It all started with a long drive from New York City to West Virginia.
It was last summer and I'd managed to get myself signed up for an all-VW trackday at Summit Point, about five hours from Manhattan according to Google and ten hours in my my '73 Baja Bug.
(Welcome to the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, a series on how I buy a half-broken 1973 Volkswagen offroader that I proceed to break, fix, break, fix, and break again.)
The trackday itself was hilarious. The Baja Bug is by no means meant for the tight turns of Summit Point's Shenandoah circuit. I could feel one wheel lifting high off the ground as I dipped into the Karussel bowl. I repeatedly pulled the eight ball gear knob off my shifter tearing up the esses into the Corkscrew. I kept getting sideways into the 90-degree turns that skip the pit straight. Maybe the left-foot braking wasn't a good idea.
I kept wheeling around the track, getting more and more loose, getting more and more wild until I saw a black flag waving at me from one of the little gazebos where the track marshals hang out.
I was sure it was for my driving, but when I pulled into the pits, they told me I was starting to leak oil onto the track. I took the car up the road to the track's nextdoor mechanic, and he managed to figure out that oil was spurting out of my oil-fill cap. It turns out there was supposed to be a gasket around the filler cap, a gasket that had been dissolved over 40 years of use.
The old guy working there cut me a gasket out of some Crown Vic air conditioning part, and when I asked how much it would cost me, he told me 'no charge.'
I thanked him and darted back to the track, where I made it just in time to get back on the circuit with my run group. This time I was having even more fun. Blitzing through turns, flying into the Karussel, sliding into and all around the slowest corners. And then I saw the black flag again. This time I was sure it was for my driving. I had been all over the track going into that tight double-90-degree they call 'Old Ram.' I was sure I'd been spotted, and I was sure they'd had enough of the Baja.
Nope! Leaking oil again.
By now the mechanic that'd fixed the car last was closing up shop, and I couldn't figure out where the oil was leaking from, so I decided to call my day done. My phone was running out of juice, so instead of checking Twitter, I replaced my front shocks. I somehow managed to strip one of my lug nuts in the process.
That took a good long while, and I was almost done packing up as the last other drivers were leaving the event. The light was fading and the trees were growing dark. I was getting a little worried because I had to drive home. No trailer, no nothing. I drove my car the hours to the track, and I was going to have to make it back. I wasn't looking forward to the trip, and I planned to keep filling and refilling my oil along the way until I was done.
As I was walking through the pits trying to find some kind of help (I think I needed to borrow someone's phone to call my brother? I don't know), I heard a kind of rumble, a sort of clatter.
A yellow torpedo rolled into the pits, with a grey-haired man sitting almost on top of the painted wood body. There was no hood, not even a cover for the valves, which ticked away like a sewing machine.
It was a boat-tailed Model T speedster, a kind of car I'd read about racing back in the twenties. The Ford Model T wasn't exactly an ideal platform for a racecar project, but Ts were the most common cars in the world for many years, and their sheer ubiquity ended up with lots of people building racing conversions. I'd never seen one in person, let alone rumbling through the near-empty pits of a VW trackday.
The driver didn't seem like he was headed anywhere in particular. When I asked him what he was doing, he just said he was looking around. I asked if I could take some pictures of his T, he said sure.
He showed me around the old racer (he'd put it together only a few decades back, if I remember right), and it made my Beetle look impossibly modern in comparison.
The exposed valve gear was the first thing I noticed, but the leather straps as suspension components dropped my jaw. I attempted, but was unable to correctly identify the functions of the four pedals.
I looked at the dashboard. It was quite literally a board of wood. It had no gas gauge, so I asked him where it was. He said there was no gas gauge. No odometer either. How, then, did he know how much fuel he had? A ruler.
He explained that it was all very simple. Stop the car, get out, and lift up the single bench seat. This revealed the gas tank. Open that up, dip in your ruler, and measure the amount of gas left. Lo and behold, he presented a wooden ruler marked out not in inches, but in gallons of fuel left in the tank. He said he'd never been stranded once.
It was pretty clear that this man was a better mechanic than I was, probably a better mechanic than I will ever be. I mentioned my problem with leaking oil and he said he'd take a look. He idled his T up to my engine and mentioned he used to race Formula Vee.
It took him maybe three minutes to figure out what was wrong with my car. My valve covers aren't so much attached to my engine and held onto it. They're pressed in place by snap-on pieces of thick wire. To get to the valves, you unclip the wire with a screwdriver like how you open up a paint can.
He said I'd opened and closed these wire valve-cover holders enough times that one had bent, and it was letting the valve cover get loose and oil leak out. This is when he started to root around in a nearby trashcan. He started telling me he was looking for a 'shim.' I did not actually know what a shim was at the time.
Nothing in the first trash can but mumbling. Out of the second one he produced a thin cardboard box and tore off a strip. He crawled back down to my engine, popped open my valve cover wire, held the folded strip of cardboard up to the valve cover, then snapped the wire holder back over it. Everything pressed together, keeping any oil from leaking out.
"There," he said. "Your problem's fixed."
I thanked him, and he stepped up and back into his T. I asked him his name, and he gave me his first, but not his last. I asked if he wanted to go by anything else. A smile crept onto his face. "No."
He idled off out of the pits, and in a minute it was like he'd never even been there.
The drive home went perfectly, and I went on to motor along with the wedged-in cardboard shim for nearly a year. Through salt and snow, it never had any trouble.
I should say that I don't believe in angels. That being said, a man in a Model T Speedster arriving out of nowhere, fixing my car in minutes with nothing more than a piece of trash, then disappearing into thin air is about as close to an angel as it gets.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove