Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beginning of a Mystery Part III

As soon as I got home from inspecting the Cupertino Hmod, I posted the pictures I'd taken and the details I'd observed to the Hmod bulletin board where I'd found out about the car. I was promptly contacted by a vintage racer named Mike in Arizona who was also interested in the car. He had a long racing history, and knew a lot more about homebuilts than I did - he'd restored many cars and had even made copies of James Broadwell's Jabro blueprints for other enthusiasts who were trying to build or restore Jabros without the original plans. He had already contacted the car's owner and made an offer.

I was pretty bummed. Now that I'd seen the car firsthand I really wanted it.
A Crosley-powered fiberglass sports car was at the top of my list when I first started looking for a Crosley back in 1997. It had been articles about Crosley racing 'specials' in old car magazines that gotten me thinking about Crosleys in the first place. There had been plenty of manufacturers who made fiberglass sports car bodies for the Crosley, so I figured that they had to be out there somewhere. Devin, Almquist, Skorpion, Fibersport, Jabro and probably a half dozen other companies offered bolt-on bodies in varying degrees of style. The first Crosley meet I went to featured two beautifully finished Jabros, so there was proof that they couldn't be that hard to find. I was pretty sad when I tried to sit in one of the Jabros and couldn't get my 6'2" frame behind the wheel!While I wanted a sports car, I wasn't looking for a race car. I enjoy watching the races, but I can't imagine rebuilding an engine after one season of racing, or spending the $ it takes to run a car that you only drive a few times a year. Or dealing with the internecine organization rules and fugly safety modifications required to run on the track these days. I wanted a sports car that looked straight out of 1950-something that I could drive anywhere - the type of car that an amateur might have competed with in the fifties - a sports car that was driven to the track, raced, then driven to work the next week. I also figured that today's road speeds are about as punishing as most tracks were in the mid-fifties!
The conundrum I faced was finding a car that wasn't already set up for racing, and one that didn't have any significant history so that I didn't have to worry about modifications for contemporary street use. After 10 years of looking, here was that car.
I called Mrs Lowy and made an offer. Mine was about 50% over what Mike had offered, but she wanted to see if he was willing to go any higher. She asked me to call Mike and Carl Kapp (who was helping her sell the car), figure out who wanted to pay what, and to call her back and let her know who was buying it and for how much! I made the calls and Mike was really nice about it. He said that it was clear that I really wanted the car, and, A) I'd already been to look at it, and B) he didn't want to pay more AND pay for gas to/from Arizona to come get it. I called Mrs Lowy to let her know that I had the high offer and that I could pay and pick it up whenever she was ready. It was the strangest way I've ever bought a car.

A week later I borrowed a trailer and the indefatigable Dave Smith and headed out to Cupertino. Mrs Lowy had been looking for any history about the car, but had found nothing. She remembered seeing an old double exposure picture of the car that made the body appear transparent so you could see the running gear through the body, but she couldn't find it. Carl Kapp had mentioned the same photo.

Aside from the car and body, there was also the packed floor-to-ceiling garage which held many of the parts. When we started going through the garage looking for everything, Mrs Lowy's mood would go back and forth. I think she was relieved to get the car out of her driveway, but at the same time was losing another part of her late husband. It felt really awkward, and I imagined Liv in the same situation. Since we really didn't know exactly what went with the car she told us to take anything that seemed like it fit. Dave was convinced that she saw this as a chance to get somebody to clean out her garage!
We found a ton of stuff. There was the Dauphine engine, gauges and mystery transmission I'd seen last time, plus lights (still taped from the last race), parts for the quick change, a couple of extra wheels/tires, the missing driveshaft (which turned out to be less than two feet long which is why I couldn't find it last time), several carburetors, the original fiberglass gas tank, racing mirrors, several aviation-style racing seat belts, a rolling metal cabinet filled with spares to be taken to the track, one NOS Lucas fog light, still in the box, extra parts for the Dauphine engine and assorted belts, bolts, bulbs, etc... The major things we didn't find were the seats and windshield.
But the most exciting thing we found was a moldy briefcase. There wasn't much in there - the receipt for the quickchange, Lowy's racing license, a few notations on the cost of rebuilding the Dauphine engine and some notes on a 1966 race at Lyndale Farms, Wisconsin, along with the club program.

The program listed one of the entrants as Leo Lowy. He was driving the Robacek I.

to be continued......

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Sad Day

It's not quite like saying goodbye to an old friend, but there is a similar sad emotion to this week's proceedings: I non-opped the Crosley. I finally gave in to reality - the car needs a ton of work, it's unsafe, Liv won't even ride in it, and I can't remember the last time I started it. I'm sure the battery is dead. It needs everything.

I bought my 1949 Crosley convertible with a small inheritance I'd gotten from my grandfather. I'd already had my 1951 Super Sport for about a year, but it had turned out to be much more of a project than I'd bargained for when I bought it. I'd been making progress on the SS, but I'd finally come to the realization that it needed a ground up restoration - and that it would take me years to get it on the road. The '49 had been sitting in a barn, and in the back of my mind since before I bought the Super Sport.
Back in the good old days, pre internets, it was HARD to find a Crosley. I checked the paper every morning, and after about 4 months I saw an ad for a 1951 Crosley convertible - runs good - $2500. I went to check it out and was a little taken aback. The body/paint was pretty nice, except for the front floors, which were missing big chunks. There was no glass in the roll up windows - in fact, no window mechanisms at all. The gas tank was a boat tank that sat loose in the back boot. It had cable brakes- which made no sense for a '51. The top was there, but ruined, and the top bars were rusted into pieces. The engine was an Aerojet, which I didn't really understand at the time. I tried everything to get the car started, but several hours of pushing, jumping, etc later I gave up.

The car was well known to the local Crosley guys - it had been for sale on and off for a year. The great Gordon Becher warned me away from the car saying that it had been cobbled together from parts. He was right. I researched the vin number and discovered that the car was actually an early 1949, so the cable brakes were correct. The roll up window doors and hood/grill were not.
Determined to have a Crosley I went back out to look at the car again. The owners didn't know much about it. Their Dad had bought it right before he died, and all they knew was that it was a rare car. That part was true- there were only 500 or so convertibles built in 1949. The car had been sitting since their father had died over a year before. They agreed to buy a new 6 volt battery since they figured they'd never sell the car if it wasn't running.

Ten minutes after the battery was in we had it running, if not purring. I'm still not sure how I knew it was positive ground. I'd never actually driven a Crosley at this point, so backing it down the long driveway to the farm road was pretty exciting. There is nothing that sounds like a Crosley tranny whirring along in a fast reverse, so I wasn't sure what was going on. Once I got it to the road I got it going and discovered a piercing whistle accompanying any speed over about 20. The engine didn't smoke and it steered OK, but it leaned hard to the side when I applied the brakes.

Back at their house I started negotiations. They acknowledged that they might have been 'optimistic' on the price. I showed them a Hemmings with a couple of Crosley ads, an encyclopedia of collector's cars which had a price breakdown for Crosleys, and I pointed out that it had over $200 in back DMV fees due. I also pointed that it was still for sale a year after they'd started trying to sell it. I offered them what I honestly thought it was worth: $1200.
They were pretty horrified, and there was no convincing them that I wasn't trying to rip them off. In the end we pushed the car back in the barn and I went home and bought a 1951 Super Sport a few months later. I gave them the number for the editor of the West Coast Crosley Club newsletter in case they ever wanted to run an ad there for the car.

Cut to a year later. I'd pulled the SS completely apart and realized that pretty much everything needed to be replaced or restored. The 'straight' body turned out to be a bondo bucket that upon close inspection had revealed itself to be TWO cars welded together - and not very well. With my limited mechanical skills, and small budget, I figured out that I wasn't going to be driving it anytime in the 20th Century.

On a whim I dug out the number for the convertible and gave a call. The owner was glad to hear from me. No one had called about the car since I'd last looked at it, and it hadn't moved since I'd pushed it in the barn the year before. He told me I was the only person who had shown any real interest in the car and then said I could have it - for less than I'd offered him the year before!

Since I didn't think the car was up to the 30 mile drive home I arranged to have it towed. By this I mean that I cajoled my pal Mark to to tie a rope to his '64 Dodge Dart and drag the Crosley home behind it! I rode in the Crosley, operating the steering and brakes so I didn't rear end the Dart. Since this arrangement guaranteed hijinks, Mark's car was full of friends who had to watch the shenanigans. Somehow we managed to make it from the country to my place in downtown Sacramento without wrecking OR getting pulled over. I'm sure it would have been an ugly ticket, not helped by the fact that the Crosley was about 3 years out of registration at that point.
The car was pretty solid overall, and I got it driving that weekend. Enough of the floor was missing that the gas pedal had nothing to attach to, so the pedal was just a peg in the floor. The wiring was a complete rat's nest and it shorted out often enough that I kept a battery cable loose in case I needed to quelch a fire until my Dad and I finally rewired the whole car a year or so later. There was no key, but I found a filing cabinet key that turned the ignition. The air filter was missing, and the only one I could find that would fit was for a motorcycle... but it worked. There was no top, no windows in the doors and no wipers. None of this kept me from driving it in the rain- this was, after all, my 'daily driver'!
The funniest part of driving the car was the loud and unidentifiable squeal that appeared at speed. It wasn't the obvious culprit, the fan belt, and it took me a couple of weeks to figure out that it was an air leak at the muffler. I cut up a beer can to make a shim for the connection and that was the end of the squeal.

Actually, let me amend that. The funniest part of driving the car was just driving the car. I drove it to work, to parties, to rock and roll shows... I used it like a regular car. My only other vehicle was the Super Sport, so if I wanted to drive, the Crosley was it. A Crosley is one of the most absurd cars ever built, and even 50 years later, people still pointed and laughed at it just like in the 'Cruikshank the Crosley' article that was published about 1950. There were several times that I came out to find that the car had been picked up and moved.

Since I had nothing to compare it to, I thought it ran pretty good. One of the first things I did was take the intake assembly off and ground it to match the ports. I don't know how much it helped, but it seemed quicker after that. I took it up to 65 mph a few times; it felt like there was more room at the top, but I was leery of the brakes and the 40 year old bias plys to try for any more. The brakes were the real weak point. I worked on them pretty much constantly but never got them working satisfactorily. They were the main reason I stopped driving the car on a regular basis a few years back- they need to be rebuilt from top to bottom, and I've also got to replace the rear main seal in the motor- it keeps dumping oil that ends up on the shoes. At that point I might as well deal with the rust in the floors and all the rest.
I learned a lot about working on cars on the Crosley. The Crosley was the first car I ever did extensive repairs to, and was the first car that I ever pulled an engine out of, and then put it back in and the car still ran! The Aerojet turned out to be a really solid motor, and after all these years of abuse it only smokes a little bit. I really pushed the envelope when my friend Al and I drove the car to Morro Bay and back - the temp guage was getting up to 230 when I pulled over as we were going over the mountains.

I've owned the convertible longer than any other car in my entire life (aside from the Super Sport project which doesn't really count.) I've taken road trips in it (Morro Bay, Visalia and and a DNF trip to Buellton) and it was my only car for a couple of years. Liv and I drove away from our wedding in it - the presents BARELY fit. I can't imagine ever selling it.

But I can't drive it either. So, I finally acknowledged the obvious and non-opped it. I've been moving stuff around in the garage and it will be back indoors for the first time in almost five years. I don't know how long it will take me to get it back on the road, but I guess I've got time. It's not going anywhere.