By Mark Misercola
You probably didn’t realize it when you closed the deal, but the moment you took delivery on your classic you automatically qualified for membership in the Traumatic Roadside Experience (TRE) Club. The good news is there’s no entry fee. All you have to do is endure a UASB (an unexpected and sudden breakdown) and live to talk a lot about it. Every classic owner has had them. Long-time veterans of the "Classic Car Wars" will tell you it comes with the territory.
Truth be told, half the fun of going to weekend cruises and car shows is swapping tales of how your pride and joy left you left high and dry late at night on a dark road in the middle of a five-lane highway, or on the top-level of the George Washington Bridge in the middle of a traffic jam.
A good friend who has logged a lot more miles on his classic than me likes to say: “That’s what AAA is for. You pull over to the side of the road, call for assistance and bite the bullet.” I remember his advice whenever I start hyperventilating about life in the breakdown lane. I’m the kind of owner who sweats the details. I have reoccurring nightmares about a car I don’t own anymore breaking down in a scary neighborhood I’ve never been to. There’s no happy ending because I literally can’t drive off into the sunset.
I’d like to think I’m getting better about over-reacting to breakdowns, if only because I’ve been through more than a few traumatic roadside experiences over the past decade with all of my cars. But I still don’t sleep well the night before an extended drive because of what might be lurking out there on a road far, far away from the safety and comfort of my garage.
Fearing the Unknown
What is it I fear most? Star Trek’s Captain Kirk nailed it best when he said, “The greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” And he was exactly right. My biggest fear is the unknown; that hidden part lurking under the hood or chassis waiting to fail when I least expect it. Of course, Kirk had Scotty on board the Enterprise for repairs. I don’t. So fear of the unknown is a constant companion on my cruises.
The flip side to that is I do have more than a few war stories to tell and some are real head-scratchers! Here, in abbreviated form, is a highlight reel of my best-of-the-worst Classic Car War stories, compiled first-hand, directly from the front.
- Tranny Overboard: On the way home from the biggest car show in the state, the transmission on my convertible decided to give way in the middle of Interstate 84. I stepped on the gas, the engine roared, and the car slowed to a crawl. Fortunately, I was able to coast from the middle of the highway to the breakdown lane without hitting anyone. Then for the next 45 minutes my daughter and I waited for the flatbed in what felt like a ring-side seat at the Indy 500. I went home, kicked myself for not anticipating that the transmission might need an overhaul, bit the bullet and had it rebuilt. The embarrassment lingered only until I got the bill.
- Smoking Steering Column: In a futile-yet-determined effort to undo the damage of 30 years of sitting in a garage, I listened to my soon-to-be former mechanic who encouraged me to put some mileage on my ‘66 Toronado and free up what I later learned were two bent push rods. “Do it,” he said. “That’s the only way to free up stuck valves or lifters and it’s a lot better than cracking open the engine and rebuilding it.” The car was actually running pretty well at highway speeds that day, but about 25 miles from home white smoke started billowing up through the steering column and directly into my face on an older highway with no breakdown lane. What’s worse, it smelled like an electrical fire. I freaked. This turned out to be a good thing because without realizing it I eased up on the accelerator and the cabin smoke backed off enough that I could limp home without a gas mask. Fortunately, there was no fire, just blow-by coming in from the engine bay and up through the steering column. So I bit the bullet and decided then and there to rebuild the engine. No more smoking steering columns, but it was a classic Twilight Zone experience nonetheless.
- Parade Rest: Just before Memorial Day and only a few short weeks after taking delivery on my convertible, the first in a long line of faulty fuel pumps gave way. My kids were disappointed because a call went out at school the week before for convertibles to ferry local dignitaries in the town parade. I told the kids the car wasn’t ready. But a friend came by the day before and helped me replace the leaky fuel pump. “Now you’re all set,” he said. “You can take the car in the parade tomorrow and the kids will be happy.”
I still don’t know why I agreed to do it. The weather was hot, the top was down, and I wasn’t convinced the car was reliable. But the kids really want to be in the parade, and I couldn’t say no. Thirty minutes into the route the “hot” warning light on the dashboard lit up. Then the radiator started overheating and I wasn’t far behind. Fortunately, I was able to pull the car onto a side street. We waited for the parade to end and (you guessed it) I called AAA to bring the car home. The radiator has since been re-cored and performed flawlessly. But since that day, the only parades I consider watching are on TV.
- Generator X’d: On a trip to Stowe, Vermont, (the first extended journey in my convertible) to a regional Antique Automobile Club of America show, the generator on my convertible died. I was shocked when the red “generator” light flashed on the dashboard because just a few months earlier it had been overhauled and the electrical system was performing just fine. As with the parade, I had the whole family with me, and this time they were convinced the car was cursed. Since we were too far from home to turn back, we forged ahead, running on battery power and clenched fists. When we arrived in Stowe the battery died.
Repairing the generator on short notice in a resort town wasn’t an option. So I bought a charger and nursed it through the show. The convertible earned its first Junior badge from AACA that weekend, so the trip was worth it. But there was the 270 mile trek back with the “generator” warning light still on and the battery draining by the mile. I never turned the car off because I was afraid it wouldn’t re-start. Then after more than four hours on the road the engine shut down at a stop light less than a mile from the house. I was barely able to re-start the car and made it back to the driveway before the engine gasped again and the battery died for good. To this day, I travel with a backup generator in the trunk.
- A Really Bad Leak: My all-time favorite war story involved my first Cadillac – a 1978 Eldorado Biarritz. It was the last of the big Cadillacs that I picked up at the height of the ’79 gas crisis because I was convinced it had “future classic” written all over it. With less than 25,000 miles on the odometer, the radiator started leaking. I took it to a local radiator shop that had a decent reputation and a very catchy slogan – “the best place in town to take a leak” (honest!).
A few days and $300 later, I was back on the New York State Thruway heading for home. But then the car became possessed. The interior lights started flashing on and off, the power door locks jumped up and down, and the engine finally shuddered and died. I coasted down the nearest off-ramp to a dead standstill, locked in my car with the windows shut and no power. What I didn’t know at the time was the main electrical harness under the hood was on fire. Fortunately, the flames burned through one of the heater hoses and the radiator fluid extinguished the fire.
As it turned out, the mechanic who worked on the car left his wrench on top of my starter. It shorted out the Caddy’s electrical system and touched off the fire. The radiator shop to its credit paid for the repair. But it took more than a month to get a replacement harness from GM’s Midwest warehouse to my local Cadillac dealer in Buffalo, and when it was over I was fried in more ways than one.
It’s been awhile since my latest UASB and, to be honest, I haven’t missed them. But no matter how well my cars are running now, I’m always wary that the next one is just lurking around the corner. I take solace in knowing that someday when I am sitting by the fireside with my grandson on my knee and he asks, “What did you do during the great Classic Car Wars?” I won’t be at a loss for words.
Mark Misercola is a writer, author and classic car enthusiast from Trumbull, CT. He started his career as a journalist covering the automobile industry for the Buffalo, N.Y. Courier-Express. He grew up in an Oldsmobile family and today owns two 1960 Oldsmobiles and a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. He is the co-author of “Great Grilles of the ‘50s,” a coffee table book from M.T. Publishing. And his bucket list includes a 1955 Oldsmobile.
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