Maybe this is how it always is; just as you get your engine running right, the throttle cable snaps.
(Welcome to the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, a series on how I buy a half-broken 1973 Volkswagen off-roader that I proceed to break, fix, break, fix, and break again.)
A couple weeks back, my coworker Mike and I took a Volvo out the deserted runways of Floyd Bennett Field. It was NYC’s first airport, but it’s just a park now, and you can drive around freely on its expanses. It was awesome, and I couldn’t believe I’d never taken my own car out there.
So a week after that I did indeed hop in my car and set out past the roti shops and old pizza spots and the rest of Flatbush Avenue, bound for Floyd Bennett. I quickly ran into two problems: the first was that it was about one degree that weekend, and my no-heat/no-defroster car was as cold inside as it was out.
The second was that the car was running rough. Real rough. It didn’t want to go over 4,000 RPM, then it didn’t want to go over 3,500 RPM, then it misfired at anything over three. Then it stalled and didn’t want to start.
I limped the car into a gas station and screwed around with the carburetor for a while. I don’t know if I stopped tweaking things because I got the car running better, or if I just stopped because my fingers were shaking so much I couldn’t hold the screwdriver straight. Either way, I finally got it thumping around long enough to get a few pictures at sunset, then I limped home through traffic. The car wasn’t too pleased about giving me more than 2,500 RPM, but I rationalized that I didn’t need more to get through traffic. I stuck the Baja in its garage space and walked home in a huff. I didn’t want to deal with the car. It had too many little other problems for me to even think about.
Well, I did think about it. All week. The car kept nagging at me. Had it just been misfiring because of the cold? Was it not getting enough spark? Did it need a new coil? What if all I had needed to do was clean the points?
So this weekend I walked back to the car with a blizzard-proof monkey suit on my back and ambition in my heart. I adjusted the valves. I cleaned the points. I fed it some new oil.
And it burst into such loud, rev-hungry life! Success! The valves clattered like crazy, but I stuck it in gear and headed back out for another stab at Floyd Bennett.
And it went great! It warmed up this weekend. I wasn’t freezing and the engine wasn’t coughing and I could enjoy the car a little bit.
I made it there, I took some pictures, I ambled around, and I headed home happy.
Everything people say about the joy and connection you get with you car once you start to fix and maintain it yourself is true. Even the smallest fixes are satisfying like nothing else you can do with a car.
Honestly, I didn’t feel like this car was mine until I made my first repair on it.
It can feel bigger than that, too. When you figure out a problem and then fix it, the world doesn’t seem so complicated anymore. There’s no more mystery. All you need to do is understand and practice and predict and master.
That was what had really irked me about the car not running right the week before. I would press my foot down on the accelerator, and the car didn’t want to accelerate. I wasn’t so much bothered that my car wasn’t running perfectly; I couldn’t stand that my inputs weren’t having clear outputs. I couldn’t sit right until I knew why.
I felt so proud driving back from Floyd Bennett Field, engine running right.
And just as I pressed my foot down to roar through a gap in traffic—thump.
The throttle cable that connects my gas pedal back through the car to my engine snapped. The spell was broken, and the gas pedal lay limp against the floor.
This has happened to me before, so I knew the drill. I couldn’t exactly drive the car, but I could get it to sort of drive itself, idling in first and second gears for the last few blocks home.
I thought it was funny; people were still smiling and waving and taking cell phone videos of the weird old loud car I was driving. Didn’t they know it was broken? Didn’t they know I would be covered in grime again soon, replacing the snapped throttle cable and worrying what would break next?
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove