"Holy Toledo"

in Blog
Last Updated: 15 December 2020

My younger brother Mike had grown up to become a true car guy. Shunning the conveniences and boredom of driving a new car, he instead gravitated towards building his own rides. Some people found the dichotomy quite odd, as he was a certified A-mechanic at a Porsche dealership, yet drove to work in a primer grey ’55 Nomad wagon or on a Shovelhead chopper. You’ve possibly seen this type of character portrayed in the movies; one who looks totally out of place in his environment yet functions with an ethereal calmness while surrounded by the calamities of daily life.

The Colorado Connection

Road Trip

At the Airport

Through the Heartland

Squeak-Monkey Revealed

Find A Way to Get Help 

Almost Home

To set up the sweetness of the deal that I will lay out for you later, let me describe the car that Mike chose to drive on a daily basis. The ’55 Nomad in question came into my life around 1975 when my best friend Tom bought it from a fellow in a neighboring town. Like all the cars we bought back then (and some now), the Nomad didn’t run or move under its own power, it was a derelict, a cast-off of society for which it had once served a purpose. Now it was worth more as scrap metal to the junkman than it was as a used car to someone needing reliable transportation. Tom was not your typical used car buyer and he saw something perversely attractive in that brown carcass with what looked to be a handlebar mustache on its hood crown (actually white pin striping that was in vogue back then). I remember the car being called the “Gravy Train”, and maybe that’s why it was painted Alpo brown, but as far as I know the car wasn’t lettered with this name as many cars of the era were.

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With more expertise than would be expected of a teenager, Tom built the car up, driving it through high school and beyond, street racing it and proving its worth along with his mechanical ability and flair for making used auto parts work better than new ones. There’s a problem most car guys share when they’re working on cars like this, and its called workspace. Inevitably the car is going to be laid up for periods of time for repair, and Tom’s dilemma was that his mother wouldn’t let him keep the car at home if it wasn’t able to be moved in and out of the driveway under its own power. That’s a significant problem for a guy who relies on his wheels but his wheels are not always reliable. Because of this, Tom’s Nomad spent just as much, if not more time in my backyard as it did in his. This is the essence of how three people, Tom, myself, and my younger brother Mike, grew up fixated by the same old car.

Time passed and somewhere around 1981 Mike took possession of Tom’s Nomad. I liken this torch passing to the movie Christine, where a teen buys a derelict car and sees it not as a hollow hulk, but as an object of desire and beauty to be preserved and used as its maker had intended. The difference between the movie and this relationship is that there was no mysticism or occult intervention at play, Mike had to install every bolt into every part he needed on the car himself to make it into the car he envisioned. The hard work paid off when his ability as a mechanic bore fruit and he was able to use the car as daily transportation. The Gravy Train prowled the streets of Nassau County NY once again, and Mike ensured that it saw just as much high performance street use as Tom ever had.

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Owning a car like this is a unique experience, and one that not every driver understands or gets to be a part of. Whether your car is a beater, a Rat Rod, Hot Rod, or a racecar, you’re always reminded of what it would look like if it was in stock form at every car show and cruise night you attend. Unless you’re totally hardcore into a genre of car, the stockers will somehow appeal to you, if not for their reliability, for their completeness.

The Colorado Connection

In the summer of 1985 Mike and his girlfriend Maria had flown to Colorado to spend a vacation with our sister Cindy, and on their first day there while driving past a tire shop, Mike yelled for Cindy to stop her van. Afraid that something might be amiss she complied, and was a little chagrinned to find that he wanted to check out a used car that was on the tire shop lot. This wasn’t just any car though; it was a 1955 Nomad that appeared to be complete and mostly stock except for the full house of Rocket mag wheels it sported. As Cindy learned that day, true car guys never take a textbook relaxing vacation.

Probably before it came to a stop, Mike jumped from the van and approached the Nomad with the enthusiasm one feels when rooting for their team during a World Series or a Super Bowl. What he saw was the antithesis of his car back home; this one was white, had gleaming chrome bumpers, a turquoise and white leather interior, full turquoise carpeting, and an unmolested dashboard. The driver back home was primer black, had no front bumper and a rusty one on the rear, the interior was devoid of carpet, and sported minimalist black vinyl seats. The dash had the required gauge mounting holes that most street warriors had back in the ‘70’s. A more vivid contrast could not be found, and as earlier stated, Mike was drawn to the completeness of this car like a tourist to a gruesome accident scene.

03 NomadWhite

The seller was a 20 year old tire jock who had inherited the car from his recently departed father. Not being inclined to cruise Colfax Avenue in an old car, he was intent on selling it to fund his own version of automotive happiness. A deal was struck, a deposit was left, and Mike couldn’t get back home fast enough to secure the balance of the funds needed to take ownership of the Nomad. There were only a few small details to overcome, one of which was the fact that they had only arrived in Colorado the day before, and Maria was looking forward to a well deserved vacation in that beautiful mountainous state. The only person more eager to leave a state earlier than Mike would have to be a repeat offender who had just robbed the local Sac-O-Suds.

Road Trip

Once back home Mike got his bank loan and the ability for me to write this story in the future was sealed. You see, it was me who Mike asked to help him complete the next and most important phase of the transaction. No, we weren’t going to tow the car 2,000 miles home to New York, the plan was for us to fly there one way, then drive it back! Mind you, this was a virtually unknown car to us both, and besides a glossy picture of it sitting majestically in front of the tire shop, along with the young owners emphatic assurance that his father kept meticulous care of his cars, there was nothing solid we could rely on to ease our fears that the trip home would be uneventful. Luckily we were car guys with enough combined ability and knowledge to get out of most any mishap on the road…or could we?

The sidebar story at this point is that I almost never turn down the chance to take a road trip with someone I like. Ok, even if I don’t particularly like you a lot I still might tag along if the outcome holds some interest to me, even if it means seeing the worlds largest ball of twine, a big rock that looks like a bear, or a bear that looks like a big rock. You get the idea. The fact that I was going to make this trip with one of the few people in my life at the time who I would have done just about anything for, and who held me in similar esteem, had me very anxious to get started despite the odds that were stacked against us.

We hatched a devilishly simple plan to accomplish our goal; secure the purchase of the car and get it to our sister’s house, fly out to Colorado on Thursday with whatever we think we need for a trip of this nature, drive non-stop and be back home by Monday, then enjoy the newest member of the growing fleet. It plays out real simple when it’s written, but how many potential places for disaster have you already thought of? Read on as there may be some that you didn’t think of.

Mike wired the purchase funds to Cindy, who in turn paid for the car and arranged for the owner to deliver it to her house with a tank of gas and fully inflated tires. The previous owner also agreed to put the car up on his shop lift and give it a good once-over to either detect any areas that would need our attention before the road trip, or give it a clean bill of health. This behavior, much to our surprise, taught us just how accommodating people from Colorado can be, and this wasn’t the last time during this adventure we would be graced with the benevolence of strangers. We hadn’t yet stepped foot in the Rocky Mountain state and our fate was already sealed.

In retrospect, our choice of luggage was quite comical and probably just as impossible in this post 9-11 world we live in. Mike and I each brought a carry-on bag with the customary clothes, personal items, AAA Trip-Ticket maps, credit cards and cash that one would need for such a trip. That’s where convention went out the window, as we also brought a C.B. radio with magnetic antenna, flashlights with spare batteries (I learned from flat towing my GTO that you always need light on the road), and a metal box that weighted approximately 50 pounds. What’s with the box you wonder? It was a silver Craftsman carryall tool box crammed with everything I could jam into it. If it resembled a tool it went in that box. I was vexed at not having a way to transport a floor jack and stands, but don’t think for a minute that I didn’t give it thought. The toolbox was checked in as it was too large and heavy to go as carry-on. Try doing that in today’s traveling climate.

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Any car guy reading this will see the practicality in our choice of luggage and can probably suggest specific contents that we should have brought along, but I’ll foreshadow the punch line here when I say that nothing we could have put in that box would have prevented the life-altering experience we had in that car given the information we possessed.

At the Airport

This is all sounding pretty serious so let me get to the comical part (it was to us anyway). As we stood around the luggage carousel in Denver airport we watched happy families spy their bags as they traversed the moving conveyor sliding down the ramp like a child on a slide in a neighborhood park, then make the loop until they were picked up by their owner. We must have been looking at such a happy family when our box made the plunge off the top of the hill and slammed into the metal retaining wall at the end of the slide with a bang that sounded like a small explosion. Wrenches clanked, ratchets and sockets clunked, the 24 ounce ball peen hammer made a dent in the box, and the rest of the contents played a concerto that rivaled Spike Jones and his orchestra on a bad LSD trip. People jumped, mothers clutched children, men took defensive stances, and women gasped. All turned their gaze toward the carousel to see what the source of the abominable noise was, and who would take responsibility for it. Feeling much like Jake and Eliot Blues (The Blues Brothers), Mike and I coolly strode over to a section of the conveyor clear of people and retrieved our luggage. As we walked away all that could be heard was the master lock clinking against the outside of the freshly dented metal box. Toolbox full of blues.

We enjoyed a great mini-reunion with Cindy and her kids, went out to a terrific Mexican diner at Casa Bonita (still on W. Colfax and Pierce), and were even able to give the car a once over before turning in for the night. Why is it that these perfunctory check-ups almost never reveal the ultimate cause of impeding disaster?

05 WhiteNomadwithCindy'sKid

The following morning found the house buzzing with excitement and energy. Cindy was cooking breakfast and preparing food for us to take along so we could eat in the car and keep to our breakneck schedule, the kids were playing and basically keeping themselves underfoot of their two weird uncles who were determined to mount and wire the C.B. radio and check every inch of that Nomad possible before setting out on an Easterly course for the salty air of their home turf in Nassau County, New York. This seems like a good time to mention that in 1985 (the year this trip took place), this 1955 Nomad was already thirty years old, and with most things its age, no certainty could be placed on any part of it failing or not. You basically check everything you can and hope for the best after that. Sounded like a good enough plan for us. Yikes!! We loaded the toolbox into the car last so it would be the first thing we’d be able to grab if a repair was needed, and the contents of that damn box started clanking as soon as we left the driveway of Cindy’s house.

Mike took the maiden leg of the trip and it was interesting to see how our brilliant plan changed once underway. We had agreed to drive in twelve-hour shifts stopping only for gas. Once stopped the driver would hit the bathroom and stretch while the navigator would gas the car and give it a look over for signs of trouble, fluid loss and tire pressure, after which time it would be his turn to hit the head then pay for the gas. Twelve hour shifts behind the (rather large and vague feeling) wheel of a thirty-year-old Chevy-right! Ok, so we amended the plan to have the drivers switch positions at each gas stop which were just about 250 miles and four hours apart. It always pays to be open to a new plan-if only for the sake of your aching butt!

By the third gas stop the car had used more than a quart of oil, this was a trend that would worsen as we drove on across the nation’s mid-section, and would eventually develop into a two quart per 200-mile habit. It seems the vintage 265 cubic inch engine in the Chevy was developing a drinking problem and there was nothing we could do about it (we couldn’t even drink with it as we didn’t have any Jack Daniels with us-just kidding, we were more responsible than that-but not by much). This condition presented itself as an indicator that any car guy would recognize as a potential devastating problem, and although we each noted it, I don’t think we ever said a word to each other about it for fear of jinxing the engine into catastrophic failure. The only time we openly addressed it was when we bought a case of cheap oil at one of the many gas stops we made. It should be noted that the trend of not mentioning an obvious condition would come back to haunt us later in the trip, but like the oil burning that was no doubt caused by a serious internal engine condition, the next problem would have been fixable if we had only taken the time to do so-but we didn’t. After all, we had a self-imposed deadline to meet and as we grew wearier that deadline loomed like a harbinger over the Nomad’s flying bird hood ornament. Since then I have often reflected how great it is to have been young and stupid, ignoring all but the most deadly of warnings…most of the time.

06 NomadInterior

Through the Heartland

Fueled on caffeine, soda, and Hostess cupcakes from the gas station, along with fruit and sandwiches from the coolers Cindy had packed for us, we cruised through the heartland as day turned into night and back again. Somewhere in Indiana we heard a loud thump travel down the floorpan from front to rear and when we pulled over to investigate we found a three foot long piece of 3/8” diameter re-bar impaled through the left rear wheelwell. Again, without conversation and probably in a sugar induced haze, we each knew how bad the outcome of this little event could have been. Broken suspension components, severed fuel and brake lines, and even a skewered oil pan could have all been the results of such a road hazard. We removed the bent piece of metal and resisted the thought of saving it for posterity; instead it became more roadside debris for the state highway department to remove. Hell, it wasn’t ours in the first place so why should we keep it? The murky haze of uninterrupted driving began to shroud us as we continued into the bleak abyss of I-80 East, besides, it was time for another gas and oil break. Right about now the real fun was about to manifest itself in the form of a simple little noise, but not until we got to survey the car under the phosphorous glow of some late night gas station lighting.

The rear bumper scraping the driveway apron was our first indicator that something was wrong. Hearing this as we entered the gas station and knowing that we weren’t loaded heavy enough to cause the scrape meant we had to investigate. We’d been in and out of many such driveways since we left Colorado, so there had to be another reason for the audible metallic warning. Of course there was, a quick roll under the car indicated that the re-bar hadn’t pierced or crushed the plastic air shock pressure line as one would expect, it caused it to hit the hot exhaust pipe and burn through. Nothing is ever easy on a road trip, and we already knew we didn’t have a spare line in the clanking Craftsman toolbox to affect a repair.

After gassing up the car and adding oil I followed my instinct and went around the side of the station to investigate a light pattern that I knew to be of the incandescent variety. To my surprise I found a three-car repair shop with all the bay doors open and a fellow working on a ’66 GTO on the first lift. The warm glow of the lights pouring out of the doors was the source of the pattern and not an alien invasion or a clever ruse for a roving gang attack as I had feared (do you think I’ve had too much sugar and not enough sleep yet?) I approached the Goat-wrencher and commented on how nice his car looked, why would I get right to the point after all? Once the needed pleasantries were dispensed of and each of us was confident the other wasn’t going to rob them I explained our situation and asked if I could pull the car around to get a better look at it in the light. He graciously offered to let me put the car up on a lift (a true godsend), and we actually had to use a floor jack to boost the rear end up high enough to clear the lift pads. True car guys can tell when they’re in the company of others that equal them, and we made the grade with this guy. Sensing our predicament and our goal of trans-state travel, he offered us the use of his tools. Once we explained what the problem was he gave us the bad news that he didn’t have any spare air line to replace our melted one. Further inspection revealed that there wasn’t enough slack in the line to cut the bad section out and re-attach the line to the shock-damn.

Our new friend took it upon himself to make a phone call and informed us that there was a late-night auto parts store still open that had what we needed, and once he finished the oil change on his Goat he’d take us there himself. Things were looking up for us, and while Mike stayed behind to remove the old line I slid into the Pontiac and breathed in the heady aroma of Morrokide seat covers. Our host slid behind the wheel and we rocketed out of the lot in a power-shifting, burnout induced blast on our way to the equivalent of automotive heaven, a late-night backwoods parts store.

In a blazing haze of radial tire smoke we returned to the Amoco station with the needed parts to find Mike using the benefit of the lift to inspect the car from the bottom side. Confident that there were no gremlins lurking there (or Pacers for that matter), we installed and pressurized the air line, then watched the rear end gloriously raise up. With the car again on the ground, the tools cleaned and put away, and our hands washed, our host offered us each an ice cold bottle of beer that we were too tired to refuse. If we weren’t expected to be back at work on Monday we both would have taken him up on his offer to show us the local street scene and do some bar hopping, but the thought of loosing a night of road time compelled us to pass on his offer and hit the Interstate once again. Somewhere in car heaven there’s an extra slice of raisin pie waiting for this true car guy-thanks again whoever you are.

The aforementioned little noise I mentioned occurred when we started rolling away from the shop, and it seemed to be emanating from the rear of the car somewhere. It was just a little squeaking noise, not too loud and not too deep, it was just enough for both of us to take notice and (of course), not say anything about it. Besides, it went right away as soon as the car reached 10 mph and didn’t return, so who were we to argue?  More tedious, oil burning miles passed under the white letter tires of the Nomad and we found ourselves entering Ohio on Sunday morning only to be greeted by the blast of a late spring sunrise diffracting off the road hazed safety glass of the 30 year old curved windshield. We were close enough to home to feel somewhat safe, yet far enough away to know you’re never safe until you’re in your own driveway (almost). With each stop we made the previous night followed by the morning gas fill-ups the little squeaking noise continued on start up then went away again. I knew Mike had inspected the car at the Amoco station and he would have said something if he saw a problem (wouldn’t he?), and I also knew that any number of the items in the back of the aged Nomad, as well as the body parts themselves could account for a rogue noise like the one we were hearing, so again we dismissed it as something akin to an annoying wind noise. Smart eh?

Early afternoon found us just outside of Toledo at a huge rest stop marking the meeting of I-80 and the Ohio Turnpike. We afforded ourselves the liberty of washing as much of our grimy bodies as we could in the bathroom sinks, then eating lunch at a table like humans before we called home and reported our trip progress. We estimated that the remaining 600 miles would be covered by late that night, and we’d surely be home before morning. It was with promises to drive safe and not push ourselves that we gassed up the car and took off out of the plaza with our familiar friend the squeak-monkey along for the ride once again. This would be the last major leg of the trip and I was already feeling a melancholy reminder that all this fun would soon come to an end…or so I thought.

Squeak-Monkey Revealed

If you haven’t guessed by now, it wasn’t the toolbox causing the squeaking noise. Once we left the plaza the roadway was clear, and with Mike driving his new car we effortlessly reached 60 miles per hour traveling in the right lane. Not a quarter mile into the journey, our bellies and gas tank full, and with our spirits high did we encounter a gradual left hand sweeping bend in the road. The Nomad traversed the curve gracefully and all was well until I saw something so unnerving that it scared me out of my wits. What I saw was something so simple, it tolled like the tortured souls aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald as she sunk in Lake Superior; Mike had grasped the oversized steering wheel of the car with both hands, using a three and nine o’clock grasp with his eyes glued to the rearview mirror. This in itself is an event not worthy of mentioning unless you knew Mike, or any car guy like him. I don’t think he used two hands on the wheel during his road test, or when he had to fight a rain induced hydroplane on the Southern State Parkway, or even when he crossed the center line into oncoming traffic in my ’65 GTO after he grenaded the rear universal joint doing a monster holeshot. Yes, we were in grave danger and as of yet I had no idea what the heck was going on (Mike wasn’t talking; he was too busy trying to stay alive).

It’s interesting to note that this short chain of events seemed to occur in slow motion to me, and even now, almost 30 years later I still see them that way. I remember doing a quick check of my surroundings and found that the car wasn’t making any death-like noises or booms or bangs that would signify we hit something, and I didn’t smell anything burning or any chemicals, so I was left totally stumped. I must have yelled at Mike to clue me in on what he knew and all he did was point to the rearview mirror without averting his gaze from it. Knowing that not even a full battalion of Ohio state troopers behind us with lights and sirens blazing would freak him out this badly, I turned to look out the tailgate window to see what monster was gaining on us. To my surprise there was nothing approaching us, it what was leaving us that had Mike so freaked out. What I saw didn’t make sense, but it made total sense to my trained automotive eye. I saw a wheel (tire and rim) still mounted to an axle as it hit the pavement and bounced wildly off the side of the road into a ravine. This couldn’t be our wheel, could it? Yes it could, and it was indeed the right rear wheel and axle assembly with the brake drum, brake shoes and all associated hardware acting as one lost piece of a ’55 Nomad. My mind raced feverishly to process this information, hell, I had just seen it with my own eyes and Mike’s actions were all the confirmation I needed to believe this was happening, but how?

As I turned to look forward again I couldn’t fathom why we were still traveling forward like nothing had happened. When the human brain receives conflicting signals it doesn’t know what to do, and I was there big time (guess I shouldn’t have doubled down on those lunch Twinkies after all eh?)! It was about this time as we were exiting the long sweeping turn that it hit me; the forward momentum of the 3,500 pound car, along with the weight distribution favoring the inboard, or left side, was keeping us upright. We were now driving at 60 miles an hour on three wheels! I knew that a few things were soon to follow; as soon as the car straightened out the rear end was going to drop and we’d begin skidding on the pavement, we’d effectively be in an out of control vehicle, and that’s not a recommended method for forward motion. As soon as this happened Mike’s mission was to get us stopped as safely as possible so he applied the brakes. This is a good time to mention that this car had a single chamber master cylinder in it, which means there is one fluid reservoir to supply all four wheels, and once there is a breach in the system anywhere along the circuit, there are effectively no brakes at all. When the wheel and axle departed the car the rear brake line was ripped from its fitting at the wheel cylinder, letting all the fluid in the system spray onto the gaping hole in the axle housing where the shaft had resided seconds later. First we had no rear wheel and now we had no brakes, what could possibly happen after this?

Without input from Mike’s foot on the gas pedal the car slowed and the right rear corner dropped just as predicted. The ensuing shower of sparks and wail of metal on concrete was lost on us, as we were to scared to hear anything but the flapping of the Grimm Reaper’s robes in the Ohio wind, and I could swear that the hood bird turned momentarily into a smiling Vulture. With his right foot planted on the useless brake pedal, Mike realized what was going on and knew that he had just become a slalom driver in a bright white 1955 projectile that was heading to a bad end. I have to give him the utmost credit and thanks for keeping cool under this dire pressure, because if he hadn’t we surely would have perished on that stretch of I-80.              

When Mike realized that the brakes were out and he was short one wheel he capitalized on the only option left; he cranked the steering wheel full left rudder to affect a power slide that would throw the car sideways to scrub off the most amount of speed in the least amount of time. The left side tires scrapping perpendicularly to their normal plane of travel would in effect become our brakes.

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I trusted his driving abilities completely, and wanted to offer some words of encouragement but about this time I had other things coursing through my brain. I actually had the presence of mind to realize that we were headed straight for the break down lane, then off the road down into the grassy culvert. I envisioned the underside of the car grabbing the soft asphalt of the break down lane, causing it to grab and flip the car sideways, rolling it side over side down the ravine, the full tank of gas giving way to the force of friction and exploding, killing us both. I didn’t see my life flash in front of me like the rumor says, but I did have an awful feeling of dread, and surprisingly enough, no fear as Mike rode the careening car sideways in a power slide worthy of a modern day drift competition. The long ribbon-like stretches of rubber left on the road surface bore this out. Mike had an impossible task to carry out, and even with his high level of driving skill our fate was in the hands of Lady Luck or God-you be the judge; all I can say is that I feel fortunate to have survived the incident, and since then I have thanked God’s of Mechanical Physics many times over.   

The car came to rest with my side squarely facing the drop off, and when I got out I stumbled down the hill about twenty feet. From my vantage point I noticed that the car was stable and resting on the front leaf spring mount with only enough space between the vintage rocker panel and the ground to slip a matchbook. The gaping hole that was left where the axle had resided was on fire, and I later deduced that it was a combination of 90-weight gear oil and brake fluid that was burning. My first thought was to put out those flames before the full gas tank had any chance of igniting, and hindsight showed that we should have brought a fire extinguisher instead of a toolbox. In its absence I used the only thing I had available to me and started shoveling sand from the hill onto the fire. About this time Mike came around the back of the car to see me at work and he did exactly what I didn’t expect him to do; he shoved me back down the hill, yelling at the top of his lungs that I must be crazy to pile the gritty, abrasive sand into the axle housing. A shouting match ensued, me yelling that the fire had to be doused for our safety and that of the car, and Mike continuing to yell obscenities at me for wrecking the rear end. I felt like I was in a 3 Stooges movie but was determined to get that fire out. Mike backed down and let me finish, with the warning that it would be me who would clean out the housing so the car could be repaired. Repaired, sure, but with what?

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The account of that event took about an hour to write, five minutes for you to read, but occurred in less then 30 seconds, although it felt like an eternity at the time.

Find A Way to Get Help

With the fire out and the dust settled, we now had to find a way to get help. Mike was understandably more shaken than me, so I gave him room to blow off steam and get composed while I tried to hail someone on the C.B. radio. When we heard a trucker report that he would call the police I decided to take a walk and find the wheel and axle assembly. I wasn’t too surprised to find it down in the ravine about 100 yards back-apparently it had experienced as interesting a trip as we had.

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Once help arrived and the Nomad was hooked up to a tow truck the reality of our situation began to sink in and we had a slow drive to an unknown town to think about it; we had no car, and it was a Sunday afternoon in Ohio. The tow truck driver dropped us off with the car at a repair shop and pointed the way to a Red Roof motel across the street. At least we’d be nearby the next morning when the shop opened.

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While we had time to kill we decided to look closely at the car to determine what caused the failure. Remember the squeaking noise? A slowly seizing axle bearing caused it; this bearing rests inside the axle housing and allows the axle and wheel to freely rotate, and when it seizes the whole shebang locks up and sometimes makes a dramatic exit.

With that question now answered we checked into the motel, cleaned up and ate dinner at a restaurant that we had never heard of, and one that wouldn’t be seen in New York for another year; Chilli’s. This phenomenon would recur again the next day when we saw billboards advertising soda brands we had never before seen either. We later found out that this small town in Ohio called Maumee wasn’t something out of the Twilight Zone, but one that had been deemed the perfect test bed in America for emerging food trends. That’s fine, but let’s see how they do fixing Mike’s Nomad.

The shop owner was a nice enough guy and promised to put his best mechanic Cyrus on the job, an assurance we found fault with since we saw him come to work late, then sit around recapping his weekend fun with the other workers in the shop. Hopefully he’ll get serious after that first cup of coffee, we couldn’t help but wonder if his mother had watched “The Warriors” before he was born and hoped he’d become a born leader. 

Upon inspection it was determined that the axle was damaged beyond reuse when it was first heated to the surface temperature of the sun by the seized bearing, then slammed against the ground upon its re-entry, causing it to bend, other  than that it was fine. The hunt was on for a used axle for this pumpkin style rear end housing, and although we could have three of them at our door within an hour when back home, this would prove to become a maddening experience while stuck in Maumee Ohio.

By late morning an axle was located and Cyrus was sent to pick it up. Now spinning our wheels and anxious to do something, I asked the shop owner if Mike and I could use this time to clean the parts that were to be reused and generally keep us from going mad. He declined, citing shop insurance mandates and state regulations. We wondered if this guy had been a New York lawyer in a previous life but held our tongues and went outside to cool our heels.

Our spirits lifted when we saw the wrecker return to the shop, then they fell twice as hard when we didn’t see an axle anywhere on the truck. Following the driver into the office we learned that the junk yard owner who has the axle wouldn’t part it out of the complete rear end it was in, so the driver came all the way back to tell the boss. Can you believe this? The junk yard had quoted a price of $125 for the axle, and we sure as hell would have paid the same amount for a complete rear end, so why didn’t the driver give the yard owner the check the boss had given him and loaded the housing on the truck we wondered? We were told that he was sent for an axle, not a complete housing, so he felt it prudent to get the OK from the boss first. Ok, but why not call on the phone instead of driving all the way back? No reply. Great. The shop owner agreed to send Cyrus back to pick up the complete rear with the provision that we’d take what remained of it after the axle was removed back home with us, and we readily agreed. Now we were getting somewhere, or maybe not. Cyrus walked outside and started washing his ’72 Grand Prix, and when we asked him why he wasn’t on the road to make the pick-up he told us that it was now his lunch break and he’d go after his scheduled half hour had passed. Can you imagine how badly two guys from New York wanted to wring this guys neck right about then? Fugghedabouddit.

Our angst was somewhat diminished when we got to watch this guy work up close. Forget the fact that he had washed the car with the windows open, he then squirted soap onto the carpets, rubbed it in with a brush and proceeded to rinse it off with the hose! We must have looked like a couple of punk rockers at a Pat Boone concert we were so confused. When we questioned him about this interesting cleaning method he told us that he and his girlfriend had spent the weekend at the lake and the car had gotten full of silt and sand, and he’s found the only way to remove it was by this genius method. Learning that he’s done this before didn’t ease our uneasy feeling about his judgment process, and we knew this would be one Grand Prix that would rust from the inside out way before its time.

While the slowly rotting Grand Prix sat air-drying in the Ohio heat our only hope of getting back on the road got into the wrecker and went to pick up the junk rear end.

A shop helper was asked to dismantle the usable parts from the aforementioned jettisoned axle assembly and we were once again relegated to sit outside and drink soda (Mr. Pib I think). When the wrecker returned from the parts run we rushed to meet it before it came to a stop. The driver went into the office to report to the boss and we swarmed over the mud-encrusted complete rear end that was chained to the truck bed. It was a drum-to-drum complete unit, and besides the patina it had accumulated from sitting in the Ohio mud it didn’t look any worse for the wear. Mike and I did something that any hot rodder worth his ring gear would have done. We scratched an alignment mark on one of the drums and another on the pinion shaft yolk. We did this so we could determine the gear ratio of the rear end. This is done by turning the drum and counting one full revolution while watching how many full turns the yolk makes. Having memorized all the available gear ratios various manufacturers used in their rear ends, we were able to round off the number of revolutions to know what gear set we had just bought. Our experiment yielded just about five yolk revolutions to one drum revolution, indicating that this rear end had a 4.88:1 ring and pinion in it. Wow, this is heavy artillery in any car and I was glad we weren’t installing the complete rear in the car, as we wouldn’t be able to drive over 50 mph with the RPM the engine would be turning. This was an overall score though, as this gear set isn’t found too often in a configuration that works in a vintage housing.

Removing an axle from an early carrier is fairly easy to do and only requires a half inch wrench and a hammer (or a seized axle bearing at 60 mph). The weak point of the mounting design is what allowed the axle to take flight from the rear in the car, and what allowed us to remove it from this rear in about five minutes flat. There’s a retainer on the backing plate that bolts through the flange on the axle tube, securing the two parts and the bearing together. We waltzed the gear-oil dripping axle into the shop and asked where the part cleaner was. We were once again scolded for being in the workshop and asked to wait outside. Damn these maudlin maddening Maumee mandates!

Now we’re like two caged Tigers waiting for an overdue lunch. We watched Cyrus install the axle and bolt it to the flange as outlined above. He installed the new brake shoes we had agreed to buy and we could see the horizon. All he had to do now was adjust the shoes, bleed the hydraulic brake lines and fill the rear end with 90 weight gear oil and we’d be out of here like Tony Manero’s competitors at a disco contest. We were a little anxious and overestimated our boy Cyrus once again as he ran into trouble and had to get the boss to look over his problem; he didn’t remember which orientation the brake shoes were to be installed in. Drum brakes use a shorter, primary shoe that faces forward, and a longer, secondary shoe that faces rearward. We guessed that our boy had missed this basic lesson in High School auto shop class and were giddy to see how he would install the self-adjuster. We intercepted his trip to the office and straightened him out on the brake shoe positioning which he was grateful for, but we were once again astonished to see that he had installed the lock washers on the axle bolts under the bolt heads, not between the nut and rear of the flange as required. We tried to correct him on this error but he wouldn’t hear it, in fact, he was adamant about it and once again Mike and I were ready to draw straws over who would hit this blockhead first. We chose to stay out of jail and instead went to talk with the boss. He agreed with us and said he’d go and have a chat with Cyrus, then wanted to know what we were doing in the shop despite his previous warning for us to stay out. We hung our heads and went outside for some more Mr. Pib in the blistering Ohio heat.

Noon passed, then two, then four, and by six o’clock Cyrus knocked off for the day and went home. We were beaten, broken men, overheated and overcarbonated, but holding out for a miracle. This is when the boss stepped in and finished the car, finally getting us out just before sunset. Getting back on the road felt great, even if it meant having a new clunking noise and a new smell to deal with. Yes, the spare rear end that was now jammed in the back of the Nomad wouldn’t sit still and rocked back and forth against the floor as it slowly oozed remnants of its ancient 90 weight gear oil onto the carpet. We couldn’t have cared less; we were on the highway once again and starting our end run for home, sweet home.

Even after such an emotion draining day we were jacked to the max as we headed East in the white lacquer Chevy, and the first gas stop reminded us that we still needed to have our own oil supply with us due to the 265’s thirst for fossil fuel. The hills of Pennsylvania proved to be quite a challenge for the little engine with crappy compression, and at times we wished we had opted for the 4.88 gears in place of the 3.08’s that were spinning out back just to get us up and over those hellacious hills. With a heavy right foot we forced dual blue plumes of smoke to counter-rotate out of the Fox Head drenched tailpipes commanding the Nomad to soldier on. Sunrise found us in New Jersey, just a bridge and the L.I.E. away from my house in Queens. An opportunity arose for me to take one of my favorite photographs while we were behind a loaded car carrier as the sun set that day, and it brings me back to the good times that trip afforded Mike and I every time I look at it. After all, isn’t that the most precious reward a trip can give you as a gift?

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Almost Home

Morning commuters on the George Washington Bridge must have drawn some interesting conclusions about the two glassy eyed road warriors piloting the Nomad-Valdez straight into metro New York. We were in the home stretch of the trip, and anyone who’s made this type of journey knows that toward the end a melancholy feeling is oft felt. Maybe it’s caused by knowing the trip is coming to an end, or on a deeper level it’s knowing that the moments in time you’ve shared with your trip-mate may never be repeated in the same way again. Either way, the trip is now relegated to the best place it can be; to your memory, where it can be replayed at will and retold for others to enjoy. That’s possibly the best motive I have for writing this story, as even more fun than narrating it is the immense joy I derive from re-living that time I had out on the road with my best friend and running mate, my brother Mike.

We got the car home, cleaned it out and washed it right away, as you can’t show off your new wheels if they’re dirty. We made sure to take a picture with us pointing to the scorch marks on the quarter panel where the burning oil and brake fluid singed the paint though, as it makes for a very cool picture indeed. The car drew immediate liking from Mike’s friends and he spared no time in modifying it to fulfill his idea of what it should be. We took other road trips, maybe some that you’ll even read, but this one was special on many levels and I implore you to indulge yourself in the things you like with the people you like, because one day all you’ll have of the good old days will be your memories.    

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