08 September, 2011

1969 Corvair Monza: The Testing of the Patience

MHH bonds with the Yellow Bomb
At nearly midnight in the parking lot of the Boise Airport, after more than ten hours of delays in Singapore, Hong Kong, and San Francisco, MHH finally got his first look at the Corvair. He circled it excitedly, poked around inside, and exclaimed repeatedly how fantastisk it was. 

Now, driving an old car draws a lot of attention, a reality that had never crossed my mind. Around the time of the Orchard incidentI entered a parking lot which had two sets of very stiff speed bumps over which I crept at a snail’s pace, causing a pileup of cars behind me. I cleared the bumps, parked in a remote and deserted section of the lot, and then looked over to see the mini van from behind me on the speed bumps pull up right next to me. I tensed as the window slowly slid down. Was I going to get yelled at? Or shot? ‘What year is your Corvair?’ The sweet voice of a middle aged woman drifted from the van. I started laughing.

So when a guy in a large truck paused next to us in the airport car park, I didn’t panic. ‘’68 or ’69?’ He yelled.

‘’69,’ I called back.

‘Ha! I told you!’ He slapped his buddy on the shoulder, pleased to have won their little bet.

Posing at Lake Abert
Thirty-two hours later, we were cruising across arid eastern Oregon on Hwy 20. Coming from the tropical confines of Singapore, the dry, open desert and rock formations of the West seemed gloriously vast and foreign even though I had driven this route many times.  

I introduced MHH to my favorite places from family road trips of the past such as the Burns Safeway; the Hwy 20-395 junction at Riley; Wagontire, where Oma had spent nights on her way to visit us; and Lake Abert, a large and bleakly beautiful alkali lake I only recently learned was called Lake Abert.

After lunch at Tall Town Burger and Bakery in Lakeview, the Corvair refused to start. You’ve got to be kidding.

‘You know, MHH, even though it’s an automatic, I read something in the manual about being able to push-start if you can get it going 20-25 mph…’

‘You read the manual?’

‘Why, yes, I did.’

‘You really are strange sometimes, Potato Woman. Well, don't just stand there, start pushing.’

If you happened to be driving out of Lakeview on Hwy 140 in the early afternoon of July 3rd, you just might have seen us attempting and failing enormously at this exercise. Sigh.

MHH then peered into the engine cavity, decided that the battery cable connectors should be replaced as they were very old and corroded, and set off on foot to check the nearby Chevron for some tools.

If you drove past at this time, you might have seen a forlorn girl baking in the sun next to a Corvair with a raised hood. You might have even waved. At what point do you decide to wave at someone having car trouble? I wondered. The rear engine must be confusing.

MHH trudged back 45 minutes later armed with a pile of tools and parts from True Value, and in a showing of skills I didn’t know he possessed, changed out the cable connectors. We crossed our fingers—

The car still wouldn’t start. ‘Let’s ask for a jump,’ I said, just wanting to get out of there, to be anywhere but that spot on the road in Lakeview where people continued to wave at us as if we had simply been gazing into our trunk and digging through our luggage for over an hour.

We flagged down a likely fella driving an old rig that looked bound to contain jumper cables. Sure enough, he had cables and was willing to give us a jump. A good ol’ boy of few words, he smiled in quiet amusement as he set the cables, then motioned for MHH to start the Corvair. It turned over, and over, and over, and over—and finally, like a child being forced to wake from a deep sleep, came to life with great resistance.

Elated, we thanked the quiet man and quickly put Lakeview in the rearview mirror, driving straight through to Klamath Falls, which is where I was born and where both of my parents are from. 

Visiting Oma
I wanted to visit our old house as well as my Oma’s old house, but as our 5pm deadline to reach Jacksonville had been tightened by the Lakeview incident, I settled for a drive-by of Oma’s house. If you saw two people with a yellow Corvair skulking around outside your house in the late afternoon of July 3rd, it was only MHH and I, and I lived in your house in 1985. You’ve kept it up nicely, and your 4th of July decorations looked great.

We arrived in Jacksonville with no further incidents. Though we were already late for the 5pm family reunion dinner, a change of clothes was essential after eight hours without air-con in vinyl seats. My mom, dad, and sister, who were all sitting in the same room together, kept calling and texting me independently of each other, wondering where we were, if we were coming, and how long we would be. And now how long? How about now?

Feeling refreshed but slightly harried, we hopped back into the car, pulled onto the main drag, and promptly died. You've got to be kidding.

My patience for the Yellow Bomb was very slim at this point, so I walked to the restaurant and let MHH sort out the car. The dinner with my mom’s whole family was very nice, and MHH showed up shortly, having stashed the car somewhere off the road.

Everyone smiling and looking at the camera with eyes open--amazing!
MHH and John retrieved the car after dinner. More peering into the engine compartment revealed some loose pipes that MHH secured with a zip-tie so they would stop interfering with this other thing that needed to move. That may or may not have been a problem, but the car started, so I was happy though still somewhat distrustful. 

We didn’t have to drive much the next two days, so we were able to concentrate on having a good time hanging out with the fam.

Later, MHH and I talked about how driving a car like ours is really driving. You have to have your foot on the gas and both hands on the wheel. You don't drive to adventure, you drive for adventure. You really get to know a car like ours.

Yes, we were getting to know the Yellow Bomb, but it was not without the testing of the patience. 

03 September, 2011

1969 Chevy Corvair Monza – The Story Continues: Leaving my husband, surviving the DMV, and dying on Orchard Road

I moved out of the US in 2006 and every summer since, I have experienced the phenomenon of ‘expat woman migration’ in which large numbers of expat women vanish for the summer months and I sit twiddling my thumbs waiting for fall.

This summer, having finally become the wiser, I planned a migration of my own—and booked my flight ticket to the US a full three weeks before MHH’s. This was a big deal for one of us.

‘MHH, how would you feel if I went to the US a few days before you?’

‘Sure, that’s fine, honey.’

‘Are you sure? Because I don’t have to go early. It might be nice to travel together.’

‘It’s really okay.’

‘Okay…you know, if I went a week and a half before, I could be there for my niece’s birthday…’

‘Yeah, that’s fine.’

‘Really?! You would be fine for that long without me?!’

‘You might not remember this, but I actually used to live on my own before we met.’

‘Yeah, I guess…you know if I went three weeks before, I could go do this thing with my sister…’

‘Potato Woman, just go.’

So after filling the freezer with pre-cooked meals and reminding him at least five times to water the plants, I went.

My 1969 Corvair, licensed and ready for summer driving
Getting the Corvair out of storage and licensed was my first order of business. My brother-in-law John took me down to the DMV, a very generous gesture as anyone who has ever been to the DMV or DOL will know.

Here is what I learned from this experience: it is pointless trying to register a car if you don’t actually have the car with you; it is difficult starting a car when the battery is not connected; a wretchedly busy DMV is vastly improved by entertaining brother-in-laws and nice employees. 

Since the Corvair had been sitting for a while, I had Rick (Fobes Automotive) check it over, and he said it was good to go. A couple days later I had it back at Rick's for a new fuel float, but he had that fixed in short order.

One day as I was cruising into town, the Yellow Bomb decided to die at a red light. I turned the key—nothing. I turned the key and pumped the gas as Rick taught me—nothing. The light turned green. The guy behind me honked, and I got out of my car.

‘THE LIGHT’S GREEN,’ he mouthed, making wild pointing gestures at the light.

‘MY CAR DIED,’ I mouthed back, pointing at my car and drawing my finger across my throat.

‘OH.’ Getting the point, he maneuvered around me while I tried the key once again.

To my surprise, the engine chugged to life, so I gunned it around the corner into the Gem Stop parking lot before it could change its mind about running. It is there that I sat concentrating really hard about what one does when one needs a phone but doesn’t have one. I concluded that I would need to Interact with Real People.

Inside the Gem Stop, after doing some Interacting, a customer offered to loan me his phone. No one answered at home. No one answered in my dad’s office. I returned the phone.

The cashier offered me use of the store phone, a clunky device sprouting Wires and Cords, and as these mysterious strings were rather short and restrictive, the guy had to stand holding the Phone Base and dial for me while I leaned over the counter to reach the Phone Receiver.

Dad finally answered and gave me some advice. The cashier wished me luck as he stashed the stringy phone back under the counter.

In the end, I replaced the battery.

Here is what I learned from this experience: when your mechanic recommends getting a new battery, you should not wait for the current one to die; Les Schwab batteries do not fit 1969 Chevy Corvair Monza battery boxes; Car Quest batteries do fit, they install for free, and they know that Corvairs have rear engines; having a mobile phone is useful, but Interacting with Real People is really not too bad.

Coming up: MHH comes to the US and we go driving! 

01 September, 2011

1969 Chevy Corvair Monza

This is the story of the Yellow Bomb:

MHH and I have often talked of how convenient it would be to have a car in the US when we visit my family, and every visit seemed to reopen the discussion. After several years of circling the subject and a zillion internet searches, we finally settled on a beautiful creamy yellow, all original, 1969 Chevy Corvair Monza with just over 13,000 original miles.

We bought it sight-unseen, hoping we could trust the pictures and the word of the seller. My parents were highly skeptical, as were others, but when did that ever stop us?

We parted with our money in July 2010, and shortly thereafter the car was transported from Long Island to Idaho. Several weeks after the arrival of the car, it was determined that the title sent from New York had been lost in the mail/wrongly-addressed/mislaid by the elderly owner (we will probably never know which). It is my sage advice that you never do anything that would necessitate procuring a duplicate title, namely losing the original title, as it is a giant pain in the behind to both buyer and seller. Five months later, the duplicate title arrived and the car was officially ours.

Technically the car is mine, but that's a small detail I hardly ever mention.

Me and my yellow bomb
I first met my car when I visited the States in November 2010. My dad, whose carport it had been occupying since July, dubbed it 'the yellow bomb', a not-so-subtle reference to the car color as well as dad's opinion that we had bought an old junker. Physically it was gorgeous, but in truth it was running a bit roughly, or not really at all, so we took it over to local Corvair mechanic Rick Fobes of Fobes Automotive.  He gave me and my dad a tour of his shop, and I left my car for repair. He rebuilt the carburetor, gave it a tune-up, and had a friend and Corvair expert check it out.

Turns out that our gamble had paid off. Everything checked out as factory original--from the spare tire to the headrests and everything in between. We had acquired a very fine example of a wonderful American classic!

The rebuilt carburetor turned the little Yellow Bomb into a whole new car--I think even dad started coming around to it. Unfortunately I had to leave the US before I had a chance to try it out. After I left and the repairs were finished, the car went into a storage unit for the winter, mom and dad got their carport back, and MHH and I started planning our first road trip.

And that is the story of our Yellow Bomb.

A little help to get started
On the lift at Rick's for inspection
A shop full of cool cars

Summer 2011 road trip coming soon!