Synonymous with Failure
Our Intrepid Reporter Took A Joke of a Car on a Joke of a Rally. Who’s Laughing Now?
[ From Roadkill Magazine Winter 2016 Issue]
This is going on again now, so while we wait for updates, let’s look back at the inaugural 2016 rally.
Not content to just soil assorted racetracks with crapped-out “race cars,” our beloved garbage-fire racing series, 24 Hours of LeMons, expanded its offerings to public roads with the first LeMons Rally during the 2016 Monterey Car Week–bring the worst cars in America to America’s fanciest car show? Totally appropriate. In the middle of August, four dozen terrible street cars participated in the rally with varying degrees of failure. The basic idea was: Bring some kind of hooptie street car and drive it 1,500 miles over five days. There was no prescribed route aside from mandatory checkpoints, like the Bad Water Basin in Death Valley National Park, and additional optional checkpoints along the way. To score points for each checkpoint, the team would have to take a picture of their car’s mascot, usually a small figure or icon of some sort, with the checkpoint item. The rally left Monterey on Tuesday morning and headed through the Sierra Nevada Mountains into Nevada, then to Las Vegas via either Tonopah or Ely, then to Bakersfield via Death Valley and on to the finishing line at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk before a short jaunt to the finishing line at the Concours d’LeMons, right next door to the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours.
We turned over coverage of this fine event to a participant, Jim Forbes. Jim and his brother David are both engineers, which meant that piloting a $1500 1959 Edsel Ranger across three deserts was something they could do in their sleep. To make it a bit more challenging, Jim decided to keep all his coverage period correct, so the following story was written from the passenger seat on a 1940’s Royal Arrow typewriter.
When you’re going to do something stupid, it’s important to choose your companions wisely. My twin brother David was first on the list, but I had to win him over with a brilliant car choice. I searched Craigslist and found a Studebaker and a ‘47 Mercury. David didn’t seem very interested. Then I found the ad for an Edsel, sent him the link and he said, “I’m in.”
The ad promised a 1959 Edsel Ranger in Las Vegas, $1500 obo. “Ran when parked, missing gas tank and a few other parts.” Off I went in my ‘78 F250 with trailer. $1200 later it was mine. What a pile! Rear bumper falling off, one of the tires held air–for a while, no keys and the shifter acted like the transmission was not really going into gear, but it did have an overdrive transmission—as we were to discover, also only for a while.
Once home I tried to start the engine. Ran when parked, eh? Doesn’t run now. Not enough compression. Out it came. The rings were stuck, the cam bearings were worn out, but otherwise it was in pretty good condition. $200 for parts, I honed it and sort of cleaned up the inside and put it back together. Inside the transmission, things were not so good. No oil in it, just some gear teeth lying in the pan. A friend in Bisbee knew where a replacement was and got it to me for free. I went through the brakes and suspension and rear end, replaced a few leaking seals. I found a gas tank for a ‘65 Chevelle that looks like it was made to fit an Edsel. New 14-inch tires are cheap, I mounted and bubble balanced them myself. About three weeks and another $1200 later, it came to life. Time to get David in Tucson and head for California.
Can I type from the car? Testing Testing.
More typewriter testing.
This seems to work to some extent.
Outside, modern cars hiss by my window.
Sunday was hot. It was in the 90s in Tucson, over 100 in Phoenix, 110 across the desert. David bought an old Thermador car cooler, the oval kind you sometimes see hanging out the window of ‘50s cruisers. It almost helped. Leaving Tucson the speedometer started dancing. I looked at the odometer; it was stuck at 63000 miles. Drat. Disconnected the cable. We put water in the swamp cooler about every hour. It continued to almost cool us. I brought a little AC thermometer, it read 80 degrees in the cooler, 120-130 behind the dash, 100+ outside. Car sure goes down the highway nice, 70-75 no problem. Gotta leave room ahead because it goes better than it stops. Clipped a car show flyer to the roof as a sun visor. David drove a stretch. We made it to our friend Tom Jennings’ house in Los Angeles before dark. I’ve known Tom for a long time. Tom’s car is a 1962 Rambler American that came with a 196 ci six cylinder and automatic trans. It was a two-door sedan. Now it has no roof, tube frame chassis, doors welded shut and still the six. It was seeing his Rambler on the LeMons rally page that made me want to join.
Monday morning, got up and relaxed until everyone got going. Tom played with the CB radio and I took the gauge cluster out of the Edsel looking for the odometer issue. I took it all apart and sprayed some lube on the parts and put it together. It felt better so we put it in the car and hit the road. Stopped for gas and a guy in a dune buggy pulled in, we talked to him for a while. Then a lady stopped to take pictures and told us about her ‘69 Riviera. This will be a long trip if it takes 20 minutes of talking at each stop. We took the 101 up to Monterey. We hardly saw any old cars on the highway.
Made it to chilly Monterey. Overcast. Checked in at the hotel and finally found the rally check in. About ten cars there. Got a mascot, signed waiver, showed proof of insurance, registration and license. Named our mascot—a plastic Hippo, “Spiro” for the Nixon/Agnew campaign sticker that David stuck on the Edsel bumper. Unpopular president for an unpopular car.
There are some neat cars signed up. A Humber. Caddy diesel. ‘61 Belair. Nash Metro. Nice folks. Hope to see more in the morning. We went to Dennys because all the good restaurants were closed at 9 pm—probably for private parties for the Pebble Beach crowd. Spent an hour reading about the routes over a greasy tabletop. We have to pick a route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Also have to pick which checkpoints to stop at on the way. Can’t get them all. This is going to be a tough drive!
First day. Left early. Good thing. It was cold and cloudy and dark in Monterey. The town is asleep at 7am. Didn’t see any LeMons in town but did at the first checkpoint—The big artichoke in Castroville, CA. We had our choice of routes over the mountain and also had our choice of which checkpoints to get, or not get. The more you do, the more points you get. We did about ¾ of the possible checkpoints. David navigated and Tom followed. Bought some coffee and some cheese. Saw probably a third of the 40ish cars that showed up. Quite a variety of cars: Baja bug, shortened Festiva. A few BMWs and late Porsches. That Humber Super Snipe Wagon. A Hyundai with a generator and AC on the back. The drivers are reflected by their cars. You have to be wacko to do this.
A lot of farmland out here.
We tried the ancient tube CB radios this morning but they didn’t work well enough to be useful. Overmodulating or something. We did finally get the 8-track going tonight. It’s a unit from a 1975 Caddy. David mostly fixed it. Have to reach up under the dash and spin the flywheel to get it started, but Steely Dan sounds ok on one speaker. It ate Abba. Maybe for the best.
The route we took over the hill was highway 4. The highway was good until near 7000 feet. Then the road got narrow and had a 25mph speed limit. 24% downgrades on the way down. No guard rails. We made it, despite rain at the 8,730-foot peak. Tom mentioned the brake lights were not working in the Edsel. Stopped at the O’Reilly in Carson City and got a new switch. Less dramatic than the Humber which slid sideways into the intersection off the freeway. Clevis pin fell out of the brake pedal.
Left Fallon almost on time. Didn’t get too far before we heard a weird crunchy sound from the transmission. Two weird crunchy sounds. Pulled off the road, looked under for oil drops. Clean. Pulled the Overdrive lockout cable under the dash, went our merry way in regular high gear.
Came across the orange VW Thing trailing his exhaust pipe. Asked owner if he needed baling wire for his exhaust problem. He didn’t know it was loose. I fixed it, also found loose plug wire, and the oil cap fell off.
We got to Ely, went to NAPA, bought jackstands, drain pan, and drained trans. Lots of metal flake. Refilled with new oil and went to Vegas. Checked into hotel, checked in with LeMons judge. Drove up to friend’s house, visited, drained and refilled trans again. Still metal flake. Posted on the HAMB (Hokey Ass Message Board) looking for transmission.
Saw the Thing at the hotel tonight, they ended up with the car on trailer. Oh well.
We talked about the transmission, looked at pictures and diagrams on the internet, and decided the risk of running it was pretty low. The overdrive planetary, which is probably the part that went bad, does not actually move when it is locked out. The transmission itself is not likely to have problems from the metal parts except that the oil will run in the bearings and might make them get worn faster. It will probably start making more noise if it gets worse. It’s a gamble, but hey, we’re in Vegas, so gambling is a thing. And the odds are still better than in the casino.
We hit the road early to make a 9am photo shoot on the way to Death Valley but first we had to stop for breakfast. Then stop for gas. Then stop for gas again. Then talk about which route to take. Then get to the place, an hour and a half late. So we successfully avoided the photo shoot. Yay.
Lots of tourists in Death Valley in August. Either they want the full experience or they are as stupid as we are. It was friggen’ hot out. We encountered the Aerostar van that was in the lead. The driver and copilot don’t know anything about fixing cars which makes it so fantastic that they were doing this. The van didn’t want to start so the driver asked for a jump. Tried the jump, still no start. So David gets out the voltmeter and Tom starts wiggling stuff and I look at it, there is no negative battery cable! Just a thin 10-gauge wire running to the body, and that wire is loose in the terminal. We shoved it into the terminal and it started right up. It’s one of those things that shouldn’t work, but it did.
We headed across the desert. Tom was worried because the faster he drove, the lower the oil pressure dropped in the Rambler, but we pressed on. Eventually we made it to the Trona Pinnacles, a bizarre rock formation that is popular in sci-fi movies. They filmed part of Star Trek V there. David had Spiro reenact the scene where Captain Kirk meets God. The drive to the rocks was on a nice dirt road. I drove the Edsel as fast as she would go. Not quite warp speed.
We had a choice at China Lake. We could go around the mountain or go over and get some points. Since there was a fire in the mountain, but the highway was not closed, we went over. Good choice. Nice twisty road going down into Bakersfield and straight to the bar for pizza, beer, and lies about the day’s drive. The guy with the Dodge Ram had his grille with him. His hood flew open and shattered his windshield. Fortunately the hood and grille didn’t wipe out the Smart car that was behind him at the time. Out in the parking lot, the ‘76 Caprice was getting the master cylinder diagnosed and the white Volvo team was looking for a reported fuel leak, and fixing the tail pipe. I gave them some of my baling wire. Should have brought more.
Nice cool drive today. We saw the last gas station that James Dean bought gas at and his last intersection. The next checkpoint was on super fancy 17-mile drive in Pebble Beach. Folks got a kick out of seeing the Edsel in such a posh location. The next drive was up to Santa Cruz. The ‘76 Impala guy was finishing installing his new master cylinder at the egg ATM checkpoint. Yes, an automated egg vending machine. We all had to bring eggs back to the hotel. What were the organizers going to do with all those eggs?
At the next checkpoint, the voltage regulator stopped charging. Pulled off the cover and wiggled it and it was fine. Put the cover back on and it stopped again. Whacked it with a screwdriver and it worked. Decided to clean contacts, then it would not charge at all. Took it out, looked at it, haven’t found the problem yet. Auto parts stores didn’t have a regulator for an old generator-era car. Texted my wife and asked her to send us the wiring diagrams from the Chilton’s manual in the garage. Will figure out what to do in the morning. Lots of cars at the hotel, fun in the parking lot. Got yelled at by an old lady who can’t sleep with our noisy talking.
Got a good night’s sleep and got to work on the regulator. After looking at the schematic Janet sent, David decided the center contact was dirty, and sanded it clean. That fixed it. We drove down from Santa Cruz to Monterey, for the Concours D’LeMons show. That was it. The rally end. We made it. I went to Staples a few blocks away and bought a For Sale sign. I put $250,000 on it and left it on the dash. Got a few chuckles but oddly, no bids. We got 3rd place, a nice welded up trophy. Mercedes got second. Aerostar got first, which was quite fitting. They then sold the car to one of the event organizers and got a ride to the airport.
We headed back down to LA. The car was running but the voltmeter was a bit low, and there was a growling sound under the car, getting louder as time went on. I was talking to a HAMB-forum guy about a transmission. It was just south of Tom’s place. As we climbed the hill before dropping into LA, we stopped at a rest stop to change drivers. Steam was coming out of the front of the car. No biggie, just added a gallon of water, it cooled right off. The lights were a bit dim, the noise was getting concerning. We made it to Tom’s around midnight. I’ll get up early and look at the transmission oil.
Got up and jacked up the car. Oil is not any worse than last time. Put in fresh fluid. David fiddled with the voltage regulator. After the trans, I decided to see if the front wheel bearings were ok. Jacked up the driver’s side, I could move the tire half an inch! Oops. Pulled off the hub cap and the dust cap. Nice and black and yucky looking. Pulled out the bearing and cleaned it a little and smeared some new grease into it. Put it back together, ready to hit the road. Tom woke up and asked what was going on. He said he had a new bearing. We had to get going to meet the guy with the transmission. Stopped at the parts store and bought another bearing, some grease, and hand cleaner. Drove to trans guy’s house. Got trans, saw his collection of Chevy heads, swapped the bearing. Decided the hub was really worn out, didn’t know if we would make it back. Posted pics on Facebook, asked if we would make it. Two friends said it would be fine. Gotta trust what you see on the internet, right? So we hit the road. Slow going, frequent checks on the bearing, and also the charging voltage was too high. At one of the grease stops, adjusted the regulator again, and got it right this time, 13.5 volts. Kept going, got to Tucson around ten. Dropped off David and headed home. Made it. The end.
Took pics of car, put it on eBay. It hasn’t sold yet.
Edsel was a short-lived Ford marque in the late 1950s. Named for Henry Ford’s son it was built to compete with Buick and other mid range cars. At Ford the Edsel was intended to sit between the Ford and Mercury lines, with the more expensive models between Mercury and Lincoln. Edsel was supposed to be an exciting new car with loads of new features, and the pre-debut marketing hype was intense. Then the car came out, and customers were not impressed with the styling nor the touted features. With a recession setting in, sales of the ‘58 models were flat. The new 59 model sold ok but the car got axed just after the 1960 models were introduced. It was a huge embarrassment for Ford Motor Company, and the name Edsel became the punchline of many bad jokes. In some dictionaries today, Edsel is defined as “a failed product”. By the mid ‘60s most Edsel owners parked the cars and today many are being rediscovered and brought back to life, mostly by people with good senses of humor.
Fun trivia note: The Comet was originally designed to be part of the Edsel line, but Edsel was discontinued and the Comet found a new home under Mercury.