonna take a while to get all the plugs on; but I’m actually not that worried about it. I have heat shrink, a good set of crimps, a good stripper tool, and a huge bag of insulated blade connectors. I’m not even gonna tape up the harness, I’m just gonna ziptie every few inches to keep it in a bundle. I debated about how to penetrate the firewall, and I even went so far as to buy a Weatherpack 22 cavity military connector but it seems like an enormous pain in my balls to crimp 44 connectors and weather blocking jammers and still figure out how to cut this obtuse ass shape in the firewall if I’m not planning on plugging and unplugging the harness a lot. Which I’m not. I’m not planning on unplugging it from the car ever. There’s no reason to. The front clip never comes off the body on a Dodge, so I think I’m going with plan b. I’m gonna use the original firewall plug plate, cut off the old plug bases and drill a big enough hole to fit a ¾” PVC electrical conduit box bulkhead through, silicone the thing into place, then stretch a piece of bicycle inner tube over the whole mess and feed the wires through. Once all the wires are fitted, I’ll fill up the cavity with some more silicone, heat shrink that bike tube down onto the wire bundle and it’ll look mostly legit and be so much more reliable than the old wiring it’s ridiculous. But it is gonna be hard, and it’s currently still raining up here in Portlandistan and that is a huge ass bummer.

I also had a problem with my new Jeep on day one. The drivers side brake caliper was dragging and the brake was smoking hot after a drive from downtown. I limped it home slowly on residential streets and parked it, and sat down with the phone calling the dealership and trying to figure out of my warranty covered brakes, and how much a deductible was. They said that if I just paid the $300 now they’d have the truck come out and then it didn’t matter how much the rest of the work cost. Now, I understand better than most that not only are used car dealerships criminal enterprises, they are also part of a criminal network of warranty companies, shitty shops, etc, who are designed to take money out of your pocket first and then out of each others pockets in the long run. But $300 to start a brake job? The discussion of where the work would take place began to make my head hurt and I just hung up went to the Autozone on my bike and paid $40 for two new brake calipers and $10 for a bottle of brake fluid. Took me about an hour, meaning my hourly rate on that job was like $250 right? That’s top shop prices.

The next problem (and blog post): the turn signals won’t cancel after you turn. We’ll talk about trying to navigate the parts catalog and car company politics.

The storm was coming, high and fast in the desert sky…

Driving home, late at night in the Corvair. Past the whitewashed cross at the corner, with its base of hellfire red christmas lights. Past the big old conversion van with Waylon’s face on the side, tall as the man himself. The earscorching siren blips twice and the roller lights of the deputy’s cruiser bop red and blue chasers through the back windows and strobe like disco lights on Waylon’s weary smile.

“Shit. Fucking shit.”

The hot engine sputters and finally dies. I wait for the boots to grind across the sand scrabble pavement and keep my hands where everybody can see them. And before I open the window I mutter it again. A common refrain in those days for me.

“Five fat years and five lean years, that’s what they say in the book.”

And I didn’t know what it meant then, I said it bitter, to ask what historical richness had bought me this immediate poverty.

To ask of God why and when would mine arrive, when I’d have and not worry, when I’d slumber untroubled and toil endlessly as a machine on a track and never quaver with fear or in laziness slack. When I’d feel like this fire had purpose and direction.

To ask Him why these were the best years of my life as all His children kept telling me.

To ask Him to not exist at all, for all the good He does.

And now I’m lean and times are fat, and I say it now with a quiver, to ask what time will take from me to repay this immediate wealth.

To ask of God how and when mine was found, and to worry over when it’ll change. To ask Him to return to me the untroubled slumber of my youth, the strong back which let me toil without end, the ignorance of consequence which let me never quaver, and the aimless fire which burned out all laziness.

To ask Him why these were the best years of my life and how I could make them last just a bit longer.

To ask Him to exist. For all the good He does.

Gallagher

After an enormous absence, Leo Gallagher showed up in my life, two times in two weekends.

When I was young, I watched his specials whenever they were on TV and they were on all the fucking time. I watched him on flying machines and telling truths and making me and my folks laugh at the same time, at the same nonsensical things we all take for granted. He had this weight to him, he was serious but goofy, his words were true but funny.

As he wandered in to the Mt Tabor lounge to record the podcast, it was clear he still had it; like a switch he turned on and off or a livid puppet he could still operate.

The face would lock into Classic Gallagher and he’d do the wind up for a good one — Something fun like chairs if our legs bent the other way or a hilarious rejoinder about how good fudge is. (My 12 year old brain yearned for it) — and then he’d drop that face and he’d say something about how there’s two types of Mexicans, good ones and bad ones, and we have nothing but bad ones here.

Mostly it was depressing.

Part of me cringed, to see that fame and fortune don’t make you happy if you’re too smart for your own good. The grotesque reveal: if your brain is convinced you shouldn’t be happy; moreover that humans shouldn’t be happy — you won’t be, and others joy will only bring you pain. Part of me wished he could be happy playing with the puppies one last time, which is what everybody but Gallagher himself was ready to let happen. Part of me cringed when he broke, too stoned to follow his own thread or too bored with his invective to care, to shamelessly promote one or the other of his idiotic patent troll plans. And part of me just tuned out because it became obvious that when he says something deep he’s just trying to butter you up to sell you watered down race bait, convince you to buy his pseudointellectual babble, or obliquely ask you to give him drugs on the street when you see him.

He was full of memorable quotes, and I’m sure there’s tons of discussion about the brown folks talk but he also said that humor was taking something that other people like and smashing it. By that measure, he killed. He smashed my opinion of what it was to be the smartest kid in the room. He smashed my innocent belief that he wasn’t a racist. In fact it forced me to realize I only thought he wasn’t because I’d seen Gallagher, Stevie Wonder, and Gordon from Sesame Street in tight offwhite bellbottoms, so clearly they were in cahoots. The rending of my youthful optimism about race in America, laff riot.

I worried about him for a minute, I read he was broke. And then I read he wasn’t really broke he was just getting a lot of traffic tickets in California and so he was avoiding his houses. But the article has another notable quote.

“I see things on the side of the road, which, of course, I’d never see if I just drove by. And I pick up these things, because, to me, it tells me about the society, and I find parts of cars and they’re important parts—and I wonder how the car is driving without that part now. It just seems odd to me.”

When I read it last year I heard it in the old Gallagher voice and my heart went out to the brave spirit speaking that truth. And now I know that he was just trying to sell some plan or idea and I wonder what it is. I wish he’d just come out and say it. Is it you Gallagher? Are you the important part that has fallen out of our societal vehicle, the pitman arm or the tie rod end all abandoned on the side of the road? Should we hit the brakes and swing back around for you, dust you off and install you back where you belong?

That’s not how it works man. When something breaks and falls off your car in the real world, you call one of those unmentionable brown folks and have em’ tow your car to a yard, where they replace it with a shiny new one.

Maybe one that isn’t as racist.