James Goes for a Drive

Last week on Car Talk, we heard from James in New Iberia, Louisiana. Okay, to be a bit more accurate, we heard from James some time ago, since last week was, in fact, an encore edition of Car Talk. (Translation: a lousy repeat, since Tom and Ray insisted on a summer vacation.)

James was planning a road trip from Louisiana all the way up to Alaska - and back. In a car that's 70 years old - a '38 Dodge Coupe. No kidding.

We wondered what happened to James. Did he make it out of the Bayou? Was he passing through the digestive systems of wolves, somewhere north of the Arctic Circle?

Well, it turns out he had a wonderful trip! And here's his story.

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James' Story

It was an exceedingly stupid thing to do. A barely restored, 1938 Dodge Business Coupe, whose previous duty had mostly been limited to walking distance drives, has no business going to the southernmost and northernmost points in the US, especially when driven by someone with as questionably mechanical skills as myself.

When a newly licensed girl in her mom's monstrous Mitsubishi SUV rear-ended me just after I picked up a rebuilt vacuum wiper motor, the last part I needed, maybe it was forgivable to mark it down as an inauspicious but insignificant event. However, I should have paid a little more attentions to the signs when, just as I pulled into the driveway after picking it up from the body shop, the electrical system under the dashboard caught fire. And not a small fire.

Miraculously, I was spared from major catastrophe for the first portion of the trip. The worst that happened was when Cassandra, my beagle puppy, managed to eat some fermenting raccoon feces and inconsiderately waited until she was back in the car before puking it up. The smell is almost completely gone by now. Unfortunately, two days after calling Car Talk, when driving from Louisiana to Houston, I heard something break in the engine, followed by a deep, metallic clacking sound. The technical term, or at least what I was told, is that the engine, possible exhausted from it's prior life as a cement mixture, was tired. Euthanasia was in order, but being a stubborn sort of fellow, I found through the car clubs an older gentlemen with a rebuilt engine and, three weeks later, I was on my way.

After that, the car broke every 250 miles like clockwork, including, but not limited to: a cracked exhaust manifold, blown manifold gasket (two times), another electric fire (but this time, tiny), dangerously loosened leaf springs, faulty brakes, a broken actuating arm on the fuel pump, a burn coil (I replaced/rebuilt both the oil pump and the distributor before I realized this), and a bad generator bushing (also two times, including once in the Yukon Territories a good 500 miles from the nearest replacement bushing when deadline that did not allow to wait until next week for a replacement to come on the Greyhound), overheating no less than two dozen times going up Mount Washington, and a transmission that managed to reach my garage in late August 2008, but no further. In other words, I made it.

Somehow, the car behaved for the 1000 unserviced, mostly unpaved miles from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay and back, and a combination of prayer and a $650 insurance tow got me out of the second bushing snafu. I've started to forget much of the cursing, the torn fingernails, and bloody, oily knuckles, remembering instead 20 cent oysters in Apalachicola, Florida, watching the Goonies at a jury-rigged screen of some new friends at a state campground California, pretty much everything about New Orleans, the primordial Liard hot springs along the Alacan Highway, a dirt track race in Show Low, Arizona, brisket at Kreuz's in Texas, shockingly good chicken feet dim sum in Minneapolis, taking the trip bilingual in Montreal, sharing a growler of stout with my dad while driving to Haines Junction, Canada on the prettiest road I ever hope to see, swimming in the Arctic Ocean, and countless people who took pity on a poor, silly stranger and helped him on his way.

I especially have to thank my supportive parents and my friend David Zimmerman, who was always a phone call away for mechanical help.