Auto-Biography: I’ll Be Home For Christmas

(first posted 12/24/2011)    Santa came early in 1972. My older brother had taken a civilian job on a military radar base at Thule, Greenland. Out of the blue, he gave me his 1963 Corvair Monza, a white four door with the higher-output engine and four speed stick; my very first set of wheels. Instead of bracing myself for the thousand mile-long hitchhike from Iowa to Baltimore in freezing weather, I would be driving home for Christmas in comfort. But there was a catch: Santa had deputized me: I had a “present” to deliver, and deliver I would, come hell, exploding flywheel, or high snow.

My brother was going to be flying in from Greenland to Baltimore for the Christmas holiday. To repay him for the gifted Corvair, I promised to give his long-suffering girlfriend a ride to the Niedermeyer family home from Iowa City. Visions of a smooth journey and a joyous reunion danced in my head.

I may have been a walking automotive encyclopedia, but my actual hands-on experience so far was limited mostly to oil changes and basic maintenance. I’d only had the Corvair for two months. My most ambitious wrenching to date: pulling the cylinder head off the lawn mower years earlier. And it never ran quite the same again. Like so many first-time male car owners of my age, I was brimming with mechanical enthusiasm and imagining all kinds of improvements. But now it was the dead of winter in Iowa and I had no garage. I was just thankful it ran.

Just a few days before the big trip, an ominous metallic clattering arose from the depths of the Corvair’s engine compartment. It would change its timbre somewhat when I depressed the clutch pedal. The problem clearly originated in the bell housing.

I weighed all the symptoms, scratched my hairy head, and declared a diagnosis: a bad clutch throw-out bearing. I mostly knew it wasn’t the sound they normally make when they die, but I was stumped for an alternative theory. And forget about getting a second opinion. Nineteen year- olds are unassailable experts at everything unless or until proven otherwise, which they usually are all too soon.

I had heard about a co-op garage, where shade tree mechanics could rent semi-warm floor space by the day. I bought a new throw-out bearing and drove a couple of miles south of town on Hwy 1, where I found a few hippies attending to their VW buses, planing their escapes from the frozen wastelands to Taos or someplace warmer. There was a heady melange of wood smoke, oil, grease, gasoline and pot in the air. That helped raised my confidence level substantially.

My tool inventory consisted of a box of cheap wrenches and such, and a scissors jack. Normally, the 250lb engine would be lowered on a cradle with the car on a lift. My improvised solution: unhook everything, take the rear wheels off, lower the body with the scissors jack (one side at a time) until the engine rested on a big timber, wiggle and slide the engine back a bit off the input shaft, jack the body up, and then slide the engine out, sitting on the timber. Necessity is the mother of improvisation.

The only help I got was from John Mayall: Man’s a filthy creature… Yes indeed, I was truly filthy one at this point. His album “USA Union” was the only grease-stained record out there, and it played over and over on auto-repeat all day. Hearing it now instantly brings back every detail of that Corvair engine-dropping mis-adventure.

Miraculously, everything went back together, although just how exactly I lined up the engine to slide it back on the input shaft with it sitting on that timber is beyond me now. And it fired right up – still with the clanging! Argh!! I was totally devastated. I broke the bad news to “the present” and my family. It was now December 21. I could still hitchhike out alone, but I wasn’t really up for it now. But they kept the faith.

I needed divine intervention. The next afternoon on the way to the store, I happened to see a Corvair sitting outside a small machine shop. A sign! I entered the machine-oil scented place, and related my sad story to the elderly white-haired proprietor. With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that the rivets in two-piece Corvair flywheels come loose and cause that sound. “I can fix it for you for $10 bucks. Just bring it to me”.

I drove back to John Mayall’s blues and the co-op garage. Engine removal Take Two: by the time I finally got the flywheel out, it was 1AM and about one degree outside, maybe below zero. I’ll never forget that five-mile walk along the crunchy frozen shoulder of Hwy 1 back into town, under a starry sky, carrying that heavy flywheel. A wise(r) man bearing his heavy gift.

The next day was the twenty-second. I got the flywheel re-riveted, and someone gave me a ride out with it, and I put it all together again – a lot more quickly the second time ‘round. I drove it home, reveling in its quiet purring. I fell exhausted into bed that night, anticipating the next day’s one thousand mile drive. But deep in my heavy youthful slumber, I suddenly bolted awake (hooves on the roof?). It was 3AM. I looked out the window, and snow was coming down so thick, I could hardly see the street light. And there was already some five to six inches on the ground!

Blizzards always blew in from the west. I decided to go for it. I’d try and outrun it; it was now or never. I awoke “the present” sleeping on the couch, we quickly threw our stuff together, and hopped in the white Monza. With its rear-engined traction, the Corvair cut the only set of tracks through Iowa City at that hour.

I-80 was deserted; we were the only drivers foolhardy enough to be out there. But I’d practiced well for this, and I had the right car for the job. I relished the challenge; I’ve always loved driving in the most difficult conditions. I slowly worked up my confidence and speed, to about forty, hoping the storm wasn’t moving faster than us. As we approached the Mississippi, the snow on the mostly un-plowed interstate started to thin. Once well into Illinois, we outran the storm altogether. My brother’s present and I shared a relieved smile in the dim winter’s dawn: We’d be home for Christmas.