Always Watch Behind You - Part 1
April 2, 2013
When I was 17 years old, I learned a valuable lesson about staying alert to what is behind you. It took two times to get the message through. When it finally landed home, it had cost me dearly.
A young kid and his car ... the most sacred of unions! I was lucky to have a family who appreciated cars, had raced them, and had a lot of fun building and maintaining them. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was lucky to have one of the baddest Classic cars around - a 1968 Chevelle with a 327-cubic-inch, fire breathing V8 under the hood with a Hurst 4-speed. If you don't know what that is, it doesn't matter. It was a very fast, scary car. You could get in trouble very quickly, but there were very few on the road who could "beat" you. With 325 horsepower, it was a rocket with a steering wheel.
This car, while a serious race car, was also a very good and docile vehicle on a long road trip. It would easily fly down the highway while seemingly at idle, with so much power to spare it was effortless. The most fun thing in the world was entering a freeway from a dead stop at the bottom of an on-ramp. With 0 to 60 MPH well under five seconds, you could really rip onto a freeway with authority.
My friends and I would take the Chevelle on long road trips to distant cities, grab something to eat, listen to the radio, and come back home. It was during one of those trips that I learned a terrible but valuable lesson.
Usually, I was very good about checking the car before heading out on any long run. The car was definitely temperamental and fussy. Where it excelled in performance, it gave back in being high maintenance. It had a tendency to leak a bit of radiator fluid when it got too hot, but no big deal. As long as you watched it closely, and filled it up regularly, it was a non-event.
The hot July afternoon we left our small hometown headed to the big city two hours away, we filled up with gas - but I neglected to check the coolant level. Excited about getting away and onto the road, I skipped the pre-trip checklist. A big mistake.
I loved to drive the Chevelle. One hour into the trip, over the 200 decibels of radio sound blasting through the car and flying along at an effortless 70 MPH, I sensed something was wrong. It seemed like the power was decreasing. Glancing up in the mirror (for the first time of the day) I saw a sickening sight: A billowing cloud of white smoke rolling out the back of my Chevelle. Grabbing for the radio volume, I cranked it down and heard the CLANK CLANK CLANK of a very sick engine. Suddenly, the temperature gauge leapt from 200 to 260. I knew we were in serious trouble.
Immediately I popped the transmission into neutral and allowed the car to go to idle, coasting while the engine stuttered around at idle for a few seconds and then completely failed. Pulling over, the car was steaming white hot steam and we all jumped out of the car, fearing it would explode.
Two miles doesn't seem like very far to walk when you have an emergency. Reaching the next exit, I made it on foot to the gas station and called Dad. He dropped what he was doing, and came to meet us along the freeway.
THE BLOWN ENGINE
The Chevelle had overheated, and he called a tow truck for us, giving us a ride home as we followed my Chevelle on the hook in front of us. Back at home in the garage, he wasted no time trying to get the Chevelle to run but to no avail. Next morning, he pulled the engine completely out of the car and hoisted it up to do a full tear down and rebuild to locate what was going on with the engine. He came to find that the engine had gotten so HOT that it had cracked the piston skirts on two of the cylinders. This made it so the engine would never run again until those pistons were replaced. Through carelessness, I had successfully transformed a perfectly good high performance engine into a pile of scrap metal.
Next week - Part Two: The Engine Fix, The Ultimate Destruction of the Chevelle, and adding up the Success Lessons I learned from it all.