Larry Grinnell talks about his misadventures with his first two cars.
I’ve been a car nut (many of my friends would just say that I’m a nut—I’m in the process of interviewing a new set of friends) for a lot of years, and I’ve had encounters with lots of interesting iron--especially my first two cars.
There I was, 16 years old. No job, no car, no prospects, and my senior year of high school to get through (yeah, I skipped a grade, but that’s another story for another time). I was an active member of my local antique car club, getting to the meetings by either caging rides from other members who lived close by, taking the bus (for what limited service was available before the county took it over), or, once I got my license, borrowing one of the family cars.
I was also heavily involved in the local Junior Achievement program in Broward County, Florida. A local radio station sponsored our JA "company." Our product was selling advertising for a one-hour show broadcast on Saturday afternoons on a station not exactly known for youth-oriented programming. In spite of all that, I managed to sell quite a bit of advertising time (the key, as it turned out, was to go after the advertising dollars of companies owned by local community leaders, many of whom were Junior Achievement of Broward County board members). But I digress. The JA program afforded me a glimpse at what I now jokingly refer to as “show biz.” I learned the rudiments of producing commercials (choosing music, editing tape, writing copy, and so on), and decided I wanted to be in radio. Problem was, I had a rather high voice, had a slight lisp, and I stuttered. Lordy, did I stutter in those days (I still stutter some today, but not nearly as badly as I did when I was in my mid-late teens). That didn’t deter me at the time.
I was visiting the shop of one of the members of the Fort Lauderdale Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America, Bob Schmutzler, who was a fine mechanic and a great friend. He had a small garage (called "Ed's Garage") in the industrial section of Oakland Park, FL. On this visit, when I wasn't perusing some of his "interesting" and "educational" magazines, stashed on one of his shelves and sampling his inexhaustible supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon (yes, I was 16--get over it), he noted that one of his customers had an interesting car for sale (knowing I was looking for an old car): a 1952 Willys Aero Ace. At that moment in time, it beat all to heck the alternative: Bob had a 1941 Pontiac sitting in a field next to the garage. The Pontiac didn’t run, the tires were shot, and so on. At least the Willys ran, and actually ran fairly well. There was no obvious rust, and all the other critical parts functioned acceptably well (brakes, steering, etc.). It could actually be a daily driver. I talked my parents into taking out a loan at their bank, but that I would be given the payment book. Now I had a car, but no job.
I applied for jobs at most of the area radio stations, driving my battleship gray Willys, soon christened with the name “The Gray Ghost,” receiving rejection upon rejection. I was almost ready to give up and look for work in the fast food industry (something, after a particularly bad experience working at a cafeteria, I vowed I would never do again), when fortune smiled upon me with an offer at WAXY-FM, to change tapes, read, and log the meter readings off the transmitter and several other pieces of equipment on a regular basis (every 30 minutes if I recall). It paid the princely sum of $2.00 an hour, which was the minimum wage in 1971. This wage, for a 39-hour week (so I could still be considered part-time for tax, health insurance, and worker’s compensation reasons), allowed me to make my car payment, fill the gas tank (at 35 cents a gallon!), pay the insurance, and still have a few bucks for cigarettes (40-50 cents a pack) and fast food (two of my long-term addictions, though I have since, reluctantly, given up smoking).
Anyhow, just a few days after being hired, I was on the way home from a visit to the radio station’s transmitter, where I was familiarizing myself with the working environment, when the Willys' engine began making horrific and potentially expensive noises, I pulled over and stopped. I realized the engine was still running and I was about five miles from home with nary a phone booth in sight. I chose to drive to Bob Schmutzler’s garage (about the same distance), figuring he’d know how to repair it, and would do so in as inexpensive a manner as possible. I dropped it off, and called my parents to come and pick me up. While Bob and his assistant Vern were analyzing the problem, I still had to go to work. My poor, suffering mother (one who made it a practice to never, ever suffer in silence) had to drive me to and from work for the next few weeks. That meant getting me to a downtown office building where the transmitter was located by about 5:45PM so I could change the tapes before they ran out, and picked me up sometime after 11PM after a final check of all systems. Someone else handled the overnight duties--at least until I graduated from high school.
Bob called me a few days after I brought the Willys in, and advised that the wrist pin (a rather large round pin that connects the piston to the connecting rod, which in turn connects to the crankshaft) had let go, causing the connecting rod to fly around in a highly uncontrolled manner, gouging the heck out of the cylinder wall, and shattering the lower skirt of the piston. This was going to cost me an incredible amount of money, or so I surmised. The only good thing that came of this is that Willys, almost unique among auto manufacturers, lined their cylinders with cast iron sleeves. These were the actual wearing surfaces upon which the piston traveled up and down. This meant that the actual cylinder wall was not damaged, and as long as a new sleeve and piston could be obtained, I could be back on the road soon. It took about two weeks to locate these parts (for a car model that had not been in production in North America since 1955, that wasn't bad), and when presented the bill, I almost screamed in delight. After having to tear down the engine and perform major surgery, the bill was a mere $75.00! Of course I had to borrow that from my parents, too, but I made a special effort to lay off the fast food for a month or two so I could quickly pay them back.
That was the last major failure that I experienced with the Gray Ghost (other than ongoing and annoying, though not terminal, electrical problems and a rather squeaky rear axle). One interesting anomaly with this car was the overdrive. It had a three-speed on the column transmission, along with overdrive, which is like a fourth gear that makes the engine rotate about 30% slower than when overdrive is not engaged, thus saving a fair amount of gas. To engage the overdrive, one only needed to pull out a handle on the dash, and then when in third gear and doing over 30MPH or so, you simply take your foot off the gas for a second, listen for the click, and you're in overdrive. To get out of overdrive, you have to floor the accelerator (like passing gear in an automatic), which cuts off the ignition to take the load off the transmission, and then the overdrive is disengaged. The Willys had a problem with the overdrive solenoid, an electrical device that actually performed the job of engaging and disengaging the overdrive. This meant that far too often, when you floored the accelerator, the ignition cut out, causing raw fuel to enter the engine and exhaust manifold, and when the foot was again removed, all this excess fuel burned, really quickly, with an earsplitting CRACK! The first time this happened, I was scared to death. I finally got used to it and avoided trying to get out of overdrive by using the accelerator pedal trick. The other interesting thing about the overdrive was that when it was engaged, the car could not even be pushed backward. The usual method to get out of overdrive in this car was to pop the clutch, which usually freed up the errant overdrive solenoid, though on at least one occasion, I had to call a tow truck to lift up the car's rear end so it could be pulled out of the parking space (there was a tree directly in front of the car, so I couldn't continue forward).
In the midst of this, my grandfather, who lived a few miles away from my parents’ house, had stopped driving. He was in his 80s and had decided driving made him too nervous. As it was, for the last several years, he never drove his car above 35 miles per hour. It was a 1960 four-door Chevrolet Biscayne, painted in a bilious color I can only equate to goat puke green. It was powered (if you can call that power) by the famous 135 HP Chevy "Blue Flame" 6 cylinder engine, whose basic design went back to the 1930s, and backed by the ever-slushy (though reliable) two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. Oddly, it had power brakes but manual steering. I had to replace the leaky fuel pump before I did anything (of course, I took it to Bob Schmutzler for the repair), and after an inspection, Bob noted three obvious problems:
- The car, having spent most of its life in Ohio, suffered from terminal body rot—the lower body panels looked more like Swiss cheese than metal.
- The exhaust pipe extended about one inch beyond the muffler, which was about the location of where the rear door opening started. Other than the obvious carbon monoxide worries there was another problem:
- Perhaps because my grandfather drove it so slowly, or maybe that the car was parked in his carport for almost two years without being run, but the engine was a serious smoker. Serious? When I stopped at a stoplight, so much smoke belched out of the exhaust pipe (smoke streaming up the sides of my car because the tailpipe was rotted out) that cars on either side of me closed their windows to protect themselves from the toxic cloud (I can state unequivocally that I never had a mosquito problem with this car—a valuable commodity in South Florida). Well, I bought the car anyway, for $50.00. So, now I had two old cars, neither of which were even marginally collectible (only the Willys is marginally--and I mean just marginally collectible today), and the “newer” one was suffering from terminal rot and had a serious smoking problem (much more serious than my own smoking problem).
As I drove the Chevy, I discovered how bad the smoking problem was. Between the leaks (oh, did I mention it leaked oil, too?) and the smoking, it went through a gallon (about 4 liters) of oil per tank of gas (about 20 gallons—80 liters). The reality is that I had to add two quarts (two liters) of oil when the fuel gauge reached the halfway mark. I didn’t do that once, and the engine began making the most horrific noises, as the oil pump was unable to suck up anything resembling oil, which caused every moving surface of the engine to try to work without lubrication. Fortunately I was able to pull off the road and shut it down immediately. I walked across a busy highway to buy two more quarts of oil. Thus replenished, the engine immediately quieted down as if that incident had never happened. Another kudo to good old-fashioned American automotive engineering.
I drove it for a few more months, but got tired of putting oil into it, and was a bit nervous that I might be pulled over for not only belching out enough smoke to make the car a public nuisance, but I had also never bothered to
- Switch the insurance from the Willys to the Chevy, and
- Get the car inspected. Florida had state-mandated inspections in those days, which were stopped only when the business community greased sufficient palms in the Florida Legislature to repeal the inspection law (lower productivity, they screamed).
So, I parked the Chevy on my parents’ driveway, and began driving the Willys again. A few weeks later, fortune again smiled with a knock at the front door. A total stranger asked if the Chevy was for sale. I said “sure!” and sold it to him for the $50 I paid for it. He and his son wanted a project car. Believe me, they got one!
I drove the Willys for another few months when my stepfather began “suggesting” that I give up this whole “old car” thing and get a more dependable, inspectable (no, the Willys hadn’t been inspected, either) car. It was perhaps an opportune time, as the master cylinder (the device that engages the brakes through hydraulic pressure) began leaking, causing the brake pedal to move closer and closer to the floorboard, resulting in less and less braking action, requiring a lot of pumping of the brake pedal.
I drove around the new car dealers, looking at their used car selections, and couldn’t really find anything in my price range (about $1,000, when $1,000 could still get you a pretty decent used car). I almost bought a ’67 Pontiac LeMans Sprint Convertible until my parents' mechanic told me to run, not walk away from it, due to its troublesome overhead cam engine. Then there was the 1969 Austin America. 'Nuff said....
I looked seriously at a brand new AMC Gremlin—the base model without a back seat. The only options would have been a radio and air conditioning (this was South Florida after all). It would have stickered at just shy of $2,000—yes, for a new car. But in the end, I found a ’68 Plymouth Valiant Signet with the famous and nearly indestructible 225 cubic inch slant 6, Torqueflight automatic, manual steering and brakes, factory bucket seats, and a Sears underdash air conditioner (what a combo), for the aforementioned $1,000.
I brought my stepdad out to look at it, and he immediately approved (and almost bought a new Plymouth Satellite, to boot) and agreed to do the same as my previous car—take out the loan in his name and give me the payment book. I managed to get the dealer to accept my Willys for $250 trade-in. I think the Gray Ghost knew it was going away. The brakes almost completely failed as I brought it in to the car dealer’s lot for the last time (let's just say there was a lot of pumping, and I just missed hitting my salesman). I should have kept that Valiant for much longer than I did…but that, too, is another story for another time.
As a postscript to this, by rushing to buy the first old car that crossed my path, I missed out on an even greater opportunity (and a much better car), as well as one that could have been fraught with peril. An elderly gentleman on the street behind our house had just passed away. His children were selling his car, a two-door 1955 Plymouth Savoy sedan with the small V-8, 3-speed manual transmission with overdrive, and only about 27,000 miles on the odometer, for the same $250 I paid for the Willys. It had just been repainted the previous year. I found out about it just a little too late. It would have been a screamer that would likely have killed me (a small V8, unencumbered by emission controls in a relatively lightweight body, without seat belts or anything else that resembled safety equipment, can spell trouble for a 16 year old boy). I also missed out on an offering from our across-the-street neighbor, who was selling her 1962 Renault Caravelle roadster (mechanics based upon the deservedly unloved Renault Dauphine) which was only driven to the store one or two days a week. Yes, it was also $250. As interesting as the Renault might have been as a daily driver, it would have been a mechanical nightmare, and I wouldn't have had Bob Schmutlzer to keep it running, as he didn't work on those "damned ferrin' cars." Funny, after all this time, I've still never owned a V8-engined car.