Yes, It's True

September, 2009

have to start out this treatise with these words: It is a true story. Yes, it really did happen.

The year is 1966. LBJ is president, and you, like most Americans are just beginning to learn about faraway places named Laos and Cambodia. The economy is in a small recession. The Civil Rights laws are now a done deal, and the big news is about the Medicare debate in Washington, and the forced bussing of grammar school students. On this particular October evening, you are walking across a parking lot, looking for your car. You spot it in the distance- sitting long, low and wide - with a profile similar in shape to the USS. Nimitz. You approach the vehicle, put your key in the lock, with a quick twist and button push, you pop open the driver's door and slide onto the smooth vinyl seat. You close the door, adjust yourself in the seat and put the ignition key into its slot on the dashboard. You then put your foot on an accelerator pedal larger than a VHS cassette, thump it once to the carpet to set the automatic choke- and release. You turn the key. From under the hood you hear a muffled --- rrrrrr, rrrrr, rrrrr- RAT TAT TAT TAT TATvoooooooooooommmmmmm - then the cool engine settles down to a healthy blubblubblubblubblubblub.......  You set your foot on a chromium ringed brake pedal that is three times wider than your foot, depress it lightly, and reach for the black and chrome plated shifter on the steering column. It moves under your hand with a definitive click, click, click as you shift the selector into 'drive'. You give the big shiny steering wheel a twist, move your foot from the brake to the gas and with a quiet little vavavavavavavavavava...... off you go into a pleasant indian summer evening.......... 

In April of 1966, my Great-Uncle John, recently retired from 30ish years as a bailiff for the Cook County, Illinois court system-- sold his house in Chicago and moved (along with my Great-Aunt Josephine) to La Porte, Indiana. At the same time, Uncle John traded in his old 1955 Dodge for a brand-new shiny green 1966 Dodge Polara sedan.
By the standards of the day, the Polara was the latest word in chromium- encased heavy gauge Detroit iron. Its up-to-date safety features included all passenger seat belts, a fully adjustable day/night mirror, windshield washers and CONELRAD indicators on the AM radio dial (just in case the Reds decided to attack) Underneath the hood sat a 383 cubic inch V-8 (that's about 6 liters for you youngsters) with a carburetor that was larger than most full-size Christmas fruitcakes. At the other end, underneath a trunk big enough to hold a string quartet, sat a 26 gallon gas tank. In between was a cabin large enough to squeeze in the Supreme Court, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, onto classy textured vinyl seats. The Polara was designed with the idea that six full-grown adults should be able to travel in comfort (i.e. not physically touching one another) on a long trip and still each be able to carry a large suitcase in the trunk. This was the market target that the 1960's (pre Nickel 'n Daimler) Chrysler Corporation was shooting for. And they hit it quite well, in my opinion.  In 1966, the Interstate Highway System was 10 years old and ribbons of fresh smooth concrete stretched across the length and breadth of the country, providing a seemingly endless supply of places to go and ways to get there. And speaking of seemingly endless supplies-- gasoline was priced to move at about 28 cents to the gallon.  

Fast-forward 15 years. It is now June, 1981. Ronald Reagan is president and is still recuperating from an earlier assassination attempt. The economy is coming out of another recession and Medicare has been a done deal for 13 years. The big national debate is about tax cuts, and gasoline is priced at about $1.20 per gallon. The abovementioned 1966 Dodge Polara is still sitting in my Great-Uncle John's garage, now with a paltry 19,680 miles on the odometer. Uncle John is no longer driving-- in fact, he hasn't been driving for years, as the grocery store is less than a mile away, and they deliver. In 15 years his car has never seen snow, even though he still kept the snow tires from the 1955 Dodge that he used to own.  It is extremely doubtful that the car ever left Indiana, and the farthest anyone can remember the Polara being driven was to Michigan City, Indiana (once!), about a 23 mile round-trip.  Uncle John had spent most of his time playing with his cats (he trained them to fetch and otherwise act like dogs) and chain-smoking Pall Mall cigarettes in front of his 25 inch console television set. Aunt Jo didn't especially want to go anywhere. Then she died, so Uncle John sold his house and moved into a retirement home.
And now the stage is set for our little adventure.  Enter---me.
At this point in time I was a 19-year-old semi-gearhead, and was in need of a car. From the time that I was a small boy, I had always liked Uncle John's car- and when over for a visit, I would sneak into the garage and just drool over it. When the word came that this Dodge Polara was available to me, I began a week-long hyperventilation attack prior to retrieving the beast. 
On the fateful Saturday, my Dad, my brother Mike, my friend Rob and I drove the 90some miles to La Porte in my Dad's '78 Oldsmobile. In addition to the Dodge, we were planning to pick up some furniture (including a refrigerator) using a small open U-haul trailer to be pulled by the Olds. We made it out to La Porte by about noon and set about the task of loading the trailer and tying down a tarp over the contents. An hour or so later we were finished and were set to leave. We turned our attention to the garage and the old Dodge. 
Apart from a mild case of atrophy, we knew that the car had to be reasonably safe, due to the valid Indiana State inspection sticker on the windshield. We all looked the car over (Shocks Ok, brakes and steering seemed tight, no spots on the garage floor)  so we shrugged our shoulders and decided to take the chance on 90 miles of Interstate back to Chicago. The sky had clouded over that morning, and looked dark as we got into the cars, Mike and my Dad in the Olds, Rob with me in the Polara. Thunder was rumbling when I backed the car out of the Uncle John's driveway that final time, and a few tentative raindrops splattered the windshield as we drove through town- the Polara following Dad's trailer laden Olds.   
  Driving through downtown La Porte, I could tell that something was definitely wrong. Not only was the car EXTREMELY slow pulling away from traffic lights, but also gave out with the occasional misfire under the hood. It felt like I was driving by mail- during a post office strike. I had a difficult time keeping close to Dad's car- even though he was towing a trailer.  By the time we got to the Indiana toll road, I was pulsing the throttle just to keep the Polara going. We could just about get past 50 MPH before the engine would start coughing and shaking and have to back down to under 40.  The rain was holding off, thankfully. Maybe the car was scared- it had never been on a highway before.
  We were chugging along like a Stanley Steamer for about 20 minutes, when Rob noticed that the tarp was coming loose on the trailer ahead of us.  Changing to the left lane, I was able to nurse ourselves up next to the Olds (it took about 5 minutes to do it), wind down a window and warn my brother about the tarp. We were doing about 50 (as fast as the Dodge would let us go) when Mike started to slow down in order to pull over. I glanced into the rear-view mirror.
And then it happened.
Even now I am surprised at life's sudden twists and turns. It is amazing how that within a few seconds the human condition can move from boredom,  through concern, tension and all the way into stark terror. You can be puttering along without a care in the world- when first a little problem comes up-- and suddenly Death is hurtling towards you at about 70 miles an hour from behind, and you with really no place to go. It's like watching an incoming missile with your name on it- growing larger with each second- and time itself seems to shift into slow-motion. There is a sensation that you have become a passenger inside of your own body, and that you are seeing the giant white Buick bearing down upon you- watching it from some distant place out in the ether.......
This situation was most definitely ungood. There is a car with a trailer on one side of us, a soggy median on the other, and a big white Oldsmo-Buick about to nail us from behind like a giant croquet ball.  My rear view mirror is filled with chrome when I make my decision. I am going to push the throttle all the way down to the floor............. and I am going to die.  I glance over at Rob as I tighten my death-grip on the wheel. He is noticeably pale.  I thump the accelerator down into the carpet...............and brace for the impact.............. while the my engine is wheezing out its last rites.........   CHUG........ (knock)...........  CHUG........(snarl)............. CHUG.......................... CHUGCHUG ...................  . gurgle.......................... ....................... ...CHUG........................
I became aware of a few things pretty much simultaneously. First, an explosion -very close by--  a strong shimmy passing through the Dodge from front to rear -- then-- the feeling of being pressed firmly back into the drivers seat and seeing the speedometer leaping from 45 to over 80- then past 100 miles per hour. My late-adolescent brain is now reeling..... WHAT JUST HAPPENED?   We didn't get hit or else we'd rolling over in the median-- We didn't blow up----- if we did - we'd be coated in oil and there'd be shrapnel bouncing around in the engine bay. Somehow, it's none of the above-- and we are now accelerating like a bat out of he**. In fact, we are no longer in an automobile-- we are a guided missile. The engine sounds like the front row at the Daytona 500  and if I don't get my foot off the throttle RIGHT NOW,  I thought I'd soon be flirting with the sound barrier. The rear view mirror shows a rapidly shrinking thick black cloud - coming out of which I see the equally blackened front end of a white car. I came off the power - no chugging now- the motor is purring like the proverbial kitten. As I pull over to the shoulder, I am passed by a soot-covered white car- whose driver stares at me with an eyes-as-big-as-saucers shocked expression (probably similar to mine). 
In a minute or so, my Dad and brother come up and stop. Mike looks at me and asks, "You guys all right?" He shows me the side of Dad's car and the trailer-- which are now covered with oily black soot. The back end of my car is also grimy with carbon. Mike tells me that he watched a good ten-foot-long sheet of flame come from the back of the Polara - just before it simply disappeared up the road. 
From that point on, we could get airborne from a very short runway (so to speak.)
So.... what happened?
Without going too far into the principles of combustion, this is what actually happened under the hood. In 1966, the most hi-tech part of an engine was the carburetor (the device that mixes air with gasoline to make an explosive vapor to burn inside the cylinders.) The carburetor is a pretty sloppy device - especially when compared with the electronic fuel injection (EFI) systems used in today's cars. (To compare: If EFI were digital wristwatches, carburetors would be sundials) In order for a carbureted engine to be efficient,  the car engine has to fully 'warm-up' to burn away any carbon deposits made while the engine was 'cold'. This is why older cars need an occasional long trip to "blow out the carbon" from the engine. My Uncle John rarely drive for more than a mile or two at a time, so his engine (and exhaust system) rarely ever warmed up- so it never had a chance to clear out the gum, varnish, carbon, sludge, fishbones and dead spiders accumulated over the past 15 years. That is, not until I set my right foot into the equation. I made the Polara's engine turn faster than Uncle John had ever made it go. In less than 10 seconds, I managed to remove most of a decade and a half's worth of junk from the engine -and ignite it in the tailpipe- instantly changing the vehicle's demeanor from that of Grandma Moses (stiff, stodgy and slow) to that of Paris Hilton (sleek and VERY fast).
I wish that the story had a happy ending-- but alas not quite. When I got the Polara home, I discovered that the original spark plugs were still in the engine. Uncle John never had them changed. So I gave the engine a full tune-up.  Nor was he regular with the other maintenance items-- like lubrication.  It is very likely that he had the oil changed at least once every three years. Because of this- over the intervening years, the old oil wore down the internal engine parts (like the shafts and bearings). By the time I got the car, the damage was done. A thousand oil changes wouldn't fix it now.  Two years later the Polara simply started hemorraging internally- and broke a connecting rod out on the highway. There was no audible warning- one minute I was tooling down the highway smooth and solid at 65, the next minute Buddy Rich is doing a drum solo in the engine compartment. Indian summer was over.
(All above pictures downloaded from the Internet- not my actual car- but very similar to it.)