My precarious and intrepid trek to “The best-kept secret on the border.”
So secret I’ve not been able to find it.
by Paul Q. Stover
The phone rang. Steve announced, “Your car is ready.” Many years ago I bought a Triumph TR3 roadster. After scouring the country I found the beauty in a barn, in pieces, off of highway 17. Hardly a beauty then.
“Come and get it, I need the space.” I realized the impact. A trip of nearly 2,000 miles from San Francisco, California, to San Felipe Del Rio, Texas, in a rebuilt TR3 with totally new running gear, untested. “Steve, please drive the machine to work for a while. See what falls off.” “Naaa! Got no time for it.” It was rude for me to ask, after all he has done. Was I up for the adventure?
On the morning I arrived, Steve briefed me on the last four years. It was a miracle. Rebuilt engine, transmission, rear axle, generator with voltage regulator, reworked radiator and gauges. Plus thousands of small items of just plain thoughtfulness to detail and authenticity, too many to enumerate. He sent me on my way with a spare fan belt removed from his car, not on the road yet, and the loan of his torque wrench to re-torque the head bolts at 500 miles.
“How much do I owe you, Steve?”
“For what?” he said.
Steve Farrell is one of those infectious lads who embraces life with gusto. He loves sailing, he loves photography, and he loves Triumphs. When he learned about my reluctant move to Texas, he proposed: “Leave the TR3 with me to polish up mechanically. Just toss me some money for parts when you have it.” So I left my Vintage Roadster in the hands of the neighbor kid, thinking, “I gotta have rocks in my head. I will never see my beauty again.”
The Ferguson tractor engine purred while I re-familiarized myself with the positive steering (no sneeze factor), rough ride, and the slap of tires from cars and trucks in the next lane as I sat at hubcap level in the low-slung car with the low-slung doors. The 1960 TR3 was tuned to a nice throaty sound that inferred class and power. “Neat car!” People passing would say, giving me a thumbs up. I was a bit shocked at all the attention.
Steve was in his dark room processing color photos or already starting on the restoration of the next Triumph. He thinks he is going to get away with it, doing all that labor for nothing, because he loves Triumphs. I suspect a large Moss Motors gift certificate will arrive in his mailbox.
I need to check the wheel balance again. The untrue wire wheels were at times a little shaky, and there was a matter of a fine greeeeerrrr in addition to the whaaammpaa–whaaammpaa made by the wheel wobble. I stopped to talk with Larry at the wheel shop about it. “Yeah, yeah it’s not good, but you’ll make it. No, I don’t know what the greeeeerrrr is, maybe a wheel bearing, maybe a U joint. Ah, you’ll find out on the way.” That was not exactly what I wanted to hear.
It was 2:00pm, Tuesday September 2, when I pointed the nose of the Triumph south. At the Altamont pass between Livermore and Tracy I watched the temperature gauge climb above the 205 mark. My heart lodged in my throat, and I was about ready to pull off when I crested the pass and the gauge began to fall. I resolved to check that gauge once every minute.
I reflected on a year ago, the phone rang, it was Steve saying, “I have for you a new re-manufactured temperature gauge, authentic.” “Good, how much?” “$150” “AAAGH!!!” I said. He said “No problem, I will take it then, just giving you first crack.” I quickly learned that Steve was real—take care of him, because he was taking care of me. A photo came. The gauge polished, laid out on black velvet as though it were a priceless string of pearls. Four years and $150 later, I scan the dial with joy.
Manteca, the name means lard in Spanish. I turn south on Highway 99; there are flashes of lightning in the Sierra foothills off to the left. It’s September. It’s against the law to rain here in the valley—everybody knows that. I have the cockpit half covered with the tonneau, not to worry. Fuel gauge calls for a stop. Hmmm… only 100 miles driven. I gas up, eight gallons—wow! Not too good. Well, Steve said it will take a while for the new carbs to settle in. I picked up Windex, paper towels, flashlight batteries.
At 58 mph: whaaammpaa–whaaammpaa wheel wobble. At 64 mph: greeeeerrrr, whatever that is? I hold my speed in-between thinking maybe nothing will happen. Something does. I watch my new speedometer turn mushy. Ten miles later it stops indicating. Not a show-stopper. I can get along without that.
I had packed an old leather purse with tools: multimeter, flashlight, a lead mallet, and my brand new handy dandy Authentic Triumph jack. I was ready, I thought.
I selected two-lane roads instead of the shorter Interstate 5. I drove through farm towns. Farm towns have tractor parts and ingenious farmers who can just about get anything working with what’s on hand. It was the farm boys who won WWII by getting the trucks, tanks, airplanes and ships functioning again when they broke.
Water drops start to splatter the windscreen. Not bad, I can handle this. Later as I cruise through Fresno the streets are wet with big puddles. Poa Pop-Popa. Rain. Drops the size of marbles. Aw gee, I’m gonna get wet with this one. The cloud dumped. Most of the water went over the windscreen and back-winded my head. It actually felt good, cooling from the heat. The tonneau kept most of it out of the car and what was getting wet wasn’t being damaged.
The rain stopped by the time I had reached King’s River. The Visalia and Tulare signs sprung up in front of me. Today’s trip is nearing its end. The sun is getting low and my backside feels every crack in the pavement. Tipton, then Pixley, (The village from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), my first stop on the road and a visit with my ex-mother-in-law, Mary Best Smith.
The smell of coffee brewing and bacon sizzling got me going. I waved goodbye as I backed the Triumph out in the street. Listening to the smooth throaty sound of the engine. Mary’s second daughter, Jackie, had put a care package in the car: tomatoes, cornbread muffins, two biscuits with sausages in between, and two boiled eggs. It was a good visit in spite my apprehension.
Mary Best was a child of the victims of the Oklahoma dust bowl and the great national economic depression. The Best family truck broke down in Pixley in the mid-1930s, and there they stayed. The village population of 1200 never grew nor waned. Mary and her brood had moved away many times, only to return. This was really their home no matter what. Pixley is a slice of America at its best. Families cloistered—mother, daughter, and grandchildren, all scratching out a living, all pulling together, gardening, canning, putting up fruit preserves, surviving, in a communal economy and lots of love, and always room for one more, even an ex-son-in-law. “Kids, make out a pallet on the floor. Uncle Paul is going to sleep in your bed tonight.”
Gas up. Eight gallons. 150 miles. Better. As the car settles in at freeway speeds the wheel wobble seems less. My eyes scan the gauges: ampere meter, 10 amps—okay; temperature, 175 degrees—watch that one; oil pressure, 100 pounds—whoop! 100 pounds pegged, that’s not good. Plugged oil passage port? Aww gee! What now? What to do? I eased off the freeway and watched the temperature of the engine climb to 190. When the temperature began to fall, the oil pressure dropped, too. At 95 pounds there had to be some oil flow.
Before I got to Bakersfield the oil pressure had settled out to 80 pounds. My guess is the cold oil built up more pressure till it got warmed up. I developed a sense of confidence now, almost 300 miles under my belt and the car appears to be smoothing out. The sign reads: Los Angles 150 miles. Yes! This is going to work out just fine.
Hmm? Perhaps it’s the cracks in the cement road. I am feeling vibration in the steering. Change lanes. No change. I hang my head over the door and look at the wheel. Bad wobble, pull over! “Weedpatch 6 miles.” The arrow on the sign pointed east. Got out my lead mallet, walked around the car pounding the spinner nuts. They were all tight. I shook each wheel till I got to the driver’s side front. Loose! Okay! So I got out my new handy dandy Triumph jack. Knocked off the spinner, lifted the car, pulled the wheel off, and the splined hub extension came off with it. Four lug nuts fell to the ground… Huh? As I looked at the studs my heart sank. No threads, not one thread, on any of the four studs. I believe this is a show stopper.
I sat down and thought about this for a while, considering the options. The sound of locusts chattering. Whirr of traffic nearby on the freeway. Sweet tang of sun dried grass teases the nostrils. Moments later I hear, “Hey, fellow, need a hand?” I focused on the farmer getting out of a VW Rabbit. “Looks pretty bad,” he announced, putting out his hand, “My name is Carl Putnam.” “I’m Paul, nice to meet you Carl” “Hey, let’s knock those studs out of that hub and I’ll run over to the parts store down the way and see if I can get some.” Carl suggested.
Fat chance, I thought to myself as he drove off, English measurement all right but English threads and knurls… Just wait, you might learn something. You didn’t know the studs were pressed in—you thought they were welded.
As I waited for Carl, vehicles carrying people from all walks of life stopped to offer help. All had remarked, “Neat car!” One hour later, here comes Carl. “Ha! Sorry, that took little longer than I thought.” He lays out four studs, four tapered nuts, and a flat washer to pull them in place. The threads and knurls were coarser than the English, but no matter; if we could get the knurls to press in, the nuts would work fine. The bolts were long. “I can cut those down,” and off Carl dashed.
While waiting, I leaned on the car. It fell off the jack, flat on the ground. Gee! That was dumb! As if I need more to deal with. I located a long board and a rock and pried the car up high enough to set it back on the jack.
Three hours after I stopped, hot, drained and dehydrated, the wheel was on. “I’ll follow you to the first exist and we’ll see how it goes,” Carl said. I wave as Carl takes the off ramp. I drive on. My mind returns to the band-aid repairs we installed. I am insecure. When Carl trimmed the studs, two were slightly too long. Carl had forced them, galling the threads. The nut seemed to start cross-threaded. On torquing, Carl said they felt like they were going to strip at 45 foot-pounds. I worry. Each noise, vibration, fuels paranoia, and I play “what if?” But things are going smoothly and eventually I relax.
I wander through 40 miles of hilly, curvy, mountaintop four-lane freeway then down toward Los Angeles. More lanes now. Traffic thickens. And quickens. Eight lanes. I’m in the center of a herd of stampeding rhinoceros! 75 MPH. DON’T STUMBLE AND FALL NOW. YOU’LL BE TRAMPLED.
No more LA signs, replaced by San Diego signs. Traffic slowed to stop and go. It’s HOT! I hang my head out over the door and look at the wheel. Seems to be okay!
Forty miles outside of San Diego I call John Benya. His wife Rosemary gives me directions. 7:00pm I knock on the door, dripping wet, totally depleted. “Please, a shower first,” I request. John, the mad scientist, showed me their lovely home, a miniature and simplified Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style house in Point Loma. The next morning I examined the band-aid. The two nuts I worried over were stripped on the studs! Call Moss, parts please, “Be there before noon tomorrow.” And it was so! I took the day, relaxed, recuperated, regrouped. By noon the next day the car was repaired, bolts re-torqued from 20 foot-pounds to 50. My handy dandy authentic Triumph jack saw its last lift, but it got me through when I really needed it.
Part Two of Paul’s Texas odyssey will be continued in the next issue of Moss Motoring…