In an effort to soften the feelings of sadness/anger/incomprehension/uncertainty that recent events have caused, I thought that a few vignettes of comical auto-related faux pas I have observed over the years would be a good idea. Each of these turned out to have been a really bad idea, but is certainly entertaining in its retelling.
The first example of a Bad Idea occurred when a lady walked out to her driveway one morning to pick up the newspaper and noticed something amiss near the motorhome parked by the drive. After calling her husband, they noticed lying in the grass next to the Winnebago a five-gallon can, a length of rubber hose and a pool of…..vomit. Another puddle was near the fence to the backyard, evidently the perpetrator’s escape route. Then the husband noticed that the locked fuel filler was still secure, but the cap for the RV’s sewage holding tank was also lying in the grass! Crime is a Bad Idea!
Some years ago I was having a repair taken care of at an automatic transmission shop on South Broadway. While hanging around, I noticed an interesting little aircraft engine stuck in a corner. It was a twin-cylinder, horizontally opposed air-cooled unit with a chopped-up wooden propeller that looked like it had originally been about three feet long. The fellow in charge explained that such engines had been used to power unmanned target drones during WW II. I sensed that there was more of a story there, and a little prodding brought out a real Bad Idea. One Saturday, this fellow and a friend wanted to see if they could get the engine running, so they bolted it to a heavy board, clamped that into a vice on one of the workbenches and hooked up a lawnmower fuel tank. After tinkering with the carburetor and giving many healthy spins on the prop, it began to sputter and finally roared to life. Reaching carefully around behind the prop with an old pool cue, they jabbed the throttle wide open. WOW! The open exhausts were spitting flames out either side and the shop was filled with horrendous noise. That’s when they noticed the bench moving.
Tools and parts were vibrating off the bench even before it lurched forward, but once it did, the magnitude of the problem began to dawn on the boys. The bench, with roaring engine attached, was now proceeding across the shop floor, knocking over or shredding everything in its way. The whirling propeller intimidated efforts to get behind it to close the throttle, as the bench banged into cars parked in the shop and the prop sliced into various pieces of equipment, sending splinters of wood and all sorts of shrapnel flying everywhere. A post momentarily arrested the forward motion of the bench, but the engine’s thrust just made the bench pivot around it and a shelf full of manuals was ripped off the wall and confetti filled the air. By now, the entire shop looked like a war zone. Spilled containers of oil puddled on the floor, flying debris had damaged practically everything and now the unbalanced propeller was causing the engine to vibrate so violently that the bench was starting to come apart. Their biggest fear was that the vise would release its grip and send the frightening contraption off in who knew what direction to wreak really serious mayhem. Fortunately, one cool head prevailed and grabbed a couple of old bedspreads kept in the shop to lie on under cars. He bravely approached the roaring, shaking engine that had now dragged the splintering bench down the side of another customer’s car and threw the bedspreads into the prop, stalling the engine. That’s what a slow Saturday afternoon, a few beers and too much curiosity can do for you.
A few beers have been the start of many legendary Bad Ideas, but the one that I still shudder at the memory of involved the old cars we used to wire the throttles open on to see how long they’d run before blowing up. A lot more than a few beers were part of the action here, as mechanics grinning like satyrs put down bets on when they thought the rods would fly. A ’59 Chevrolet that had howled strongly for a minute or so before getting really hot, slowing down and stalling was the culprit. The outraged crowd demanded a restart, but the old battery couldn’t spin the sticking engine quickly enough. A brand new Mercedes diesel was driven over and jumpers hooked to its giant never-say-die 100-amp battery. This got the Chevy turning over, but it still wouldn’t fire. Suspecting vapor lock, someone put gasoline in a Coke bottle and slowly dribbled it into the open carburetor throat as the car was cranked. Still nothing. By now the crowd had its blood up and was determined to have their way with the old car. A theory was advanced that the slowly turning engine wasn’t inhaling sufficient air to mix with the raw gas being introduced, since the rings had probably seized into the pistons and compression was ‘way down. Hmm, what to do? A burst of irresponsible inspiration caused the shop’s acetylene torch to be wheeled out to the car, right next to the idling Mercedes.
The oxygen tank’s valve was opened and the unlit torch nozzle held over the carburetor mouth, spraying pure oxygen into the carb, along with the raw gas drip, as the engine was cranked over. The smallest backfire would have caused an explosion that would have put all of us, and the new Mercedes, on another planet. Providence smiled, however, and the crippled old Chevy roared to life, breathing on its own again. A moment later a mighty BANG! sent part of the crankshaft, with a rod attached, out the side of the block and a tangible detumesence descended on the crowd. Porky had forgotten to restart the clock, so nobody won the pot anyway. The Mercedes was put back on the new-car lot, the other stuff brought inside and the party gradually broke up, blissfully unaware of just how bad that one idea could have been.
One of my best friends had a Triumph TR-3 while he was in college, and one warm day drove a date over to Daytona Beach in it. Cruising down the sand at low speed made the car heat up, so he released the two Dzus fasteners that latched the hood closed. This allowed the hood to spring up a couple of inches before being stopped by the safety catch, and neatly admitted more cooling air. Many hours later, after strolling the boardwalk and having dinner, the couple headed home in the balmy darkness, truly enjoying the little convertible. Not long after, the date was asleep with her head on his lap and my friend pushed the lazy cruising speed up to seventy or so. With absolutely no warning—not even a flutter—the catch let go, sending the hood flying up back against the windshield. The windshield’s top edge acted as a pivot, snapping off the cast metal hinges and the upside-down hood knocked my friend out cold before flying off into the night. This excitement woke the girl up and, fortunately, she rose to the occasion, grabbed the wheel and shut off the key. Good date; Bad Idea.
I wrote once about the small-scale used car operation I had while in high school, where I would sell inexpensive cars to laborers for $10.00 a week. Although delinquencies didn’t happen often, I did keep a spare key for each car to make the obligatory object lesson more convenient. On one such occasion, I had located a ’54 Plymouth, whose payment had gone AWOL, in the parking lot of a pool hall. I locked up my own car a couple of blocks away, walked back and liberated the Plymouth. At the first traffic light, I hit the brakes with the usual force necessary in those pre-power-boosted days, went sharply to the right, over the curb, and into a bus bench! Fortunately, it was unoccupied and ’54 Plymouths can hit almost anything without sustaining noticeable damage. I backed into the street and warily tried the brakes again at the next intersection. The wheel pulled violently right, but there was very little stopping activity going on. More experimentation revealed that if the surprise course change was being anticipated, it could be corrected for by tugging the huge non-power-assisted steering wheel hard left. The rear wheels would lock up and screech the tires loudly, but the braking distance was really long.
I tip-toed the car back to my place and waited for the inevitable phone call. After discussing the transgression, I suggested that I fix the brakes (and add the cost to the buyer’s balance) before he killed someone. Looking into the problem, I noticed that the left front brake’s wheel cylinder had obviously been leaking—fluid was everywhere—but application of the pedal didn’t cause more to ooze out. Strange. I disconnected the brake hose to that wheel with difficulty, since the fitting had been butchered with pliers, and found a ten-penny nail inserted into the line! The owner had solved the fluid leak by plugging up the line with the nail, but that resulted in no brake at that corner, which made the car pull violently to the right. And, of course, the front wheels do by far the majority of braking, so the rears had little effect by themselves beyond squealing the recaps. Another potentially lethal Bad Idea!
Quite a number of years ago, a fellow I knew bought a used Jaguar XK-E coupe. Dissatisfied with the garbage radio equipment fitted by the factory, he bought a much better receiver and installed it in the dash to replace the OEM unit. This quickly made it apparent that the speakers built into the door panels were junk as well. Dipping farther into his nestegg, he bought a pair of much bigger and more powerful speakers. One Saturday morning, he removed the originals from the nicely leather-trimmed door panels and proceeded to install the new ones.
He carefully measured to make sure that the door was deep enough to accommodate the larger speaker cones before cutting the larger holes that would be necessary in the panels, and found that they would just fit, since E-type doors have quite a bulge in them. He proceeded to carve out the extra few inches of leather and fiber board, installed the speakers along with all the requisite wire and finished the job off with some nice-looking new grilles.
Proud of his work, he turned on the radio and it sounded great! After putting away all the tools and dumpstering the old speakers and grilles, he got cleaned up to go for a drive and enjoy his new tunes. As he was warming up the car in the driveway, he cranked open the window--but it only went down a couple of inches! Uh-oh! Bad Idea! E-type doors are relatively fat, but they’re not very tall!
Our last Bad Idea (for now) is also one of the strangest. Twenty years ago I had a man at our dealership discussing the trade-in of his fairly new Jaguar XJ6 sedan. He mentioned that it had “a few problems,” but when I went out to look the car over, it seemed fine initially. My habit is to first walk around a car, looking at the tires, condition of paint, signs of repaired damage, etc. before getting inside. I was beginning to wonder what he was referring to since everything looked fine. Then I opened the door; things inside weren’t so rosy! Both headrests were little more than the metal frames—nearly all padding and upholstery were gone; the upper corners of the front seat backs were also ripped open and the padding pulled out. The rounded edge of the padded dash had two-inch-wide semicircles chopped out of it, and all along its length were ragged punctures. The steering wheel’s leather skin was similarly gnawed, as was nearly every other angular surface in the car. The interior mirror was broken from its pedestal and lying on the floor, along with some of the dashboard knobs. I had seen dog damage in cars before, but this was much, much worse and more violent. There was also a particularly disgusting smell emanating from some suspicious stains and smears.
Retreating back inside the dealership—without taking the car for a drive—I asked the gent just what kind of party had gone on in there. It seems that he had a pet Capuchin monkey that enjoyed going for rides in the car, but didn’t like being left alone in it! An adult Capuchin is a pretty good-sized primate, amazingly strong, vicious when aroused and short on patience. I would think that, knowing this, deciding to leave one closed up in a car while you went shopping would be a really Bad Idea!
-- Bill Orth --