One of the advantages of learning how to do a good chunk of the work on your own car is that when something does go wrong with it, you generally have some idea how to fix it yourself. I’ve spent the last few years learning all sorts of fun skills that relate to my old cars.
- Body work
- How to build an engine
- How engines really work in old cars
- Suspension operation and geometry
- Basic automotive troubleshooting
- Did I mention Sanding? 🙂
I’ve been doing electrical and audio wiring on cars for lots of years before I got into old cars, so I have that to add those skills to the list as well. The funny thing is, when you put all of those things together you end up with pretty much all of the basic skills to put an old car back together so its safe and reliable enough to drive as often as you want to.
Notice I didn’t say “restore”. I’m a firm believer that true restoration is a different animal entirely. Dictionary.com defines restoration as “a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition.” And in the context of old cars, restoration usually means putting the old car back to the same condition it was in when it left the factory. Which is fantastic if you have a super valuable car to begin with. I’m just not sure that old professional cars fit into that category. Our cars were never designed to survive for years and years. They were never designed to be museum pieces. Even the nicest old hearse was a working vehicle when it was new. It was a tool to do a job. Nothing more. And while folks like to wave “rarity” around as a reason to justify restoration, ALL professional cars are rare just as a result of the limited production numbers. Do they warrant a nut and bolt, factory correct restoration? Probably not. But If that’s what makes you happy, then go for it. Old cars aren’t really about logic or reason. They are about emotions and feeling and other vague, non specific things. The problem with a “restoration” is that it makes the car almost unusable as a car when you are done. Once you sink the money required into a proper restoration, you end up with something that’s too nice and too expensive to really do anything with. It becomes a show piece that’s tucked safely into a trailer and moved from show to show. A piece of art that is waxed and polished and usually shown off in a static manner. The older the coach, the less practical and useful a restoration becomes. Narrow bias ply tires , Giant steering wheels and manual steering, and all of the other quirks of an old car coupled with the cost of a resotration can make even a short road trip a stress inducing panic-fest. Scratches, road debris, rock chips in the paint. And lets not even talk about the other drivers on the road.
But this isn’t about restorations. This is about actually driving and enjoying your old car. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve tried to do as much of the work on my ambulance as I possibly can. And I’ve been forced to learn all sort of things so I could do that. Some things are as easy as going down and buying a book. Other things require talking to someone that has done the work before that is willing to teach you the little hints and tricks. None of the skills I’ve learned is rocket science though. Let me make this clear. If you have the skills to DRIVE a car, you also have the capability of learning the skills to build and maintain an old car. And the super cool part about all of the learning and work is a pride in your car and a confidence in it that you don’t get writing a check for a restoration. I can honestly say that I’ve done almost everything on my car along the way. And as a result, I have a nice looking old ambulance that I can hop into and drive almost anywhere I want to without having to worry about it. I consider my car a reliable, good looking DRIVER quality car. And more importantly, I’m not afraid to actually DRIVE it. Since I built and installed a new engine in the car, we have racked up over 16,000 miles in it. We average between 2500 and 3000 miles a year if at all possible. Every event I attend, I DRIVE it to. On the highway, with the other cars, bugs, dirt, possibly of rock chips and damage, and all of the other things that go with a road trip. I’ve driven through dust storms, rain, small hail, been pelted with dirt and gravel, obliterated swarms of bugs, and generally had a blast behind the wheel of my ambulance. And that’s just to GET to the event. 😉
Once I’m there, I hose off what I can, knock the big chunks off, hit the paint with some quick detailer spray and have a good time. I’m not one of those guys that parks myself next to the car with a duster to keep every speck of dust off the car all day long. Its a car folks. The fact that its not perfect makes it even more fun for me. I can enjoy the show without worrying about the car not being perfect when the judges come around. I dont go to shows for the plastic trophy. I go to hang out with other car folks, to talk cars, and to share MY car with anyone that might be interested in it. That is the fun part for me. I can open the doors up and show it off. I can show folks how things used to work. And I can even put a kid into the drivers seat with a fire helmet on and run the siren and lights so parents can get photos. Seeing the expressions on the faces of those kids is why I take my car out to shows. Its also why I drive it. Seeing a kid pressed to the glass in a minivan on the freeway staring in wonder at the car as we pass by is just amazing. Now I’m clear to the kids I see at shows that my car is different than all of the other ones out there. Its OK to sit in my car if they ask me, and I’ll show them anything they have questions about or would like to see. But I tell every kid that I meet that they need to ASK before touching any car. And I get thanked by more parents than I can count. They are thrilled that I’m willing to talk to their kids. They are thrilled that I’m willing to show them parts of the car. They are thrilled that I emphasize talking to people and asking permission. And I believe all of that comes from being willing to drive your coach. If I’m not afraid of breaking the car out on the freeway at 75, there really isn’t anything that a 9 year old is going to be able to do to it.
And then there is the Autocross. I discovered Autocross at a Super Chevy show held at a dragstrip. I was hoping to be able to do an exhibition pass down the dragstrip just for fun, and when we got to the event, we were told that had been cancelled for the “show cars”. I happened to meet some of the editors of Super Chevy magazine and mentioned how cool it would have been to make one pass down the strip. They mentioned that there was an autocross on the other side of the dragstrip that was open to all of the participants, and jokingly suggested that I run the car through the following day. I wandered over and watched a little and discovered that it was mainly vintage and modern camaros that were running, and they all seemed to be set up for autocross work. I thought about it at dinner and back at the hotel, and finally decided that it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot once at least. When we showed up the following day to go run, everyone thought we were insane. We passed the tech inspection and were assigned a car number and given a transponder for the timing system. And I think that everyone still thought we were going to chicken out. We didn’t We fired up the lights and sirens and ran the course. It was terrifying and exhilarating and amazing all at once. And it was over in less that 30 seconds. We pulled off the course, caught our breath, and decided to run again. It was amazing. We never got over 35 miles an hour. We were in a huge parking lot marked out with cones so there was nothing to really hit that would do any damage. But it was an incredible experience. We posted the slowest time of the day, but it didn’t matter. I knew that I wasn’t going to be even close to the camaros and the corvettes. I didn’t care. I was driving against MY own time, and I was having a ton of fun really driving the car. I tested what the car could do in a safe environment. And I had FUN. Also, when we rolled up to the starting line for that first run, the crowd went dead silent. They weren’t sure what was going on either. I’m certain that a good number figured we’d just drive the course slowly and then slink back to the show car side of the event. Well, they were wrong. I went for it. Siren wailing, tires screaming, lights on. I ran that course. And the crowd loved it. It didn’t matter that we were the slowest car out there. We had a great time. I had more people come over and thank me for running than I had talk to me on the show side. Everyone was amazed that we ran the car. I was stunned that they were amazed. I told them the same thing I tell everyone. “Its a car. It was built to drive, so we drive it. ”
Sadly that’s not the way it seems to be at most shows though. The “show” guys stay on the field to polish and dust, and the “autocross” guys are competing to see who is fastest around the cones. There doesn’t seem to be much overlap at all. The show guys are either scared to run the autocross because of the cost or value of their “show car” or they are afraid of looking silly in front of the hardcore Autocross guys. The Autocross guys have purpose built cars and they are out running the course all day long, so they aren’t out showing or cruising the rest of the show, and they miss out on the interaction with the folks that don’t venture up to the Autocross area. Sadly I think that to a degree, both groups are missing out on some fun.
So, now when I attend a show, if there is an autocross course offered, I’m up there running for part of the day, and then I cruise the show field and hang out the other part of the day. I get the best of both worlds, and best of all, I get to use my car as a car. I get to drive it!
Special thanks to Robert Beck from FLASHESOFSPEED.COM for sharing the photos that he took of the ambulance running the Good-Guys Autocross in November!