Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Vintage -- Part I

Some of you may be wondering what the story is surrounding the fact that I haven’t written about my annual pilgrimage to The Vintage, the wonderful “a gathering, not a car show” that occurs annually around Memorial Day in Winston-Salem and traditionally occupies several columns and feature articles.
Let me say that there is A Story. Oh is there ever A Story. It just didn’t have the ending I wanted. And so I forced The Story to reboot itself until it bent to my iron will.
Like all good stories, it starts at the beginning.
I was going through my usual machinations about which car to take to The Vintage (which is one of the happier problems in my world). It’s an 800 mile drive each way from Newton, 14 hours on the road. After five years, I have it down to a science—leave at 5 am, pound out the miles, arrive in theory at 7 pm while the sun is still up (at age 56 my ability to drive after dark, particularly after 14 hours, is limited). Two years ago I took my beautiful 3.0CSi for the third time, and hit 500 miles of drenching unrelenting rain. It was so far over the line of what I ever wanted to expose the car to in terms of water—my entire 30 year quota of ownership moisture used up in a single trip, with a credit taken against the next 30 years—that I’ve been gun-shy ever since about taking the coupe on long trips where there is even the remotest possibility it might rain.
I thought about taking the 2002tii, as it has never seen The Vintage (though it did do the long trip to MidAmerica 02Fest last year), and even entertained driving the air conditioning deprived 1979 Euro 635CSi but in the end, I opted to take my Bavaria again, as there are so few of them at The Vintage, it’s so comfortable to drive, and it’s just so damned much fun. I could write several columns about the preparation of the big Bav (for example, I looked at the dwell, saw it was 58 out of 60 degrees indicating that the points were barely opening, the points were pitted garbage, I ordered a new Pertronix, installed it, the car labored to rev over 4500 RPM, I yanked the Pertronix out and put new points in), but by Wednesday of game week the Bavaria and I were ready to go.
As is the case with many hair-brained things I do, there was a thread on all this on Facebook. I began talking with several other northeasterners about caravanning down. Unfortunately, with my full-time responsibilities at Bentley Publishers making me a working stiff again, I was looking at not driving down Thursday like I’ve always done, but Friday. That makes for an upside-down ratio—drive all day Friday, enjoy the event Saturday, drive all day back Sunday—but it was the hand I was dealt this year. As my plans solidified, other saner potential traveling companions dropped out. It was looking like it’d be only me and my friend/customer Jose Rosario.
But on the Facebook thread, one fellow, Brian Ach, chimed in. He lived in New York City, and had a ’73 2002tii he’d bought a few years back. The car had a history of rough running issues. He thought he was finally through the other side of them, and had put 700 trouble-free miles on the car since a big round of repair work. He and his wife Michelle were prepared to drive the tii to their first Vintage, but wanted the safety in numbers of a caravan, the automotive equivalent of herd immunity. Could we meet up with him, he asked, at a certain Starbucks after the Tappan Zee bridge in New Jersey off 287? I determined that if I left my house at 5 am, we’d get to this rendezvous point at about 9:30. The plan was in place.
On Thursday morning, I was at work when I got a text message. It was Brian. It was 9:30. “I’m here at the Starbucks. How far out are you?” it said. cuttinI’m leaving Friday! IT’S ONLY THURSDAY!” This is the downside of too many avenues for communication. There had been Facebook messages, text messages, and an e-mail thread, and the fact that I was always talking about departing on Friday was at the bottom of one of the three of those he hadn’t read closely enough. We both had a good laugh over it. He said that although he’d prefer to be part of a caravan, he was launched and committed, the tii was running well, and he and Michelle were on route. “See you down there Friday, then,” I said.
The trouble started several hours later. I got a text message from Brian, then a phone call, saying that the tii had begun running rough, missing and sputtering, acting like it was short one cylinder until about 3500 rpm, at which point it came alive but continued to cut in and out. He and Michelle were off I81 near Winchester VA in a parking lot between a Waffe House and a Comfort Inn. Through a hail of texts, phone calls, and Facebook messages, I and others tried to remotely help him trouble-shoot the car. He said a few times that he wasn’t a mechanic and wasn’t intimate with the tii’s injection bits, but he was selling himself short; clearly he knew his way around cars and tools, and had owned and maintained other interesting enthusiast cars, including a Miata, a 914, and an M3.
“Cars, particularly tiis, that act like they’re running out of fuel, usually are,” I explained. There are three fuel filters—the tomato paste-sized canister near the battery, a small cylindrical screen at the inlet of the Kugelfischer fuel injection pump, and another small screen at the inlet of the fuel pump beneath the car. If there’s crud in the gas tank, the fuel pressure shoves the crud up against the screens, eventually lessening fuel flow enough to starve the engine, making it feel like it’s running out of gas, which, really, it is. I asked if the problem was cyclical—did it get worse as he drove the car, but then lessen if he parked it for 10 minutes which allows some of the crud to sluff off the screen, only to repeat the cycle when driven again? This is the textbook manifestation of the crud-on-the-screens fuel starvation problem. “Not exactly,” he said, “it’s just bad all the time. And worse at low rpm.”
That last piece was unusual. Fuel starvation problems are usually worse at high rpm, where engine demand for fuel is highest. Perhaps it was an ignition problem, not a fuel problem.
Plus, Brian, explained, he’d had the gas tank boiled out not 700 miles ago, so that was known good; the root cause couldn’t be rust coming from the tank. And the fuel filter by the battery was new.
Even though the symptom didn’t fit exactly, I talked Brian through looking at the screen at the inlet of the Kugelfischer pump. 10 minutes later he texted me a scary photo. The screen wasn’t clogged with crud, but it had a big shredded slice down the middle of it. It was the first of several mysteries.
Brian removed the main fuel filter from next to the battery, and tapped the inlet side out on a paper towel. He reported that a lot of “black stuff” came out. He had a spare filter with him and installed it. How this jived with the tank supposedly having been boiled out was unclear. But, unfortunately, after replacing the fuel filter, the problem persisted.
We began talking about the ignition system. He had a new spare set of plugs with him. He installed them, and it made no difference. The car had some combination of a HotSpark coil with no ballast resistor, and a HotSpark electronic ignition module. He said he had a spare Bosch Blue coil with him. He installed it. No difference.
I posted Brian’s plight on the Vintage Facebook page, describing where he was in northern VA and the symptoms of the problem he was having, and exhorted folks to help him if they could. Suggestions poured in.
It was now about 4pm on Thursday. “Well,” I said, “if you’re still there when I pass by on my way down tomorrow afternoon, obviously I’ll stop and help you. I’m driving my Bavaria. It’s got a big trunk. I’ll throw in some 2002 parts.” He laughed. “Michelle and I certainly hope we’re not still here by that time tomorrow,” he said. But, by the end of Thursday, I got a text saying that he and Michelle had holed up in the Comfort Inn for the night. I packed the Bavaria with even more tools and parts than I’d normally bring, basically every spare 2002 ignition and injection bit I could stuff in without actively cannibalizing my own tii. Unfortunately I could not locate a good spare distributor, a fact that would come to haunt me.
On Friday morning, I left Newton at 5 am, rendezvoused 45 minutes later with Jose at a service plaza on the Mass Pike. Our caravan of two headed west, then south. Winchester VA was nearly 600 miles from Newton, about 9 hours at the wheel with short breaks and no traffic. I was in periodic contact with Brian, who was throwing everything he could think of at the car, to no avail. “For me to stop and help you, I need to know your exact address,” I texted several times (voice dictation is a wonderful thing while driving), but in the heat of the moment, he kept texting back status updates but no address.
Then, my Verizon cell service went dead. I later learned that there is, in fact, a known Verizon dead zone along this part of I81, but it was very strange. I was rapidly approaching Winchester, and I had no address. Finally service came back on, and a text message from Brian came through with the exact address of the Comfort Inn. I clicked on the address and found I was only 10 minutes away. Sheesh. That was close, literally.
Jose and I pulled into the parking lot of the Comfort Inn but didn’t see the car. Then we saw a gentleman come running out from the parking lot of the Waffle House next door, waving his arms. We looked left, and there was the tii. The Bavaria pulled up next to the tii, which was sitting, hood open, with tools arrayed in front of the trunk like that photo on the back of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma album showing band equipment laid in front of their tour bus (intended to look huge in 1969, but laughably quant by modern standards).
I opened my trunk, which seemed to automatically began disgorging the stuff I needed. I donned my white Tyvek suit and nitrile gloves. Brian was on the phone with someone. I overheard him say “Yes, he’s here now, just got here… yes it is pretty cool.”
If you think don’t I enjoy the image of being a white-hatted (or, literally, white-suited) savoir, you don’t know me very well. I have very little pride or shame, and I admit my mistakes more readily than most, but I do have some amount of ego.
I then had several hours in which to try to live up to my own and other people’s expectations.
(Next week: The parking lot surgery begins.)

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