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The Sorcerer’s Failed Apprentice

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Guess who's getting on a plane to Pittsburgh tomorrow, then attending a predicted evening loss to the Chicago Cubs by his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates as they continue to plummet from dizzying heights at an unheard of late July perch in first place in the National League's tough Central Division -- before attempting to drive a 1958 Ford Anglia 400 miles home to New York?

If you guessed me, buy yourself a beer. But make it a cheap, nasty one, because, of course, any idiot would know it has to be me. Because if it wasn't me, good Samaritan that I am, I'd be busy instead notifying the authorities about a fellow citizen who is clearly in need of help. Help him make better decisions and prioritize his goals in life. Help picking less hapless teams to root for. Help in the form of roadside assistance, because by the time you read this, I may well have broken down by the side of the road a dozen times or more in what may be one of the slowest, least capable cars known to man.

Photo by Rusty BlackwellNow, as any Harry Potter devotee can tell you, a Ford Anglia is a British car that flies. But Harry's flight-ready, blue Anglia with a white roof -- to the extent it is not a product of J.K. Rowling's fevered and highly-compensated imagination -- is a 105E series, an early 60s confection Ford of England that practically did fly, benefiting from fireball overhead valve powerplants with displacements ranging as large as 1,200cc. My new Anglia, a car that was also once actually sold in America, too, is that famous Anglia's even more limp-wristed predecessor, the 100E. Brought from Ford's Dagenham plant in Essex to cash in on America's growing 1950s infatuation with Volkswagen Beetles, the 100E was a machine designed with pre-motorway Britain in mind. While not the worst car ever made, it was hardly suited for the American interstate system and had few adherents, inside or outside of Ford's Dearborn HQ. In these days of celebrated world cars, it is amusing to recall that Ford dabbled in selling its sometimes-meritorious European models stateside between the 50s and 80s (anyone remember the Cortina, Capri, or Merkur?) but never tried very hard, equally content to fail by marketing the wrong car half-heartedly or by failing to market the right one at all. Credit internal Ford politics and that time-honored belief in Detroit exceptionalism: It can't be better if it wasn't engineered and built in America, even if it is.

An 1,172-cc, side-valve four-cylinder engine capable of mustering all of 36 horsepower and a top speed of just 70 miles per hour -- and thus incapable of pulling the skin off the proverbial rice pudding, with a 0-60 time of over 26 seconds -- is surely one reason that my new old Anglia made it into 2011 with a mere 18,000 miles on its clock and its original, 50s-sickly Coral and White paint intact. That is, it was too goddamned slow for anyone to stand driving it. A one-time resident of the Antique Automobile Club of America's Hershey Museum (a bequeathal, presumably), the car bounced around a few Michigan Ford collectors' garages after the AACA sold it. Even that august group of eccentric, hide-bound ancestor worshippers had found it too old and boring to hang on to, preferring the cash. Both of its subsequent owners came to similar conclusions, and sold it on. A friend of the automotive friendless, I found it during a random sweep of Craig's List and the next thing I knew, my Michigan pal, Rusty Blackwell, of Automobile Magazine was on his way to inspect it on my behalf, in a Nissan Leaf that could blow its doors off coming and going. But, like a sundial - a suitable way to measure its performance -- the 100E was quite the timepiece. Overruling my better judgment, I wanted to invite this strange senior citizen into my home. Weeks of half-hearted negotiations ensued, during which time it emerged that no one in the world wanted the car but me. My low-ball bid was finally accepted, and Blackwell, enabler that he is, offered to tow it free of charge to Pittsburgh, where I might pick it up for the drive back home, approximately 250 miles closer than when I bought it.

Photo by Rusty BlackwellAnd so I will soon land in Pittsburgh, tools and road atlas in hand. (Need I explain, no electrical outlet for a Tom-Tom GPS unit in a '58 Ford Anglia.) With a variety of state highways picked out to flatter its meager performance envelope, I will soon be manhandling terrain at terrifying speeds of up to 50 and possibly 60 miles per hour. Drum brakes fading, bias-ply tires squealing, lap belts straining, and vapor lock setting in, as the August heat vaporizes the gas before it hits the gasping single carburetor, starving the baby Ford of what little fuel it's capable of combusting. As I was saying, send help, please.

Post-script:

The Pirates blew a lead against the Cubs in late innings again, so that was a bust. (They've since lost two more, for nine straight losses.) The following morning, I thoroughly enjoyed myself squeezing the most out of a microscopic performance window and a three-speed non-sychromesh manual gearbox with absurdly spaced ratios, covering 250 miles on Pennsylvania back roads, driving as if my life depended on it. It did.


The Anglia dropped (on account of lack of power) to speeds so low on some hills that when I stopped for fruit and vegetables at a Mennonite farm stand or an ice cream lunch at the Creamery in Penn State; I probably could have left the car moving and rejoined it after I'd made my purchases.

When the back roads finally stopped heading due east, I joined Route 80, not far from picturesque Lewisburg, PA. The interstate proved my undoing. First I hit a two-lanes-into-one traffic jam during which  I covered three miles in an hour and half. Then, 20 miles later, some schmutz in the gas tank freed up and blocked fuel delivery killing all forward motion and, at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, I coasted to a halt on the side of the interstate.

The AAA said it would be a half-hour before a flatbed arrived since I was on the side of a busy highway, but it was actually an hour and a half. While I was waiting, someone stopped. He kindly gave me some flares which ran out before AAA arrived -- as did my cell phone batteries, and most of the daylight -- and, just before setting off, he left some inspirational Jesus pamphlets, so that like him, I could attend to "the spiritual side of things." It felt ominous; I guess you had to be there.

The flatbed driver who finally arrived could only take me off the highway, where I waited another hour and a half for a truck that could take me the 121 miles back to my Rockland County, NY home. Continuing the day's increasingly spiritual theme, the driver was perhaps the only Jewish tow truck driver this side of Israel. And, in the amazing small world department, it turned out my chatty savior was the brother-in-law of my favorite law school professor, Karl Klare.

Thanks to a AAA Plus® membership, the tow only cost me $84. I knew I was going to need help. And in the end, I got it. I guess it wasn't so bad I broke down after all.

Photo by Rusty Blackwell

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