The Land Rover Writer

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fiat 124 to Return?

In the late 1970's I enjoyed a Fiat 124 Spider as my year-round transportation in Vermont. Coming on the heels of a ragged but loved MGB this car proved quite an upgrade. I found it at the Jeep dealer in S. Burlington, VT. It had sat on their lot for months and by midwinter it had received few looks from potential owners. My MGB had been boshed by an errant Oldsmobile that either ran through or skidded through a stoplight; while I was unhurt the MGB suffered a more onerous fate - thus, my search for a replacement sports car.

SE12-Fiat BG-f78 379
Photo courtesy of Hemmings Motor News
My criteria were simple; given the insurance settlement I had very little money to spend on the car and its registration. A classified ad in the Burlington Free Press had not yielded many affordable results so I happened to be trolling dealer's lots when I came across a forlorn 1972 Fiat Spider. Like the one in this photo, it was orange, only several different shades of orange. And the wheels were the stamped steel that said "stock" instead of "continental." The Fiat came with a handsome factory hardtop and a ratty canvas top folded out of view. It also had a cracked windshield which the dealer said he would have replaced by a local glass shop. The car started, stopped and ran, and I certainly enjoyed the wood-enhanced dash, the wood steering wheel and the 5-speed transmission. Oh, and the tires would not need replacing except for new snow tires. After a brief interlude of "I'll have to talk to the manager," the car was mine for $1,200. They were so happy to get it off the lot that they gave me an Opel to use while waiting for the windshield. 

That replacement turned out the become a saga. After a week or so of waiting I called the glass shop to ask about the windshield replacement. "It's hard to find a windshield for a Fiat 124 Coupe [discontinued in the US market]," the shop manager complained. "It's not a Coupe, it's a Spider," I replied. "Really? I have one of those in stock," the shop guy replied. 

Back to the dealer - I called him about the error. "Since you know so much about the car, why don't you just handle this for us and we"ll cover the cost," he said. I had the car back in two days.

The Fiat caused me pause when the brakes failed on the Bolton Valley Mountain Road, but that was my fault for not replacing the disk pads. The fuel line would separate from the carb every so often, spewing gas over the hot engine. A cracked rotor caused the car to run poorly until it was replaced, and that was it until I sold it due to extensive rust in 1980. 

So the news that a "new" 124 might show up in the Fiat lineup appeals to me. I've had a soft spot for these cars and even pondered purchasing a basket case in 2013 [the Spitfire won that battle]. Good luck to Fiat and please, remember how well that classic styling worked from the late 1960's - 1980's!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Water Pumpers

In the air-cooled Corvair world water-cooled cars are known as "water pumpers".

 It's rarely been an issue with my '66 Land Rover but cooling systems issues continue to plague me with the '80 Spitfire.On the last 110 mile trip home from leading a library program in Ocean Park, ME, the temperature gauge pegged itself within 45 miles of highway driving.  It's been a challenge to diagnose the reason[s].

The tools to aid in the diagnosis include an infrared thermometer, a compression tester and an exhaust gasses analyzer. 

I carried the infrared thermometer with me during the last trip. As the temperature gauge rose to "H" I had to wait until I got off the highway in Brunswick before I could check it out and fill up the gas tank. The temperature readings at the top and bottom of the radiator were about 190 degrees at the top and 160 degrees at the bottom - so the radiator had reduced the coolant temperature effectively. The thermostat housing temperature was about 210 degrees; it should be hot there as the water exits the block at that point. I did notice some boiling over at the overflow bottle, but then, it was completely full, so the bottle's contents had no place to go except out the vent hole. Still, the "H" marking on the gauge would be uncomfortable to watch for the rest of the trip.

The following weekend it was time for the compression test. I found I had 130-133-130-130 on cylinders 1-4. Since the numbers were so close it did not appear that I had a head gasket problem. And this past weekend, I ran the exhaust gas analyzer test. That test uses a fluid that turns color in the presence of CO2 or similar exhaust gasses in the coolant - which would occur if you have a head gasket leak. I also removed the coolant temperature sensor from the head; it had a thin covering of sludge on it so I cleaned it off and reinstalled it. The sensor does seem to work as the gauge moves up and down as the engine warms up.

So if the problems are unlikely to be head gasket-related, I will turn my attention again to the radiator and coolant. I want to drain the coolant one more time to check its color and to force more water through the system to see if I can force more sludge and silt out of the system. Tim Hutchisen of Penn Ridge Motors recommended this as it's possible the issue is in the amount of flow through the radiator. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hot Running

So the Spitfire has taken its place as the "mainland car,"  which means it must make five 200 mile round trips this summer for work assignments. On the first two trips the temperature gauge rose to uncomfortable levels; midway through the second trip I had to stop after 40 miles to raise the bonnet and release radiator pressure to reduce the temperature. In between trips it sits at the ferry terminal on the mainland, which reduces the opportunity for me to work on a fix. 

Yesterday was hot for coastal Maine [80 + F] when I drove to Spitfire to a shop on the mainland for a radiator flush and parts replacement. 

The mechanic removed the lower hose to drain the coolant [he didn't unscrew the drain on the block] and it looked quite awful, as you can see in the photo. He then used a garden hose with strong water pressure to flush out the cooling system, including opening the heater valve, and ran the hose for quite some time. He also cleaned out the overflow bottle. All parts of the system included a lot of brown silt. 

He removed the thermostat and I decided to have him install a new 180 F one, as well as a new, 13 psi cap. He put in a fresh coolant mix, as per the owner's manual, and started up the car, running it for quite some time to get it warm and to circulate out as much of the air as possible. 

When he was done I left and drove the car about 10 miles at 40 - 60 mph, with a lot of stop and go traffic. The gauge indicated running up to 3/4, which activated the fan, and then reducing it to a point between 1/2 and 3/4. At no time did it get above 3/4, and it always dropped whenever I started moving at speed. This was an improvement from what I noticed on my last long trip - and I never had to open the heater valve to reduce the temperature level. 

An unrelated bonus was that no matter what the temperature, the car again returned 30 mpg in mixed driving. 

The real test will come this weekend when I head to give a presentation in Vermont at a Land Rover rally. I'm taking the Spitfire because of the impossibility of getting the Land Rover on and off the ferry during this busy summer season. That's about a 4 hour drive each way and the mechanic did mention his concerns about a head gasket problem causing the higher running temperatures. The good news is that I'll be in a convoy with two Land Rovers so I can always get towed in a pinch! 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Return of the Spitfire

It took a bit for the Spitfire to make it home on the ferry.

A friend had driven me to Canton, ME, where I bought the car from a small repair shop. It started up, the brakes seemed to work and a missing wheel stud didn't bother me too much. I started on the 80 mile trip home, followed by a very patient friend in his pickup truck. 

After a few miles the car seemed to hesitate and stumble a bit on acceleration, so I pulled over on the side of the road and poured some Marvel Mystery Oil into the gas tank. I started up again and enjoyed the hilly, winding Rte. 17 drive back towards Rockland.

The drive reassured me that I might have found a pretty good example of the marque. The engine smoothed out and felt as though it had some punch - well, as much as the detuned, emissions-emasculated package might offer. As we approached Augusta and its downtown traffic, the temperature gauge rose to a 3/4 mark and then I heard the electric fan kick in - now that was another reassuring moment. 

The 40 mile drive to Rockland continued without incident. About 5 miles from the ferry terminal my friend called to say he would head north towards his home and leave me to my own devices. "No problem," I said, "I'm almost at the ferry terminal." 

The ferry line requires a U-turn to get a car in line, and as I made that turn, I went to push in the clutch. Nothing happened - it was as if the clutch pedal had frozen in its top position. Nothing would move it. So I had to admit defeat and roll back into a parking spot. Raising the hood showed me nothing at the master cylinder. Since I was against a curb and on a hill I could not jack up the car and look underneath.

Next came a tow to Copeland's Garage and a ferry ride home without the car. When I called Copeland's the next morning they told me the problem was a broken slave cylinder bracket, and that new ones were NLA. 

I lucked out when I called Tim Hutchisen at Penn Ridge Motors in Norway, ME. He had a Spitfire transmission on a bench with a slave cylinder bracket intact; he would mail it directly to Copeland's. Sure enough, a couple of days later the car was ready for the second try at returning it home.

Once home I began to assess the car by using it for errands around the island. The gas gauge would not go beyond 1/4, but Michael Crawford of British Motorworks in MA suggested more Marvel Mystery Oil - "lots of it" - to loosen up the float arm. Slowly but surely, after a few fill ups and MMO, the gauge will now go to 3/4. Resetting the trip odometer helps me be certain I won't run out of gas.

While checking the electrical connections for the gauge I removed the trunk panel and was reminded that Spitfires housed their fuel filters beside the gas tank. Changing out the very old one for new one helped the car run better under acceleration, too.

Next came a simple adjustment of the idle speed after warmup, reducing it to 800 rpm. I also replaced the alternator belt as it had a visible cut on it. 

Although the car had been "tuned up" with new spark plug wires the plugs themselves looked rather old so I bought a new set. Removing the old ones proved difficult; they were wrenched in hard and without much evidence of recent removal or Never Seize. 

The tires that came with the car showed a lot of tread but also some sidewall cracks. Rather than risk a problem I bought 4 new tires, sadly, more snow tire than road tire. It's tough to find narrow 13" tires anymore. 

The car came with a hardtop and a soft top, although the latter was in bad shape. The top was original [the diamond pattern on the fabric provided the evidence] and while the canvas had only one tiny rip, the windows were stiff, broken in spots and even with Gorilla Tape, incapable of keep rain out of the car. A Land Rover friend once owned a Spitfire and had an extra top sitting around; I traded Land Rover parts for it and had Erick Van Sickle of Leyland British in Kennebunkport, ME, install it for me (The car has sat at the Rockland ferry terminal this past week, and with lots of rain, I should find out tomorrow whether the new top is more waterproof than the old one).

While the car came with a soft top boot, it did not have a tonneau. Erick found a used one for me with a rusted zipper. I had a new one installed at Gemini Canvas in Rockland and it works quite well.   

The Spitfire tackled its second long drive for a work assignment and the installation of the new top. The 240 mile round trip demonstrated the following:

1. The Spitfire of that era needs 4000 rpm to run at 60-65 mph. Although the redline is at 5500, that's still a lot of revs for a small engine on highway drives. No wonder the electric overdrive is so treasured.

2. Spitfire seats offer less padding and less comfort than TR-7 seats.

3. Top down driving in a Spitfire is hugely entertaining.

4. Spitfires of this era came with electric fans that don't operate on until about 180 degrees, or 3/4 on the temperature gauge. That's disconcerting to see and while the gauge never pegged itself, nor did the car overheat, it made me nervous for a while (I've purchased Water Wetter for the next trip).

5. Combined highway and two lane fast roads, with some in town toodling, produced 29 mpg.

There's another trip tomorrow and later this month, a long drive to Vermont and back. Here's hoping I don't have to use the tool bag in the trunk.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Third Time's A Charm

It's my third Spitfire and I couldn't be happier.

The build plate on the car says it was built in February, 1980, and the warranty card indicates it was purchased in March, 1981, by a Mark Kelly at Tom Connelly Pontiac in Norwood, MA. A family member, Norman Kelly, brought it to his seasonal home in Canton, ME, where it spent a lot of time in his barn before selling it to Russell Tracy in the same town. 

Russell owns a small repair garage and he bought it as a possible fun car for himself and wife Pamela. But he found he rarely drove it and, as a matter of fact, never registered it for the road. Russ put it up for sale a short while later and that's how Tim Hutchisen, the expert behind Penn Ridge Motors in Norway, ME, found the car. He liked what he saw but had no time to work on the car and declined to buy it. 

When I went on the search for a sports car to replace my TR-7 Spider, I knew that finances would limit my options. Spitfires never fetch a high initial price and a rubber-bumper one, from mid - 1979 through 1980 [the last year of production] should cost even less. I had answered a number of Craigslist, online, even newspaper ads, in my search. I called Tim because I knew he was a Triumph specialist and because he might know of customer's cars for sale.

Tim recommended I look at this car because it was "unmolested." Indeed it's very original, including the disco-era "Pageant Blue" paint and black an white check interior seats. Combined with the rubber bumpers, it looked truly appalling compared to other sports cars under consideration: a '78 Spitfire, a '74 MG Midget or a '74 MGB.

Only one of these cars, the Midget, actually had any professional provenance; the others were owned by casual enthusiasts who knew little of the history of their cars. And they were all higher priced than the Spitfire.

I should note that I have a soft spot for Spitfires. Yes, a '63 Spitfire was my first sports car and it cemented my adoration for the marque. I kept it for only two years because I knew so little about their care and feeding. My next one, a '78 purchased in 1989, served as a daily driver and commuter car until the Land Rover joined it in late 1991, but I drove it all over New England until 1998 - and I sold it running at 140,000 miles. I've enjoyed "the sports car life" with an MG Midget, a Fiat Spider, two MGB's and the TR-7 Spider, too, but my heart has remained with Spitfires all those years. 

The Triumph Spitfire provided the company, then Standard Triumph and later British Leyland, the entry level car needed to lure penurious buyers into British sports cars. It featured a simple engine, a massive flip-up bonnet for easy servicing and Italianate styling to entice low budget enthusiasts. The earlier models (1962 - 1971) had a simple swing axle rear suspension that could get exciting at the edge of cornering, but the second generation body style [1971 - 1980] also featured a wider stance and refined double halfshaft suspension to clamp down the rear end. Although the styling managed to hold up well in the rush to make "safer" cars in the 70's the engine's horsepower ratings succumbed to emission controls that relied on lower compression, air pumps and catalytic converters to make them breathe cleaner. Still, it remained entertaining to drive right up until the end.

Inside you had to worm your way into a very narrow seat and footwell, with no place but the pedals to fit your feet. You right knee lies bent against the transmission tunnel, your left knee against the left door opening. I'm very chuffed that I can actually enter and exit the car - it's a way to keep in good shape! You sit very low to the ground and every mph feels like 10; in this car you sit on disco-era seats, too.

The engine makes all the right noises, the 4-speed transmission shifts smartly and the instrumentation lacks only an oil pressure gauge. Yes, that's a real wooden dashboard, too.

I bought the car in March, 2014 with snow still piled high in central Maine and frost heaves emerging from the roads. Russell agreed to replace leaking wheel cylinder, a dry rotted rear tire with its spare, and to see if he could get the lights working. I picked the car up in late April with working brakes, old tires but no tail lights, parking lights or directionals. Packing a tow strap, a tool kit and fluids, I hitched a ride with a Corvair buddy back to Canton to drive it home to Vinalhaven. 

I'll cover the rest of the story in the next post...

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Land Rover Global Reveal Event - April 2014

Once again I attended the press days of the New York International Auto Show in April 2014. I'll be writing this up in Rovers Magazine but I wanted to share these photos and video before the article appears in our Summer issue.

Of course Land Rover's events and exhibit provided me with the greatest excitement.  I have to tip my cap to the PR and Special Events executives at Land Rover UK and Land Rover North America for yet another coup. 

This year Land Rover used the NYIAS to introduce the Discovery V Concept to an international audience, a Discovery Sport for 2015, and to announce a partnership with Virgin Galactic. They merged all of these at a "Global Reveal Launch" aboard the Intrepid Air and Space Museum, the aircraft carrier that sits moored in the Hudson River.

Thanks to DNA/TVC's Jessica Constanza, I received permission to share this video of the event itself.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Maine Winter Romp 2014

Sometime in the mid 1990's Bruce Fowler, a Land Rover enthusiast in Unity, ME, decided that other Land Rover enthusiasts should enjoy the trails on his land, and that of his friendly neighbors, in central Maine. So he put the call out that if anyone wanted to spend a President's Day [and Valentine's Day] weekend in the woods, on their own, he'd be happy to provide the opportunity.

You pay nothing - let me repeat, you pay nothing - for the privilege of having Bruce spend some weekends opening up trails, tamping down deep snow, and calming down neighbors, about having "a few" Land Rovers on the fields, hills and marshes for the weekend. You cover your own expenses; you can even camp in the woods if that's what you prefer. 

Initially Bruce left you to your own devices in terms of housing and dining. However, it only took a few years of ever-larger groups descending on one restaurant and emptying its larder for him to select and alert places in advance. We now have a "Romp hotel" [a Best Western in this year's guise] that offers special rates and two restaurants [Cancun and You Know Who's Pub] that stock up on beer and food in advance. Both restauranteurs let me know that they love having the Romp crowd each year.

This year Rompers came from ME, NH, VT, MA, CT, NY, NJ, PA, MD, DC, Canada and the UK - 65 vehicles representing all models, from the latest Range Rover Sport [courtesy of Land Rover Scarborough] to a Series I. 

The trails were particularly challenging this year as the deep snow pack had dried out leaving "corn snow," dessicated snow with little traction, underneath. That meant that when your Land Rover broke through the thin crust it sank close to its frame and then tried to gain traction on powdery snow. So there was plenty of slow going, yanking and winching. There was also a lot of waiting in lines as stuck vehicles were hooked up and moved forward - slowly. This year's savior was the kinetic rope. No matter how slow you're going the elastic power in a kinetic rope will give you a pull that will move your Rover forward or backwards.

Yes, the organization could have been tighter as the waits felt L-O-N-G, but then, the organizer had to deal with frozen plumbing at his house for the entire weekend - so no complaints, here. For many enthusiasts who live in suburbs or cities this is the only opportunity to get into the woods and enjoy the winter capabilities of their Land Rovers. This year's event saw many newcomers to winter offroading and they clearly had a ball learning about what their Land Rovers - and they - could accomplish in challenging conditions. 

The most fun was clearly had by those who attend every years, from the Series Land Rovers of the "Buxton Foreside" clans to the Discovery II's that seemed to be everywhere on the trails. You could make night runs and/or find the most difficult hills and gullies; no matter what you were going to have a great time!

A perennial favorite run is the "Power Line Hill," whether up or down. It's winding ascent, bumpy terraced incline and icy approaches make it a real challenge. This Discovery of Rovers North's Zack Griswold featured front and rear lockers and chained tires.

This year even saw the return of interest from Maine's only Land Rover dealer. Land Rover Scarborough found an old Defender door, decorated it up and asked attendees to sign the door - which they promised will be on display at the dealership! The Cameroon family from the UK did just that.

Even Sebago Brewery, which just launched its Black Bump ale featuring a Land Rover on its packaging, got into the act by sending a banner and a case of beer to share with enthusiasts (I've had one and enjoyed it very much!).