The Land Rover Writer

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.