Posts from ‘old school’
So a bit over a week ago I dropped off my custom ’79 Chevy Shorty Camper van with my buddy Tom down south of the city in wine country.
Story goes like this: Tom has had a serious crush on my late 60′s chopper ever since he first laid eyes on it — something about the vintage custom one-off nature of the thing was highly appealing to a hotrodder/gearhead/fabricator like him. He has always done right by me, and I’m not afraid to stick my neck out for my buddies. So last summer when the weather was beautiful and he was pining for something to ride, I handed him the keys and loaded the chopper into his truck, saying only that I was sure that we would find some way for him to make it a fair deal down the road. No money changed hands. No contract was written out. Just a handshake between friends, and an understanding that one way or the other he would make good.
He played with it all summer: took it to shows, flogged it through the backroads in wine-country, waxed poetic about it, and generally made me happy to have passed it into his keeping. Sometimes, watching a friend having fun with something you made is every bit as good as enjoying it yourself. . .
Well, Tom has some serious skills – he is a skilled mechanic, can build performance engines all day, is a bad-ass custom fabricator, and also is a master of building crazy off road machines. He used to own a custom 4WD shop and did high end conversions and upgrades — everything from mild mannered daily drivers, to hill climbers, to the kind of trucks that can jump, take 10′ of air and land with no troubles. So, when he offered to do a serious 4WD conversion to my camper van (with all freshly rebuilt running gear) as trade for the chopper, I knew it was a more-than-fair offer.
And so for months now he has been collecting parts and planning the conversion, and now she had been handed off to begin the process. It seems that my girl will be getting rebuilt period-correct heavy-duty 6-lug Blazer running gear, a 12-bolt rear, with Eaton positracs front and rear, and a correct transfer case attached to my existing turbo-350 trans. She will lose the A-arms and instead have leaf spring mounted hard axles front and rear, and a set of burly original 6-bolt rally wheels.
The process will take a few weeks. . . and be ready in time for my (hopefully) upcoming roadtrip. I can barely wait.
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P.s. here are pics of the chopper. I found her as a dilapidated, non-running, half-wrecked roller in Idaho, and rebuilt her myself with nothing but vintage period-correct trick parts which I found one at a time in junkyards, ebay, and Craigslist. Now she is the equal of most show bikes, and has that honest patina of age and wear that the ratrod guys try to fake.
My old ’76 Camaro has that rarest of things — a 35 year old unmolested stock Small Block Chevrolet engine. The carb is original. The Air filter still has the snorkel on it. Hell, I’m pretty sure the valve covers have never even been removed. Probably because of this she runs amazingly well. . . although the 104k original miles no-doubt help things a bit.
Despite the constant temptation to cheaply bolt on more power, I have resisted the urge and left it stock — maybe I’m getting old. But, she definitely aint broke — and I am enjoying getting well-over 20 MPG on the freeway. Moreover, it would feel somewhat like heresy to tear into a perfect stock engine as old as this — like making a custom cafe racer out of a perfectly preserved 40-year-old stocker, it just wouldn’t be right.
That said, I have been systematically replacing worn out engine peripherals — spark plugs, distributor, plug wires, belts, hoses, and bigger pieces like the radiator, and yesterday, the alternator. The nearest new Bosch unit in NAPA’s system was in Massachusetts, and I wanted the benefit of Second Saturday pricing. So I settled for an absurdly cheap remanufactured Delco with a lifetime warrantee. I’m sure it will be adequate.
As usual, more time was spent drinking, bullshitting and smoking cigars than it took to actually do car surgery. Gotta love simple old American vehicles.
So, yesterday I picked up my ’01 Triumph Thunderbird Legend TT, which had been in the custody of the dealership for almost 3 months.
Apparently my back ordered igniter box finally showed up, was installed, and they test rode her two times just to make sure all was working well. And, after a few rides, I’m forced to concur — everything appears to be working properly. The bike runs smoothly, accelerates well, and basically does just what one would hope a low milage well maintained 885 triple would do.
Still, I’m a little worried. Even though she is running well, and even though I have now replaced the entire ignition system (which is thus warranted by the dealership), I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. . . Waiting for something expensive to go wrong, for another vital and costly part to fail. As much as I enjoy riding the bike and love the aesthetics, I worry that my fears of yet more expensive failures will prevent me from enjoying riding it. And, while I have grown to love the character and the styling of the T-Bird, I feel as if I have been rather burned by Marque.
I never had these issues when I was running Hondas.
If the smaller Harleys weren’t so pathetically crude and underpowered I might consider something in that direction. If the V-Rod was 200-300 lbs smaller. . . If Buell wasn’t a dead marque. . . If the modern Guzzis weren’t so bloody obscure and expensive they might have been attractive, but I am not interested in quests for parts and knowledgable service. If the Japanese bikes didn’t feel so cheap and boring. . . if Ducatis weren’t reliability and maintenance nightmares, and weren’t universally associated with asshats and guidos. . .
Hell, if Vincent still made bikes, that would be my Marque — philosophically and aesthetically, I feel that it has all been downhill for the world of motorcycles since they closed up shop. What I wouldn’t give for a nice shiny new Vincent Black Shadow – a simple elegant performance oriented bike designed to be maintained by a dedicated owner. . . Plus, it was literally the original blacked out bike — the engine cases were colored black with a baked on enamel — a first in the golden age (and the very aesthetic my T-Bird aspires to) But, given that I’m not in the market for a $100k+ antique collector’s bike, and I’m not sure what to think of the various short-lived and troubled reboots of the Marque, my Vincent fantasies will likely be unrealized. . .
Dammit, I like the Triumph history, philosophy, and Marque identity – -it is the closest thing left of what I see as the GoldenDays of motorcycling. I like the aesthetics both of their classically styled bikes and of their more modern offerings. And, I prefer the T-birds of the early 2000s (like mine) to the Bonnevilles which replaced them ’cause I prefer a liquid-cooled triple to an air-cooled twin. And, in many ways, mine is about the best specimen of such a bike as I have seen in the past few years.
I guess I’ll have to ponder on this some more.
So, I replaced the old, ugly, rusty, barely-functional, “custom” Ford style truck mirrors some dumbass mounted on my beautiful ’79 Chevy shorty van back in the 70s with a nice set of GM style van mirrors. In addition to being a visual blight on the old girl, I could barely see anything out of the old mirrors, and every time I hit a bump they went out of adjustment. And they rattled. A lot. The new ones actually allow me to see behind me. . . and aesthetics have been greatly enhanced. It was easy — took about an hour. . . should have done this ages ago. . .
And, I took the ’76 Camaro on her first roadtrip up to Seattle last weekend. She did great on the freeway! 3rd gear is exceptionally tall. Cruising at 60mph you are at about 2100 RPM, 70mph is about 2500 RPM, and 80 is about 2800 RPM which keeps the engine nice and relaxed. I pushed her to 100 a few times, and there was a lot left — I have no doubt she would peg the 130mph speedo if I asked it of her. . . and I might one of these days. . .
Best all, the nice tall freeway gear gave me 22 MPG on my trip up to Seattle, and that included half an hour of 0-5 MPH Seattle traffic. Not bad for a stock un-rebuilt 35 year old 5 liter engine. Im guessing that is literally twice the MPG I would have gotten from the ’69 Mustang. . . perhaps more. That thing could pass anything but a gas station.
Well, she was a little rough around the edges when I got her, mostly due to 35 year old original paint. But, no longer!
My favorite hotrod shop (Marshall’s) stripped her to bare metal, removed the emblems and unnecessary trim, shaved the unfortunate marker lights, and cured 35 years worth of small parking lot dings. And, they put her in coat of fresh paint — matte black epoxy, of course. They did a great job for me, and at a rate that is too low to post on the interweb. . . Seriously. This is the third hotrod they have done for me and I highly recommend them.
Now comes the fun part:
- Which type of vintage mag wheels does she get?
- Do I keep the original interior or put in race buckets?
- Should I keep the great-running stock numbers match engine, or go all out and drop in a modern fuel-injected 350 with twice the HP and better fuel economy to boot?
- Do I replace the 3-speed with a 4 or 5-speed?
- How loud should I make the exhaust?
- Should I put on a billet grille?
We will see. . . If you have an opinion, feel free to chime in.
As I got deeper and deeper into the world of motorcycles, I fell in love with simplicity in engineering and the commensurate ability for a moderately intelligent amateur wrench to tackle 90% of the issues which accompany vintage bike ownership. Nothing makes you feel like a self reliant old-school red-blooded American like rebuilding a 60s era chopper yourself, using it as a daily driver, and routinely fixing the damn thing on the side of the road when it breaks down again and again. Eventually, I got good enough that they weren’t breaking down so much, and boy was I proud.
During this time, I had been running a series of practical, reliable and exceptionally milquetoast vehicles. The epitome of this was the (above/below mentioned) Volvo 240d station wagon which I owned for years. It was literally the same make, model and year that I had learned to drive on as a 15 and 1/2 year old. It was cheap, reliable, super practical, ugly, underpowered, and perhaps the least “cool” vehicle I had ever owned. I would get thumbs up from dreadlocked old hippies and hipsters with ironic mustaches and double-digit IQs as we would pass each other in identical vehicles. Despite an affection for the damn thing due to so many road trips and camping trips in it, I hated it at a fundamental level. I never washed it, ever. When I sent to sell it I had it detailed, and it literally looked like a different car — I had forgotten what color it was, that is how dirty the Volvo had gotten.
And this while I was running more and more kick-ass bikes. The kind of bikes that in a couple cases literally caused traffic accidents from people rubbernecking to get a better look. Eventually, I decided I wanted to indulge an old fantasy is pick up the kind of custom trick van I had always wanted as a kid in the 80s. The kind of van that was effectively a posh portable living room. Such things are pretty much exclusively built from American full-size vans (although that didn’t stop me from trying to make do with a couple Toyota space pods), and so I ended up with a full sized American vehicle for the first time in my life.
Despite my prejudices and preconceptions I really really liked it. This was a older vehicle from the mid-80s, and even though it had all the available options it was still spartan compared with what I was used to. What I lost in handling, prestige and sophistication I gained in simplicity, ruggedness and brute power. And, it was basic enough I could work on it myself, just like an old motorcycle — no black boxes, no fancy electronics, nothing that some basic hand-tools and determination couldn’t conquer. All the sudden I had some pride in ownership again. . . and whaddaya know, somehow there was always time to keep it clean and sharp looking.
And the engine! It was an ’86 Chevy LE9 5.0 L 305ci — literally the last year of the carbureted 305. The prior owner had had it blueprinted and balanced by a race shop — it was smooth, powerful and had the harmonic thrummm that the best built American v8s can get.
I was in love. I suppose it was I suppose inevitable that I would want something similar in a smaller car. . . with a louder exhaust, and a more aggressive cam. . . Something to spank my father’s fancy late model bimmers with . . .
So there you have it — the story of how a kid raised on sophisticated and refined euro marques ended up an apostle of the American v8, solid axles and technology older than himself. . . But, I do still hate bench seats, soft steering and mushy suspension, so I guess I’m not a total Philistine. I’m thinking that a mid 70s Corvette Stingray is somewhere in my future. . .
My first car was a late 70s BMW 5 series. It had been a top-of the line luxury car years prior, but by the time I bought it for $1200 it was a rusty old hooptie, with cracked blue leather seats and faded cracking wood paneled interior (they used real wood back then). The Broken down old seats had that unique BMW smell caused by the seats being stuffed with horsehair. Every non-essential electrical system had failed — the power windows didn’t open, the power locks had long since quit, and there was no AC or heat. But, it started every time without fail, had ample room for a big posse of friends, had a stickshift and went pretty darn fast. What more could a 17 year old want? Besides, the sunroof had a manual crank, so it still worked. . . and I have many fond memories of hot young things standing up and flashing oncoming traffic through that sunroof. Ah to be young and stupid again. . .
Later, with the proceeds of my first “real job” after college, I located an ’81 320is and bought it with cash. That’s right a 320is — it was an illegal grey market import that an airline pilot had smuggled into the US from Germany, with fantastic hard sport suspension, a spoiler, Recaro seats, factory mag wheels, and Autobahn gearing. It got great gas milage, handled like a dream, and accelerated like, well, a sporty small-displacement four-cylinder car, which is to say: meh. I ran it for years, and still regret selling it. I’ll never find another one that nice. . .
Than came the Saabs. The turbo systems were really nice, and they were classy, and comfortable, fuel efficient and fast, but. . . while, they never failed me, I could never convince myself to love them. Or like them. Or even to wash them. . . I pretty much hated them. Oh well.
Then I traded sportiness, handing, and fun factor for reliability, and hauling capacity in the form of a Volvo 240d Wagon. The ugly old beast took me through the cities, deserts and the mountains. It was big enough to camp out of (barely), reliable enough to drive through Death Valley (twice), and ugly enough to park in bad neighborhoods with no worries.
I experimented with Japanese vehicles here and there, mostly Toyotas. I bought an early 80s Celica for $600 in the late 90s for the exclusive purpose of parking on the streets in my bad Seattle neighborhood after my beautiful Beemer had been vandalized one to many times. The wretched thing had almost no paint left, and burned about a quart of oil for every tank of gas, but it ran with no maintenance as a backup car for 2 years before it finally died. Later I owned a couple of the Toyota “space shuttle” vans, including a rare factory 4×4 version. But, all in all my various Japanese vehicles seemed somehow cheap and flimsy after the Euro marques, and I never owned any of them for very long.
So, how then have I become a convert to American vehicles? Why after growing up immersed in the world of refined and balanced Euro marques, am I running bowties and blue ovals?
(to be continued. . .)
I grew up in a household which ran exclusively European vehicles.
My earliest automotive memories include riding in the back of my dad’s black BMW 2002tii (my mom had a matching one in white, but it wasn’t a tii). Later when the 3 series came out there were a couple of those. Then there were the Carman Ghia’s — the green stocker, and the red one with the porsche engine and running gear — I remember when that one came home. I was in kindergarden, and I thought it sounded like a helicopter had landed in the garage. . . The green Ghia was given to my paternal grandfather, who continued to drive (it in ever-increasing states of dilapidation and deferred maintenance) until his vision failed completely in his late-80s. By the time it was finally sold off in the late 90s, it was half rust (due to the lovely salted midwestern roads), with a tattered seats, and exceptionally bad paint, but the old VW still started every time.
My mothers side of the family had money, and flaunted it with a long succession of Jaguars and Mercedes Benzes, and an old Lincoln the size of a river barge. My Maternal Grandfather claimed to have one owned the first Jags imported into his region. To hear him tell it, he and his friends used to sit around at their exclusive country club telling stories about whose Jaguar had broken down at the most inconvenient time — I guess the point of owning a Jag in the 50s and 60s was to demonstrate that you could afford the inconvenience , a mechanic on staff, and a couple back-up rides. I remember being a new 16 year old driver handed the keys to late model v12 XJ — a long, low, white and chrome luxu-rocket complete with a chrome Leaper — it reeked money. I was terrified. The engine was so smooth and so powerful I felt totally out of control (I was used to German cars where you could hear and feel the power-plant). Tthere was no resistance on the gas pedal, at the slightest touch I was going 80. Inevitably, and no doubt partially due to nerves, I miscalculated and creased the entire side — both doors and both quarters — doing in a few seconds damage worth more than years of working at the shitty jobs I had back then. But my Grandfather didn’t seem to think it was a big deal — apparently, 16 year olds were expected to damage fancy cars. . . part of growing up in his world, I guess.
By the time I was a bit older, my parents had switched to Swedish cars, and a long string of indestructible Volvos, and less reliable high-performance Saabs followed. I came to appreciate the bulletproof Volvo 240 engine, and grew to love the Saab Aeros, SPGs and even a gray-market Griffin. Then, one day I was driving my mother’s Volvo 240d Wagon and was involved in a three car accident at high speed on the freeway — hit hard enough from behind that the cigarette lighter landed in my lap. The Japanese car that hit me was crushed like a tin can, and got towed away quirting green arterial fluid on the road. It’s driver went to the hospital. But the Volvo was barely scratched, and I was unhurt. And, the big American truck which hit it, was similarly undamaged. Then, my little brother fell asleep at the wheel wrapped a Saab 9000 around a tree, hit it so hard that the trunk was nearly up to the windshield. But, crumple-zones work, and he walked away without a scratch. I became a believer in big safe Swedish vehicles.
So, inevitably, My first cars were Bimmers, Saabs and Volvos: an indestructible Volvo 240, a BWM 5 series, and two 3 series, a couple Saabs and even some Japanese cars when I was a poor student (I’m still terrified of Jags. . .).
(To be continued. . .)
So this past weekend I attended the Rose City Roundup, a Ratrod show and and apparently a big event for the Rockabilly set. The event featured pre-’65 vehicles, so nothing I currently own was old enough to play, although my ratty old chopper made an appearance in the back of my buddy Tom’s ratrodded Ford truck — a super cool ride in it’s own right.
If you’re a fan of hotrods, rusty old rigs, jalopies, rock and roll, pompadours, and tattooed chicks in vintage dresses, you missed out. As a dress-code non-conformist, I felt a little out of place, but the love of old-school custom automobiles, and the more universal brotherhood of the Gearheads smoothed over the subculture differences — once we started telling stories about fabrication, hotrods and motorcycle crashes, it was all ok.
The weather wasn’t really cooperating — it was overcast and drizzly all afternoon, assuring attendance by only the hardcore. Apparently, this is just the season opener for this set — the big event is supposed to be Rustfest in Salem. I’m planning on attending, and I might just have an older rig by then. . . we’ll see. . .
Here are some pics of a few of some of the many amazing rides showcased. I assure you it was even better in person.
Last weekend I spent an afternoon at Woodburn Dragstrip watching my buddy race the ’65 Mustang. It is hard to believe that the little old pony is running 13.5 only a few months after loading it on a trailer sans-engine, and front clip, after sitting in a garage for 25 years. . .
He was running in the new “Super Shifter” category — bracket racing for manual shift cars only to avoid the “rich-old-men-with-expensive-pushbutton-”delay box”-systems” syndrome which usually makes bracket racing so boring. It is hard to get excited watching people trying to time their button push to the lights. . . or trying to race against them in the kind of car that has license plates. . . Sophisticated pre-fab electronic gear, pushbutton systems, and the associated approach to hotrodding had pretty much killed my interest in bracket racing, so I really like the addition of the manual shift only series.
My only complaint is that running the ’69 wasn’t in the cards. . . drag racing is not nearly as much fun as a spectator sport. . . Here are a few shots of the ’65 Stang burning rubber, waiting for the lights and disappearing down the track:
Wednesday was the season opener for the Cruise In at Portland International Raceway, hosted by Beaches. It is acres and acres of amazing vintage cars. If you have a pre-73 you get to park it with the cool kids on the grassy field so everyone can see it. Everyone else gets to park in the remote lot and take a shuttle bus in. Except, of course, if you are on a motorcycle — normal rules never apply to bikes:)
This was my first cruise in with the ’69 Stang, and I thought she held her own in a rather deep and amazing field of impressive vintage cars. There were no less than three other ’69 Mustangs in attendance — more than I have ever seen in one place at the same time. But, the others were either stockers or concourse-correct restos, as was much of the field. There weren’t a lot of hotrods with burned rubber on the rear-quarters, if you know what I mean. . . She got a modest amount of attention parked, but when I drove in an out. . . well, everyone suddenly got excited. The harmonic thrum of a built balanced blueprinted engine with an aggressive cam and flowmasters is something you don’t hear much of at that kind of event.