14 August 2013

Trip of Fools

Two 1970s sports cars, 1,350 miles from Phoenix to St. Louis. What could go wrong?

For the last 60 miles we’d changed drivers three times to stay awake. Earlier, it had taken creativity and sparks aplenty to start the Jensen. It also took two long stops and most of the gasket sealant for sale in Arizona to make the 280Z run cool. Hours behind, we staggered into Flagstaff at 2 a.m. This was day one. With four days to go we hadn’t even started on the Mother Road.

Don’t Answer the Phone
It started with a phone call. Hagerty Classic Cars Publisher Rob Sass had bought a 1977 Datsun 280Z in California and a 1973 Jensen Interceptor in Arizona. Another colleague suggested driving them on Route 66 east to St. Louis by way of Gallup, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Oklahoma City and Joplin.

Six of us, including AutoWeek‘s Rory Carroll — but not Sass, conveniently — converged on Phoenix to pick up the cars from Reliable Carriers, who had kindly collected the Z from Sacramento and the Jensen from Tuscon. The unloved-looking Datsun started, but the attractive Chrysler 440-powered Jensen was dead. Jumper cables didn’t help, but a new battery did. After fueling, the Jensen was again silent and the puddle of fuel beneath it was alarming. Was the trip over already? Via phone, Hagerty Parts Finder Davin Reckow suggested we bypass the solenoid. It worked, but within minutes the air conditioning compressor seized.

Behind the Jensen, the Datsun’s temperature gauge soared. In one of 30 phone calls that day, Sass diagnosed a faulty thermostat. We pulled the thermostat but had to reuse the gasket. Within a few miles it was billowing steam. This time the chase car brought us gooey red gasket sealer, and we could finally head for Flagstaff.

In the morning we bought a thermostat and gaskets, as well as fuel filters for the Jensen. We checked fluids and Rory installed the new solenoid and tried to latch the Jensen’s hood; the pre-purchase work Sass had requested and paid for — including an oil change — clearly hadn’t happened.

Finally on the Mother Road, our first stop was the abandoned Two Guns tourist town, with its dilapidated zoo and cowboy water tower. Next came the Jack Rabbit Trading Post in Joseph City, Arizona, where I was happy to exit the fume-filled Jensen, before continuing to Holbrook for the Wigwam Hotel and the giant concrete dinosaurs at the Rainbow Rock Shop. The Jensen was showing low oil pressure and, at 11 miles to the gallon, it needed fuel.

Behind schedule, we aimed for Gallup, New Mexico, and the El Rancho Hotel, where rooms were named after movie star guests. Gallup closes early, so we had to forsake local color for Applebees.

Albuquerque or Bust
Rolling before breakfast, I glanced at the Z’s gas gauge and knew we’d need fuel soon. More immediately, however, I heard a massive squeal, the car lurched and I smelled burning rubber. A pulley had frozen, but which one? Rory slashed the compressor belt: Problem solved. A mile short of the gas stop the engine died, but the momentum carried us to the top of the exit. With a short push I coasted into the gas station.

With three cars filled, I figured we were good to go. I figured wrong. The Datsun sputtered and an injector leaked, which meant crud had been sucked from the tank. Rory pulled and cleaned the injectors, but the car was still hors de combat, so I called Hagerty Plus road service. While we waited for the transporter to come a hundred miles, we enjoyed glorious weather and the good fortune to be stranded at the only comfortable spot within that hundred miles.

Riding in the transporter, we headed for Duke City Automotive in Albuquerque, as the Jensen dropped back with another blocked fuel filter. At the shop, I was worried by the old motor homes and dozens of disassembled trucks. I was told the car wouldn’t be ready before noon the next day, but learned that one mechanic knew 280Zs. I gave General Manager Joe Schmidt my phone number and left, assuming the Z’s trip was over. A half-hour later Joe rang and said, “Be here in half an hour.” An injector needed a bushing and a coil wire had broken. For $90, my first impressions were proved wrong.

Our original goal had been to make Amarillo, where petite Claire Walters or scrawny me would be goaded into tackling the 72-ounce steak at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. Mercifully, we stopped in Tucumcari at the wonderful Motel Safari motor court, where owner Richard Talley showed us his old Fords and great hospitality.

In the morning, Richard led us to Mechanics Unlimited. Again, appearances were misleading, but mechanic Eduardo was terrific and performed a full inspection and oil change for the Jensen. The oil pan bolts were loose and he found three fuel filters under the car. Meanwhile, we crossed the street to Rockin’ Y’s Road House for a great Tex Mex breakfast. After another modest repair bill we followed Richard to visit his friend Danny, who had a yard and shop filled with Studebakers and other orphans. Then we said goodbye and headed for Texas.

We made good time, though the Jensen needed several fuel filter changes. We gassed up at the massive Russell’s Truck Stop in Glen Rio, New Mexico, before missing the turn for deserted Glen Rio, Texas, populated by abandoned businesses, graphically illustrating the interstate’s effect on Route 66. After Glen Rio we visited nearby Adrian and the vacant Bent Door Café.

Pointed toward Amarillo, we passed the Z and suddenly Rory and Ignacio vanished behind. Claire called to discover that the Datsun’s left rear tire had thrown a tread and the bottle to fill the spare wasn’t charged. We waited as they limped along on the bare tire carcass. Meanwhile, Rob Sass found tires 20 miles away at Discount Tire in Amarillo. We just had to get there…

The Datsun barely rolled along Old Route 66 when the tire gave up completely. At rest alongside a beef producer’s lot, the smell was overpowering. With more fuel filter troubles in the Jensen, Claire and I bucked and surged seven miles along Old 66 in search of Fix-A-Flat to inflate the spare. As we pulled into the store, Hagerty Price Guide Publisher Dave Kinney called to serenade us with Lowell George’s great traveling song, “Willing.” We then returned to the stricken Datsun so Rory could inflate the tire. Meanwhile, I changed the offending fuel filter while breathing through my mouth.

Within 25 minutes, we were at Discount Tire, though it meant missing the famous Cadillac Ranch. While we waited for the Datsun’s new sneakers, we wandered next door to Cavender’s Boot City, a Texas-size Western wear store. An hour later, the Z was back on the road — albeit a different road than the other cars. But once reunited, we continued on to Shamrock, Texas, for photos at the Old Conoco Tower filling station before chowing down at Big Vern’s Steakhouse.

While we were fighting drowsiness, Claire struggled to find us a hotel. Finally finding rooms in Weatherford, Oklahoma, it was apparent why they had vacancies. Lensman Ignacio led the bedbug inspections.

Smooth Sailing, finally
In the morning, we were happy to head for Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Along the way we stopped at POPS in Arcadia. Equal parts gas station, convenience store and restaurant, it featured stunning architecture and a vast selection of soda pop. From there it was a quick stop at the nearby Round Barn and then on to Darryl Starbird’s National Rod & Custom Hall of Fame Museum, in Afton, Oklahoma, where local Hagerty agent Craig Cheek and several clients greeted us. For those in the custom world, Starbird roosts at the top of the tree. His museum displays dozens of his creations and he’s given display space to all the top builders (see story, page 44).

Leaving Afton, the fumes from the Jensen’s fuel leak were intense, so a photo opportunity in front of the restored Coleman Theater in Miami, Oklahoma, was a welcome excuse to breathe clean air. Next it was supper at Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger before hitting Carthage, Missouri, where we had rooms — sans bedbugs — reserved. But first we checked out the old drive-in theater, before shooting photos at Iggy’s, a classic stainless diner.

The next morning we stopped to stock up on oil and to check out the Boots Motel — which opened in 1939 and is the last example of streamline modern architecture on Route 66 — for a tour of the ongoing restoration.

Lebanon, Missouri, and Wrink’s Market — now home to D.C. Decker’s Cowboy Emporium — was next for amazing fried pies and stories from owner Don Decker. Then we filled up before traversing a lovely stretch of Old 66, where we had a herd — literally — of extras in our photo session. The cows didn’t complain but an elderly farm owner did. After showing her identification and several copies of Hagerty Classic Cars magazine, I convinced her we were not, in fact, cattle rustlers.

Back on the highway, we started to see signs for St. Louis. But first we had to stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. From there we took our last photos outside Busch Stadium.

After the troubled start, I was skeptical we’d complete the trip. We’d overheated and stalled, leaked fuel, burned oil and blown tires. But we’d made it. I also learned not to judge businesses by their facades, and that a good day is when you break down near water and a bathroom. My only concern now is how to fund the next road trip.

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