This is a story about cars.
Well, more than just cars…
One complete car.
Parts of two others.
And me, who used the Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® I was so blessed with at the time.
Wait – a better way to describe “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®” is “Stupidity beyond comprehension” – and before I get any notes from angry teenagers, read on, and see if you don’t see yourself in this – (note: don’t try this at home – or, for that matter, anywhere else. )
So aside from me, the cars involved in today’s story were:
A 1965 Saab 95 – with a three cylinder, two stroke engine of a whopping 46 cubic inches. (for comparison: a standard Harley Davidson has almost twice that, about 80 cubic inches, across two cylinders).
A 1956 VW Bug (but mainly the engine – an original 1956, 36 horsepower, 4 cylinder, air cooled, ORIGINAL Bug engine)
And a 1972 Ford Ranchero, with a 390 Cubic inch V8 under the hood, with a 4 barrel carburetor, dual 2 ½ inch exhausts that made a barely passing attempt to muffle the roar of the engine.
It was said it could pass anything but a gas station, and I learned much later, how true this was. Of course, this was back when I was irritated at gas costing a whole 66 cents a gallon, and refusing to buy it at that price…
The Ranchero belonged to my uncle, and I’d had some trouble with the Saab, the kind that had the engine sitting on the shop floor while we figured out how to drill a rather important broken bolt out of it.
This took a bit longer than expected, and I had to do something that evening, before we were able to get the engine back in the Saab.
You see, I was the cadet commander for the McChord Composite Squadron of Civil Air Patrol, and one of the things I did was teach the younger cadets about anything having to do with aviation, leadership, and in general being a good cadet.
One part of aviation is airplane engines, and so I figured, given that I was trying to restore a 1956 Bug, which happened to have an air-cooled engine of the same configuration as many airplane engines, I’d planned on using it to demonstrate to the younger cadets what an airplane engine might look like.
I’d been gathering parts for the Bug for some time, and had found, for $100.00, an absolutely bone stock, original, 36 horsepower engine actually out of another 1956 bug that had been in a front end collision. With the gas tank in the front, the car burned, and was a total loss. The only thing worth saving was the engine, so the owner had taken it out of the car and put it in a garage and there it sat for a couple of decades. It still had the original distributor cap on the distributor, still turned over, and interestingly, still had oil in it.
To actually, run, it would need to be rebuilt, (the spark plug wires were a little crumbly from the heat of that fire) but you didn’t find engines like this very often, and I was absolutely thrilled to have it.
However, I’d planned on taking it to the Civil Air Patrol meeting in the back of the Saab, and the engine of that car was sitting on the floor of my uncle’s shop.
My uncle, bless him, offered to loan me his Ranchero.
Now understand, I was used to an engine with three cylinders the size of coke cans pulling me along.
The Ranchero’s engine had 8 cylinders the size of small Central American countries, and had about 7 times the power of the Saab.
In fact, let’s just say that the gas pedal on the Ranchero worked really, REALLY well. In fact, it worked far, FAR better than the gas pedal of any car driven by a teenager should work.
And then there were the brakes.
Oh my gosh, it had disk brakes, 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
The ones I had in the Saab were little itty bitty drum brakes that I thought sucked – and it turned out I was right… only two of the four brake shoes on the front of that Saab actually worked at the time.
The difference was incredible.
I was used to a certain level of acceleration from the Saab (a speed rivaled by melting glaciers, I might add), and it became very obvious, very fast, that I would have to recalibrate my right foot for the increased acceleration available in the Ranchero.
What was not obvious was that I would have to do the same for the increased deceleration – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I took the Ranchero home, backed it up to where the VW engine was and then just kind of stood there, trying to figure out how to get the engine up into the back of the thing. Eventually I got some planks, and slid the engine up onto the bed on them, getting it into the back by myself, and with the engine loaded in the back, I shut the tailgate on the bottom and the canopy gate on the top.
By this time, what with the original problem with the Saab, plus the loading of the engine and such, by the time I put my Civil Air Patrol uniform on and got in the car, I was quite a bit later than I thought I would be, and so I did the rather typical teenage thing.
I tried to turn my uncle’s Ranchero into a time machine.
There was an 8 mile stretch of two lane road that I’d driven many, many times in the Saab, and with the acceleration that it had (imagine that under the hood are three hibernating squirrels (because of the glacier mentioned earlier) who had NO intention of accelerating the car enough to pass someone that’s going too slow for an impatient teenage driver) I’d learned that if I were driving that Saab, there were only two or three spots on this 8 mile stretch that were actually safe to pass another car in. So my standard process, regardless of impatience, was to fade back from the car I was about to pass and wait until I had plenty of clear space in front of me and lots of clear space in the oncoming lane before I started to pass someone.
When the time was right, I’d floor it to get a running start, staying directly behind the person I was about to pass, because I needed the draft that their car pushing through the air provided to keep my speed up. I’d then, at the last second, pull out and pass them, assuming everything was clear. If it wasn’t, or if I didn’t get enough speed up, or my timing was off and there was still oncoming traffic by the time I (the passer) got up to the person I was passing (the passee) I’d have to try to abort the pass, and with the brilliantly functional brakes (sarcasm intended) on the Saab, trying to abort a pass at that late stage could be a touch challenging.
I mean, by the time I got to the point of making the decision to pass, I’d be gaining on them at about 10-20 mph, and at the last moment, I faced one of two choices
- If there was still no oncoming traffic, I’d pull out and pass them.
- If there was oncoming traffic, I’d have to abort the pass, which would give me the following decisions: I could
- Rear end them (generally undesirable at that speed)
- Whip out into oncoming traffic and risk a head on collision… (significantly less desirable at that speed) or
- Slam on the brakes and hope and pray that I had enough brake shoes making contact with brake drums to actually slow me down to keep from rear ending them.
So there I was, late… impatient as all getout… not in the underpowered Saab I was used to, but in this car that was not my own…
…that had more power under my right foot than I’d ever had in my life.
…that had more braking power than I’d ever had under my right foot in my life.
…and that had more rubber on the road in two of its four tires than I had on all four Saab tires.
Now just between you and me, I’m thinking this is a recipe for disaster, right?
Well, let’s find out…
I made it about 3 ½ miles from home, and on this road it didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem to matter what time of day you’re driving it, there will be someone who isn’t in nearly as much of a hurry as you are… In this case, I was stuck behind someone who insisted on going 50 mph (which was below speed limit). I was late and impatient, and in my teenage mind, I just couldn’t take any of that, so I waited for a clear spot I’d used in the Saab, hit my blinkers, the gas pedal (oh… my…) and pulled out to pass.
Now one of the things to know about this road is that a lot of it is in shadow most of the day, with occasional little spots where there is sunshine.
I was in that sunshine, passing the car that was driving so slowly, and I was passing him like I’d never, ever passed a car before.
This time, I had room to pass.
This time, I was going way, way faster than the person I was passing.
This time, everything was going to end up just peachy.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
…which is when a bright flaming red 1974 VW Bug popped out of the shadows about a quarter of a mile ahead of me.
There’s no radiator on the front of this thing, it’s all bright freaking red.
Like a stoplight.
And it didn’t look like it was a quarter of a mile away, it looked like it was a hundred yards away, and coming at me with a closing speed of about 130 miles an hour (figuring my 75 plus his 55). I knew, in that moment that I had to do something, and do it quickly.
So I, using my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, did what would have made sense if I were driving the Saab, which would have been to stop badgering the hibernating squirrels under the hood and stand on the brake pedal, trying to avoid a head on collision.
But remember, I wasn’t driving the Saab.
I was driving the Ranchero.
And as I said, I was doing about 75 miles an hour – which is fast for that road, (impossible for that Saab) but is also a good passing speed for a short distance, and, well, let’s put it this way:
My body was driving the Ranchero.
My brain was still in Saab mode.
And with that big bright red Bug in front of me, I did the only thing I could possibly think of doing.
I hit those brakes.
…those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
With, remember, more rubber on just the front wheels than the Saab had on all four.
The Ranchero went from 75 to about 45 like it had hit a brick wall.
The driver I was passing had to be confused beyond words, I mean, here’s this blur of a car roaring past him, not like he’s standing still, but like he’s going backwards. He’s expecting to see tail lights any second, but what he saw were brake lights out the side window, the back of the Ranchero kicked up, the nose went down, and then it simply disappeared.
He looked around, and the next thing he knew, it was behind him again, weaving around a little bit, but definitely back there.
What the driver of that car didn’t know was that while the Ranchero had those huge brakes, the classic 36 horsepower 1956 VW Bug engine, the one with the original everything including the crumbly spark plug wires all the way down to the spark plugs, did not.
In fact, it decided to maintain its speed for about 8 feet, at which point it hit the front of the bed of the Ranchero. It did this by rolling, yes, rolling to the front of the bed, where it sat, wounded and bleeding 25 year old dinosaur juice all over the bottom of the bed while I tried to swerve back into my lane so I didn’t end up squished between not one, but two VW engines (one from the red VW in front of me coming at me, and one from the wounded and bleeding engine behind me).
On top of it all, I was stunned, shocked, embarrassed, and furious at myself for not only not having thought this through, but for doing something so stupid in the first place, but there was nothing I could do but seethe as the person in front of me tootled along for the next 4 ½ miles, definitely below the speed limit.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but remember, I was operating under Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, and I knew that when we got to the next intersection, I’d be able to turn left, onto a multi-lane road, and I’d be able to pass him.
Which is exactly what I set out to do when we got there.
The light turned green, the slow driver ahead of me turned left and went into the outside lane. The rumble of the 390 in the Ranchero turned into a roar as I turned left, cut inside him, and floored it.
I heard all those cylinders firing, I heard the transmission whine, I heard those two exhausts roar, and I heard my 1956 VW Bug engine , its ability to travel completely lubricated now by all that ancient oil between it and the bed of the Ranchero, sliding, trying to make a hasty exit out the back.
I looked in the rear view mirror just in time to see it hit the closed tailgate and knock it open.
All I could imagine in that blink of an eye was the guy I’d just passed wondering why it hadn’t been enough for me to pass him like that, why he was now being passed by an old VW engine sliding down the road – without even a car attached to it.
I couldn’t let that happen, so with the image of the engine popping open both the top and bottom tailgates frozen in my mind, I remembered just enough of my physics, and did the only thing I could possibly do at the time.
I hit the brakes.
(Yes, those brakes)
Those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
Attached to a veritable plantation of rubber…
…and the engine (the VW one) came rolling back to the front of the bed, where it lay, like a prize fighter down for the count.
I pulled over.
I just couldn’t drive any further right then, with the back open and the engine sitting there all cattywompus, so I got out and checked the tailgate. It was fine. I shut it to see if it would, actually, shut, (it did) but one look at the engine, and it was a mess. The distributor cap was broken, the rotor inside the cap was broken, various important fan shroud pieces were now dented and mangled.
I opened the tailgate again and got up in the back, trying to keep myself from slipping or getting too oily in my clean uniform. I managed to manhandle the engine upright, (which is a challenge when you’re trying to keep your shoes and knees out of the oil on the ‘floor’ there – and an even harder challenge when you realize how very little room you have trying to stand up in the back of a Ranchero with a canopy on it). I pushed it all the way to the front of the bed, knowing that hitting the brakes would put it there anyway. That oil coating the bottom of the bed now really changed things a bit, so I had to be extra careful, and I still had to get to the Civil Air Patrol meeting, where I’d be teaching the cadets about all the exciting things they could learn about aviation, and how important lubrication was in allowing metal parts to move past each other… freely.
Remember, I was the commander, and I was supposed to look sharp, and be calm, cool, and collected.. Having a greasy uniform wasn’t an option, so after getting the engine all upright and everything, I wiped my hands on the only thing available (the ground) and drove, very, VERY carefully out to McChord, to train my cadets.
They learned a little, and I managed to get myself, the Ranchero, and the VW engine home safely.
But I think, as I look back, I learned more.
I learned that impatience can be expensive, and dangerous.
I learned that otherwise intelligent people can do stupid things.
And the cadets, who looked up to me both figuratively and literally, had absolutely no idea, as leaderly as I looked, how fully capable I was of doing stupid things that would boggle their minds, and in my impatient attempt to get there on time, how close I came to not getting there at all.