|The MGA With An Attitude
The MGA ODYSSEY - Going WAY out
WEEK #4 - The Gulf Coast
After a full day's sleep in cool comfort we're leaving Oklahoma City at 8:00 pm. It's a beautiful morning; there's just something strange about driving south with the sun on the right, and then the darn thing goes down instead of up. I'm thinking that the hot weather doesn't really bother us all that much, and we really should get back on the day shift. People tell me there's not much to see down this way, but I think we may be missing a few things in the night. Past experience tells me there's always something interesting on one's first pass at a new route. This will make two consecutive night trips, and I would be very happy if someone could fill me in on what we didn't see between Albuquerque and Houston.
The mountains and desert have long since given way to easier rolling hills getting flatter as we go, grass, trees and more humidity. Lower altitudes have allowed a richer mixture setting at the inhalers, so last night's intermittent popping at the tail is gone, and we can now create a few forward stretching rubber necks again. Around us we see horses, oil rigs, and a wild animal park which we pass after hours.
When the Red River swings by, we're in Texas (again). There are good things to be said for occasional night driving: there's the open sky for one. We even take an impromptu rest stop in the midst of nowhere, just to kill the lights, lie on the ground and stare all those stars that we seldom see near the city lights. The late night air is really fresh out here, and warm enough for just light jackets.
Before midnight we're cruising through Dallas with the expressway all to ourselves. The Dallas skyline is beautiful all lit up, not unlike other large cities, but it's interesting to compare the similarities and the uniqueness of each. Since we need one fill up to reach Houston, this is a good place for a quick pit stop and a snack from the trailer, then we're off again. Interstate 45 goes by quickly with few distractions, Houston also gorgeous by night, and then we run into a bit of fog, and then a bit more fog. Before we're even out of Houston it's getting a little tough to drive through the soup, so we figure it's a good time for steak and eggs at a local pancake house, where our morning appetites take everyone by surprise.
While the food is very good, it doesn't chase the fog away. Not being tired either, we're determined to push on. Things go a little slower now, but an hour later sunrise finds us on Galveston Island, loading onto the free ferry across the mouth of Galveston Bay to the Bolivar Peninsula. We catch the first trip out at 5:30, along with some commuter cars, a trailered fishing boat, and several semi trucks. Wow! This impresses me as being pretty big for a ferry boat. The vehicles are packed tight several lanes wide, so we resort to the upper deck for a better view, and where I can also get a good aerial shot of the MG. The trip is a welcome fifteen minute respite after the eight and a half hours from last night's start, and naturally there's much more to come.
Off the ferry by 6:00 am, we proceed east on route 87 up the peninsula to Port Arthur. The road follows the Gulf of Mexico shore line for over sixty miles, with usually about twenty feet of beach between us and getting wet. There's often just a puny sand curb on the south side of the road, so any decent breeze will flood us out.
In our normal fashion we ignore all the bill boards warning of the storm and high tide hazards and drive this way anyway. The fog has eased up considerably so we can now see oil platforms and boats a long way out from shore. Here we stop for a while to relax and soak our feet in the warm gulf waters. At Sabine Pass (1/2 sq-mi town but much larger than Sabine) we hit the mouth of Sabine lake and have to turn north, continuing to follow route 87. At Port Arthur we find many idle drilling platforms parked in an inlet, refineries, oil processing equipment, tank farms and trains.
Having seen enough of the gulf for now, we take a twenty-five minute trip north to Orange, Texas, opt for the expressway again heading east on Interstate 10, and say "Hello" to Louisiana. There's a short stop at a T.I.O. for a new map, and a long stretch on I-10 with a friendly kind of traffic, where we get a smile and a wave from nearly every car we pass; and we do, often. Halfway across Louisiana, just east of Lafayette, it starts to rain, gently at first, then picking up steadily. I'm always amused by the funny looks from other freeway fliers who never seem to catch on about staying dry with the top down in a moderate rain, as long as we keep the speed over forty. But after about fifty miles it gets so bad that we stop being dry and start drinking the overflow from the top of the wind screen, then duck under an overpass to raise the roof. When the job is done it occurs to me that we haven't seen the rag top for some sixteen days, and haven't missed it either.
The grapevine reports that Louisiana has been getting record rains for weeks, we've seen the Lake Charles welcome center under four feet of water, and we hope we only get a little of it. Just for kicks we follow I-10 around the south side of Lake Pontchartrain and through New Orleans, where we stop in the rain to take on fuel. That's a big mistake here. When we head back up the entrance ramp, the car stops dead, all the choking and cranking in the world won't start the thing, so I don a rain cape and go to work.
I loosen the line at the carbs, grab a paper cup for the sample and let the electric pump do a little work. My first impression is that there are a few drops of water floating on top of the fuel. Then it dawns on me that water doesn't float on fuel but the other way around, so I have a cup full of water with a few drops of fuel on top and a huge slug of water in the tank, lines and carburetors. The next cup full is nearly half water and the next not much better. About two gallons later I'm getting mostly petrol with just a few drops of water settling out of suspension. Then I remove the small covers and purge the float bowls as well as possible in the rain, pull the spark plugs and crank the engine to blow the water spray out of the cylinders, and reassemble everything. A few more minutes of choking and cranking with an occasional pop now and then still won't wake it up. When I hold a plug wire off a little and crank it, there's a rather puny blue spark.
Thinking the spark should be better I walk two blocks to a full service place and buy a new Ford 12 volt ignition coil without ballast. After installing this, the engine does finally fire up, but it coughs and sputters along at about 200 rpm, running on one or two cylinders as it pleases. I hold the throttle to the floor with the patience of a saint for about another two minutes until it picks up on another cylinder and speeds up to an astonishing 400 rpm. More patience and a few more minutes of warming up under full choke and throttle finally gets it up to 1000 rpm, whereby I slip it into low gear and favor the clutch a lot to get it moving up the ramp on the shoulder.
Making the crest of the hill at five mph, I throw a few rude remarks at the service station just over the railing. It takes a good two miles before the engine starts to hit on all four and we can make forty mph and get off the shoulder. There's still so much water in the fuel that it will only run with full choke, so we cough, sputter and wheeze our way along for several more miles before it settles down to a moderate pace at half choke, just in time for ten miles of the northbound bridge over the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain. By the end of the bridge it runs with only a little choke but still sputters occasionally, and the fuel gauge reads 3/4 full (actually about 4 gallons down). I wonder how many more people will have the same problem today.
We turn east to continue on I-10 and head into Mississippi. It's just seventy five miles across the lower tip of this state, and after passing Pascagoula and Escatawpa and entering Alabama, I suddenly regret not even having stopped to set foot in Mississippi.
Having done an hour and a half of only marginally outrunning the storm, we give it up as a lost cause. We're in the sun for now, but we won't be able to pitch a dry tent tonight, so we take in Motel-6 again at Mobile, Alabama at 7:00 pm. I guess we'll miss the fireworks tonight since we need the sleep and have a long day ahead. A few phone calls to confirm our coming appointments, and we're definitely back on the day shift, if we can just crawl out and start again in the morning. For all you map tracers out there, we've just done 995 miles from Oklahoma City to Mobile in just under 23 hours, not counting the ferry ride across Galveston Bay. The running total is 8864 miles in 24 days.
Today should be a cinch. The rain has stopped, the sun is out, the pavement is drying, and it's just an easy ten hours to Tampa / St. Petersburg where our new cylinder head awaits our arrival. It's early morning on I-10 again, heading east out of Mobile. We've dropped the top, we're soaking up the sun and feeling good, and the roadster is purring like a kitten. What could possibly go wrong today? Haven't you learned yet? Don't ask!
Twenty miles out of Mobile, cruising casually at seventy mph, the engine suddenly raises a rather loud clatter but keeps running. On the shoulder with the bonnet up at idle things look OK, still hitting on all four cylinders, still good oil pressure, not overheating, just a slight tapping apparent to the ear, but a blip on the throttle raises the loud clatter again. I guess this might be a loose connecting rod big end bearing cap or a cracked piston, hard to say. I decide to risk gingerly driving it to the next exit if the noise doesn't get any worse, and it doesn't, surprisingly. Five miles later, at 25 mph on the shoulder, we make it slowly up the exit ramp and into a service station.
Up on the hoist with the oil pan off we see nothing obvious here. The bearings are all snug, the rods and pistons all in place, no loose bits in the oil pan, and turning the crankshaft with a wrench reveals nothing. With the hoist down we pull the valve cover and turn the engine with the hand crank (of course I still carry it). All the rockers still rock and produce the correct clearance, so no broken valves or bent push rods appear. Checking down the igniter holes with a light while turning the crank reveals nothing but clean pistons. We replace the plugs, pan and cover, add oil, start it up again and listen intently. It sounds a lot like a bad case of piston slap, but this is a nearly new engine. We start pulling the plug wires one at a time; with number one disconnected the noise mostly subsides. Stop engine, remove number one spark plug, restart the engine on three cylinders, and the rapping noise is completely gone, just leaving the compression pumping out through the plug hole. Even a yank on the throttle and a drive around the lot won't produce the noise. We surmise that this must be a loose wrist pin or a cracked piston.
Well, I can handle those repairs, but I need an operations base with a room and a phone to find the parts. It turns out the nearest motel is fifteen miles south of the interstate, and this little berg only has a three page phone book. Mobile is thirty miles back, and Pensacola is thirty miles forward and, we're informed, much more likely to have parts. So, not being one to like going backward, we settle up with the station, top off the oil and drive on to Pensacola with the spark plug in my pocket, perking merrily along at 45 to 50 mph on three cylinders. The trip is pleasantly uneventful and quiet, the worries subside with each mile closer to town, and we're soon checking into Motel-6 in Pensacola, Florida. Things are much better here; there's air conditioning, a huge phone book and free local calls.
A few calls to the local parts stores turns up no MG pistons in stock. Being sensitive to further delays, and being early afternoon already, I promptly call Victoria British Ltd in Kansas City and flagrantly brandish the name of Leo Long around; after all, he did say to call if we had any parts problems. Someone finally agrees to ship my parts Fed-X today: a head gasket and one piston .030 oversize. The next order of business is to hop into the swimming pool and take it easy until the sun subsides a bit, as it's over a hundred today.
About 4:30 pm I attack the engine again, raise the car a bit, remove the oil pan and cylinder head, and pop out number one piston. There's nothing wrong with the piston! But the answer is now at hand. Lying on my back with my nose getting very intimate with the undercarriage, one hand on the crank shaft and one hand on the front pulley, twisting and jerking the parts I manage to produce the elusive click. At first I think the pulley is loose, but then I notice the front end of the crankshaft will move slightly without the rest; the crank is in two pieces! Upon even closer inspection I find the break runs from the inside root of the first con-rod journal forward at an angle through the forged web to a point about two inches out from the front main journal, previously hidden from view by the connecting rod. The four con-rod journals are still as one piece with the center and rear main journals, so the pistons move as scheduled, while the broken off front stub of the crank is still running in the front main bearing to be pushed around nicely by the larger piece, thereby driving the valve gear, oil pump, distributor and belt pulley as scheduled. So it still ran alright. In my younger days on a really tight budget I may have just driven it that way for a while, but we still have a very long trip ahead of us, and I've grown sort of conservative about the idea of maybe getting stranded on the road.
Well, ok, so it's a broken crank; after thirty-one years the car may be entitled to a little fatigue crack. This I can still fix; it's not like a con-rod went through the side of the block. I'll just disassemble the engine and replace the crank. This mechanical assembly stuff is old hat by now. But where do I get a replacement crankshaft? Do you remember what I said in Albuquerque about knowing the right people? This is where the payoff really comes! But right now it's after hours, and I'm fagged out in Florida's heat and humidity. Being an eternal optimist I don't worry; the morning will come soon enough. So it's back to the pool for more R&R, followed by a good night's sleep.
My piston arrives at 9:00 am by Federal express. I just smile nicely, thank the man and toss the unopened package into the trailer for future spares. Now I know I can probably call on Moss Motors for the parts, but they want about $400.00 for a reground crank with matched bearing set, and an express shipment that heavy from California or New Jersey has got to be a killer both in time and dollars, so it seems a little extra effort is in order here. My room phone is getting a good working over this morning with the free local calls. It should take just about two hours to phone search the entire city for the replacement crankshaft. While it's not a good bet that I'll find one here, it's still early, and the chance of finding one close by is worth the effort.
I start by calling all the local bone yards, especially the ones advertising foreign parts. I get three nibbles here. (1) "We got a rebuildable 1600 short block assembly; $500.00 please." No thanks; I just need the crank. (2) "We got an MGB engine that was running ok, but the car burned up, so it'll need a little cleaning up and some wires." No thanks; too much hassle in the conversion for a parking lot job, and I'm short on time. (3) "We had a whole bunch of MGs here, but a few months ago the owner noticed we hadn't sold anything from them for a long time and had them all crushed for scrap." Oh no! Give me my shot gun; know what I mean?
The next step is to call all the parts stores in Pensacola again. Now I know I can't buy a new crankshaft, but the question is, "Do you guys know anybody in Pensacola who owns an MG (real MG people)." The answer is always, "Sorry. We stock and sell some parts occasionally, but we can't recall who the customers are." Ok, so there's nothing here, but at least it didn't take long to find out. By noon I've deplete the entire Pensacola yellow pages with no success.
The next step is more likely to produce results. You must recall that NAMGAR has a few thousand members, and the membership list is available to any member for a small fee. Now I'm one of those ninety-nine percent who never bothered to get a copy, which unfortunately was just an oversight; you know how these things go. So I get on the long horn and call our friend and yours, Joyce Hart, current NAMGAR Chairman, back in Santa Barbara, California. The question now is, "Who do we know around north-western Florida?" A few minutes of zip code searching turns up four or five members within a hundred miles of our location. And yes Joyce, we know you didn't expect to hear from us again so soon.
The calls to our NAMGAR members produce a few unattended phones in midday and a few nibbles like, "We know someone who knows someone who might have something." Like Obin Hamrick in Tallahassee who has an MG and knows a guy who works on Triumphs and sometimes MGs who might know of someone with just the part we need, and he'll check it out and call me back. I also call our friend Glen Lenhard in St. Petersburg, and ask him to put our new cylinder head on a bus to Pensacola, so we can put it on here while we're stopped anyway and save the time later. Now I finally concede that this may take just a little longer than I first thought, so I start calling ahead to cancel some of our impending trip visit appointments.
When I call Tom Jevcak in Tampa, he says, "Gee, I have a reasonable looking extra crank in the garage," and agrees to take it promptly to a shop to have it checked out. Also, a few calls later Jim Sutoros in Raleigh, NC says, "I got an extra crank lying around getting rusty and a couple of loose engines in need of rebuild that I can tear down if necessary. I'll get you a crank." Well thanks Jim, but hold off until I hear from Tom; he's a lot closer. And now I feel a lot better. A couple of hours later Tom calls to tell me his crank had a very badly spun bearing journal and was trash. These days it can probably be PECO'd (flame coated) to rebuild the surface and save it, but we don't have time for that either. So I call Jim back with a smile that he can hear all the way to Raleigh and say, "You're it old buddy old pal; don't let me down," and he vows to get a crank to the shop to be checked out first thing in the morning.
With the business all settled for now, I take my never ending smile back to the pool for the rest of the day and evening to work on my tan some more. After a couple of days cooped up in the motel it's even pretty easy to coax the navigator in for a good time. The pool officially closes at nine, but by now we're on good terms with the manager, so I stay and splash until nearly midnight.
By 10:30 am my new cylinder head arrives on Greyhound from St. Petersburg, and I send a cab to pick it up; for the first time in this trip I'm really getting into this loafing around stuff. Then Jim Sutoros calls about 11:00 to say the crank has been cleaned and polished and looks good. Previously reground, the rod journals are .010 U/S and the mains .020 U/S. They can't find the bearings in Raleigh, but I tell him to send the crank anyway, and I'll get the bearings. It takes the bus twenty-four hours from Raleigh to Pensacola, and I have plenty of time.
Burning up the phone lines again shows no bearings that size in Pensacola. NAPA says their Birmingham facility has the rod bearings but no mains. Victoria British in Kansas City has rod bearings only, projecting six weeks for the mains. Moss Motors in Goleta, California also has only the rod bearings and projecting six weeks for the mains, but their east coast facility may have them; hold the line. While I'm holding the line from Florida to California, they're calling New Jersey. Yep, they got them all, but it's late in Jersey, and it's Friday, and could I wait until Monday for shipment? After a whole passel of sob stories and general groveling over the phone, Moss out west agrees that for the $18.00 Federal express fee they'll fax the order to Moss out east and put in a good word. They also give me the phone number to call in New Jersey to follow up, just in case, and you know I will! Twenty minutes later when I call, Moss in New Jersey says my order is already out the door and picked up by Federal. Woo-hoo! Score one for the good guys.
Things have been happening fast and furious, and it's no time to stop now; I'm on a roll. Directly across the street is a tool rental company, and for $22.00 a day they deliver an engine hoist to our parking lot. I buy a 12-inch adjustable wrench to work the crankshaft nut and oil cooler hoses, and a cheap 3/8-inch drive bending beam torque wrench (at the same tool rental place). The motel maintenance man gives me a half sheet of plywood and some bricks to keep the parts up off the sandy pavement, and by dinner time I have the engine out and stripped of everything but the cam shaft. It's been a long hot day, and I'm cooked, and guess what's next. Yep, you guessed it. SPLASH!
My bearings arrive Fed-X by 9:00 am. Hustling quickly to the front desk I rip the box open to check out the goodies. The rod bearings are ok, but the main bearings are the wrong part number, some smaller engine's rod bearings I think. Since the Moss order and all questions go through their west coast facility, I have to wait till they open, California time, and then they say to call the east coast. Moss in New Jersey, when notified of the problem, finds three more boxes of the same bogus part number in the same bin, but none of the correct parts in sight; sorry. Moss in California now agrees to accept return of the wrong parts and refund all costs including shipping, so long as I return the parts to California for reprocessing, but all apologies aside, I still got no main bearings, and it's now midday Saturday.
Debbie suggests putting the old ones back in which, by strange coincidence are also .020 U/S. They're a little beat, especially the front bearing, having singly carried the overhung load of the timing chain and fan belt, and having been lightly pounded by the larger part of the crankshaft after it broke. But in a pinch I figure they're serviceable, at least good enough to get us through the rest of this trip, and I expect to put the worst one in the middle and the better ones at the ends. We should be ok.
Now the crankshaft from Raleigh missed a change of bus and ended up in Tallahassee, taking a couple of extra hours, but arrives in Pensacola at 1:30 pm, and the motel manager gives me a lift to Greyhound in his pickup truck to fetch it. It's also obvious by this time that I won't be finished with the engine hoist before the rental company closes, and they're not open on Sunday, so it behooves me to walk across the street to discuss the situation. They're very understanding about the whole thing, giving me a chain and padlock to hook the hoist up to the swimming pool fence when I'm done, and they'll drop by to pick it Monday morning, and not even charge for an extra day. The motel manager gets a chuckle out of that one too and agrees it's a good arrangement.
The first step of engine reassembly after cleaning is to set the main bearing half shells into the inverted block and position the crankshaft. Upon installation of the center main bearing cap and finger tightening, the crank seizes up and won't turn. Something's fishy here. Upon close inspection I find the following stamped on the crankshaft web near the front main journal: "M010 R020". I don't know how it happened, but we've had the bearing sizes transposed since yesterday morning's call from Raleigh, and now I don't have any bearings that fit.
The mood goes from hype to hump. No parts can be ordered for shipment before Monday, and the wife and I are discussing maybe getting a rental car for a few days to salvage some of the idle time, and come back Tuesday for reassembly. The manager suggests putting the MG on a trailer or truck to get it home, the first hint that he might be getting a little concerned about his parking space. But I express how I'm still bound and determined that this little roach, I mean roadster, is going to get to GT-14 at Indianapolis under its own power or perish on the spot.
Then it dawns on me that I'm not looking for the same parts any more, and I check my watch and grab the yellow pages. Two local phone calls later I get lucky. For the fourth day running these guys have been listening to me babble, and they haven't been able to sell me anything yet. Nonetheless, BAP in Pensacola says, "Well, we'll check; hang on." After at least a five minute wait, and figuring this is going nowhere, the guy comes back on and says, "Well, we got you covered on the main bearings." What? Say that again! Wow! Those are the tough ones. Maybe I can still find the con-rod bearings somewhere. And the guy says, "Hold on while I check." He's gone longer this time, maybe ten minutes, almost forever, but when he comes back he says, "Yea, we got those too." While the sweet sounds are still ringing in my ears I press my luck a little and ask if he has a conversion gasket set (everything below the cylinder head). The response is "Aw shucks yes, we sell those all the time." So here's a VISA number; stack them up for immediate pickup. And the quickest way is to send a taxi; they're always closer to the store than I am.
The cab shows up at 4:30 pm, and now I have everything I need to get it running again. The engine reassembly is a cinch, but just a little slow, as I'm just being certain that everything is liberally oiled up and goes in right and the sand stays out. The heat is bad enough, and I'm glad there hasn't been any rain lately. It also doesn't help to have too many sidewalk supervisors, but they thin out a lot after nine. There's plenty of light in the parking lot to complete the assembly, but stuffing it down between the fenders around 11:00 pm is largely a flashlight job. Thanks to the extra hands of a couple of helpful teenagers it goes right in, and it's all finished at 4:00 am, all fluids in and the bonnet installed. The reassembly has been comfortably bland compared to the preceding three days. It's still seventy-five degrees and muggy out, so I shower and get a few hours sleep, waiting to fire it up by daylight.
The truth is at hand. I leave out the spark plugs and crank up the oil pressure first. When I put the plugs back in and crank it, there's instant life, and no slouch either! The engine seems to be in perfect tune and timing. I think half the tenants are standing on the balconies and sidewalks cheering. This thing needs a test run; who wants to be the navigator? The kids who helped stuff the motor in last night are first in line for a quick trip around the block, and the motel manager is next in line. We take an easy cruise around the main streets for a few miles then whip it briskly around the last few corners just for good measure. Hot damn, I'm hyped! Then I notice a little oil drizzle path that followed us back into the parking lot, so there will be just another small delay folks. The problem is a leaky tappet cover, which is just below the carburetors and obstructed by the now red hot exhaust manifold, naturally.
While things are cooling down I pull the valve cover, re-torque the head and readjust the valve clearances. Then I get a little water and a rag and sprinkle ever so gently on the manifold to make the temperature manageable, and proceed to pull the carbs and manifolds once more as the expedient way of getting at the offending tappet cover. Sure enough, the rear cover gasket is a bit out of place, leaving a gap big enough to loose at least a quart of oil an hour. A little rubber cement and three minutes drying on top of the hot engine holds the gasket in place while I reinstall the cover. Another fifteen minutes gets the rest back together and running again.
It's 104 degrees and full sun today, so another quick shower is in order before checking out. As we're settling the tab we collect the managers autograph and verify that everything is properly stowed aboard. The larger part of the broken crankshaft is tossed into the nearest dumpster as a matter of less inconvenience, while the smaller piece is tossed into the boot as a souvenir. The old cylinder head will go with us just as far as St. Petersburg where we will return it as a core for whatever it's worth, and the engine hoist is chained to the pool fence as promised. We have a short breakfast at a shop down the street, and a stop at a convenience store tops off the ice chest with plenty of slurpies and stuff for the road and fills the fuel tank.
Then we're on the road and feeling good again just like there weren't any problems at all. Since there's just a couple weeks left of the trip, we'll never be able to make up the four days just lost, so we fall back to some contingency plans, canceling two days we planned to spend in Washington, D.C. and two extra days of cruising around Canada near the end of the trip. Now I can't say the last four days were entirely wasted. After all, there was that nice swimming pool, some new acquaintances, warm summer nights, another MG experience for the memories, and being cooped up in a motel room with my number one squeeze ain't all bad either!
We make a small side trip to Tallahassee and cruise into town about 7:00 pm with the hour lost to another time zone, destined to say hello to Obin Hamrick and thank him for his noble efforts at helping searching for a new crankshaft. Now let me tell you, there's some really nice rolling stock in Tallahassee. Obin has a low mileage, all original '63 MG Magnette, a pair of early TR3As, A nicely restored Packard, and a very convincing MGTF replicar with mostly MGB drive train and underpinnings. Chat runs way past midnight as usual, then we head out to do some cruising in the warm night air and star filled sky, headed south and destined for Tampa.