I’m writing this because the deeply troubling events of the world at the moment made me want to take a small moment to meditatively doodle, and the result was what you see up there: my old 1968 Volvo P1800S under a tree. The image is actually significant to me, because that tree forced me to get rid of that car, which indirectly but significantly led to me getting this amazing job I have today. I better explain.
Back in the late 1990s, a simpler era with goofier cell phones that could play a mean game of black-and-white Snake with big, chunky pixels, I was living in Los Angeles, and in that gloriously rust-free world, decided I wanted to get an old car.
Now, I already had an old car, my 1973 VW Beetle, but I’d had that forever and wanted another old car, more of a project car. After negotiating some possibilities with my then-girlfriend, we settled on one mutually agreeable: a 1968 Volvo P1800S.
The car was in San Jose, and I got myself a one-way ticket there with the intent of driving the car back. The car was pretty much like advertised, though I did spend all day with the owner fixing lots of minor stuff to get it ready for the 8 or so hour trip home, which, I’m happy to say, it made.
I really loved that car. I drove it all over the place (the plan that my girlfriend would give up her modern Civic and drive the P1800 fell apart after the difficulties of a manual choke and leaky SU carbs proved too big an ass-pain for a sane person) and swapped it back-and-forth with the Beetle for daily driving duties for years.
While the car had its share of old car issues (hydraulic clutch issues, those SU carbs leaking on the exhaust manifold) it was generally reliable and, while not quick, fun to drive. Things started to change when I moved from my apartment in the Fairfax area to the house I bought in Los Feliz.
Los Feliz is a pleasantly verdant area of LA, full of trees and impossibly huge succulents and all sorts of botany. The house I bought had a massive old tree in the front lawn that really made the yard shady and lovely, and this tree was the sort that had many, many tiny leaves.
I was told what kind it was, but I can’t recall now, since it, you know, wasn’t a car. Maybe some kind of willow? But the leaves were small, and that’s the key here.
I started noticing some issues after I washed the P1800, and, after LA’s usual January-February rainy season, the car refused to run. I had never noticed water-related issues before, so I was confused.
I eventually found that there was water in the fuel, so I went looking for some kind of gas tank hole or fuel system leak. It took me a while, but eventually, I figured out what was happening: rain and car washes, and anything that got water on the car were filling the fuel tank with water.
To understand why you have to know a bit about the early Volvo P1800's weird fuel filler:
The early P1800s—until they went to fuel injection and were renamed the P1800E in 1970—had their fuel fillers on the top of the left rear fender, just inside of the rear fin.
The filler wasn’t a normal one with a threaded neck and a cap; instead, there was a simple, unthreaded pipe for the filler, and it was closed by this weird rubber bung thing, mounted on a spring and attached to the fuel door itself.
When closed, the thinking was the pressure from the spring would push the rubber bung into the filler pipe, forming a tight seal. There was also a tiny drain hole in the rear of the little filler cavity.
This drain hole and my tree were co-conspirators in the plan to make me have to get rid of this car.
You see, old age made the rubber bung harden and not seat properly, and even when I replaced it with a new one, it never really made that tight a seal. Combine that with a drain hole that was constantly getting filled and clogged with the tiny leaves from my tree and you have a recipe for filling a fuel tank with water.
The drain hole would clog with little leaves, it would rain, rain would seep under the fuel filler door, filling the little wading pool of a chamber in there, and then seep into the gas tank.
I removed and drained and cleaned that gas tank at least three times before I finally realized that this car and my yard were just not compatible. I could not find any way to keep that drain hole clean and open without major bodywork, which I didn’t want to do.
So, I decided I needed to get rid of the P1800S and find something else. I was thinking I wanted an original Mini, and that Anglophile rabbit hole led me to find someone in LA with a lovely Reliant Scimitar GTE, which he would happily trade for the Volvo.
So, I did, and drove the hell out of that Scimitar, which led to my reaching out to 2008-era Jalopnik, which led to this article about my car:
That introduced me to the whole, previously unknown, magical world of automotive journalism as a job one could actually have, and about four years later ended up with me working for Jalopnik, and here I am now.
I still have the Scimitar, though time and kids and life have kept me from getting it running again, which I feel guilty about, don’t worry, but hopefully I’ll figure out a plan.
In the meantime, I just wanted to pay some respect to the tree that forced me to get rid of a car, and directed me into what has become a career I love.
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