Thursday, March 14, 2013

Road Trip: The "If You Want It Done Right..." Tour

Back in November, I got a line on an X-11 engine just northeast of Atlanta. The guy only wanted $200. I thought about it for a few days, trying to figure out how to get it to Pensacola.

I could take a bus up, rent a U-Haul or something, and drive back.

I could risk driving the X-11, but with the clutch making scary noises on the last road trip, I didn't see that happening.

I could try making the run in the Tracker, which has been sitting more than driving in the last few years. I've been running around in it the last month while I try to find an electrical problem in the X. I couldn't see the little critter making it close to 800 miles, even after it's been from New Orleans to Jacksonville over several runs. The engine needs a complete rebuild and some machine work, the brakes have been locking up (note to self: don't drive in salt water anymore), and it needed tires.

I finally bought the engine in late January and emailed a sort-of acquaintance to see if he'd be willing to make the 180-mile round trip from his place and hold the thing for me. I emphasized that it needed to be picked up "yesterday," time was a factor, gotta be done soon. I'd pay for his gas and time. He agreed, saying he'd try the "beginning of next month."

The beginning of February came and went, with no word from him. Once the middle arrived, he wrote saying he'd be headed up "beginning of next week." This was three weeks ago. There's been another "beginning."

The guy I bought the engine from wrote me March 4, wondering when the pickup was going to happen. Neither of us had heard from Mr. Pickup. I decided that I was going to have to do it myself--the seller needed the engine out of the way and had it hanging on a borrowed chain hoist.

Dammit. "If you want it done right, you gotta do it yourself."

The X-11 is still offline; I haven't found the electrical problem, the clutch is dodgy, and she needs a couple of tires out back. Fast and fun, but that clutch could strand me and I can't walk to Atlanta.

That left the Tracker. The engine's more dodgy than the X-11's clutch. I did a partial rebuild in 2007, but the thing needs a new crankshaft, main bearings, con rod bearings, maybe an oil pump, water pump...the cylinders are only a few thousandths of an inch from needing to be bored out--and then it'll need new pistons and rings. The only thing that doesn't really need work is the head, which I rebuilt in '07. There must have been a pound of carbon crusted on the pistons and valves.

Still, he pulls strong, doesn't burn much oil, and gets 35 mph on the highway when he's in a good mood. Starts right up on its 6-1/2 year old battery even after sitting (ignored by an X-11 driving bastard) for months.

Two used up coolant, add Stop Leak...load up...wire up a cheap stereo...head out at 10 am. I screamed along with Chris Cornell in Audioslave and up coolant...took 4 hours to get to Montgomery (no need to rush) up coolant...another 90 minutes and I'm in up I smell Republicans, or is that just cow pastures?...several pauses along the way, buy more coolant, top up, look for leak and hope I can outrun it...finally hit Atlanta sometime after dark...spend half an hour with several hundred other cars using I-85 as a parking lot...wonder about coolant's around 8 pm by the time I get to Roswell and the Atlanta Hotel. Ten freaking hours.

Compared to the Ashtray Hilton, this place was palatial! A small fridge and microwave, a stove and sink. King-sized bed. Clean, and not even a whiff of ashtray. I only saw one roach the entire night.

Of course it was on the third floor, but there was an elevator, so my messed-up legs and back were saved a lot of walking. I grabbed a luggage cart and emptied the Tracker of anything of value, anything that could be stolen, right down to the jack handle. Took the coil wire so it couldn't be started. Left it unlocked and the rear window unzipped.

Plopped into the most comfortable chair, watched "House" reruns, and crawled into bed by midnight, but my farking cellphone woke me up at 2:30 to let me know it was now 3:30 (Daylight Savings)--and tired as I was I couldn't get back to sleep until 7. I wanted to be up at 8. Watched the last hour of "The Invasion" (Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig) and an old "Law & Order," read a car magazine, and failed at sleep.

Dammit, again. Up at 8 (man, did my legs ache), go looking for the luggage cart (almost right where I'd left it a few hours before)...load the up coolant...let's get this over with! Find the seller's house, load the engine, hang out with they guy and his father...don't wanna drive. I stall. Finally left at noon, their time.

The way it's squatting makes me look fatter.

Holy crap, was the Tracker skittish with 400 pounds of iron engine out back. I could feel the back end waddling every time I made a turn or hit a bump. I-285 South was a minefield of potholes and sunken pavement that had me imagining the Tracker's back end bottoming out, breaking a spring, and flipping that engine over the back seat and into my lap. The random 24 mph gusts coming from the south didn't help. All the way to Montgomery, those gusts whacked the Tracker's nose and nudged it toward the emergency lane. Once I got past Montgomery, I was headed more southward, so the gusts were hitting from the right and pushing me toward passing semis. I stopped every few hours, topped up the coolant, dumped the rest of the Stop Leak into the radiator, and kept hoping I could outrun the leak. I didn't bother with the radio the entire way back South.

If the coolant problem was the drama on the way to Atlanta (every road trip needs drama, whether it's an ashtray-scented motel or a kid's plastic playhouse that self-destructs right in front of you at 65 mph), my idiot body's refusal to go back to sleep was the drama for the ride south. I was running on maybe 3 hours' sleep by mid-afternoon, and of course I couldn't sleep anytime I hit a rest area or parking lot, just while I was roaring along at 65 mph, holding onto the wheel with both hands to keep the damn Tracker from whipping sideways, and just blinking only to find the Tracker headed for the emergency lane. It only got worse once I hit Highway 29 South, the final leg of the trip, the last 40 miles, all in the dark. It was 9ish when I finally peeled myself out of the Tracker for the last time. Man, did my legs ache.

Ten hours up, ten back, little sleep, $90 or so in gas, $32 for the hotel, $24 for the two gallons of coolant, $100 for the tires, a quart and a half of oil, cramped hands from gripping the steering wheel...if the engine had been a plain-Jane "X" engine instead of a high-output "Z" I'd never have bought it, let alone made a run to get it. The only difference is a somewhat hotter cam, domed pistons, and bigger valves. It's only good for 20 horsepower over the stock 115, and I've already got one in the X-11, but I can freshen the "new" one up and have it ready to drop in when the "old" one is ready for a rest. Or I could drop it into the Tracker (the front end, this time) to almost double its horsepower and halve its gas mileage!

I've also got a 4-barrel carb and matching intake for it. All I have to do is make an 822 mile round trip to Inverness, FL, and back....

No. Effing. Way.


  1. Slim Pickens and LQ Jones...might have to look that one up--if only because of the tag line:

    Carrol Jo Hummer--A working man who's had enough!