When Muscles Aren't Everything

Dec 15, 2008

RAY: The crux of this puzzler was sent in by a fellow named Hugh Rawlins and I added the crock.

Here goes:

Back in the 60's, I had the misfortune of living across the street from the world's biggest, and most insufferable, motor head. American muscle cars were just coming into their own in the '60s and this guy had jumped in with both feet. Hardly a week went by without my having to listen to this guy's latest automotive exploit.

Just outside of town there was an abandoned stretch of highway. It was straight and flat for miles and the perfect place for my neighbor and his kind to race each other in their Chevys and Dodges and Pontiacs and Fords.

I was never invited to race my car which had a four-speed manual transmission and a three-cylinder engine. It was a Saab.

One day I challenged my neighbor to a race: my Saab versus his muscle car. I just had one condition: we race in reverse. That's right, backing up. He thought about it for a second and then said, 'Sure! What do I care? I'll go backwards, forwards. I'll race you any way you want.'

Now I didn't possess any particular prowess so far as driving in reverse. Nor was I aware of any particular handicap on his part. So at high noon there we were. Engines running, our rear bumpers inched up to the starting line, awaiting the signal. And, then, we were off.

Within a minute, he was far ahead. But little by little I closed the gap until finally I caught up to him and passed him. His engine was straining. It was on the verge of self destruction, with the tachometer at the red line, as he watched me cross the finish line first.

How did I beat him in reverse with my Saab?
RAY: Here's what I did to win the race. As I drove up to that abandoned stretch of highway, I turned the engine off and let the car coast. I put the transmission in neutral and with the car coasting I stepped on the clutch, put the transmission in reverse, turned the key on and popped the clutch.

TOM: Yeah.

RAY: The engine started and the car was going forward. But the engine was running backward. And you say, how could that be? Well, that Saab three-cylinder had a two-cycle engine and it could run either forward or backward, it didn't care. Whichever way you turned it, it started.

TOM: Wow!

RAY: You can't do that with a four-cycle engine. But you could do that with your chainsaw or your weed whacker or whatever, if you could turn the crankshaft the other way. So now I had one forward gear and four reverse gears.

So even though he beat me out of the gate I shifted from first, to second, to third, all the time going faster and faster backwards until I caught up to him.

TOM: And meanwhile he's in reverse.

RAY: He's in reverse and the governor in his transmission probably wouldn't let him go over 60 miles an hour, and that tachometer was right at the red line, it was getting ready to shoot a piston through the hood, and I passed him and won the race. Pretty cute, eh?

TOM: Ex-cellent.

RAY: Do we have a winner?

TOM: We certainly do. Our winner this week is Therese Cooper from Portland, Oregon. And for having her answer selected at random from among all the correct answers that we got, Therese gets a $26 gift certificate to the Shameless Commerce Division at cartalk.com with which she can get one of our brand-new boxed sets of Car Talk CDs.

RAY: Congratulations, Therese!

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