The Land Rover Writer

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Welcome back to Jensen?

For decades Jensen produced some of the most iconic British GT automobiles.

The Interceptor had the style and flair that landed it accolades during the '60's and 70's, and it continues to be a highly sought after classic today. The Interceptor FF used a Ferguson-designed four wheel drive system and became the precursor of the Audi Quattro. 

Jensen also produced the bodies for the Austin-Healey and later in the '70's, found itself bought out of receivership by Kjell Qvale, the famous US importer of British automobiles. He revived the marque for several years in producing the Jensen-Healey. 

Like TVR, Marcos and Bristol, Jensen has gone in and out of production over the decades but the power of the marque carries it onward.

This latest effort comes on the heels of other small luxury brands starting up, but it would be nice to see this one succeed. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Alfa Return to US Market Delayed

In a sad note for genuine auto enthusiasts, Alfa Romeo's planned return to the USA market has been delayed by parent corporation Fiat. Now it looks like the earliest we'll see an Alfa through dealerships in 2013.

According to Autoweek, the delays arise out of Fiat's concerns about the proposed designs and engineering from Alfa's Turin studios, and from the desire to take advantage of economies of scale by melding Alfa and Chrysler's manufacturing capacities. It does appear that some Chrysller products will be badged as Alfa's and/or Lancia's, or the converse might happen, as Alfa's might be badged as Chrysler products.

Whatever the decisions to be reached, the beloved Alfa Spider is out of production with its replacement not scheduled until 2013 also. Let's hope that the decision s reached don't dilute Alfa's automotive DNA!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"I am a Rock, on an Island"

Land Rovers have always prided themselves as "working vehicles." Indeed the earliest ads for Land Rovers cited their role as the "versatile" car, able to work on the farm and then bring you into town.

This past week I tested the Land Rover's working capabilities against an enormous tree stump and a boulder too heavy for three people to lift out of the ground. My Land Rover ended the week 1-1.

The tree stump presented quite a hurdle. Our crew of three dug around the huge root ball and I took a chain saw to any visible roots. We tied a tow strap and a kinetic rope around the tree stump, and I goosed it up the gravel drive for some 30' before I felt the Rover surge ahead and then get thrust backwards - the kinetic rope acts just like a rubber band. The tree stump never budged. We tried a few more times and then I gave up and called in a backhoe.

The boulder lay under the surface right in line with the trench I had to absolutely, positively dig. Three of us tried to lift it out of the ground but it proved too heavy. We dug around the boulder enough to get a tow strap around the rock, and then attached it to the Rover.

First gear, low range, and then I gave it a slow but steady pace. The rock bounded out of its hole and I dragged it up to a place from which we could roll it off to one side. It took three of us to roll it into the woods. Ashley was particularly proud of conquering the rock.

Needless to say I was very happy to have the Land Rover! 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hope for the Future

The Bristol epitomizes all that is right - and wrong - with the British automobile industry. 

Built first as a gentleman's sporting car after World War II, their cars have featured quirky styling, so you either love them or hate them. Rarely were two models available at the same time. 

They featured robust engines, usually produced by another manufacturer.They also benefited from solid engineering, good brake systems, and handsome, leather and wood interiors. Auto publications have raved about them for decades.

Sadly they also came with high prices. They've been hand built in small quantities to expensive standards under the long time leadership of Tony Crook. You can buy one at only one dealership located in London. The latest models are actually complete rebuilds of older vehicles updated to modern standards.

Now they're "in administration," which is British for bankruptcy. The company is looking for an investor to purchase it and revive the marque. The same process has occurred several times for TVR and that Blackpool manufacturer is still in business. 

You have to wish this heritage product well. If you're interested in purchasing the company, here's the link for more information

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ode to Dave Dudley

"Six days on the road" sang Dave Dudley, back when trucking songs were entertaining. I just spent 700 miles or so traveling in the QE I, my '66 Land Rover Series II-A. I'm still exhausted!

The trip from Vinalhaven started with a 90 minute ferry ride, then a 2 hour drive to Portland, ME. I had invited a group of Land Rover enthusiasts, young and old, male and female, to gather at a brewpub and entertain me. They did a terrific job and I had a ball. I also have new offers of places to stay in the future - very cool.

Then came the next morning's drive to Cos Cob, CT, where I had plans to mooch off of new friends, who own a summer house in the island. I mow their lawns and do some simple chores for them, and in return, they grace me with their friendship, hospitality and friendship. It's a very one-sided deal for me.

Before the long trip, however, I chose to tank up at The Seed and Bean, a coffee house started by Land Rover enthusiast Jassy Smith. Her BFF, Barry Jones, and his dog, Sarge, came along to entertain me even more. The artsy building, Jassy's grandmother's one-time residence, made for a welcome change from the chain coffee houses everywhere else in the country. 

 From there it was a noisy 4.5 hour drive to Cos Cob, CT, a village area within Greenwich. The QE I's overdrive linkage had failed two days before departure, but Rovers Down South, which now owns the rights to the Fairey Overdrive, came through with the promise of a linkage rod to be delivered to CT.

Running a Land Rover at highway speeds without an overdrive is not a mechanical problem for the car, but it is a problem for the driver. The gear noise and overall vibration noise is quite high at 60 mph, even with my handheld radio and ear buds. Running a Land Rover at 60 mph is also a financial problem for the driver because of $4.05/gallon gas prices in CT. The Rover gets 18-19 mpg at highway speeds, so it costs a lot to make the 350 mile trip.

While in CT, I met up with Jon, a new enthusiast with a Range Rover Sport, and since I last talked with him in December, two 1980's Land Rovers about to be imported to his driveway in Fairfield. I drove the Rover around Cos Cob and Greenwich a bit, but it mostly sat while I mooched rides or took the train into NYC to gawk and people and buildings. I also saw many Range Rovers and even a Defender in NYC; I could not even imagine driving in Manhattan.

The drive home took 6.5 hours, benefiting from the new overdrive linkage that I installed in an hour the previous Saturday. I felt very tired when I arrived in Rockland, too late to catch the ferry home and worn out by the relative boredom of an interstate drive. The working overdrive did help reduce the fuel usage, though, and made the driving safer. However, the low beam headlights have ceased to work, and I fear that means the dimmer switch must be replaced.

The good news is that the shift lever, worked very calmly by me, remained intact! The bad news is that the latest replacement unit from Rovers North now comes without the mounting bracket, meaning it's not a field repair any longer. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Communing with the Queen

I spent a very happy day lying underneath and over the QE I. Bluntly, if you don't enjoy working on a classic Land Rover yourself, you'll need a dedicated mechanic and some extra funds to use and enjoy the car.

Land Rovers don't require maintenance because they're finicky; it's because their maintenance schedules were created at a time when people drove less [6,000/yr was considered average in the UK in the 1960's] and because Rover knew the car would likely see use in remote areas, far from service facilities. Land Rovers were [and are] exported to well over 100 countries, but in really small numbers [<25,000-30,000 per year]

When you flip through a Land Rover shop manual of the time, you realize that the instructions assume that the reader might not be familiar with Land Rovers and might not have specialized tools. That certainly resonates with me today.

To create a vehicle that will last for a long time, Land Rover made most parts adjustable, fully lubricated and robust. The maintenance schedule calls for attention most often in 3,000 mile intervals -except in "severe uses." That's most of the time, as it turns out.

The basics are easy enough - oil and filter changes at 3,000 or 3 months. whichever comes first. The Land Rover 2.25 liter engine requires nearly 8 quarts of oil with every change. That alone helps longevity. The oil filter is a large cartridge type with a big paper filter inside a cannister - messy but effective. The air cleaner is also the old oil-bath type [that requires a quart of its own] that really keeps air contaminants at bay. With its large radiator and high oil sump capacity, the Land Rover engine can run at optimal temperatures with ease; the oil helps cool as well as lubricate the internal moving parts. The compression ratio is low at 7:1 or 8:1, depending on which cylinder head is on the engine, and that, too, keeps the heat down.

As you might expect, the transmission and transfer case, front and rear axle housings, all have fill plugs and drain plugs that make it easy to add and/or change the gear oil within them. The rear axles are "floating axles" that are bathed in gear oil and easy to replace if broken. The same gear oil lubricates the wheel bearings, too. 

Land Rover also used an enclosed globe in which to house the front end "ball joints." As long as you check the gear oil within them, you'll not likely have front end failures, either. The overdrive has its own hypoid reservoir, too, as does the steering box. There aren't that many grease points, and they're confined to the front and rear propshafts. 

I used the opportunity to tighten up bolts on the exhaust and spring hangers. Then I decided to check the valve clearances as it had been a couple of years since I'd tested them last. A couple were loose and one was a bit tight, but overall, they were in good shape. While I found it a bit tiring to crawl under and lean over the car all day, it felt good when it ran well at day's end.

Oh, yes, after yet another broken shift lever earlier this week, I finally adjusted out the slave cylinder rod to see if I could ease pressure on the lever. A new one should come soon from Rovers North and I'll carry it with me just in case.

So now the Land Rover is ready for a 600 mile round trip next week.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

While Waiting for Results

I'm still waiting for the results of my tuneup work to sort themselves out. The Land Rover still seems to want to cut out under deceleration, but idle and acceleration are now quite fine. Of course, the road conditions in our early "frost heave" season stink so it's hard to tell what of the running is because of the car's bouncing all over the place, and what is a result of additional tuneup still required. I've yet to grab a timing light to check on the timing but I should be able to get one out of storage today.

This entire incident started after tuning up the car in mid-February just before the Maine Winter Romp. The car ran perfectly all weekend, which was part of the reason for my puzzlement, as to its more recent issues.

A participant shot this photo of me enjoying another rover, "Sarge," a 2-year old that came along with enthusiasts Barry Jones and Jassy Smith of Kennenbunk.

So I can enjoy land rovers and Land Rovers, here's hoping my Rover continues to sort itself out. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tune ups

The mantra on classic cars is that you love to run them as daily drivers because they're so easy to maintain compared to the complexities of the modern car. Not so fast, please.

First comes the QE I, the Land Rover. Although I swapped out points/rotor/condenser before the Maine Winter Romp in February, the car started to run poorly the following week. Suddenly one morning it absolutely would not idle with the choke pushed in all the way. If you let your foot off the accelerator, the car would stall. It would start right up again, but it would not idle.

So I begged the use of the local electric co-op's garage [my cars provide quite a bit of amusement for the linesmen] and got the QE I indoors. I went immediately for the last thing I did, the points, and checked the gap. Yes, they had closed up a bit. This would usually affect starting, too [it didn't for me], but might be part of the problem. I opened them up, put the distributor back together, and started the car. It still would not idle.

So I started with the fuel filter [no water in the gas] and the little filter at the base of the Weber card. Both looked clean. Then I removed the top of the carb and checked the bowl and jets. There was no grit or water in there, but I sopped up the gas and removed and sprayed out the jets. Usually, this is all you have to do with a Weber, but the absence of grit or goop meant I had to go further. I sprayed out every orifice I could find and the removed the side jet.

This jet had a black sooty film on it, so I sprayed out each orifice and wiped the jet clean. I removed the mixture screw/needle and found the same black soot at its tip. I also saw the same stuff on the carb throat. When I cleaned them all up, and buttoned up the carb, I found the car would idle perfectly. Success!

Ah, no. I drove to my job site and found the car would barely accelerate! Worse yet, it was pinging under load. So the next morning I checked the points again and found the points had been gapped too wide. I adjusted them more carefully and then tried the car one more time. It certainly idled fine and there was no more pinging, but the car still bogged on acceleration - pulling out the chock, even when warm, helped, indicating that the carb was still starved.

Yesterday morning, on the advice of the head tech at Rovers North, I enrichened the mixture to see if acceleration might improve. I haven't driven the car far enough to warm up the engine [no choke] to see if there's any improvement but it seems better when playing with the throttle linkage at the carb.

I also tried to bleed the clutch system as the clutch doesn't seem to work as well as it did once, but the bleeder screw seemed corroded in place. So I sprayed it up with penetrating oil to see if I could loosen it in the future.

The good news  - all the tools required for this repair included a flat head screwdriver, a feeler gauge, working eyes and ears. It also required you to think through a diagnostic scheme and effect a solution. The total cost was $0. 

The bad news - it couldn't be fixed by simply swapping out a part for a very expensive new one at a shop that gave you free coffee, a tv showing bad programming, and an expensive ride to work. 

Ah, I'll accept those tradeoffs any day. 

On the even-better side, I dug the Corvair out of its snowbank and found it started perfectly, leaked some oil gently, and drove wonderfully on a short ride to work. What a sweet car!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Aliens Control Local Snowplows

Yesterday NOAA predicted that Vinalhaven would receive "heavy rain" and little snow from the predicted storm. The storm arrived but so did 3-5" of heavy snow. The "heavy rains" looked like this at Browns Head yesterday.

During the early afternoon the snow turned to rain, and then by late afternoon, back the snow. The driving in the thick, slushy snow had the Rover slithering everywhere, even in 4wd. 

Last night I heard the snowplows at work down my road and here's the result.

Clearly aliens have taken over the snowplows; who else would so artfully deposit boulders of snow directly in front of the Corvair? Time to get out the pickax. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Way Too Busy

It's embarrassing but lately I've been way too busy to update my life with classic cars. To their credit, it's the classic cars that have enabled me to be productively busy.

First came the shift lever, yes, that one. The one I wrote about last week? Yes, it gave me over 6 hours of carefree driver before snapping as I went into neutral at the local lumberyard. Fortunately I had the predecessor shift lever in the rear of the Land Rover. So I got a lumberyard worker and a local fisherman to help me shove the Land Rover into a parking place and then spent the next 45 minutes swapping out the shift levers.

Last Friday I brought the QE I onto the ferry and headed towards Waterville, ME, where I stayed while participating in The Maine Winter Romp. This year's event featured about 75 Land Rovers and 120 people, including infants, children and friends. The conditions were either rather easy [greenlaning over snowy trails with lots of ruts and soft spots] or extreme [cross axle risks of breaking CV joints on Range Rovers, rear axle shafts on Series Rovers, deep water crossings, icy hill climbs]. There seemed to be nothing in between.

What caused these conditions? Maine has received tons of snow this winter but less extreme cold than in recent winters. So the trails with water crossings featured water and mud instead of the usual frozen sheets of water. Last year featured Land Rovers dancing across the swamps over iced-over fields. This year featured Land Rovers plowing through deep waters.  

It really helped to have air lockers, chains, a lift kit and/or a tow or winch on the opposite shore.

 Was it a hugely entertaining time? Yes!

The QE I remained intact the entire weekend and has now been put to more mundane use on the frost-heaved roads of this island taking me back and forth to housepainting work.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's the Electrics, Stupid

There's nothing more satisfying than believing that your classic car can be "tuned up" by turning a couple of screws on the carburetor[s]. Generally it's totally false while being totally satisfying.

Once again, this canard exposed itself when the Land Rover began to run roughly. My heart cried for a solution that used a flathead screwdriver on the two adjustment screws on the Weber carburetor, but head knew the problem lay inside the distributor. 

So I ordered a set of new points, a new condenser and a rotor. I should have ordered a cap, too, but I forgot and lucked out when the current one looked to be in great shape. 

I installed them yesterday. The points, condenser and rotor cost less than $10 apiece. Other than the fiddly problem of two tiny screws that you don't want to drop or lose [I used a bit of grease on the end of each screwdriver to "glue" the screw onto the tip of the screwdriver], it's a simple job. I gapped the points to .016, reassembled everything, and started the car - it fired up instantly and smoothly. 

I never did touch the carb on the Land Rover. When tuning up the Corvair or the TR-7 with their twin carbs, I find that once adjusted, they rarely go out of adjustment. The Corvair's points distributor really determines how well it starts and runs; the TR-7 has the Lucas "electronic ignition," which means no points but the common rotor and cap only. 

No question, fiddling with the carbs provides more entertainment and less back-breaking leaning over the car, but poorer results. Most of the time, it's the electronics, stupid.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Shifting Shifters

Over the two decades of owning the QE I, I've accumulated over 400,000 miles with the car; it came with 111,000. As with any classic car, the Land Rover has its strengths and weaknesses.

One strength is that, for the most part, you can repair it in the field, in situ. While it's nice a garage or high end tools are not required for most repairs. This is a good thing as one weakness of the Series Land Rover rests with its shift lever. On the Series II/II-A [1958 - 1972] the shift lever resembles a paper clip after you've finished untwisting it. The lever has one "S" curve near the base and then it travels up a considerable distance so you can shift it without leaning forward. The Series III [1972- 1985] lever travels straight up, something Land Rover believed would create a "modern" look to the "upgraded" interior.

Both levers, however, have a weak spot right at the base, where the lever disappears into the transmission tunnel cover. It seems that the lever is welded in place onto a ball, and that's exactly where they break at the exact wrong time.

The first time it happened to me I had just brought my Land Rover back to my former place of employment, a television network office in New Hampshire. I had been let go from there in a round of budget cuts about 6 months earlier but when free lance work took me nearby, I stopped to say "hello" to former peers. I also wanted to show off my then-new purchase, the QE I. As I pulled nose first into a parking spot in front of the building, the shift lever came off in my hand. I had no idea what to do, so I called the Previous Owner. "It's an easy fix," he said," just start unscrewing everything on the floor. I'll be over in about an hour with a replacement one for you." So I started unscrewing everything I could see and had it mostly in pieces when he arrived in the pitch black with the replacement lever. Sure enough, it really did just bolt onto the top of the transmission linkage. The floors really did come up in pieces, as did the transmission cover.  I was on my way within another hour.

The replacement one was a Series III straight lever, which I didn't mind, sort of, but when, a few years later in MA, a friend offered my a proper II-A bent lever, I accepted and went through the entire drill again.

My third time came with the QM I, when a buddy used it for a couple of months one summer on the island. I saw him walking up our main street one day with the shift lever in his hand. He looked quite distraught and upset. I assured him the job would not be too difficult and that I had a spare one on hand. "But it broke down at the boatyard," he said. That galvanized me into action; the boatyard owner always looked for opportunities to rag me about my Land Rovers. If he saw one broken down at his yard, it would be in the sea in no time! I repaired it quickly that very night.

The fourth time happened while on the trails, in low range, during the 2010 Maine Winter Romp. My companion was a friend's son, a Coast Guardie on his first off road event. As I shifted into 3rd gear low range, I noticed the lever move way over towards the right, too far. "Something's not right," I said, at which point the lever came off in my hand. By then I was also in neutral, in the middle of a convoy, miles from any real road. With the help of friends, we exposed the hole on the side of transmission tunnel that lets you get a screwdriver into the linkage. That moved the car into 3rd gear, and using the overdrive as a 3/4 shift, I exited the trail and headed towards the rally garage in Unity. There Bruce Fowler, the event organizer, loaned me his RHD Series II-A shift lever. I installed it with more help from other rallyists, and headed home the next day with a "new" shifter.

The strange part of using it came from the different angle required because of its RHD construction. The shift pattern is the same on Land Rovers, whether LHD or RHD, but because of the orientation of the steering wheel, the RHD lever bends at a slightly different angle. For about a month, every shift seemed strange and out of sorts until I got used to the new angles.

I got our local welder to take a stab at fixing the old one and spent this morning installing it again - now replacement #5. I will return the RHD one to its owner this weekend at the 2011 Maine Winter Romp, and hope I don't have to revisit unscrewing/unbolting floor panels, transmission covers and overdrive levers for another few years.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Corvair Emerges from its Ice Pen

This island's "long drives" rarely get into double figures. It's hard to go more than 12 miles in one direction without falling into the sea. So winter drives in classic cars present a real problem; how to drive far enough and for a long enough period of time to warm up the engine, transmission, etc., such that you're not doing long-term harm to the car.

So a run to the dump, open a few days a week, provides the perfect opportunity to stretch out the driving time. We have only one road that actually circumnavigates the island - about halfway up the island - and that's where the dump is located. Not only is Round the Island Road perfect for extending a drive, but it's quite narrow and winding at the same time. This time on year, on a Sunday, you're likely to be alone on the roads so you can open up the carburetors, too. The island is also the home of $3.85/gallon gasoline so you balance the desire to drive against the heft of your wallet.

Today, after church, seemed the perfect time to trot out the Corvair. It had sat for over a week, never started and now sitting on a sheet of packed snow and ice. 

With the temperature in the low 30's, it fired right up and I let it idle for a few moments. It skidded a bit climbing up and out of its parking spot. I loaded up the rubbish and recyclables and headed off to the dump. The car ran a bit rough on the way over; I drove it gently while waiting for it to warm up.

After the dump run and a chat with the two dumpmasters, I took the long way home to enjoy driving a rear engine, rear wheel drive car with a fully independent rear suspension. With its light steering, airy cabin and nimble feel, the Corvair brought a big smile to my face. Then came the snow squall and suddenly the bare roads quickly accumulated a covering of snow. The rear engine/RWD gave the car such great traction that I could still goose it from a standing start and give the car a wide open throttle (WOT) run - twice because the road was empty. The first time the car bogged down some at high rpm in second gear, but the next time, it accelerated through all the gears without a hiccup. 

The ride ended all too soon. The entire distance covered barely 5 miles. It's still snowing and the drive is becoming a memory, but my, what a nice way to bring joy to a mundane chore.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Commuting in the Land Rover

This past week has found me at the top of an extension ladder inside a post and bean house, scrubbing walls prior to whitewashing them. Last done 20 + years ago when the house was built, it's great to have the work but as my 20-something co-worker said, "it's hell on earth to clean this stuff."

We've been in the midst of a cold dry spell on the island; there's nothing fun to drive over so the Land Rover has been reduced to a commuter vehicle for the week. The roads are alternatively clean and ice-coated, with a most treacherous point at the end of the 8 mile commute.

The house in question resides at the bottom of a hillock, overlooking the Thorofare, a channel between the islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven. It's on a barely plowed lane and as you descend down the hillock, the lane turns to sheer ice. Oh yes, you must also turn sharp right into a small parking spot so you don't crash into any car parked at the bottom of the hill. 

So I clamp down on a yellow topped lever to engage four wheel drive, put the car in first gear, and let the engine speed slow the car and keep it under control. 

Every couple of days a woman arrives in a Jeep Wagoneer to clean the house and assist its elderly owner. When she steps out of her car her eyes look wide with fear as she describes the drive in the most frightening terms. She "hates" coming down the drive and seems convinced her automatic transmission car will slide straight into the ocean. 

In the Land Rover, the drive is a yawn.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What? The Driver is Responsible?

How interesting it's been to read and listen to the reaction to the DOT study of "unintended acceleration" in the Toyota Prius. 

Over the decades, the sense that the driver might be responsible for his or her actions with their cars has morphed into a belief that "the car made me do it." With more and more electronic control of cars, embedded in the software that controls more and more functions of a car, an attitude grew that the driver rarely made errors, but the controls took over in a maniacal manner.

It's possible that it might be accurate; software bugs and malfunctioning electronic components ruin the day of computer users routinely. But they usually give warning signs that we, as users, ignore routinely. 

Classic car drivers confronting sticky throttles and loose linkages often; we learned to lubricate and check, and to push in the clutch, head for a safe place on the road, and turn off the engine. If you had an automatic, you shifted into neutral, grimaced as the engine screamed at high rpm, and then turned off the car.

You took a deep breath and let your heart rate slow down on its own. Then you looked to fix the problem. 

In recent years the response has been to freeze in panic, pick up the pieces and then call a lawyer. The DOT study on this most publicized of problems refutes the contention of runaway cars and asks the driver to focus on, well, driving.

Friday, February 4, 2011

If You Love Cars...

If you love cars you'll enjoy this short video featuring a classic Fiat 500. Thanks to Chris Law, Badger Engineering, of Cape Cod, MA, for providing me with this link.

Our relationship with automobiles is a combination of thrill, whimsy, sensuality and power. Thank you to sculptor Lorenzo Quinn for capturing this.

BTW, Charis Whitcombe has written brilliantly about classic cars since the 1990's when she ran a Fiat 124 Spider as a daily driver in the UK. Thanks to her and for this piece.

Enjoy the video!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sick of This Yet?

Does this photo look familiar? Does it look like neither car has moved in a couple of days? Not quite true.
Actually, I had shoveled out the Land Rover and the Corvair last night, before the town grader came down the lane looking just like an alien spaceship taking over the island. You can see that the Corvair wound up buried over its trunk [it's rear engined, remember?]. The Land Rover wound up encased in the new drift created by the grader.

An ambulance run [I'm a volunteer EMT] prevented me from tackling the shoveling until late in the afternoon. By then the snow compacted by the grader had hardened into a hard surface. Fortunately, the remainder of the snow, drained of its moisture by the cold temperatures at night, remained light and fluffy.

The Land Rover required only that I clear a small area behind the car in order to free it. I put it in low range, drove it backwards into the snowbank, and then went forward and to the left. It took a couple of back and forths, but the Rover shoved its way out of the snowbank.

The Corvair got shoveled out but I ran out of daylight to see if it could make it up the incline onto the road. The problem will be that the car sits low to the ground and there's a great chance that a lot of snow became packed underneath the car. The road is so narrow that there's very little room to get a running start up the incline; you need to turn sharply left while trying to getting up the incline - not an ideal procedure.

We'll give it a try in the morning. The Land Rover will be pressed into use checking on summer properties tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Great News from Alfa Romeo

You can't be a car guy without having a soft spot for Alfa Romeo, the quintessential sporting marque now owned by Fiat. 

As a Corvair owner, I have an additional soft spot because Fiat also once embraced rear engine, rear wheel drive cars. They weren't air-cooled but they did provide sparkling handling, performance and interior room from small cars with small engines.

So this latest good news from Alfa, courtesy of AutoWeek, brought a smile to my face on this blizzard of a day.  Imagine having both a Fiat 500 and an Alfa sedan available in the US - or dream even bigger for the return of the Fiat and Alfa Spiders!

Oh, and yawn, Alfa will also sell a version of the Jeep Compass badged as an Alfa. Hopefully they'll improve the handling, too.

Today's storm has only buried my cars deeper into the ever-increasing depth of standing snow on the island.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Good News and Bad News

Land Rover enthusiasts admit only modest envy at Jeeps. Yes, we all know that the first Land Rovers used WW II surplus Jeeps as the basis for our first model, and yes, Jeeps always seem to cost less and enjoy less expensive parts support. There are far more Jeeps sold than Land Rovers, too.

Still, it was good news to read that Jeep's current parent, Chrysler, seems to have returned to reasonable financial health. Their current model lineup  has freshened up offerings that include the Fiat 500, which entices me greatly, as well as the traditional high horsepower sedans that made the Mopar name a byword for automotive performance. All of this is good news.

The bad news for auto enthusiasts rests in questions as to whether Gen Y, men and women ages 21 - 34, can afford to buy new cars at all. Saddled with high credit card and student loan debt, they find it difficult to secure financing. With the smallest new cars starting at $12,000 or so, the prices rise quickly by the time that dealers have added options desired by [relatively spoiled] potential purchasers. The combination of high debt, credit ratings and higher prices for new cars don't bode well for increased sales.

Of course, they could all buy classic cars at affordable prices and enjoy the excitement and self-satisfaction that comes from quality engineering and the self-reliance that comes from personal maintenance.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Snow Continues

Residents of this island town have become a bit weary from the endless series of snowstorms that have hit the island. There's no question that the disruptions experienced by urban centers like Washington, DC and New York City loom much larger in the public mind than the drifting and blowing snow did here today. Still, we're all ready to call winter a success and move on to Spring.

That's not in the cards for us, though, so we continue to shovel and plow, shovel and plow. The Corvair returned to its parking spot last night and now sits quite plowed in by the latest road crew work . The Land Rover had sat for days, squished between the side of the road and my waterfront shop. The Rover tilted to the right in accordance with the land it sits on. If I drove the Rover straight through the snow it would wind up in the harbor due to the slope of the land. If I backed it up too far, it would smash into the Corvair. So it needed to move a very slight distance under a tight left turn through a large snowdrift. This called for low range, 1rst or 2nd gear only.

This required a bit of careful back and forth, but in the end, the Rover drove out without additional shoveling and drove me around the island on today's EMT chores and other work. Our roads remain totally snow covered and the Rover dances around them with pleasure.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

So Happy in the Snow

An odd incident on the ferry with the Corvair almost left a sour taste about my beloved 1966 Corvair. As we approached Carver's Harbor on Vinalhaven, I started up the car. Happily, it fired up without incident but in my side mirror, I noted an unusual red blinking light behind me. For a moment, I thought it might be the reflection of a blinking buoy light, but then I realized there were none in this part of the harbor.

Then a neighbor knocked on the car's window and said "your flashers are on." Now on late afternoon runs in winter darkness, the ferry captain and crew restrict vehicles from turning on lights until the boat is docked - it reduces problems with night vision. So I took her missive seriously; I also knew that a 1966 Corvair has no "emergency flashers." What it meant was that a short circuit of some sort was sending current through my blinkers to all the rear taillights. I fiddled with the directional lever and lucked out - the blinking stopped (however I note that the problem still continues a couple of days later whenever I turn on the blinkers). Sigh...yet another electrical quirk to trace and repair.

With the Corvair home, I backed it down a slight slope by the harbor beside my shop. Then it snowed yet again and the car sat covered with snow. This afternoon, my EMS chief asked for my help through a ride to get his Jeep at the local repair garage. The chief has a slipped disc, and he feared that trying to climb up into the Land Rover would be too painful for him. I averred that the Corvair sat quite low to the ground, but he insisted he'd prefer that option. 

So I went to start the Corvair. Naturally, it foundered when the undercarriage got hung up on a snowdrift. I shoveled underneath the car for a few moments and a carpenter working next door came out to give me a mighty shove. So I got the chief ("Wow, this car is low!") and drove him around on our snow covered roads to complete his errands. 
He asked about the defroster (which takes a while to work because the engine is slow to warm up) and I pointed to the roll of shop towels in the back seat. The drive brought back memories for him of a VW Beetle with the same defrosting traits, and no doubt a secret wish that he had requested assistance from someone, anyone, with a normal, conventional car.

Then came an EMS call, which I drove to in the Corvair, relishing its traction and nimbleness on the snow covered roads. Two hours later, I needed a ride to get my own car from the patient's house. A charming 20-something drove me in her Prius [spare me!], which she extolled, until she saw the Corvair. Even in the dark, she oohed at its Italianate lines. She'd never heard of a Corvair but pronounced it "hot." I could only hope that the same sentiment would wash onto me as well.

See why I'm happy driving the Corvair in the snow?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Coming in from the Cold

I try not to drive my Monza on the mainland in the winter because of the heavy use of salt compounds on the roads. However, the vagaries of securing a spot on the island ferry forced me to resort to alternative plans.

So when I had to be off island today to give a talk at the library in Tenants Harbor, ME, I found it necessary to bring the car off island late last week and leave it in the parking lot at the mainland ferry terminal. There it sat through last weekend's major snowstorm and temperatures of -10 F last night.


This morning, I brought along a snow shovel and boarded the ferry to get the Corvair. The island temperature was -3 F in the harbor; the "warmer" water created a layer of frozen fog, called "sea smoke," over the water the entire 90 minute trip.

Not surprisingly, the Corvair sat in piles of snow moved around by the snowplows over the weekend. A nice strong wind blew the cold through me as I unlocked the car - I was delighted to find the locks had not frozen in the cold. However, all the windows had iced up, inside and out, from the intense cold.

I turned the key and waited a few moments for the electric fuel pump to push some gas around; the car had not been driven since last Thursday. I pushed in the clutch to relieve some pressure and cranked the engine. It took several tries to get it to even cough, but it would not really fire up.

Out came the starting ether, purchased last week just in case, and a quick shot was sent through the air cleaner snout. I waited a minute or so for it to vaporize and then cranked the starter anew. This time it fired and stalled - and did so a couple of times whenever I released the clutch - but it started successfully and I let it warm up a bit.

Eventually the engine warmed up enough to get heat and defroster action and the car ran just fine over the 25 mile drive back and forth. The two lane road down the St. George Peninsula ran past woods and fields, where you found drifting snow blowing across the road in stiff winds. Nicely, the Monza did not wiggle in any of those gusts.

When I came back late this afternoon on the last ferry, the Engineer working that run gave me a "thumbs up" and tracked me down to tell me of his family's EM convertible. Another crew member asked "when are you going to get it restored?"

You have to love a 45 year old car that can still operate as entertaining, reliable transportation in the dead of winter.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

When You Have to Admit Defeat

It pains me to write this but there are times when a Land Rover enthusiast must admit defeat. Yesterday night, confront by a pickup truck with its plow buried in snow and right wheels off a path, I had to admit I was no going to rescue this truck. 

My buddy Phil has requested me to extricate his vehicles with my "Jeep" on several occasions over the years and I have always responded like a puppy offered table scraps. So when Phil told me at rehearsal that he buried his pickup on a private lane called the A.O. Smith Road, I was thrilled.

So at 5:30 pm last night, we jumped into the QE I and drove the several miles to the northwest side of the island. On the way, Phil told me of his efforts at plowing the road, and those of another caretaker named Charlie, on the same road. Charlie had to abandon his truck and get a larger truck to pull out truck #1; he never did finish his plowing before dark. Phil had to walk out of the lane and another 1/2 mile before arriving at an occupied house, where the owner gave him a ride back to the village.

When we turned onto the A.O. Smith Road [the term 'road' here is wildly optimistic] I could feel the Rover struggling through the soft snow. I could also see that the depth of the snow was substantially higher in this wooded area than the drifting in other parts of the island. I also noted we were heading down the lane without any place to turn off or around. Phil helped construct this road to he's warning me constantly about where the road drops off into ditches. 

As we drive along I ask Phil to describe how his truck sits on the lane. That's when I learned that the pickup sat on the right side of the road, its left side wheels spinning in air, and facing us as we progressed up the lane.  Now I realize that at best, I'm going to have to try an extrication pulling in reverse - which means only one transmission speed which would likely be too low to get an effective pull.

The last challenge was a series of snowdrifts left by Phil's unsuccessful and incomplete plowing. Whenever his plow pushed too much snow, it stopped his truck cold. I had to ram through five of these artificial drifts before reaching his truck.

But at this point I also realized that my traction, adequate to move the Land Rover forward and backwards, was totally inadequate to gain traction sufficient to pull the front heavy pickup. I could barely move the Rover, let alone the dead weight of a pickup and plow.

So we gave it a try with a tow strap and shackles. The temperature had plummeted to 18 degrees and my hands hurt as I maneuvered the shackles. We tired a couple of pulls before I admitted this truck was going nowhere. I could barely get traction to pull the Rover rearward. What I needed - and lacked - was a winch and a snatch block. Phil's truck needed to be winched out at an angle, using a tree to provide the necessary triangulation.

Now we confronted several hundred yards of rearward driving before a turnaround spot appeared off the road. To do this, I had to open the rear door as Phil, with his flashlight, led me backwards down the lane. With the steering wheels in the rear, the Rover yawed from side to side along the lane, but we finally made the turnaround, and headed for the village.

Maybe tomorrow we can borrow a backhoe, or the electric company's boom truck and winch, to pull the truck back onto the lane. The Rover - sadly - cou

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Smelly Cars

I drove the Corvair onto the ferry the other day, but not without a grimace from a crew member who looked askance at the car. That fact was passed along to me by an off-islander in a pickup behind me. He saw the crew member stare underneath the rear of the car, and it left him with the impression "that I didn't know if they'd let you aboard."

The crew member peered into the window and asked, "is it leaking gas or oil?" I suggested oil as the engine was in the rear, and the gas tank was up front. He made a face and waved me aboard the boat. 

Ninety minutes later, when we prepared to disembark, the crew member listened to me start up the car, turned to face me, and held his nose. He attempted to provide levity with a grin, but all I could think of was duplicity. See, we were aboard a 40+ year old ferry with two huge diesel engines of the "black belch" variety and their fumes wafted through the cabin the entire voyage. Who, I might ask, are you calling "smelly." He would later protest that he simply felt the car emitted too many hydrocarbons, unlike apparently, the MV Everett Liibby.

When the Corvair arrived in the parking lot of a local discount auto parts place, it was very well received indeed. When the charming 20-something who cuts my hair saw the car arrive at her shop, her words and body language convinced me of her sincerity about the beauty of the Corvair [of which she knew nothing; her first car, she rhapsodized, was purple 1995 Chevy Cavalier, a car that helped lead GM into eventual bankruptcy.]

No wonder she liked the looks, the sound and the smell of the Corvair.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 18, 2010

A year ago yesterday, Robert B. Parker died at his desk while writing the then-latest Spenser detective novel.

We lost a truly popular novelist who used the mystery format to present serious ideas to readers. Most of the time we didn't realize that we were engaged in significant thinking; we were too busy helping Spenser and his cohorts - Susan, Hawk, Vinny, Lt. Quirk, Sgt. Beldon - solve his largely Boston-based mysteries. When you finished the chapter, however, you knew that Parker had slyly managed to make you think harder than expected.

Parker had a nifty eye for popular culture and inserted many references into his books. His characters understood the iconic nature of automobiles. Parker always seemed to choose the right car for the right character. He wasn't a car guy per se - most people aren't - but he knew that readers would know more about a character if he identified the character's ride.

His main characters, whether Spenser, Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall [the latter two the central figures in other series of Parker mysteries], changed cars over the decades in response to societal impressions of automobiles. Spenser would move from a tattered-top '70's Chevy convertible to a leaky MGB to a Jeep Cherokee [click here for photos of Spenser's cars].

I miss Parker's fresh wit, crackling dialogue and philosophical insights; I'm still looking for the mystery writer to replace his talents for me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Bearable Lightness of Being

I drove the Corvair around a bit yesterday and instantly reminded myself of the dictum laid down by the great Colin Chapman of Lotus automobile fame: "Add lightness." Denise McCluggage, the astonishing race car driver/columnist/Land Rover and Corvair enthusiast, captured this in her latest Autoweek column, "Impress Me With Lightness."

The Lotus 7 epitomized the Chapman ethos; the first ones had barely a 1-liter engine propelling an insanely light car at amazing speeds. Since it weighed so little, the brakes could be light because they required little work to slow down the car. To this day, Lotus cars focus on light, lithe handling and styling. They economize on weight, not on engineering.

Around the same time Chevrolet engineers first looked to cut weight on their new rear engine/ rear transmission/read wheel drive car. They knew instantly they had a nimble car in their hands. For its wheelbase [a mere 1" shy of a 109" Land Rover] they had a 5-6 seat car small for its era, and one with a rear weight bias that would enable it to turn with the lightest touch of a steering wheel.

45 years after the manufacture of my 1996 Corvair, that feeling still imbues itself in the car.  The slim windshield pillars, the lack of a "B" pillar, and the large rear window assures that the car's greenhouse lets in a lot of sun and light. You feel more nimble inside and whenever you touch a control, there's none of that push and shove you expect in an American performance car. Everything is light and smooth - just the way it should be in a driver's car.

The Corvair never offered power assist for steering or for braking - neither were necessary because of its engineering. Although the steering ratio is statistically slow, the gentle oversteer inherent in a rear engined car means that a light turn of the wheel, combined with a firm foot on the the throttle, will move the car smartly in the desired direction. You can feel it pivot, just like you can skiing or snowboarding. It's a fabulous feeling, largely unknown in contemporary cars. It makes the simplest drive around the island an absolute delight.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Who Needs Reverse?

Last fall the Corvair played a major role in getting me back and forth from Bristol, ME, to Rockland [about 100 miles round trip] where I catch the ferry home to Vinalhaven. The bi-weekly drives demonstrated the Corvair's nimble, light driving traits but also two potential problems: one involved a noise emanating out of the right rear of the car; the other was a marked, albeit occasional reluctance to engage reverse gear.

In December, the Corvair returned to the island, its chores completed. The local mechanic put the car on his lift for me and together we examined the rear wheel's brake shoes and springs. They looked perfect. Then we unbolted the rear half shaft from the right side - sure enough, the noise continued as the hub rotated. Steve Goodman of Rear Engine Specialists in Golden, CO, had a rebuilt rear hub assembly ready to go and shipped it out to me. When the mechanic had some weekend time, we installed it in the car and the wheels now rotated smoothly.

Then issue #2 reared its head. The Corvair was parked facing the harbor alongside my shop. One day I filled it with recyclables to take to our local dump and the car would not go into reverse gear. Nothing I did would coax it into gear. I bared my problems to a Corvair forum and discovered I likely had a worn out coupling in the shifter linkage.

So a few days later I bummed a trolley jack from a friend and with a second mate, crawled under the car to examine the linkage. Sure enough, we found that a slight tun with a pair of pliers would permit the car the go into reverse. Of course, I could not travel with jacks, jack stands, and a mate to move the car into reverse every time that was necessary, so I looked into purchasing the parts from Clark's in Shelburne Falls, MA.

Clark's Corvair is to Corvair enthusiasts what Cabelo's is to hunters - an emporium of everything you could need for a Corvair. Yes, Clarks had all the parts in stock. But since the job has to be done on a lift, and the local mechanic has marginal enthusiasm for digging into old cars, I hesitated to purchase the additional parts.

Then a machinist friend suggested the wayward linkage pieces could be tack welded for the short term. It took the local mechanic 20 minutes to complete the job, and sure enough, it worked quite well. Reverse is now engaged easily, and if the weld holds for a while, I can wait on the new parts until the mechanic is in a good mood to tackle the inevitable replacement.

Did I mention that I had loaded up the car with a dump run of stuff before I tried to engage reverse? No? So the mechanic looks inside the car and sees a couple of Christmas wreaths. "What are those for" he asked, "are you finally going to bury this thing?"

The dump is open tomorrow so I can finally empty out the interior of the car - and I parked the car facing forward just in case.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Man After My Own Heart

Here's a man after my own heart - a classic car enthusiast who's decided to drive his Model A Ford as his daily driver for a year.

His most recent trip is chronicled here.

I've owned one new car in my life, a 1972 Siimca. Once in the '70's, with a '74 VW Beetle Convertible, and twice in the 1980's, with two Jeep CJ's, I've bought cars manufactured in the same decade as my purchase of them. Otherwise, I've always run very used classic cars as daily drivers.

That has not been without incident, but as Jonathan Klinger maintains in the column above, there's a connection to your landscape, a self-reliance, and a connection to machinery that comes from relying on a classic car rather than just waxing it or writing checks to restorers and mechanics.

Bravo, Jonathan, and keep up your quest!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Winter Drive

Vinalhaven caught a good sized snowstorm the other day, and finally, after a day and a half of snow, high winds and no ferry service, the sun broke through and the fun of winter driving returned to the island.

The '66 Land Rover has a yellow topped handle on the right side of the transmission tunnel. You give it a pound with your hand and the car goes into high range 4 wheel drive. At that point it can climb over most snow drifts and plunge down lanes that have not seen a plow this winter.

If the snow is really deep, or you need to slow down while still having lots of torque, pull back the red topped lever and you'll select low range 4 wheel drive. At this point the car can trundle across the snow so slowly it does not even register on the speedometer. In 4th gear the car will barely do 25 mph in low range.

The Land Rover makes the job of checking on otherwise-closed summer properties on the island a real treat. It's been a fun afternoon's "work."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chrysler = Lancia?

Autoweek reports that Fiat is going to take the "new" Chrysler 200 and call it a Lancia in Europe.

The Lancia version will come in both the clunky sedan and the antiquated, unsporting convertible. A Chrysler 300 and even a minivan version might appear next year.

Considering that Lancia is generally acknowledged to have built the first GT, and that its vehicles exported here in the 60's and '70's were superbly engineered sports cars and GT's, this move strikes me as pathetic.

I know that Fiat saved Lancia. I know that Fiat saved Chrysler. The Chrysler name in Europe must be mud after their fiascoes with Rootes and Simca. Surely importing mediocre sedans - the 300 needs to shed weight - is not the answer for Fiat.

And we want real Fiats and real Lancias and real Alfa Romeo's back here.