I did not need caffeine the other morning.
I got enough excitement just trying to drive my Saab, and in this day and age, driving isn’t enough.
I was multitasking.
I managed to:
- completely obviate the need for anything resembling caffeine that morning.
- simultaneously clean the left side of my engine,
- cool down a pesky hot exhaust manifold, with nice, cool gasoline
- and stop traffic in a spot where stopping traffic is the last thing you want to do.
See, I was driving my 1968 Saab up the hill on Boren Avenue in Seattle, which is two lanes up, two down, and the occasional intersection where people often decide they need to turn left with very little warning.
The hill’s steep enough to where you there’s very little wiggle room if something goes wrong. In fact, I generally blast up it in high second gear, the car won’t pull it as well in third, and when you’re blasting up the hill like that, you have a little better control if, for example, someone stops to make one of those left turns at one of the intersections in the middle of the hill.
It’s also beneficial to have a little extra speed so you don’t have to try to stop in the middle of the hill, because stopping means you have to start again – and if you happen to have a clutch that needs replacing (but you haven’t quite gotten to it yet), and, you discover, in a rather, um, ‘puckering’ moment that on this hill, while the brakes applied with the brake pedal will stop you fine, just the back brakes are out of adjustment just enough to mean that the parking brake will almost (but not quite) hold you. Especially on this hill. This one’s so steep that should you actually have to stop, you really need to have the brake hold the car while you do the two foot/three pedal dance as you shift your right foot from the brake to the gas while you let up on the clutch (which needs to be replaced, remember?) when you try to get moving again, because of course you don’t want to roll into the car behind you, nor do you want to stall your own car heading up a steep hill like this, because – well, trust me, that’s another story altogether. (yes, it’s written, no, it hasn’t been published, you’ll just have to wait for that one…).
So, you do what you can to avoid even getting into this situation, and you just try to get up the hill as fast as you can. That way, if you find yourself in the left lane, passing people, and someone actually does stop in the middle of the hill to turn left (or wait for someone else to), you can just whip around them into the right lane and accelerate even faster to keep the person who’s already blasting up the hill in the right lane from rear ending you.
Right, so second gear, floored, it is.
Now this car’s had some custom valve work done on it. It’s been ported a bit, has a two barrel carb instead of the standard one barrel, and has an MSS exhaust, so when I go up that hill, I go up, as I said, fast, and in control, and if I need to make any corrections of any kind, my goal is to make them with plenty of authority. That hill is simply not a place you want to stop – on purpose or by accident. There’s just so much traffic, and simply not enough room to get away if you do get stuck, or stopped, or both somehow.
Except for the other morning.
I was in the left lane that time, it was clear, no one was stopped at any of the intersections at the bottom of the hill, and I had a bit of a running start, so I was well into 2nd, around 4500 RPM, and because of the momentum and no one in front of me, was thinking of shifting to third when I simultaneously felt a tremendous loss of power, and an olfactory assault of gasoline like I’d never smelled in that or any other car.
Well, come to think of it, there was that time years ago when my boss thought it would be just fine to carry a 5 gallon plastic bucket – yes, bucket, with no lid, mind you – of gasoline in the company van to go rescue the other van that had run out. I did manage to keep him from lighting up one of his ever present cigarettes until we were done – but, that’s a different story altogether.
At any rate, back to the rapidly decelerating Saab going up Boren: in case it’s not obvious, this was not the most ideal time for this to transpire. I lost speed far faster than I’d expected to, and suddenly found myself in exactly the position I didn’t want to be in:
Precisely halfway up the hill with an engine that had quit and wouldn’t start. Time seemed to stand still as I put the four-ways on and frantically looked around to see if some other driver wouldn’t be able to avoid hitting me.
A couple of cars went by, and then I had a clear spot. (This is when I discovered that the parking brake wouldn’t hold.) I rolled back, hoping to get enough speed going backwards down the hill to try to do a J-turn backwards so I’d be heading back down and could find a place to put the car so I could get out and figure out what the problem was and fix it.
I came SO close to making that turn – but didn’t get up enough speed and ran out of room, finding myself backed straight up against the curb on the right side of the street, blocking off both uphill lanes of traffic pretty as you please. A guy in a van stopped and was watching me try to figure out what to do. With all the smell of gas, I thought it was flooded somehow, but acting like it was starved for fuel. Very weird, so I pulled the choke (shouldn’t have needed it, the engine was already warmed up – none of this was making sense yet, I was just operating on instinct – well, instinct and a few decades of experience).
Eventually I got it into first, turned the key, and moved forward far enough in gear on the starter to then steer left (downhill) and let gravity take over. It felt like it took forever, but as I think back on it, it must have taken only seconds, really.
The car started accelerating down the hill, but wouldn’t start at all, and as I coasted further down the hill, I put it in second and popped the clutch so I could try to at least get this coasting to turn the engine over – but that didn’t do anything. In fact, the only thing it did was make the smell of gas a LOT stronger.
And then I got stuck in traffic…
Truly, completely stuck. It seemed everyone ahead of me was trying to get onto I-5, off to my right, and I literally couldn’t move. I couldn’t move right (I was in the right lane, no shoulder, and a very high curb), I couldn’t move left (it was clogged), and I was on a bridge, but at least I was facing downhill, and if I could get in the left lane and make the light up ahead, I could coast into a parking lot just past the light and figure all this out.
By this time, with the car not moving and the breeze coming from the back a bit, the gas smell was fading, but I still didn’t understand what had happened, and wasn’t in a place where I could investigate it at all. Then, while I was pondering that and waiting for traffic to at least move, the left lane started crawling and one of the drivers pulled up beside me and said, “You’ve got a gas leak”
Well, that explained that…
“…and I can see it pouring out onto the street…”
I noticed he didn’t say “leaking” – he said “pouring”
About then the light up ahead turned green, but the lane I was in was still blocked by people trying to turn right, so, I, still on the bridge/hill, with a dead engine, coasted into the passing lane and passed a bunch of them, and yes, that was a weird feeling, silently accelerating a 1968 Saab past all those newer cars, making about as much noise as a Prius.‑‑
I popped the hood, got out, and looked at my watch, I had an appointment in a few minutes, I mean, that’s what I was doing in the first place, I don’t generally drive up that hill just for fun, and it was then that I finally felt more than just a bit of adrenaline as I could see what had happened. Something, as I looked into the engine compartment, just felt a little off – see if you can see it here:
It seems that at the 4500 RPM I was going as I was blasting up the hill, the brass fitting the fuel line coming out of the fuel pump let go. You can see the fuel filter in the top left of the frame. The hose going down to the right drapes over the fuel pump.
The hole you see at the bottom of the fuel pump is where the outgoing pipe on the fuel pump should be, and it’s not. That little hole is where all the gas the engine burns gets pumped through, and that black hose in the picture should be hooked up to. That meant that this was where the gas was spraying out from, which explained that gas smell. It was this fuel pump that was spraying 4500 RPM worth of raw gas onto the side of the engine compartment (cleaning it nicely, I might add) and at that speed, an awful lot of it went directly onto the hot exhaust manifold, (the rusty thing to the right). This, of course, cooled the manifold off very nicely, as if that might be a concern of mine (It wasn’t. At All). In fact, at the moment it let go, the engine had just a few seconds of gas left before it sucked the fuel filter dry and was sucking air, so that, in spite of the gas spraying around under the hood, made the whole thing a whole lot less dangerous.
(Less dangerous, like, it could only catch fire for a little bit… right
I still didn’t like the idea of gas outside the engine, but I took a look at the fitting that was supposed to be in the fuel pump. It was still attached to the hose pretty tightly, and since it didn’t look damaged in any way, I just jammed it back in to the pump, then tried to pull it out. It wouldn’t come out, so I figured I might be good if I was careful. (which reminds me of my grandmother’s saying to me, under totally different circumstances once, “Be good, and if you can’t be good, be careful.” – Ahh, but I digress. Bottom line, I felt the need to be both at that point).
The hood had been up for all the time it took me to figure all this out, and that aired everything out a bit, and by the time the picture above was taken, the heat had dried most everything off, so I just started the car, (you can see the starter under the exhaust manifold, I’m sure it got soaked too. I might be understating things a bit to say that I’m quite pleased that none of the sparks from the starter got close enough to the gasoline to – well, get acquainted – if you know what I mean.
This makes me wonder sometimes… I think, when it comes to Saabs, I must have a veritable Army of very tired, and some quite veteran, Guardian Angels in coveralls assigned to me.
I checked for leaks (there were none) and then very slowly, very carefully, drove to my appointment – totally bypassing that evil hill.
It was only when I saw the looks on the faces of the folks at my appointment as I explained and apologized for smelling like gas, and later at work that I realized that this was not a normal occurrence for folks.
Then again, I suppose having a car that’s within a few years of getting its own AARP membership isn’t all that normal either.
From the appointment, I gently drove it partway back down the evil hill, until I got into the remnants of the same traffic jam I’d just coasted through. I decided to drive around it. I left work early so I could go home and not risk rush hour traffic. Once home, I gave the car some time (okay, two days) to cool down before I set on fixing it.
So – that takes us to:
Part II – How did I fix this?
Well, to fix it, I knew I needed to fix it good, so after I got back from the appointment to the office, I called my wife and asked her to pick up some of my old Friend JB Weld, and only briefly explained to her what happened, and went to work. I knew that the fitting would stay in the pump at low RPM’s, because it had stayed during the gentle drive home, but it was the higher RPM’s that I was worried about.
Fast forward those few days to when I actually had a chance to work on the car with a cold engine. Now given that this is the first time in 33 years of driving Saabs that this has ever happened to me, I decided I was going to make sure that it would be at least another 33 years before it happened again.
So last Sunday morning, before church, I pulled the fuel line out, including the little brass fitting, and then pulled the fitting from the fuel line. Since I had a formerly full tank (I’d just filled up before this happened). I jammed a screwdriver bit into the end of the fuel line and tightened the hose clamp to keep it from spilling too much more while I worked on it.
I dried the fuel pump with a paper towel (some gas had spilled before I could get the little screwdriver bit in there, then grabbed a toothpick, the JB Weld, and mixed a little onto the card it came with, and then coated the brass fitting rather liberally with the mixed JB Weld.
I pushed it back into the fuel pump, and then gave it a few thwacks with the set of Vice Grips I’d used to get it out,and then let it set for the appropriate amount of time…
It ended up looking like this…
And then I put the hose and everything back together – right as the sun came out – (so we have shadows in the next shot)
I started it up this afternoon, no leaks, so that’s good.
I’ll see about driving it to work to see how well the seal holds, but if you notice smoke coming from the Seattle area, that’s probably me.
Oh, I was able to clean up and smell just a *little* less like gasoline in church. I mean, smelling like gas during a rare fire and brimstone sermon could have some unintended consequences, and I had no desire to become an object lesson.
What’s weird is my mind had been chewing on the “what if’s” of what “could have happened” and wouldn’t let go, and honestly, it took awhile to get past that. Really, just the whole idea of smelling gas (like rear-ending a tanker full of it), then hearing this “WHOOMP!” as it all caught followed by a blast of smoke and flame shooting out the front, and the paint bubbling on the hood (which didn’t happen, but this image, and the rest of them played out every night in my dreams for the next few weeks.)
It would have been enough for any adrenaline junkie.
Come to think of it, maybe I’ll stick to coffee after all…