August 2, 2013

On the road: Seattle to Dallas in a 1951 Pontiac

My dad has two cars that are in Washington state: a 1951 Pontiac, and a 1954 Hudson Hornet. The Pontiac is a car that his dad (my grandfather, Chet Evans) took delivery of when he owned the garage part of the Pontiac dealership (McGillvrae Pontiac, Omak, WA), and he drove it to the dealership from Oregon before it was passed on to the original owner, after Chet installed accessories: seat covers, backup lights and possibly the heater.

My dad then bought that very same car from the original owner (who lived in Okanogan, WA) in 1978 and used it while he was teaching at the UW in Seattle. When we moved back to California in 1979, the Pontiacc was left with Grandpa in Omak, and he drove it with some regularity until the late 1990s, at which time the engine was getting low on compression and the car sat in my grandparents’ garage.

Last year after she passed, we had the Pontiac and Hudson moved to a place near Spokane, where we had work done on them to make them mechanically safe for the trip to Dallas.

The Pontiac has had a lot of work, the engine was rebuilt, the pistons cylinders were bored out, the transmission was re-built, the brakes were re-done, the front suspension was rebuilt, seatbelts were added to the seats, and so on. This summer it was ready, and timing worked out such that I would be in Seattle for work in late July.

So dad and I decided to drive the Pontiac down to Dallas, TX from Seattle, WA to get it where it needed to go.

1 2013-07-23 Getting Started

I checked out of the hotel at 7:00am, and dad and I loaded up the car. We got on the road, and took I-90 out of town. We made a quick stop in Issaquah and took a few pictures of the Pontiac in front of an old Shell station that we saw there when we met some cousins for dinner once. Things went pretty well on the road, although going over Blewett pass the Pontiac had some trouble, slowing down to maybe 45mph or so. I think that's a pretty good pace for a car that is 62 years old.

We wanted to get some shopping done, but stopped for lunch first at Perkins in Ellensburg, WA.

We had wanted to find a grocery store or something, but got turned around and just ended up back on the highway. We decided to go through to Moses Lake where there was a Walmart super-center, which we thought would have just about everything we wanted.

We got an ice chest, and some ice. Some grapes, bananas, M&Ms, and water. We also got clip-on sunglasses (useful on the road!) some paper towels, mechanic's hand cleaning grease, a bunch of wrenches and a tool set, and a seat cushion for the driver. The seat cushion seemed to help Dad, but seems about the same to me. With the ice chest on the bench seat between us, we were set up pretty good.

Dad also had the radio fixed on the Pontiac. It is still the original vacuum tube radio, but there is also an ipod input on it – although the input works by connecting to the antenna input and not directly to the amplifier section. Line in didn't exist in 1951! The ipod to radio interface works pretty well, so we've been listening to some podcasts as well. The one problem is that if you have the air vents, both side windows, and both windows open, it is a bit noisy in the car and hard to hear. It is still possible though.

From Moses Lake we drove on to Spokane, and then continued on I-90 through Idaho, and into Montana. In Montana we started up another pass, but this time in the later afternoon. We slowed down a bit again, but seemed to be going ok. On the road there were a whole bunch (maybe six!) hot rodded custom model-As and model-Ts. They were from Spring Creek, TX. We'll have to check when we get internet access to see where that is, and whether we can stop there on our trip to Dallas.

On the final ascent of the pass, the temperature shot up. Generally the temperature climbs pretty high when we were going up the pass, so we would turn on the heater to max and turn on the fan to help cool down the engine. I didn't really notice a difference when the heater was on; the car was already hot, and we already had hot air blowing around, but it did seem to help the engine temperature a bit.

Probably about a mile away from the top of the pass, the engine started cutting out, and our speed fell down to about 20mph. I pulled over to the side of the highway, and shortly after the engine died.

We got out and popped the hood - the engine had definitely overheated, and the coolant blew out the overflow system's cap. It didn't look like we had an oil leak, which was good. Dad spent some time looking at some stuff, he removed the air filter and confirmed that the choke was set appropriately. (The Pontiac has an automatic choke, but it makes sense to check it.) We were also running low on gas, but verified that gas was being pumped into the carburetor. Potentially the fuel pump is a bit weak, and Dad was talking about maybe putting an electric fuel pump in once he gets the thing to Texas. Other things that might be a problem include: a clogged fuel pump, a bad coil, vapor lock (maybe related to the fuel pump, but also just because it ran hot.)

We took some time off, dad got in a quick run, I read some stuff on the kindle, and after an hour or two of a nice break – we had a chance to eat some fruit and other stuff – the car started up again. We were able to get going again, but did have another fifteen minute break when the engine quit for a second time on a second uphill portion. We pulled into a station and picked up some 50/50 antifreeze and water, filled up the gas tank, and took off again.

We pulled in to Missoula at about 22:00, and we visited with a friend of dad's before heading to a hotel.

Tomorrow we plan to change the oil, change the potentially clogged up fuel filter, and replace the coil. Then we head back out.

So today was pretty good: from 07:00 to 22:00 on the road, with a nice break on the side of the road in the middle, from Seattle, WA to Missoula, MN.

2 2013-07-24 Missoula to Ennis

In the morning Dad took the Pontiac to a shop and got the oil changed, changed the oil filter, and he changed the electrical coil. The first time he changed the coil, the car wouldn't start, but then he pulled it and put it on again and it worked. Seems a lot like debugging a program.

We got on the road, and things were good. We had lunch, and then had some trouble starting the car. Dad bought some starting fluid, and that helped a lot. So we drove some more but got stopped on an uphill climb. We did the same things we've done before (waited) and got back on the road after two hours or so.

Not too much after that the engine died again. This time dad pulled apart the carburetor, and there was a piece of the accelerator pump in the carburetor bowl. While we were working on this, a guy stopped on the road behind us. He has a '51 Pontiac as well, and he and his wife gave us some tips on stopping in Ennis. They have a NAPA auto parts store with a guy there that knows a lot about old cars, so maybe there will be some help there.

We have a few other ideas about what we can do to help the car. Insulate the metal fuel line since it seems like we are vapor locking when it gets too hot. We can also try to put some wooden clothespins on that fuel line to help radiate the heat, which is apparently a well known (but likely totally ineffective) solution as well. Also, we can try higher grade fuel. Older cars weren't designed to work with the high ethanol levels in modern fuel, and maybe higher grade fuel will help with that.

We did make it to Ennis, and stopped at the hotel that was recommended to us, ate at the restaurant that was recommended to us, and checked on when the NAPA auto parts that was recommended to us opens.

Things aren't looking too great, because the Pontiac has also now started stalling when you idle it. Maybe the idle is too low for some reason, although it is hard to figure out why.

Anyway, we'll see what happens tomorrow!

3 2013-07-25 Ennis to Yellowstone, with a lot of luck in between

We went to the Napa Auto Parts store at 8:00am when they opened up, and asked about parts for the Pontiac. We wanted to get a rebuild kit for the carburetor and an electric pump. They didn't have anything for the carburetor (we would have been shocked if they did) but they did have some electric fuel pumps. 12 volt ones. The Pontiac runs on 6 volts, but dad thought that a 12 volt pump would work, it would just work at about half capacity. We had some discussion with one of the guys at the shop who was pretty adamant that it would not work, and quoted Ohm's law. Dad knows that law pretty well, and tried to talk a bit about it, but in the end we didn't get in to any arguments and I was happy that nobody trotted out whatever degrees they might have (I think between the two of us we have 2 undergraduate Electrical Engineering degrees, and one PhD in Electrical Engineering, as well as a few other degrees not worth mentioning.) We didn't get anything at the Napa store, and headed out to the other store in town.

The other place didn't have anything that was helpful either, although they could have had a 6 volt fuel pump sent overnight. It wasn't clear whether they would be able to install it the next day. Installing the fuel pump (in line with the existing mechanical one) is a bit of a job: you have to mount it, maybe move some hoses or lines around, run electrical power to it, maybe mount a switch for it, drill some holes to get wires where they need to go, and so on. Maybe a 1-3 hour job on a good day.

While we were at the shop, we picked up some insulating wrap used to wrap exhaust headers. We thought that would help keep the fuel line cool. One of the guys there also told us that he had problems with vapor locking, and one thing that worked was to put some transmission fluid in the gas – that raises the density of the gas and raises the flash point so it is a bit harder to vaporize it. We put the wrap on the fuel line (with the help of some duct tape – and I actually did the wrapping myself) in the parking lot of the parts store. Hopefully that was helpful. It couldn't hurt anyway.

We went back to the hotel and made a few calls to parts stores in Bozeman, which is the nearest large city, and was recommended as a place that might have a 6 volt fuel pump. One place actually did have a 6 volt fuel pump in stock, and we asked about whether they knew a place that would install it. It turns out they did, and the guy could do it the same day! We told them we would be there in about an hour (it was 50 miles away) and we packed up.

After we got some gas (premium) we headed down the road to Bozeman. And the car stalled. On a straightaway. Actually, I should mention that yesterday, after putting the carburetor back together, I thought something was funny with the gas pedal. It seemed like it wouldn't go down as far as it used to, like something was stopping it about halfway down. Dad took a try at driving, and agreed that it felt strange, but after stomping on it a few times it was back to normal. That was yesterday, when basically we just limped up a bit of a hill and then went downhill from there.

Well, after the car pulled over about 800 meters from the hotel that we started at, we popped the hood and took a look. Part of the accelerator linkage was bent, and that is when Dad noticed that the previous day he had installed the linkage that sets the idle and fast idle (and is part of the automatic choke system) improperly when he put the carburetor back together! That explains why the pedal wouldn't go all the way down - until it was forced and bent the linkage. And explains why the car wouldn’t idle…

Dad used some duct tape to secure the automatic choke linkage out of the way and we were able to just barely limp up the mountain, then coast down to the flats. Bozeman was about 50 miles away, and we had a few more mountains in the way. There were some close calls where I didn't think we would make it, but in the end we were just able to clear the final uphill parts of the road, and we got to Bozeman probably at about 11:00am.

The parts store there did have a 6 volt fuel pump. We also picked up some other miscellaneous stuff, and then headed over to the shop (next door) run by a guy out of his garage. He had a truck up and had pulled the rear end on it. He took a look at the Pontiac, but was a bit negative when he realized that the job wasn't to swap out an electric fuel pump, but to install one where we never had one in the first place. That is a significantly harder job. He wasn't sure he would be able to get the car done since he had other business to finish, but after hearing out story he said he would take a look at it.

The mechanic's name was Jason, and he was just great. He was a younger guy, but really knew his stuff when talking about these older engines. He grew up working on cars apparently, and managed to move around his schedule so he could start on the pump installation right then. While he did that dad I did some work on the accelerator linkage—basically repairing the damage that we had self inflicted the previous day. We had bought some parts previously that we needed to properly reconnect the linkage, so after bending it back into place, we checked back in with Jason. He said he need an hour or two more, so we went off to lunch.

When we got back Jason was done! The pump was in, he had a switch installed nicely under the dash, and it worked great. We paid him (and gave a nice tip for all the trouble we caused him) and took off, headed for Yellowstone National Park.

I cannot stress just how amazing Jason was. He was fun to chat with, really knew his stuff, worked very quickly, and went out of his way to get us on the road again. It was really just amazing when you consider that there is no reason that any parts store really should have a 6 volt fuel pump. Those are just rare. We were very lucky that there was one near us, at a place that we could limp to in the Pontiac. Then we were super lucky that there was someone that could install it for us. That isn't the kind of job that you can do (or would want to do) easily on the roadside. You need a shop with a lift or at least a jack, power tools to cut some holes, wiring, all sorts of stuff. It is really amazing that we were able to find the right combination of parts and labor to get the Pontiac back on the road.

And it was really back on the road. We had a few hills in between us and Yellowstone, and it took them like a champ. Before, you could only give the car a little bit of gas. If you gave it too much it would cough, act like it wasn't getting any gas (which is wasn’t), and start to die. It would do that too if you just gave it a little bit of gas, it would still do that, but you could get a lot further. A bit further.

Now, if you put the pedal to the floor it would downshift and give you all it got. The engine is about 90 horsepower, so if you are used to a modern musclecar, or even just a modern* car, that isn't really much, but with the electric fuel pump (and our additional ad-hoc modifications like a wrapped fuel line, transmission fluid in the gas (only once), and premium gas) it would now power up the mountain and only lose a bit of speed. Down to about 50 instead of 20mph (or stalled.) We had lots of ups and downs, but the Pontiac took them all like a champ. We probably crossed the Continental Divide about 10 times.

Clearly this is what was giving us our problems. Before when you climbed a hill, the car would slow down, and the engine temperature would rise. Now the temperature stays pretty constant and you can go at a reasonable speed up the hill. That fits in well with what we suspect: the mechanical fuel pump wasn't able to supply enough fuel, making the engine run lean, raising the temperature, causing misfires, reducing the engine speed causing the fuel pump to pump less, reducing the fuel supply, etc. Now, we have enough fuel and the engine temperature doesn't rise.

It was just an amazing feeling. It took a while, but it even got to the point where we didn't start to worry at approaching mountains.

We made it to the Yellowstone entrance, and dad got a 65+ lifetime pass to all national parks for $10. That is cheaper than normal admission. He has no excuse not to come back. We drove around and stopped at a few places. There was one really neat geyser, and we met some nice people. Everyone seemed to like the car.

We decided that there isn't anyway way we could stay at the Old Faithful Inn (they book up in advance pretty quick) but we wanted to check at the lodge for some souvenirs and ask about a room anyway. It was about 17:30 when we pulled in to the parking lot. The place is just beautiful, old wood, huge. We asked at the registration desk whether there were any rooms open, and they said no, they had just turned some people away right before us. We asked if there were any other places to stay in the park – as young kids we stayed with the family in some cabins, and there are other places to stay here. They checked, and while they were doing that, a room at the Old Faithful Inn opened up! There was a cancellation, so we took it right away. Amazing! Our luck today has been unbelievable. Perhaps it is some sort of karmic payback for the vapor locking and hours that we have spent on the side of the road (about 6 over two days and three "stops".)

So we decided to go for a loop around the park. There is a highway that circles the park. Going by the map I guess that the full loop is about 160 miles or so. There is also a road that cuts the park in half, for about a 80 mile loop. We thought we could do that and get back by 21:00 or so. The restaurant in the Inn closes at 22:00, so we thought we would try to look around the park and come back for dinner.

We headed out and the car was great. A champ on the mountains. We saw some Bison, got out and looked at some geysers, saw an old bus (it was actually on a new chassis and engine, maybe a modern bus but made to look like the old ones) and stopped for a picture at one of the Continental Divide signs. We had crossed the Continental Divide a few times already, but didn't stop because we were going to fast. This time we were able to stop. While there we met some guys riding their bikes from Oregon to Vermont. Crazy! Two more guys cycled up and they were riding from Washington state to Argentina. Or something impossible like that (isn't there an ocean in the way?) They were all really great guys, and took some pictures of us, and then were interested in the Pontiac so we took some pictures of them. Lots of fun.

We finally did make it back to the hotel at 21:20, almost exactly three hours after we left. You could easily take a lot longer than that if you wanted to stop to get out and look at things. A full loop of the park would probably take 6 or 7 hours just driving, much longer if you actually stopped to look at stuff.

We're in the hotel room now, and while there isn't any tv or internet access, that is just about how a place like this should be.

The plan tomorrow is to get up and go for a run, then take some pictures at Old Faithful, hopefully with the Pontiac in them. Then we'll head south and see how far we can get.

Things are looking up!

4 2013-07-26 Buffaloed by buffalo

This morning dad and I got up at about 6:30am and went out for a "run". We went at dad's pace, so a brisk walk. We did about 5km out around Old Faithful and the surrounding geyser area. It was a really nice walk, with lots of interesting things to look at and some interesting signs about the geysers. It was a bit chilly, but we had enough to talk about and look at to keep our minds off of the cold.

On the way back to the hotel, within sight of it actually, we saw a strangely shaped rock in the distance. Getting closer, it turns out it was a statue of a buffalo. Getting closer, it was a buffalo. A real buffalo. That was looking at us funny. We probably should not have worn bright yellow and red shirts. A park ranger was there and yelled at us to keep at least 25 yards away. I have no idea what that distance is. We took some pictures and edged around behind the buffalo. Amazing. Just amazing.

We then packed up the Pontiac and headed out. The trip down to the South exit was very pretty. We weren't always even the slowest car on the uphills (but probably we usually were.) We drove out through the exit, and then went through the Grand Teton national park. Those mountains were amazing. There was nothing on the road until we hit Jackson Hole, where we got some gas and lunch from the Albertson's supermarket. Then we headed on to Pasoga Springs, Colorado, where a friend of dad's lives.

We were doing great, until somewhere around Utah I noticed that there was a burning smell - I had noticed it a bit before, but thought it was a forest fire off in the distance or something. Dad also noticed that the battery charge gauge indicated that we were pulling current from the battery! We pulled over in a gas station and popped the hood. The generator was not generating. That is a problem. You need to have a generator, because in order for an engine to run, you need a few things. One of them is gas (which we had some major problems with, until we got that electric fuel pump installed!) another is air, and another is a spark to ignite the fuel and cause the explosion that pushes the pistons. The spark is generated by the spark plug, which needs electricity to run it. That comes from the battery. You can't just use the battery though, it will eventually run down. So cars have generators (or alternators more likely if you have a car that is anywhere near modern) that use power from the engine to generate electricity and re-charge the battery while the engine is running. Nice. So we didn't have a generator. That was a problem.

Dad removed the generator from the battery circuit so it wouldn’t short out the voltage regulator and leave us with two broken parts. We couldn't remove it entirely because the belt that it was driven off of also drives the water pump for the cooling system. So we needed the belt to be tight to drive that, which means the generator needs to be in the belt loop. Dad actually has an older generator in the trunk, but that needs some work before we can try it (mostly it needs to be cleaned out since it was sitting outdoors since the 1960s.) What we decided to do was to buy a battery and a battery charger so that we could charge the battery overnight, and swap out for a new one if we needed during the day.

We went to a Walmart, but they didn't have anyone to help us in the automotive section. They did have a battery charger that would work for 6 volts, so we got that, and then headed out. By chance we spotted an AutoZone, so we stopped there and got a spare 6 volt battery. And some bungie cords to tighten it down, since it is the wrong shape for the battery shelf in the Pontiac, but we can probably shoe-horn it in there if we need to. Then we drove another 60 miles. In the dark. With the lights on. Which are a huge drain on the battery. The battery that is in there is a really good one though, and seemed to be fine. We decided to stop at about 10:30pm since we could get up at sunrise and drive without the lights which would be less drain on the battery (it has to power the spark plugs, remember) and would be safer to boot. So now we are charging one battery in the room and Dad is cleaning up the spare generator outside.

(A few hours later.) It is now 1:30am, and I can't believe it, but we managed to fix the car. The spare generator, an old one from Uncle Jay's Pontiac engine, actually worked. Dad cleaned it up, especially where the brushes contacted the commutator, we removed the installed generator, and put the old one in. That should have taken about 20 minutes (I guess if you are a practicing mechanic, in a shop with the right tools, and it isn't pitch black outside) but took us about two. Maybe. I'm not sure. We both thought there was no way that this would work - at worst we were back where we started - but when we started up the engine, it showed the battery being charged. Truly amazing.

I can't believe how we have had such great luck and managed to fix all these problems that have popped up. What an adventure.

Next time we do this though, the car will have a 12 volt system. This 6 volt system has made a hard task even harder!

5 2013-07-27 From Price, Utah to Tucumcari, New Mexico

There isn't much to say about today. We got up and were driving by 8am. The plan was to get going earlier, but we got some extra sleep in the interests of safety. I did most of the driving since I had a few hours more sleep than dad.

We drove, and drove, and drove. The generator generated. The fuel pump pumped. The car went. It was a great feeling. Not much happened on the road. We went on the smaller backroads, which was a lot of fun. We went through a few small towns. There was very, very little in Utah. It seemed like a sage-brush filled wasteland.

Entering into Colorado the scenery greened up a bit, and it really looked like nice country. It was a very sparse country though, and at one point I was worried that we would run out of gas since it was sometimes an hour or almost two between gas stations.

We stopped off at Pagosa Springs to visit with Sue, a friend of dad's from when he was working at JPL as a grad student and post doc. Sue and her sons Eric and Phil were the first to babysit Alana and me. They were quite nice, and had a lot of cats and dogs.

After that we headed back out. We had eaten lunch in the car earlier (Subway - a really good meal and easy to do in the car!) and didn't stop for dinner either, although we did have a lot of fruit. And Peanuts in M&M form.

We drove down into New Mexico, and parts of that place look like another planet. At one point we crested a hill and were directed to the other side of the road to detour around a helicopter that was there to (presumably) airlift someone out to the hospital. We didn't see any wrecks, so they must have been hiking or something.

We didn't run the radio at all since we were worried about the generator giving out. It was fine. Once night fell we turned on the lights, and while the generator wasn't able to give a surplus of electricity with the lights on, it was able to keep the lights from drawing from the battery.

We figure that we can use the radio tomorrow if we want, just because we were able to get the remaining distance down to about 470 miles, or about eight hours. We can probably get back on the battery alone during daytime if the generator gives out.

Anyway, we drove until about 10:45pm, and checked in to a hotel at Tucumcari, New Mexico. Tomorrow morning we'll get an early start and check out Amarillo, TX and Route 66. After that we'll head back to Dallas, and if all goes well will arrive in the late afternoon, with a whole day to spare!

6 2013-07-28 From Tucumcari to Plano

We got an early start and were on the road by 7:00am. We forgot about the time zone change, so once we entered into Texas we lost an hour. There wasn't too much going on from New Mexico into Texas. Once we got into Texas we took an exit for Historic Route 66. We road along that for quite a while, but at some point it turned into a gravel road! And then a dirt road! We had to get back onto I-40, and we stayed on until we found an exit for Cadillac Ranch.

Cadillac Ranch is an art installation that has been around since the sixties. It is basically a bunch (10) of older Cadillacs that have been jammed nose-first into the ground at a 45 degree angle or so. People are encouraged to spray paint the bodies of the cars, and they are very colorful. It is a really interesting project. There were lots of people visiting, from all over the place. We had wanted to drive the Pontiac up close to the installation but that wasn't possible. We did get some shots with the Cadillacs standing in the distance though.

We got back on the highway and drove through Amarillo. We didn't find too much Historic Route 66 stuff, unfortunately. It was just a normal city, so we got some gas and drove on. There wasn't really too much interesting out of Amarillo; we just were on some big roads for a while. Eventually we made out way to 286, which headed West pretty much across Texas until we hit I-35, and we know our way home from there.

We pulled into the house in Plano at about 5pm that evening.

Can you believe it? According to the Odometer we had come about 2700 miles, in a car that is 62 years old. We had two major failures: fuel pump not strong enough, requiring the installation of an electric fuel pump, and the generator failing, requiring replacement with an old one that was in the trunk. The chances of that old generator working were tiny, but it actually worked. Dad didn't bring it along as a back-up, but as something that he would have rebuilt once we arrived. So that was just very lucky. We were both kind of curious how far we would have been able to go just on the battery alone; we think we could have made it in about the same time with two batteries and a charger, but we never had to test that theory.

It was a really great trip. Part of the adventure of driving a classic car is dealing with the adversity that it presents: no modern conveniences (no air conditioning, power anything, comfort), very high likelihood of some sort of break down or problem, and a change of mindset to a more slow-paced, relaxed trip where we could see the sights.

Dad still has a 1954 Hudson Hornet in Washington state that he will need to get to Texas at some point. It is also being mechanically restored, and he will have the electrical system switched out to a 12 volt system since he's having the wiring redone anyway. There is a chance that we can have another adventure like this next year.

I'm looking forward to it!

*Dad’s definition of a modern car: hydraulic brakes, 12 volts and overhead valves. His definition of a luxury car: a modern car with air conditioning.


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