No – not the kind of transmissions you’re thinking about.

These transmissions are  4 speed, on the column… That kind of transmission.

I had some car trouble one day back when I was going to school at Fort Steilacoom Community College (now called Pierce College).  It was payday, (I’d gotten my work study check of $124.96 – gad, WHY do I remember this stuff and still can’t remember where I left my cell phone?) – I got home, planning on cashing it – when my dad, who’d had a 1966 Saab 96 Sport and loved it until it turned into a Flintstone Mobile (the floor rusted out and you could see the road going by through the hole), called me over and read me this ad in the paper.

Saab 96. Runs. 100.00

and a phone number.

Now even back then (about 25 years ago) this was a touch on the cheap side.  But also even back then, Saabs were a lot like Lays potato chips – you couldn’t eat just one… – (you needed another one for parts to keep the first one running) so I called the guy….

“Hey, I’m calling about the Saab you have in the paper…”

“Oh, yeah… Strong engine… STRONG engine…”

Um…. Okaaay….

“Can you tell me a little bit about it?”

“Well – the engine’s got a lot of power.”

Right… got that.

Understand at the time, I’d been used to driving a 3 cylinder, 2 stroke Saab that, as I mentioned in another story, was clearly the result of an illicit liaison between a Sherman tank and a chainsaw, so more power was always better – but there was something about how he was describing this power that piqued my interest enough to realize a couple of things.

  1. He was telling me things he didn’t realize he was telling me.
  2. I was going to have him tell me the rest without him realizing he was doing it.

“Which engine’s it got in it?”

“The V4… Strong engine… STRONG engine….”

I was beginning to see a pattern here…

I asked about the body (I mean, if it’s full of dents, that doesn’t change how it drives, but it sure changes how it looks, bodywork is expensive, and it told me a lot about how well they’d taken care of the car… or not)

And I asked about the glass – in large part because I wanted to know if they’d rolled the car.  The way he was talking – this was a distinct possibility – and so I wanted to check. The thing is, I happen to know that if you roll the car, you’ll likely scrape one side, maybe scrape the roof, but if you hit the roof, there’s well north of a 90% chance that you’ll end up with a diagonal crack in the windshield.  The car’s got a built in roll cage, so it’s not like it would have been toast – but it was information I wanted to know if I were to buy the car.

It was a simple equation… one roll equals one crack, so… innocent sounding question, but the answer would have told me a lot.

You can see what happens when you roll a Saab 96 by watching this little video:

The Saab is – well, you’ll figure it out… trust me.

So depending on how you do it – you can just muff up the body a little bit – but bottom line, that windshield is going to get cracked, so I asked about it.

“Oh, the glass is good, no cracks.”

Okay…

Then he went on about that strong engine again…

Eventually I determined that the body of the car appeared to be good, but the right door might have some issues.  Okay, whatever.

And then, out of the blue – he says, “Oh, by the way, first, second and reverse are gone.”

“Gone?”

“Gone.”

Rrrright…

“STRONG engine… Stroonng engine…”

Gotcha

So… a 1968 Saab with what is very clearly a strong engine, a horked out transmission, good glass…  Well heck –

“Oh, and there’s this banging noise…”

“Banging noise?”

“Yeah, there’s this banging noise when you drive it.”

And he’s still driving it? Heck, it’s only got two gears left…

…and a “banging” to me is the sound of sheet metal.

A “banging noise” is in the higher frequency of sounds.

It is a cheap sound.

A “thunking noise” is not sheet metal.  It is the sound of something internal, like bearings, or worse yet, gears.  It is in the lower frequency of sounds.

You do not want to hear thunking.

It is an expensive sound.

“Banging?” – I press him a little bit on that… eventually it becomes clear that I need to go see this thing.  I mean – for a hundred bucks, the engine’s worth more than that…

So I do a little more asking – kind of a last confirmation of the condition of the body, and he finally pops out with something he’d clearly forgotten.

“Oh, there’s a hole in the driver’s door.”

Right… I can immediately see how easy this would be to forget…

So I’m thinking – given where I grew up (near Fort Lewis or other military installations my dad was stationed at), the hole would be about 3/8 of an inch in diameter, and at the center of a little dent….

I’m thinking it’s the standard military issue bullet hole, I mean: “Hole, comma, bullet…. one each…”  Simple to create, simple to fix.

But just to be sure, I ask, “How big is it?”

So while I’m confidently expecting to hear, “Oh, about 3/8ths of an inch.”

I actually hear, “Oh, about the size of a man’s hand…”

A man’s hand…

What on earth?

Turns out his buddy’d been commuting down to the tideflats in Tacoma with it, and ran a forklift through the driver’s door and one of the tines did indeed make a hole… about the size of a man’s hand… in the driver’s door.

So I got the address of the place, and as dad and I drove out there to find it, we noticed that this was not a neighborhood of manicured lawns and well-tended gardens.   It was more a neighborhood of dead grass, faded plastic toys, and rusting cars.

We found the car sitting in the back of a house that was clearly being rented by a bunch of guys who were associated with some kind of motorcycle club.  The names Harley and Davidson were nailed, sewn, welded, or stapled to just about any object available.  These guys were – how do you say this…

… well, my son once said that while some of his friends had made nasty comments about rednecks, he had absolutely nothing against them because they were so ingenious and so ridiculously practical.  You’ve seen the picture of the redneck whose air conditioning broke in his car, but he happened to have a generator and a house sized window air conditioner handy.  So he bolted the generator to the trunk of his car, mounted the air conditioner in the right rear window, and then, when it was hot, he’d fire up the generator, fire up the air conditioner, and grow icicles in the car.  Not “cool” – but definitely cool.

These guys were the same way.  If they could make it work – it worked.  You’ll see this in a minute.

So my dad and I drove out there, and sure enough – it was a V-4, not a 3 cylinder like my other Saab.

(whoa, cool!)

In fact, not only was it a V-4, but it was a “De Luxe” – (that meant it had a tachometer)

Woohoo! This was looking like it could be fun…

After a bit of looking around, I noticed all the body work on the car was good, just like he said on the phone.

Except for the passenger’s door, which was scraped up pretty bad.

I noticed that all the glass in the car was good, just like he said on the phone…

Except for the windshield.

Which only had one crack in it…

A nice… big… diagonal one that went from top to bottom.

The stories the car was telling me were just a touch different than the stories the owner was telling me.

But I watched, and looked, and after he started it up – I listened.

Oh… my… gosh…

It sounded WONDERFUL.

The three cylinder, two stroke engine in the other Saab sounded like a swarm of seriously irritated hornets.  Powerful? No.  If you heard it, you might look around because you were sure a tree was being cut down by that chainsaw you were hearing.

But this thing – it idled beautifully, had a low rumble, almost a dual exhaust kind of a thing – a little ‘blap blap’ from one side kind of synchronized with a blublap from the other side…  Oh, it was cool… You just didn’t hear that out of a Saab of that vintage… It sounded almost like a couple of gentle Harleys… (Come to think of it – the Harleys had what they called a V-twin engine… the Saab had a V-4 = effectively two V-twins end to end)… But what on earth had they done to this thing?  In fact, how the heck could this thing sound so wonderful?  I knew what kind of exhaust it had… two headers – joined in the front by something Saab had called a ‘resonating chamber’ – and a pipe that went back under the passenger’s side of the car – exiting just under the right…

Rear…

Taillight…

Except it wasn’t there.

If it isn’t clear from what we saw earlier, it turns out these were a bunch of Harley bikers – and after a little chatting, the stories the owner was telling me started to match the stories the car was telling me.

I remember asking, “Has it ever been rolled?” – and later thinking, “How often do you ask the owner of a car you’re about to buy “IF” it’s been rolled – wouldn’t it be obvious?

Well – with this car – it could be done.  Not often, and not without consequences, but it could definitely be done.

What started off as a “Nope, never been rolled” turned into a reluctant “Well, once, a bit…” when I told him the stories the car was telling me.

And then, since we were telling stories, he told me the story about one of their excursions determining precisely HOW strong this engine was, driving up this dry riverbed, they rolled the car and got a bunch of gravel in the engine compartment and broke the motor mounts while cracking the windshield. In doing so, they also blasted the crap out of that original exhaust system.  In fact, there was nothing remaining of it.  But fixing it would have been expensive, and one of the things about redneck ingenuity was that if you could make it work, you would make it work.  And so they’d attached a piece of flex tube down from each of the exhaust manifolds – one on either side of the engine – and they went under the car just like the normal ones had gone, but instead of that resonating chamber, they went back about two feet.

And stopped.

There were a couple of little baffles screwed on the end and that was it.

It was the shortest, smallest, simplest “dual high performance exhaust” I’d ever seen.

I asked if I could take it for a test drive, he agreed, so I got in, fired it up (oooh, that sounded nice) – hit the clutch, and put it in first, let up on the clutch – and….

Nothing.

Engine didn’t slow down.

Gears didn’t grind.

Car didn’t move.

Nothing.

I tried second.

Nothing.

Reverse…

Nothing.

Holy cow…. what the HECK had they done to this transmission?

I shifted it into third, and got it moving, very slowly, and there was this low frequency ‘thunk… thunk. thunk’ that happened with a little jerk about once per tire revolution

Hmmm…

A thunking sound, not what you want to hear – but I managed to accelerate, gently and found that if you drove it fast enough – that thunking sound indeed became a banging sound…

…the sound of a transmission beating itself to death.

So I did the only thing I could possibly do under the circumstances.

I bought the car.

And started it out slowly in third gear –  with the banging –  made it to fourth, and drove the thing home, with dad following me.  Every now and then you could smell gear oil.  This was, to use a technical term, “bad.”  Gear oil is supposed to stay inside the transmission (with the gears, hence the name).

I took the engine out, took the transmission out, and realized the ring gear (part of the ring and pinion set of gears in a gearbox) was missing more teeth than a hockey player.  I found six of them in the bottom of the transmission casing.

Of the ones that were left, forty-six were damaged, all with various cracks or chunks out of them.  Bottom line, that gearbox was in dire need of dental work – which simply wasn’t happening…

It was toast.

But that engine… oh man…  Strong engine…. STRONG engine…

In fact, on top of everything else, the “rolling the car” physics experiments the previous owners had done proving this whole “STRONG engine” concept broke the starter off the engine block.  Note: The starter is bolted on to the engine through a hunk of cast steel about an inch and a half think. This hunk of cast steel had been broken off… and with redneck ingenuity, had been welded back on.

Very… strong…. engine.

By the time I had it all apart – someone gave me another one, ironically, a 1968 Saab 96 Deluxe, with the words, “Here, you can have it if you’ll take it away.”

Um… okay…

The car, however, had one minor issue.

No engine.

In fact, no transmission…

In fact fact… nothing under the hood… at all.

So now I had two Saabs sitting in my parent’s back yard, one with nothing under the hood at all, and one with a STRONG engine, with no way to use the power.

Hmm…

Speaking of power, it was clear it was time to call on some higher power, and so I did the only thing I could at the time.

I prayed.

Now understand that this wasn’t the kind of prayer that was filled with “Oh Lord, it is I, Tom, thy humble servant, beseeching thee for a four speed synchromesh transmission that yea, verily, and forsooth, worketh in my Saab…”

No….

Not the way I prayed….

Ever have a kid whine at you? a kid who really, REALLY wanted something? The kind that was pestering the living crap out of you to the point where you just wanted the noise to go away to the point where no matter what it was, you would give it to them just to shut them up?

That was me:  “God, can I have a transmission? Can I? Can I? Can I? Puleeeeeeeze can I have a transmission?”

…oh, one more thing… “Amen.”

I have to tell you – I have never, ever heard so much nothing coming back from a prayer of any kind.  I mean, even the “God bless Mom and Dad and…” (insert requisite list of friends, relatives, pets both living and dead and so on) seemed to get more of a response than this – even if it was just an echo.

I mean, there’s quiet, there’s silence, and then there’s that stunned silence you get when you’ve heard something totally unexpected and simply can’t think of anything to say.

I think God was up there going, “Are you for real?”

And then… Oh Lordy… He had a sense of humor.  Now the thing was, I didn’t have any other options here… I’d priced out VW transmissions at the time just to get a sense of what a transmission cost, and they were running in the $375.00 range.

I didn’t have $375.00.

I also didn’t have a transmission.

And I had a pile of Swedish steel in the back yard with that fool strong engine, and my parents at the time were pondering things like “How did we get into this mess?” and “How do we get out of this mess?” and “Where do we put this?”…

Right next to a duck, maybe? (you may have to have read ‘They don’t shoot on Sundays’ to get that one)

So I was praying, literally doing that, “God, can I have a transmission, can I can I pulleeeeeze?” thing, in large part because I didn’t know what else to do…

I’d looked for transmissions, and they were rarer than Sasquatches in Singapore.

No Saab transmissions anywhere.

Also, No Answer.

I kept at this for six months.

No answer.

Then one day, the weirdest thing happened.

I was praying – oh let’s get real – this wasn’t praying, this was pestering….

It seemed like God finally got tired of me whining about this fool transmission, and out of the silence I’d experienced for months came this message, so loud, so clear, that I looked around trying to figure out who’d said it.

“One’s on the way.”

“Huh? What? One’s WHAT’s on the way?”

“One’s on the way.”

Uh…

Wait – Fedex?  UPS? I mean, if you’re sending me one, can I have a tracking number or something?

Apparently God didn’t find that one amusing…

“One’s on the way.”

I’m not sure who I could have talked to at the time, but I felt this urgent need to request permission from someone to get weirded out just a touch…

On the other hand, I was praying, for Heaven’s sake (pardon the pun) – what should I have expected?

And then there was that silence again…

I mean, I heard nothing…

Not even a cricket…

I wasn’t sure what to do for a while there.

And then one day, one of dad’s Saab buddies, a fellow by the name of Clark Duncan, came out, totally unannounced, and said, to me, “Hey, wanna go Saab Hunting?”

“Huh?”

“I heard there were some out near Wilkeson and Carbonado, wanna go?”

Wilkeson and Carbonado are two towns close to Mt. Rainier that were – well, not quite in the middle of nowhere, but you could see it from there.

“Um… sure….”

So we went.

There were no Saabs out there at all. So we headed further out – and – well- you’ve heard of the boondocks?  Depending on what part of the country you’re from, past the boondocks is what’s known as the pucker brush, past that is the toolies.  We were on the border of toolies and whatever’s past that.  No one knows for sure.  They’ve never come back to tell us.

And out there, (apologies to Douglas Adams), there’s this wrecking yard… A Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe…

It was called “Double I Wrecking.”

I mean, this was like any standard issue junkyard, and it came with the standard stuff…

Big Fence…

Check.

Gravel…

Check.

Lots of old metal crap…

Czech. (just seeing if you’re paying attention)

Oil on the ground to the point where it’s either congealed or in rainbows in the puddles.

Check and check…

Oh, and mud.  Have to have the mud.

And puddles…

And cars.

Check… Check… Check…

What are we missing?

Oh – Animals… That standard assortment of vicious animals that keeps people out of the junkyard…

Except whoever ordered this junk yard didn’t check that box.

There was clearly another box labeled “other”

…and the grizzled old fart who was ordering the junkyard chuckled and  wrote in “Geese”

Now if you were to think of something that guarded a wrecking yard – or a junk yard, what type of potentially living organism would your mind conjure up?

I mean, you could come up with something mean, like a pit bull, or a Doberman, or a Rottweiler… Heck, any junkyard dog could work.  You could go one better and get Leroy Brown.

But the person who was filling out the checkbox on the “Standard Junkyard Order Form” had found the box marked “other” and filled in the blank.

When Clark and I got out of the car, we didn’t see a pack of dogs, we didn’t hear an ominous growl, heck, we didn’t even see Leroy.  We were attacked by a herd of wild freaking geese.

Have you EVER been attacked by a herd… herd?… flock? …a bunch of geese?

I mean, they don’t growl, they hiss. They’ve got these long necks that you could grab, but – there were so many of them! Which neck do you grab? It was like trying to wrestle with a plate of spaghetti.

While we were standing there flailing our arms at these necks, looking just exactly like the sissies we were, someone came out of the made to order shack and called them off.

That was the weirdest thing.  I’ve heard people say “Call off your dog!” – but “Call off your geese?”

For that matter, the question of, “Geese can be trained?” popped into my mind, I mean, the only term I’d heard about what you do with a goose was cook it.

And the gooses – er – geese – obeyed… they waddled back through the gate into the junkyard.

Waddled.

And it was a threatening waddle, too, I might add.

Clark and I just stared at each other for a minute.

“Were we just attacked by a herd of marauding watch-geese?”

We couldn’t believe it…

We followed the geese in – daintily stepping around little landmines they’d left behind, and found real humans to talk to.

Now by this time in my search for a Saab transmission, I’d learned that you didn’t just walk in and ask for them, because often the folks working there had no clue what they actually had in their junkyards.  If you went in and asked, “Hey, you got a transmission for a 1968 Saab 96 with a V-4 engine in it?”

They’d just say no.

So over time, I had learned how to ask for things, and how not to ask for things, and in the Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe, I heard myself say,

“Hey, you got any old Saabs around here?”

If he said no, we’d thread our way through the geese and their landmines again and leave.

If he said anything else, we were in.

“Whatchaneed?”

Ding!

We’re in.

“Well, I’m looking for a transmission for a ‘68 96.”

“Hmmm… the one I’ve got doesn’t have a transmission in it – just has the engine.”

(note – that’s not possible – to just get the transmission out you either take the engine out – or you cut the car in half, but I wasn’t going to be so rude as to tell him he didn’t know what he was doing in his own junkyard, so the transmission had to be there.)

“You mind if I go out and take a look?”

“Sure, help yourself”

…and he gestured in a direction that used up roughly a quarter of a standard compass.

I averaged that out and headed in that direction.  It turned out this had been a station wagon (a Saab 95) – that someone had made into a pickup truck with a welding torch, so everything behind the driver’s door was pretty messed up (read: gone),

I popped the hood, and sure enough, everything under the hood was still there, and I mean *everything*.

And behind the engine in there was a transmission….

I was elated, I was thrilled, I was –

oh…

Confused…

I had no idea what to do now that I’d found it.

I was so used to there NOT being transmissions that I don’t know what to do if there was one…

Um….

I pondered the significance of this situation as I walked back to the “office” with its fake grass for the carpeting…

I mean, I was thinking, and clearly God was up there, kind of chuckling, wondering what I’d do now that He’d dropped a transmission in my lap…

“Well,” thought I, figuring that if a chat with God could result in a transmission, maybe another chat with God could help me actually get the dang thing.

“I know the VW ones go for about $375.00… Maybe I’ll offer him $75.00.”

“Nooooooooo!”

I ducked.

“Uh… don’t offer him 75?”

“Don’t say anything”

Okay, this was now officially weird… First off, I wasn’t quite used to ‘hearing’ God like that – so my weirdometer was getting pretty close to pegged on this.  But regardless, somewhere in the standard negotiation tactics I figured there had to be something about talking… I mean, how do you do negotiations without talking?

So I went in and just tried to tell the guy behind the counter what I’d found, trying to figure out how to tell him that he’d had no idea what he was talking about – but doing it politely, said, “Well, it’s out there, and it does indeed have the transmission in it.”

“Oh, really?!”

“Yup, it’s there… checked it myself…”

All the while I’m thinking – it’d be easier to take the engine and the transmission out – it’s three bolts – disconnect the shifter, the exhaust, and various hoses, and just yank. Used to take me 32 minutes to yank a 3 cylinder engine – I knew how this worked.  It would come out…

So I asked, “How much you want for it? Engine and transmission?”

“Engine AND transmission?”

“Yup”

“Can’t take it out today”

“Don’t care, I’ll take it out.”

This confused him.

“Can’t guarantee the engine’ll run.”

I didn’t care, the engine was just in the way of what I wanted, the transmission.

“Don’t care, I’ll fix it.”

This confused him more.

Most people visiting the Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe wanted the parts they purchased to work…

This person didn’t care…

This was very strange.

And then he said something that I only much later realized was something Alex Trebek would be familiar with, as it was phrased as a question

“Sixty dollars?”

“Sixty dollars…”

“Engine and transmission?”

“Engine and transmission.”

“Done deal.  I’ll be back tomorrow.”

I was stunned.

I rode home kind of in a daze – and sure enough, went out there the next day and yanked the engine and transmission out, paid the gentleman $60.00 and brought it home.

I took the two apart, bolted the STRONG engine to the $30.00 transmission, put them in the free car that I’d been given if I’d take it away, hooked the rest of the stuff up, and started it up.

I drove that car for 17 years.

Until…

One day…

As I was leaving work – the transmission made this pop, and then a low frequency ‘thunk… thunk. thunk’ that happened with a little jerk about once per tire revolution

I’d heard this before.  Many years before, and I knew what it meant.

It was not good.

I thought I might be able to make it home – but work was 17 miles from home, through some pretty awful traffic, and some steep hills.

I gently accelerated, and the thunking noise turned into a banging noise, and that $30.00 transmission – after 17 years of work – gently let me know that it didn’t have anything left to give.

Interestingly enough, I was now in the very same position I’d been in many years earlier – lots of power from that “STRONG Engine” and no way to get it to the ground.

I called around and found out that it would cost 1700.00 to rebuild it.

A friend heard of my plight – and said, “Hey, I know of another one that’s for sale up north… I think it’s the same year – same color even…”

I went up there to look at the car.  It was indeed the same year, and the same color.  It had been this lady’s first car – she’d bought it when she was in college, and when she left home – she left the car in her dad’s barn. He retired, and needed something to do, so he had the engine rebuilt.  And he had the transmission rebuilt, and then one day, after he’d gotten so much fixed and done, he called her over from where she lived, 12 miles away, to give her her old car back.  With a father’s pride – he handed her the keys to her car – and what had been his project for the last few years.

But she’d grown past it – and so she drove it from Snohomish to Everett and put a for sale sign on it.

And for $1900.00 I got a car with an engine with 12 miles on a full rebuild… and I’ve driven that car for the last 11 years… When I got it home – I looked at the vin number – and something looked very familiar…

All but the last digit on the VIN number were identical.

I popped the hood of the original one – xxxxxO.

And went back to look at the new one… xxxxx6.

So in the end, two cars that must have been made on or about the same day, but six cars apart, by the same people, had been acquired about 20 years apart, were once again sitting next to each other, in my driveway.

Now not all of my prayers have been me pestering God like this, nor have they all been answered like this – (wait, maybe there’s a lesson there, huh?) but this one was kind of special… and now, with apologies to Paul Harvey, you know the rest of the story…

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