It was a clunk, then loud banging from behind me, and then the engine cut off. Any other time before and I would have been in a flash of panic, checking and forcing a restart and I don’t know what else. This time, man, I just put it in neutral and coasted ahead into the night.
(Welcome to another installment of The Little Engine That Couldn’t, wherein I try to drive across the country in a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle that I bought semi-running five days before departing. It all seemed pretty doable. After all, I had only needed to do a single engine-out repair in a driveway.)
I don’t know how long I let the car roll for. A hundred yards? Two hundred yards? I was still doing highway speed, running close to midnight on that stretch of I-40, just about halfway to Memphis from Little Rock.
I did wonder for a minute what it was that had just failed. It sounded so much worse than cutting out from overheating.
I remembered every other time in this trip I had to deal with overheating. The very first drive around the block back in my hometown in California. The clump of wires lodged in the cooling fan outside of Sacramento. Up the Sierras. Past the Sierras. Burning my fingers changing spark plugs in Arizona. Coughing out uphill in New Mexico. At gas stations. At restaurants. While getting pulled over. None of it fazed me anymore.
But when I finally pulled onto the shoulder, there wasn’t any smoke coming out of the back of the car. I lifted the engine lid. No sign of any exploded oil. Under the car? No, no leaks. Everything looked completely normal.
I let the car sit, tried it again, wouldn’t start. I remembered all of my other roadside fixes. I remembered my resolve to just get the car back on the road, just get it running, just make it to the next city. But something told me that this was not something I was going to fix on the shoulder in the middle of the night getting passed by 18-wheelers, so I called AAA in a moment of uncharacteristic calm.
A highway patrol officer stopped to check out the ‘74 VW with its dim little hazard lights on. I told him about my whole plan to drive back to New York City, he told me unrepeatable stories about working as a truck driver delivering through the Bronx, back in the day. While I was on the phone double-checking my location with the tow truck dispatcher, he also pointed out that I had come to rest within sight of the state border. My whole day of driving, from three in the morning through to then, leaving from Amarillo under the stars, I hadn’t made it to Tennessee. Arkansas was as far as I made it.
After about an hour the tow truck driver showed up with his own, also unrepeatable stories about his ex-wives all living in the same small town as him, and gave me more of an explanation why he was comfortable driving me back to Little Rock, but not pleased about the idea of taking me into Memphis in the dead of night. “You can leave your car there,” he intoned, “but it might not be there in the morning.”
We turned back towards Little Rock.
I didn’t know any vintage Volkswagen shops there. I didn’t know any people there. I found a single shop that had a picture of a Volvo P1800 parked outside on Google Streetview. The tow truck driver and I figured that was my best shot.
Only as we were pulling up to the place did we see, around the corner, a sign for a Volkswagen-Audi specialty garage; O’Hara Automotive if you’re curious. Normally that’s a sign that the shop works on later, parts-sharing, water-cooled cars. But I spotted in the back lot that this place had a couple ‘70s VW just like mine. I had my tow truck driver drop me off in their parking lot and I rolled out my sleeping bag in the back of my car. I barely slept. I didn’t want to wake up late anyway, at least, I wanted to wake up and get out of my car before anybody at the shop showed up for work. I figured finding a dude sleeping in a vintage VW when you check in in the morning wouldn’t be a good way to start things off.
So I got up at dawn and walked off to look for breakfast. The city reminded me of Sacramento, actually, a lot like the part of town where I had bought the car. Leafy old streets in a small state capitol. Even the rivers looked alike.
I walked back to the shop, had the somewhat strange conversation that, hey, that blue Beetle out there with the California plates is mine. I drove it here, and I think the engine is busted what can we do about it.
I talked to the guy opening the shop, and figured we could at least attempt to diagnose what was wrong. When we tried to turn the engine over manually, with a wrench attached to the flywheel, we hit resistance. Something was physically interfering with something else. Probably a dropped valve.
If you have an engine that overheats a lot of times, overheats then cools, overheats then cools, it puts a lot of stress on the valves. Eventually one will open and not close, hit a piston, and you’re done.
We could have dropped the engine and taken it apart to find out for sure, but I figured we didn’t need to.
It didn’t make sense to throw money at this stock motor, I explained. I wanted to replace it anyway once I had made it to NYC, drop it out for a bigger 1776cc one. They’re not cheap (I’m budgeting $5000 for mine, twice what my whole car cost up front) but they’re supposed to be just as stout as a regular 1600, while making a good deal more power. Something about as much as, say, an early Porsche 356.
So if I was planning on pulling this old motor out anyway, why not just get a 1776 and put it in the car here in Arkansas? The shop seemed good, the people were nice, and I didn’t have time to keep hammering on the car myself anyway. I need to be back in New York for work the next day. I might have made it if I had driven through to Memphis that night, then drove all the way through the day, then drove up to New York in the early morning before work started.
As it was, I didn’t have enough time for the car to get me there, so I left the car at the shop. They very kindly gave me a ride to the airport and I caught a one-way back to the city.
That’s as far as the car has gone. It’s still waiting on that 1776 to get built. I’m still in New York. I’ll fly back down whenever the car gets done and drive it the last of the way.
This plan might sound crazy to you. You might think that, after all these months, it would be good to just get rid of the car, buy something else local and move on. There are lots of nice cars I would love to own for sale here in New York. An old Corolla that could be a drift car. An old Celica that could be a drift car. An old Cressida that could be a drift car. These cars are available and wonderful and I’d love to own one. It makes sense for me to own one.
But I’m still holding out for my stranded California car, stuck in Arkansas. I got a call from the shop that has it a few weeks after it came in. The guy at the shop asked if I was sure I wanted to spend all this money on a kind of scrappy ‘74 Beetle. If it was an early oval window car, a convertible, something expensive, something historic, something desirable, he could understand. But a ‘74 isn’t worth much. I told the guy I understood where he was coming from. I understood his position, but I told him to go ahead with the work.
“I have a connection with the thing,” I explained, half happy and half sad. “We’ve been through a lot together.”