Welcome to America

If any vehicle in my past were a bridge between two distinct parts of my life, it is the little white 1970 Austin America I bought from Ken Boyd.  The Austin spanned from my bachelorhood to my fatherhood.  I bought it while still taking dates to picnics and dinners in the Aston Martin and within 3 years used it to bring home my new infant daughter, Adrianne, from the hospital with her mom, Della – my new wife.

Not only did the Aston Martin’s appetite for premium fuel challenge my budgeting skills, but I realized after replacing it’s clutch that having a spare car would ensure my ability to get to work on days too rainy to ride a motorcycle.  Ken had used the Austin to teach his children to drive.  It had a sound body and engine and was only missing a few exterior trim pieces.  The Austin America used the “hydro-pneumatic” suspension offered on less sporting Mini Cooper models – giving a smooth ride unique among “econo-boxes” of the day.  Aston and Austin sound so similar, I found I needed to be careful in referring to each – as they were about as different as two cars could possibly be.  If the Aston was a “Road Express” the Austin was  “rode pressed.”

Austin Americas were one of many variations British Leyland created by installing the engine and suspension of the Mini Cooper into a boxy body about 20% larger.  It was amazingly roomy for a tiny car.  As Mini Coopers were favorite club racers – Austin Americas were raced too – as a great number of the racing parts from the Mini Cooper applied directly on the Austin America.  The penalty of the Austin’s greater weight was offset by it’s ability to use larger tires.  Either car could be respectfully fast.  With the help of dollars spent on engine modifications by Jon Becker at his “Mini Parts” shop in Martinez – I got my Austin to go as respectfully fast as my limited budget could afford.  While I didn’t invest enough money to make my Austin a competitive racer – I did make it fast enough to easily exceed the road holding capabilities of it’s tires.  On rainy days driving on the freeway, the engine would pull hard enough that at 60 miles an hour if I accelerated too quickly the wheels would spin.  And one morning when I was late for work, the combination of fog slicked roads, a raise in the road that unweighted the front tires and my limited driving skill, caused me to plant the Austin deep into an ice-plant patch outside the loop connecting Skyline Boulevard and Highway 1.  The ruts in the ice-plant and the chuckle of the tow-truck driver indicated other boy-racers misjudged this corner with some frequency.

As another quirky bridge to my future, the Austin also demonstrated a phenomenon aviators are cautioned about when first learning to fly – carb ice.  When a carburator causes fuel to vaporize, it draws heat from the atmosphere.  The manifold passing the air-fuel mixture to the engine can be quite cool.  After Jon Becker’s engine modifications, the Austin would draw so much vaporized fuel that on foggy days driving across California’s central valley the car would eventually start to slow and finally stall after several minutes.  Looking under the hood I would find nothing wrong, and the car would then fire back up without complaint as mysteriously as it had stopped.  I later learned enough ice was forming in the intake manifold to clog it.  The engine would restart as soon as that ice had melted.  My first clue about this was observing that some manifolds for this type engine had a water jacket that used the hot engine coolant to keep ice from forming.

Another moisture related problem the Austin experienced was water seeping into the distributor in a hard rain.  I learned later that Austin’s came equipped with a rubber boot to shield the distributor (mounted right behind the front grill) from water.  My Austin’s rubber boot was missing.  On one of my many drives up California highway 1 to visit my grandparents in Corvallis the Austin stalled in a heavy rain due to this problem.  I got the bright idea to spray WD-40 on the inside of the distributor – and this seemed to fix the problem.  I later learned that WD-40 was one of those substances whose common use as a lubricant was a unintended by-product from it’s original intent.  The “WD” in it’s name stands for “water displacement.” Go figure.

I didn’t connect the dots at the time but water on that trip probably figured into another problem – one that finally stranded me.  Upon reaching Corvallis I noticed grey foam in valve cover.  This indicated water seeping into the engine oil.  I figured the problem was a leaking head gasket, so I removed the Austin’s cylinder head in my grandparent’s garage and replaced it.  About half way back home along Interstate 5 in a tiny town called Weed, the Austin’s transmission started seizing and it barely made it to an off ramp and into the parking lot of a Union 76 station.  The compact Mini Cooper engine used by the Austin America has the transmission built into the engine oil pan – sharing it’s oil supply.  I suspect the foaming engine oil robbed the transmission of enough lubrication to cause its bearings to fail.  For what ever reason, after going a couple hundred miles at a good clip on the interstate and over the siskiyou mountains, the transmission eventually seized.

A stalled car in the middle of a warm and bright spring day wouldn’t ordinarily be much of a big deal.  This case was complicated by the fact it was 300 miles from home and Weed had no bus station or rental car agencies.  To make matters worse I had flown my girlfriend up to share the ride back home so we could have the time together and I could show her the Ashland Shakespeare Festival facilities on the way back to California.  In a classic case of “when God closes a door, he opens a window” the proprietor of the service station where the Austin had come to rest was planning to drive to Los Angeles that evening.  He cheerfully offered to make a small detour through Lafayette to give us a lift back home.

It all worked out so well that it seemed that the worse possible outcome was that the miniature rose plants I was taking back from my grandfather’s garden in the trunk of the Austin might not survive.  But when I borrowed Ken Boyd’s pick-up truck a week later to tow the Austin back home, I found them still cheerfully in full bloom.  Ken had his young son accompany me to retrieve the Austin.  He was mostly silent the whole trip and expressed no enthusiasm for being on this errand.  Maybe he had been sent along to fetch too many cars.  We dropped the Austin off at Jon Becker’s shop – and I got to write Jon a second large check a week later.  The Austin never failed me again – and I felt pretty confident two years later when I pulled up to the hospital in the little Austin America with a borrowed infant car seat securely fastened to bring home my new baby and bride.

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Road Express

When I was 10 years old, my parents bought me a large book entitled The Great Cars. Ten years later when I began to buy some of the cars in this book, my father’s feedback was that it was a waste of time and money for me to have such cars. Ironic. The last chapter was about Aston Martin and the author begins by describing a DB6 he had the opportunity to briefly drive. The author describes the Aston Martin DB6 as “road express” designed for “high speed trans-Europe dashes in which ultra wealthy continental business bigwigs are said to indulge.” In the four decades since I received that gift, there’s never been a time I haven’t been able to put my hands on this book and read that passage.

Having learned my lesson that it’s foolhardy trying to make money fixing the cosmetics of a car for resale, I was always on the lookout for a near perfect DB6 in the San Francisco Sunday classified. It was inopportune that I found one a few months after buying the Rover 3500. I was able to liquidate the Rover at a mere $1000 loss and after some gut wrenching wrangling with loan officers at my bank, a silver 1967 Aston Martin DB6 “Vantage” was mine. And I learned it’s probably better not to make a non-refundable deposit before the financing was secure. I also learned that when you have a girlfriend with two young children, selling a new 4 door hatchback to buy a vintage luxury GT would not make things go well in that relationship.

As an amazing twist of fate the North American source for vintage Aston Martin parts was only a few miles from where I lived in Lafayette. A wiry chain-smoking pilot for Flying Tigers named Ken Boyd had bought out the parts stocks when Aston Martin closed its North American operation in the 70’s. Ken and his brother in-law Bob Attwood ran a mail order business of Aston Martin parts. Ken inspected the car for me – also after I made the non-refundable deposit. Ken noted that the car had experienced some significant body work repairs, and the bumpers were from another type of car. (At $2000 for an original rear set of bumpers – it’s hard not to see why.) So I learned another lesson about getting an inspection before making a deposit. Some previous owners had poured a ton of money into fixing this DB6 after an incident – so at least they lost their shirt – not me. Few people with less experience than Ken would ever really be able to tell the difference in the the car’s integrity. I would probably not have been able to afford a more perfect example of a DB6 – so I took my lumps, and drove my road express with pride.

The DB6 was amazingly reliable. I fooled around with changing the jets on the triple Weber DCOE carburators – trying to improve the best milage of about 12 mpg. Sprited driving would allow you to actually see the gas gauge drop. (The car had two 9 gallon fuel tanks and fed from one tank at a time – the gauge showing the level of the selected tank.) My monthly gasoline bill was about $250 dollars – in 1982. I found that the factory knew way more than I did, and 10 years later I sold about 5 pounds of unused brass carburetor jets on eBay for a couple hundred dollars. I did have to replace a clutch throw-out bearing – a donut sized ring of carbon block that actuated the clutch pressure plate. As this job was challenging for a relative mechanical neophyte, Bob Atwood allowed me to do the job in his garage. Handy since he had great tools – and of course, parts. The clutch, pressure plate and throw-out bearing were replaced by first extracting the transmission up and out through the passenger door – after removing the passenger seat and a fiberglass tunnel over the transmission. The 5-speed ZF transmission weighed easily a hundred pounds – I was glad to have experienced hands available to help. The only other “routine maintenance” was replacing the alternator – which I was fortunate to obtain for a mere $400 because Bob still had a “new old stock” unit on his shelves. (New stock cost twice that amount. The only other car that used that particular alternator was a Rolls Royce.) I have no idea why I didn’t simply have the bearings and brushes replaced.

Not only did Bob and his wife Laura like me well enough to let me take over their garage for several days working on the DB6’s clutch, they also tried to set me up with their daughter, Joyce. In appreciation for Bob’s help with the clutch, I took him, his wife and daughter out to dinner at my favorite restaurant in Oakland, the Bay Wolf. Bob and his wife went in one car with their dog that they didn’t like leaving home alone – and I drove Joyce in the DB6. Joyce was very attractive, but she couldn’t have been less interested in me – or my car. I remember Joyce talking about having been through a recent assertiveness training program. She made a point of explaining that most people don’t realize that many need assertiveness training because they are “aggressive” – and need to learn to reshape that into “assertiveness.” I never knew if she was speaking from personal experience.

With so much money going into my cars and motorcycles, about the only option I had to try to impress a woman on a date was to take them out for a picnic in one of them. This seemed to work better with older women – I suspected because they had already been out with guys with way more money than me – and I was showing them something different. Women my own age still seemed to want to go out with fellows with the cash. On a flight back from Los Angeles I met a Jewish woman about 10 years older than me – she was flying back from her father’s funeral. I have no idea why she agreed to exchange phone numbers with me after the one-hour flight – but she fit the “go for a drive for a picnic” profile. On a drive over to Muir Beach for a seaside picnic my stupidity caused the DB6 to let me down. I drove over a “falling rock” – that must have been just a half inch larger in diameter than the oil pan’s clearance from the road. The DB6’s 13 quart oil sump came to the rescue, and by the time I reached the bottom of the hill at the beach – I had time to investigate the odd smoke coming up from the side of the car before seizing the motor due to oil starvation.

It was humiliating to have to call my roommate Kevin to come pick us up – especially because he only had an MGB, and I had to fold myself into the package shelf behind the two bucket seats. On the ride home I made a joke about some old American car we passed – calling it a dinosaur. Kevin quipped that at least it was running. I don’t recall getting to to take that date out again. In fairness it was my second strike with her. Our previous date was to go see Chevy Chase in his movie Vacation (we walked out) after taking her to a shrimp infested Japanese dinner.

Turns out cracked Aston Martin oil pans are not all that uncommon. They are cast aluminum and they break instead of bend like a usual stamped steel oil pan would. And replacing a damaged oil pan was unappealing – requiring partial removal of the engine to get the oil pan past the frame’s forward cross member. (The dozens of little safety wired bolts holding the pan to the crankcase didn’t make the job any more appealing.) The solution was some fiberglass cloth and an application of JB Weld – a metallic two-part epoxy that is advertised to be suitable for such engine repair. When I had the car inspected a couple of years later trying to sell it to a dealer, the mechanic spotted the repair. He recognized it instantly – he had seen quite a few.

I’ve known women who said that they’ve “dated cars.” And thinking back now, I realize my dance card might have had more entries because of the DB6. I had enough room on my American Express to do a little more than picnic. I wasn’t doing all that well on meeting anybody that I thought I’d like to have as a permanent fixture in my future – but there wasn’t much of a shortage of people who wanted to go out to dinner – something I’ve always enjoyed doing. One was a tall statuesque woman who pinned her dishwater blond hair up in a seductive twist. Not only was she taller than me, her hands suggested she was easily 20 years older. She worked in a low-level administrative position and had a suitable intellect for that position. Back then I always passed for older – and the DB6 helped. She was always trying to get me to tell her how old I was – she suspected I was 10 years older – which would still have made me her junior. I let her believe that. Our relationship never crossed over into romance – although I think I tried pretty hard. But we had many fun drives to interesting and delicious places to eat around the Bay Area together.

It used to bother me that my dates would frequently fall asleep on the drive home. It would frost me that not only did I have to pay for the meal, but I had to maintain enough wakefulness and sobriety after dinner to drive home safely. Of course, I always made sure my dinner companions had plenty of wine available – so maybe it was my own fault. I had a wee bit of wicked satisfaction following one outing to a particularly nice place in Marin County. My date had a large knot on her forehead the next day that she couldn’t explain. I realized later that she fell asleep slumped over with her head resting on my right thigh – the large DB6 steering wheel must have been bumping up against her forehead.

One of the things I liked most about my DB6 was the Superleggera badges on the hood. Superleggera means “super light” in Italian – recognizing the Italian coach builder’s term for the (hand pounded) aluminum monocoque construction technique for the body work. I eventually sold the car to an accountant who lived near by – and after all my repairs and the $1000 loss on the Rover 3500 – I just about broke even. I maybe even came out a little ahead. I shuttered when the buyer said he wanted to cut holes in the trunk walls to fit a set of golf clubs. He bought it without the benefit of Ken Boyd’s inspection – which I suppose helped. All the expense and effort was worth it when I remember the time Kevin was driving the DB6 up Interstate 680, easily passing a Corvette whose blonde female passenger just about climbed out of her window to get into the road express with us.

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Jam Sandwich

By the time I was getting involved with British cars, the British car industry was withdrawing from the American market.  The early 80’s were a tough time for all auto manufactures – with assaults from the economy and insults from new pollution controls and safety devices.  Poor quality control among many British models were the last straw.  One of the last attempts to maintain an American toehold was the Rover 3500 sedan.  In England this car was used as a police car – painted white with a red stripe at the car’s waist, it was known as the  “jam sandwich.”

Ironically, the car’s muscle came from the Colonies. The Rover’s 3.5 liter engine began in the 1960’s as a revolutionary aluminum engine GM created for Buick and Oldsmobile sedans.  It was the lightest V8 engine produced and had the guts for its block to be used in stock configuration at the Indianapolis 500.  More recently, this engine powered most Range Rover’s favored by yuppies of the 90’s.  But the British first used it in sedans – in the 70’s, and later in a new 80’s model.  The Rover 3500 had 4 doors and a hatchback – and was available with a 5-speed manual transmission.  I had to have one.

As a young man just out of college, I wouldn’t have been able to afford such a fine car if it weren’t for the fact that dealers were dying to get rid of them and selling them at fire sale prices.  I don’t remember how much I paid for mine – but after selling the Europa and mortgaging my soul, I had enough.  My girlfriend (the one who didn’t approve of my driving technique in the Europa) had two young children – and was as delighted at my purchase as if I had just bought a new mini-van.

Driving the Rover gave me the “you’ve arrived” feeling advertisers suggest luxury goods will provide.  And of all the car’s I’ve owned – this is the one I most often look for on eBay hoping that there might be one shining example available to re-live the optimistic outlook of my youth.  The car was perfect – in form and function.  It never complained or let me down.  I’m not sure other people were quite as impressed with it as I was – yuppies were buying BMW sedans instead.  But for a short while – it was driving nirvana.  A very short while as it turned out.  Two months after buying it I spotted an Aston Martin DB6 in the Chronicle’s classifieds.  My Rover lasted about as long as it takes to eat a jam sandwich.

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Get Low

For my sixteenth birthday my mother gave me a Matchbox car of a Lotus Europa.  Like any good mom, she had been asking me for weeks what I wanted for my birthday.  Like any good son expecting his driver’s license I wanted my favorite car: a Lotus Europa.  I got one.

Five years later, with a brand new job in corporate America, I began looking for a real Europa.  Every Sunday I’d look through the Chronicle’s car section of the classified ads.  Magazines like AutoWeek and Road & Track offered some possibilities too.  I found a 1970 S2 Europa within my meager budget of $3,500 in the Oakland Hills.  The car had some rough edges.  It had been slightly modified – not ideal for a classic car.  The wheel wells had been flared a little and the “bug-eye” turn signals on the nose had been removed and replaced with more streamlined lights.  Only other Lotus affectionados and I would notice.  I offered $3,000.

The Europa’s owner was in his late 20’s – and seemed to live the life of a musician in a struggling rock band.  He was living in a modest home for that area – way out of my price range.  Everything about the owner was disheveled: his appearance, the house, the garage and the car.  He pointed out that while the car had slotted mag wheels (popular hot-rod wheels of the ’70s,) he had the original wheels and hubcaps that went with the car.

After a few days of consideration – I decided it was the car for me and I called him back.  He didn’t answer.  I kept calling – and finally in desperation, I simply left the phone ringing from a nearby phone booth and drove over to knock on the door. (What was I thinking?)  I knocked loud enough to wake the fellow, passed out on the living room couch. I heard him get up, answer the phone and then slam it down angrily at the apparent prank call.  At least he was awake then to answer the door.  I gave him the $3,000 – and drove off with my new prize. I came back later for the stock wheels.

The Europa  needed two obvious improvements – body work touch-ups and new interior upholstery.  The Europa’s fiberglass body was easy to work on.  It used all the same materials as my fiberglass model airplanes.  I learned that auto paint stores would fill spray cans with custom mixed paint – which made it easy to apply a coat of matching white laquer to the body repairs.  The upholstery proved to be more challenging.  The seats and door panels were covered some fuzzy velour – a tad too “pimp-mobile” for my taste.  With such a limited budget, I took an automotive upholstery class at a local school offering it as an adult education course to make new door panels.  I learned to live with the seats.

The biggest challenge on the Europa was the gas tank – it leaked.  My friend Brian came to the rescue.  Brian was a professional welder – and worked at Siemens making parts for nuclear reactors used for cancer radiation treatments.  He made me a custom stainless steel tank.  The challenge was figuring out how to remove the old tank and install the new one.  The solution was to lift the car up about 30 inches using blocks of wood and hydraulic jacks so I could precariously remove the old tank through the bottom of the engine compartment.  It was a perfect illustration for a safety poster labeled: “Don’t do this.”

An S2 Europa stands 42 inches tall and is powered by a Renault R16 motor with about 80 horsepower.  Because it weights so little it’s still pretty fast – especially in the day when cars were choked by smog controls.  With a mid-engine design and low center of gravity – my Europa went around corners even faster than my ’67 Mustang with all its suspension modifications.  The only shortcoming was that with its steeply raked seats and lack of air-conditioning, it made me sleepy to drive it on warm summer days.

Lotus was the creation of Colin Chapman – who’s production and kit cars were offered for sale to support his company’s racing ambitions.  Chapman is reported to say that a perfect race car was built so lightweight that it would fall apart the moment it crossed the finished line.  My Europa never showed such signs of flimsy construction.  The tried and true French engine never failed to start and keep running, and no parts ever fell off enroute, even on the Nimitz freeway.  The racing heritage was apparent one day driving my girlfriend to work.  I was two lanes too far over to the left and coming up fast on our exit to the right.  The visibility out the tiny rear window was better than you might expect, and clear of traffic it was no problem for the Europa to whip over to the right lane and make the exit.  That maneuver didn’t do much for my love life.

While I wished I had been able to afford the more inspiring twin-cam John Player Special Europa, but I was proud of my little white car.  At only 42 inches tall, I was beginning to step up in the world of cars.

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More Wheels Than Shoes

Early in my career I met an Indian fellow at work named Ravi. Ravi liked to hear about my various car and motorcycle projects. Ravi filled some significant holes in my world history education. He helped me understand the role of the British empire in the 20th century from his Indian perspective. The most important thing Ravi taught me was about how India gained it’s independence. He gave me a copy of Freedom At Midnight – and my understanding of the world instantly expanded.

I always suspected that the British history in India somehow influenced Ravi’s interest in my British cars. At the time we knew each other, I still had the blue ’67 Mustang, both MG’s, and my first motorcycle – a Suzuki GS450S. Ravi commented offhand that he suspected that I might have more wheels than shoes. I went home and counted – he was right.

My parents (mostly my mom) were adamantly against motorcycles. They weren’t crazy about convertibles or Volkswagens either because of their inherent dangers. Convertibles couldn’t protect you in a roll over, and Volkswagens didn’t have engines in front to shield you in a crash. I snuck various rides on friend’s bikes while still receiving my parents’ support – but it didn’t take too long after my emancipation before I bought my first motorcycle.

With almost no experience on motorcycles, I rode poorly compared to my friends who had ridden for years. Yet I felt instantly at home on two wheels – and while I always rode more slowly and carefully than some of my kamikaze buddies – we rode the backroads of California almost every weekend with acceptable weather. The experience and skill came as the miles accumulated.

Within a few months of owning the small Suzuki I felt the need for something larger. I traded the 450 for the biggest and “baddest” bike Suzuki sold. The Wes Cooley inspired GS1000S. Its aggressive look generated a comment of a female colleague who wanted to ride on it with me to lunch: “So, do you have issues with your masculinity?”

A third Suzuki, the radically engineered GS750ES, followed three years later. I don’t recall a single mechanical failure on any of my Suzuki’s – except for one or two flat tires. The 750 was such a good bike I still look for a decent used one on eBay from time to time.

As my experience and confidence grew I began to take longer motorcycle trips. One particularly grand adventure was a ride to Seattle on the 1000. A motorcycle riding buddy at work arranged for us to meet in Seattle with our bikes and have them loaded aboard a company ship for a ride back to California. I was just learning about having better motorcycle riding apparel – and a volunteer group providing hot drinks at a rest stop in Washington offered very welcome relief from the cold wet ride.

With an eye to longer riding opportunities and a lust for more sophisticated riding machines I bought a BMW R100RS – the most sophisticated sport touring motorcycle in the world at that time. While it had way more mechanical problems than all three of my Suzuki’s combined – I regularly road it from San Francisco to Los Angeles and other similarly long trans-state trips. My record of miles covered in a single day on a motorcycle is 700 miles riding from San Francisco to my grandparents’ home Corvallis, Oregon, using highway 101 as much as possible. I have never been more exhausted as when I arrived at my grandparents’ home at the end of that day.

I probably had my most intriguing experience on two wheels on that long ride to Corvallis. When I crossed the Oregon state line I slowed to stay within a reasonable approximation of the speed limit. On my previous ride to Seattle I had learned that the Oregon highway patrol used radar guns, and I wasn’t anxious to get another ticket. Soon after I rode through the town of Gold Beach, where the mouth of the Rogue river empties into the Pacific ocean, I was passed by a rider on a Honda. It’s common for riders to join up together on the highway for safety and camaraderie, but I felt this rider’s pace was sure to result in a traffic citation.

An hour or two later, I rode through the town of Coos Bay, where ships were being loaded with wood chips and pulp for export to paper and wood product mills in Asia. As I rolled to a stop at the second or third stop light, the speedy Honda rider came up from behind me and we rode together to the northern city limit. (I later learned that I had gotten ahead because the Honda rider had indeed gotten a ticket.) As the Honda pulled away from me as we left the last stoplight in town, I noticed something peculiar about the rider’s boots. The shape of the boots’ heals were wrong – they were too tall and narrow to be a man’s boot. The idea that the helmet concealed a woman rider aboard the speedy Honda was irresistible. I kept pace – traffic citations be damned.

I rode along with the slim heeled rider for several miles before we both pulled over to introduce ourselves. The rider was indeed female, Kim Fredrick. Kim had been visiting her boyfriend in Gold Coast, and was on her way home to Portland. I suggested we ride together to Newport where our paths would diverge. There are good seafood restaurants in Newport – I offered to buy us dinner.

Over dinner I learned that Kim worked as a UPS delivery truck driver, and hoped to attend a seminary in the San Francisco bay area some day. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses (way before email) and I floated the idea that someday she come visit the Bay Area – as I had two bikes, and the area offered a plethora of wonderful riding opportunities. A few months later – Kim took me up on my offer. We spent 3 days riding a different direction each day from my apartment in San Francisco. We stayed in touch for a year or two. I even lent her the BMW once in Los Angeles after I had moved there.

I had the Suzuki 750 and the BMW when I moved to Los Angeles, but I began to ride them less and less. I had a young family to attend to – and the Los Angeles highways were an unpleasant experience on motorcycles. My last significant ride before I finally sold my two bikes was a ride up to Berkeley to visit my sister Ruth. I took the scenic route up the coast, a route that took me through the farming village of Guadalupe. Guadalupe seemed populated by hispanic immigrants – as evidenced by the numerous Mexican cantinas and western wear shops. As I rode past the last cantina, my BMW’s rear tire found a package staple – one that might have been used to seal a case of lettuce grown in the local fields.

BMW intended you to ride their motorcycles on long adventures, and equipped my R100RS with a flat tire kit, tire irons, and an air pump. It wasn’t until I attempted to dismount my tire using the 4” long tire irons that I learned that the BMW engineers had a sick sense of humor. There was no way to get enough leverage to lift the tire bead over the wheels rim with 4” tire irons. With no cell phone (also not invented yet) and no local motorcycle shop in town, I headed to the cantina across the street where 3 or 4 Japanese crotch-rockets were parked. I introduced myself to my riding compatriots, and one of them offered to take me and my rear wheel about 20 miles to a motorcycle shop in Santa Maria for repair. The ride on the back of the racer at blinding speeds still wasn’t fast enough considering I had my right arm looped around the BMW’s 20+ pound rear wheel.

I paid the rider’s bar tab when we made it back to Guadalupe with my repaired tire, and I headed on to Berkeley as the north wind began to pick up. By the time I made it to Ruth’s apartment, I was exhausted and fell directly to sleep on her couch. In the morning when I woke my tongue felt dry and bloated like a baloney, and the arm that carried my rear wheel felt like it had exploded.

Not long after that trip I sold my two bikes to pay down enough debt to afford lease payments on a Lexus LS400. I had been following the creation of Lexus and Infiniti in the automotive magazines for several years before they debuted. In a city of freeways like Los Angeles, the big comfortable LS400 seemed like a better option than buying a larger house that we were also considering. Over the year we had the Lexus – we never once regretted that decision – even though selling bikes and other cars finally swung the balance back towards having more shoes.

Posted in BMW R100RS, Motorcycle rides, Motorcycles, Suzuki GS1000S, Suzuki GS450S, Suzuki GS750ES | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


I knew two Kens in high school.  One was into photography and he took some of the best pictures of me from my high school years.  The other Ken was into cinema, and he had a understanding of the world that was more sophisticated than my own. I liked him because of that.  He hosted the first party I attended where alcohol was being served.  I can still remember the timid way I drove home after that event.

Ken would organize showings of classic and “art” films at a Unitarian church in Sacramento.  Later, when we went to Berkeley together, he would show them there.  They were shown on the pretext that it was a “film club” activity.  It was his enterprising way to earn a little cash.   I saw Deep Throat at one of Ken’s “film club” showings at Berkeley. I guess Blockbuster, Netflix and the Internet put an end to film clubs.

At Berkeley, Ken made friends with the owner of a tiny movie theater on Telegraph Avenue called the Telegraph Repertory Theatre. The owner was an aging fellow from the beatnik era. The sign on the box office said “Student Tickets $3. Everyone is a Student.”

Ken knew about my work on the MGA, and somehow word got around to the theater owner – who had a derelict ’63 MGB in the garage under his apartment building. He offered to sell it to me for $100 if I could get it out of there. The first production year of the MGB was 1963. Mechanically, it was very similar to my MGA. I knew if I could get fuel and spark the the engine, I could make it run. Keeping the MGA going had made me mechanically fearless. For $100, I couldn’t resist.

I found the “B” in the dark back corner of the subterranean garage heaped with garbage. As I cleared away the debris I found that the car had been burned – it looked like some homeless person had used the B as a place to sleep, and had let a lit cigarette catch the interior on fire. Since then, the people had been using it as a garbage bin.

After clearing away the garbage, I began to go through the engine and brakes. After installing a new battery the engine started easily and revealed that the main muffler was missing. I had to take all four wheels off to take them to have new tires installed. The brakes required bleeding and adjustment – but seemed to be sound.

It didn’t actually take long to get it going well enough to drive home. Without a top the air flowing over the open cockpit caused grit and debris to float up around me – it was a very nasty ride. And with only the exhaust resonator because the muffler was missing, it was hard to be inconspicuous.  All I could do is smile and wave as I crept down the Berkeley streets.

Getting the B back into shape turned out to be a fairly easy process. I simply had to replace the parts that were burned or dented: The hood, doors, trunk, top, seats, steering wheel and carpets. I bought a new top, but got all the other parts used from a British car dismantler. Each body panel was from a different color car – so the B was pretty colorful before I got it painted. I wanted to paint it black, the car’s original color. But the painter advised that black paint will reveal every minor blemish and wrinkle in the old body panels. So I looked through his paint books and found “Diamond White.”

The process of renovating the B taught me a valuable lesson – you can’t make any money fixing up old cars cosmetically. I mistakenly thought that with the difficulty of finding mechanical parts of old British cars, one might do well financially buying one that ran well, but needed beautification. After all, people want cars that look good. What I discovered is that it’s never much trouble finding some mechanical part – and the expense of repairing a car’s interior and body work is so high that it’s always a losing proposition. (I’d put that lesson to work later when I bought the most cosmetically perfect Aston Martin I could find.)

My favorite experience driving the B was on very early mornings when I was driving across the SF-Oakland bay bridge. I worked from midnight to 6am on a computer project at the University of California at San Francisco’s data center – to earn the money to feed my car habit. Still with no top, calico body panel colors, a bungee cord holding one door closed, and only half a muffler, the B made a beautiful noise reverberating between the decks on the drive back to Berkeley. Fresh air, morning light, cool temperatures, burbling car noises – it was splendid.

The B turned out to be pretty reliable, and only stranded me once. I was driving back to Sacramento at night to visit Ann and elected to take highway 16, the river road, instead of the interstate. A few miles after leaving the major highway, and right by the only phone booth for miles, the B’s radiator failed. Too poor for the luxuries of AAA or tow trucks, I called Tytus to come help. Tytus picked me up and took me back to Berkeley to get a “spare” radiator – the one in the MGA. We took that to the B and although it didn’t really fit, I got it in by removing the radiator fan, and wiring it in place with baling wire. I wired the hood down too, because the radiator was too tall – but maybe because of the cool night air, the B made it back to Berkeley without any trouble overheating. Later, a new radiator core made the B good as new.

Ann loved my MG’s – and for a brief while we were members of the Sacramento MG club. Once we got to drive in a parade at a California State Fair.  I’m not exactly sure, but as I recall, she always wanted the MGA, but without real windows and because of its temperamental wire wheels, I thought the B was a better car for her – and ended up giving it to her when we split up. I remember my dad saying that if that’s all the break up cost me, I was lucky.  Actually, I think his wording was more insensitive.

We were kids, breaking through into adulthood – what was he thinking?  We were experiencing our first serious adult issues and challenges together.  Changes in the decisions we made then would have been  life altering.  I’m incredibly fortunate – today Ann is one of my dearest and closest friends.   I think we both miss the B.

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The British are Coming

After swapping out the better parts of the green ’67 Mustang to upgrade my blue one, I traded it for a ’56 MGA. It was the only car I’ve owned that was older than me. The MGA’s owner was a young woman who was in love with its style – but unable to contend with the needs for regular repair and maintenance. The car came with several boxes of spare parts – which I came to learn was a common accompaniment to a British car.

This car was about as simple as an old tractor. The things that made it a challenge (and fun) were the parts that were different than those on American cars. For example – the shock absorbers weren’t the standard telescoping type – they were “lever action” units – that had refillable oil reservoirs. The car battery was connected “backwards” with the chassis ground attached to the positive battery terminal – a “positive earth” arrangement. (And it had two 6 volt batteries wired in series.) Of course it had SU carburetors – again, very simple – once you took one apart to see how it worked.

Some of the unusual things that made the MGA fun were the knobs, latches and switches. It didn’t have door handles. You opened the door by reaching inside the open center of the interior door panel to find the cord strung across that released the door latch. That was no problem from outside the car – there were no windows on the door. For rainy days, you could install the “side curtains.” These were plastic windows, two sliding panels mounted in an aluminum frame, that clipped onto the doors and were secured by a big knurled knob. Even starting the car was fun – you turned to key to turn the car on, then pulled a knob on the dash to crank the starter. I usually just left the key in the ignition – nobody was likely know which knob to pull to start it.

The biggest liability on the car was probably the spoke wheels – real “knock-offs” that were held on by a large single wing-nut that was tightened by hitting the “wings” with a special lead hammer. (Hence, “knock-off”)  I followed the prescribed maintenance procedures such as keeping the wheels clean and the hub splines greased, and these wheels never gave me any trouble. And I managed to avoid denting the fenders by missing the wing nuts with the lead hammer when installing and removing the wheels.

I can remember three mishaps in the MGA. The first was a simple traffic accident. I made a left turn and failed to yield to an oncoming car from the right. I was taking my friend Laura for a ride to show off the MGA along “fraternity row” in Berkeley. I felt as stupid as a box of rocks. Other rides were more successful – like when I took my cousin Peggy for a tour of the San Francisco area including a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember being embarrassed, though, after that ride. I hadn’t yet figured out that the convertible top could be folded down to stow out of sight under the rear turtle-deck – so we road around with it collapsed behind us like the folded down top of an old baby buggy carriage.

Once while driving my sister Ruth from Berkeley to Sacramento, the engine died during rush hour on the notoriously busy Nimitz freeway. The sun had just set, and it was getting dark fast. A simple engine like the MGA’s will at least sputter if it has gas and spark. Since it didn’t, I popped the hood to check for something obvious. Removing the distributor cap and cranking the engine, I saw no spark from the distributor points, so the primary circuit of the ignition system seemed to be the fault. I removed the distributor by feel in the dark so I could inspect it by the light of the headlamp. Sure enough, the points had failed – the plastic cam rubbing block of the cheap points previously installed had melted. The angel of roadside repair was with me that day – I had a spare MGA distributor that came in a box of parts that I got with the car – and just happened to have it in the trunk. I set its points gap by sight, and installed it setting the timing by feel, and we were underway again in less than 20 minutes.

My most harrowing experience in a car was in the MGA, also on the Nimitz freeway during rush hour. I was driving back to Berkeley from San Jose when the steering started to feel light. I remember thinking that something may have come loose on the suspension. Then I noticed that the steering wheel was loose in my hands – it had come disconnected from the steering column. I slowed to a stop by easing off the gas and gently applying the parking brake – so the front brakes wouldn’t pull the car over into another lane. I also reached behind the steering wheel hub to grab hold of the steering column splines in an effort to steer the car straight. I was in the left lane, and miraculously I was able to control the car to a safe stop on the left shoulder.

After allowing my heart rate to settle back down, I discovered that the big nut under the plastic steering wheel horn button had simply come loose. It was easy enough to place the steering wheel back onto the splines of the column and tighten the nut by hand. I was on my way again in just a few minutes – although I do remember sitting on the left shoulder for a while counting my blessings and thinking about the heart attack I almost had.

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