CC Detroit Roadtrip: Getting There is Half the Fun, and Most of the Trouble

The Detroit CC Gathering was a resounding success; what happened at the actual event will be discussed elsewhere here shortly, so let’s have a talk about my journey there. This may be instructive or even cautionary if you don’t have your own antique auto.

My home is near Toronto, about 200 miles from Detroit. Since Paul announced this event in April I’d decided I was definitely attending with my 1963 VW which at that time still lacked an engine. I’d planned to drive down Friday afternoon, stay with friends in Windsor, meet up with the group for breakfast in Dearborn Saturday morning and head home Sunday afternoon. Here’s the car on Thursday evening:

You may notice that several crucial engine parts are still missing, there had been a growling noise which seemed to be coming from the alternator, so I replaced it at the last minute.

A bird pooped on my new alternator as I was installing it, which did not seem like a good sign.

After driving around the block to confirm that the new alternator was charging, and that the mystery growling noise was unchanged (sigh) I headed off towards Windsor.

The first age related issue occurred not with the car, but with the driver’s eyes. I had paper maps for navigation, which I could not see without my reading glasses. It was also a bright sunny day, requiring sunglasses.

I solved this problem by very suavely wearing both pairs at the same time. No wonder Mrs DougD didn’t want to come along.

Here I am passing something!

Vehicles I could pass were limited to farm and construction equipment, I got passed by pretty much everything else. I chose my route to include only two lane minor highways, which took a lot longer, but was more suited to an old VW that cruised comfortably at 55mph.

The Beetle has left me stranded before by vapor locking the fuel pump in hot weather, so I decided to take a pit stop in my old home town of Blenheim and let the engine cool down before approaching the pumps. I left the VW in front of the parking lot where my rented house once stood, and took a solitary stroll down the main street.

Like a lot of small rural towns Blenheim is struggling, but seems to be holding it’s own. On my return I found a four inch pool of oil spreading under the VW’s transaxle. I went to fill the gas tank as the oil continued to drip enthusiastically, and I ran the calculation in my head as I pumped: There was three liters of oil in there, if it’s been dripping that fast for 4 hours and I have one hour to go it’s not going to be enough.

Ultimately I decided that I would take my chances, seeing as my former house was gone I would not be spending the night there. I was pretty anxious for the next hour, old cars always make a lot of strange noises when you are listening hard but I clattered into Windsor just before 7pm and immediately stuck a garbage can lid under the VW to avoid soiling my hosts’ clean driveway.

Marcus and Catherine took me out for an Ethiopian dinner. I had no experience with this, Ethiopia being more famous for lack of food than tasty cuisine. It’s a bit like Indian, except there’s no utensils and you tear off a piece of pancake and use that to pick the various substances up. Delicious.

Afterwards we went for a walk along the riverfront, literally my old student stomping grounds.

7am Saturday and I’m setting valve lash waiting for Canadian Tire to open.  Marcus made me coffee and Catherine lent me her yoga mat.

As I suspected the source of the leak was one of the rubber swing axle boots, which I had considered replacing while the engine was out but didn’t do (sigh).  Since the amount of oil that had leaked overnight was measured in tablespoons I decided that plan A was to top up the transaxle oil and continue.  Although the front of the VW was packed with tools and supplies, one thing I didn’t bring was the 17mm male hex socket to undo the oil fill hole in the transaxle.

After feeding me breakfast Marcus brought me to Canadian Tire in his new Ford Escape, which I noticed doesn’t leak oil or make noises either mysterious or clattery.  I had to buy a complete set of both SAE and Metric male hex sockets to get the one I wanted, but at least it was on sale.  Back at the house I struggled to get in a position where I could reach the fill plug.  I had resolved not to touch the axle boot for fear of making it worse, but when I reached over the axle my hand brushed the gear clamp securing the boot, and it moved.  I gently pulled on the clamp and it came right off, it had snapped on the back side and was no longer securing the boot.

After another trip to the hardware store I assembled four small narrow gear clamps into one big narrow gear clamp, and put that back on the boot.

Marcus came along for the test drive and we pronounced the leak cured, although setting the valve lash hadn’t reduced the clatter much.  I said goodbye to my helpful and gracious hosts and headed over the Ambassador Bridge to the USA.

The interrogation before entering seemed to be taking about 10 minutes per car, so when I rolled up to the booth I was pleasantly surprised at my interaction, which went something like this:

“Where are you going?”

“To the Henry Ford Museum to look at old cars”

“How does that thing not overheat?”

“I don’t know, I’m just happy I made it this far”

“Go ahead, you should have clear sailing”

On the I-94 to Dearborn I discovered that the VW was not fond of rough concrete highways or of trying to go 65mph.  I was extremely relieved to make it to the Hampton Inn, and even more relieved to find that Ed Stembridge had come to retrieve me to meet the group for lunch.

Ed’s new Chevrolet SS is also discussed elsewhere, but suffice to say it is completely unlike the VW in every way, and I was quite grateful to be chauffeured around in it for the rest of the day.

And that is how I arrived at the Detroit CC meetup, providentially delivered from the hands of one set of friends into the hands of another.

The return journey was relatively uneventful, aside from a 20 minute delay caused by vapor locking the fuel pump after a gas stop.  Did you know that you can drive exactly one mile on the gas in a VW carburetor before it runs dry?  While I was waiting I was ignominiously passed by an Amish horse drawn carriage.

Luckily the approaching thunder storm sent some gusts to cool the engine, and I got my own back when I re-passed the horse and buggy down the road.  You have to take your victories where you can find them.

I don’t think I’ll ever do that trip again, no need to drive a classic to a future CC meetup unless there’s one in Buffalo NY which is much closer to my home.  Maybe I need a second old car, one with a V8 and and overdrive transmission so I can cruise the highway with ease…

At any rate it sure was an interesting weekend, both for the actual event and for the getting there.  I was encouraged by the number of offers for assistance I received when I was in trouble, and the amount of teasing I received once I was out of trouble.  I sure do have great friends, both my “imaginary internet” friends and my “real” friends, whatever that means.  Thank you all.

Fittingly, this was a display at the Henry Ford Museum