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.