The Book of James, Part II

In Part I, I alluded to a hard luck award won in New Jersey. That passing reference did not do justice to the incident. Lynda and I were on the way to that marvellous meet Pete Fitch put on for the 300 Club in New Jersey. No one who was there will ever forget that Friday afternoon at the Englishtown Speedway where Marlou Wiltse won her colours as the official "Mopar Momma" of The 300 Club International Inc. But they say getting there is half the fun. Let me tell you it ain’t necessarily so. It began that way. Bob Crawford and Evidence had met us at Auburn N.Y. so that we could proceed in convoy to the meet with the famous proprietor of Bob’s Motel, Sir Robert Merritt. (I shall thus refer to the other Bob to dispel confusion.) Bob and Ev won the draw and stayed within the sumptuous, art deco precincts of Bob’s Motel. Lynda and I bunked over at the Super Eight. Hang the expense! Next day, with James proudly leading the pack down I-81, followed by Bob’s H and Sir Robert in his British racing green (and notoriously trouble free) Dodge Ram pick up, we wended our collective way towards the inaptly named Garden State Parkway. Out of deference to Pete Fitch I will not claim that the quality of inaptness in the name has anything to do with that quintessential oxymoron, "New Jersey, the Garden State". Rather it has to do with the contrast between "garden", or anything bucolic for that matter, and those twelve concrete lanes of murderous traffic pouring ominously southward at the speed of light from New York City at six p.m. on a weekday night. We in James and Bob Crawford in his H, had got into the express lanes. Sir Robert had got into the collectors but was keeping pace with us. Keeping pace in that hostile environment meant putting the pedal to the metal and hugging the slow lane while the escaping inmates of that modern Bedlam, attempted to set yet another land speed record for the homeward commute to "the Garden". (The Garden: I recently saw an article in a local, i.e., Canadian, newspaper which revealed that the economy of New Jersey had become so sluggish that the Mafia had laid off eight judges. But I digress.) It was at just such a moment, and while we were about six inches from a very sturdy looking iron guard rail on our immediate right, that James chose to cannibalize his water pump. Clouds of steam suddenly obscured our vision of anything ahead. By itself, that was not a worry. The rapidity with which all southbound vehicles were overtaking us made it certain that even an instantaneous and total brake failure would have left us plenty of room to coast to a complete standstill without the least danger of striking another vehicle. No, the worry was that I had to shut James’ now severely overheated engine off soon. To do so I had to get off the road. The alternative was not to be imagined. There was no place to go. God intervened. By a miracle the guardrail ended. We careered into the median and stopped. Bob Crawford reigned in behind us in a cloud of dust. As soon as I exited the car, I could tell by the expression on Bob’s face that he, too, was delighted to be parked in that tranquil spot. Ev’s colour was somewhere between grey and green. The mystified operator of the racing green pick up I saw next. He was parked, also in a cloud of settling dust, at the far right side of the collector lanes looking at us mutely. Nothing short of a nuclear explosion could have been heard across the fury of the southbound traffic, so muteness was both a wise and inevitable course of action. I was a little distant to get an accurate read on the expression behind those black, horn rimmed specs on Sir Robert’s normally phlegmatic visage. A safe bet would be that it was one of less than total joy. Bob was not surprised, I am sure, because, several miles earlier we had stopped to ascertain the reason why James’ heat gauge was reading a trifle high. Bob had lightly touched the tip of the fan blades. They had responded by trying to shake hands with him. We had then decided that we might as well cross our fingers and proceed as there was, there and then, no chance for a fix. Needless to say I did not have on board the spare water pump which I now invariably carry. Indeed, Dave, my mechanic, has since laconically opined that perhaps I should install a trailer hitch on James so that I can have space in the trunk for something other than spare parts.
I think I share with most of humanity the desire to snicker at the modern yuppie whom we see constantly yapping into the cellular phone which seems to have been permanently implanted on one side of his face somewhere between the corner of his lip and his ear. There are times, however, when possession of a cellular phone can be an unequivocal blessing. This was one of them. I dialled 1-800-AAA-HELP. The number is burned in my memory. Now Canadian A.A. is an associate club of A.A.A. Usually, when I call C.A.A., I understand all over again why it is such good public relations for them to have an 800 number. It is because nothing short of a huge public corporation could possibly afford a long distance wait, on hold, of sufficient length to be put through. God was still with me. (Indeed, considering the conditions I saw that day on the Garden State Parkway, it has often occurred to me that the reason the world is in such a mess nowadays may be because His entire time and attention is required on that parkway.) I got right through. Help was to be forthcoming within 30 minutes! Another great dissimilarity between C.A.A. and A.A.A! The only decision I had to make was whether I wanted "the hook" or a flatbed. A picture immediately entered my mind of James, defeated but not daunted, proudly arriving at the Hilton, head held high, as it were, on the back of a shining flatbed. I opted for it. Error!
Within the promised thirty minutes, ( I continue to bow to the east three times whenever A.A.A. is mentioned), the flatbed arrived. Not however, before two, (count ‘em, not just one but two, N.J. State Troopers in cruisers had arrived in even greater clouds of dust, in the very centre of the median. One of the two officers, at least eight feet tall, inclusive of his smokey bear hat, weighing perhaps 230 pounds, with a voice about as deep as Paul Robeson’s, commanded us not, in any circumstances, to exit the car. (I thank the Almighty that I had returned to it before he had occasion to see me capering about the median. Naturally I had done the mandatory "open hood and peer stupidly into engine compartment", which every stranded motorist does, as if merely demonstrating that one can open the hood will somehow cause whatever is broken to become instantly repaired.) In the course of his next sentence the Trooper, intending no insult, only emphasis, uttered perhaps seventy ripe expletives. Distilled to its essential, the message was that the occupants, (if anything travelling at such a speed could be said to "occupy" anything), of the freeway indeed, resembled escaping inmates of an asylum and that, notwithstanding their presumptive possession of drivers’ licences, all were totally, temporarily, legally blind, that none would recover his or her sight until he or she drove her car into the immediate environs of his or her own driveway at which point he or she would recover sight and be able, for the first time since leaving his or her office, to recognize an object worthy of stopping for. The trooper assured us in terms that were equally emphatic and unequivocal, that none of the escaping maniac-inmates could or would see, let alone stop for, a pedestrian, vehicle, skunk, ground hog, deer, elephant, road building machine, ocean liner or other object, animate or inanimate until he or she saw his or her garage door. He also assured us that if he saw any of us even attempt to exit our vehicle before the promised help arrived, he personally would shoot the offender, instantly and fatally. I have since reflected on this peculiar threat to persons who, I think, had committed no offence. I have concluded that his reasoning was thus: by shooting us before we might get into the path of the New Jersey-bound vehicular mayhem, he would make it easier, or at least possible, to identify our remains. If we had got struck on the road, the only way to recover enough to bury would be to drive the ten thousand southbound cars over blotting paper.
The operator of the flatbed was a rotund and jovial individual who displayed that infuriating ability to display calm in the face of what I clearly recognized as a situation demanding panic. He was not the least perturbed by the speeding motorists. Nor by the quickly falling darkness. Nor by the fact that I regarded James as a gem equal in value to the Crown Jewels. He went about his business with such calm competence that I began to hope for trouble if only to see him to flap just a little. I needn’t have hoped. Donovan’s Law was still in full force and effect. (Donovan’s Law is that Murphy was an optimist.) His flatbed was, not surprisingly, relatively modern. From that it follows that it was designed for a modern car. As he nonchalantly winched James forward upon the tilted flatbed, I observed that, James’ front wheels were located correctly in the centre of the bed. However his rear wheels were several inches away from rolling upon the rear edge of the flatbed when his rear bumper was already engaged in attempting to remove several inches of weed-infested sod from the median of the "Garden" State Parkway. I halted the winching. No, he did not have any plank or similar device by which to extend the effective length of the bed. Politely but firmly he rejected any suggestion that he might send for one. We were compelled to continue the winching/earthmoving operation but did so with the care one might expect of the defoliation of a rare and delicate orchid. No harm was done to anything but James’ pride. With James aboard, Bob, Ev and Sir Robert, who had steadfastly stood by, (English is a curious language; how can one be said to stand by when one has done nothing but sit?) departed for the remaining 20 miles or so of the journey to the Hilton.
        Sir Robert had accomplished one miracle which, in hindsight, rates second only to the resurrection. When I looked up from the winching operation I noticed that he had somehow removed his Dodge pick up from the right side of the collectors across three lanes of southbound mayhem and 90 degrees to the left of his original stopping pace. I knew he was mad at his truck but I hadn’t realized that her regarded it and his own life as of no value at all! I wish only that I had been watching as he performed that manoeuvre. It would have challenged the talents of Sterling Moss.
Lynda and I rode shotgun in the cab of the flatbed. There, in an atmosphere of warm conviviality, we discovered that Pete, ( I shall call him that but confess to guessing at his name), was an off duty municipal policeman from a nearby hamlet doing a little moonlighting. He called tow truck driving his "I-appreciate-being-a-cop" job. We soon discovered out mutual interest in law enforcement and became sufficiently friendly that we were able to negotiate a pleasant tip for him and an equally pleasant judicial discount of the tow for me. I wonder yet if I should disclose this lack of propriety, not because of the damage it might do to my reputation, if any, (modifier deliberately placed), but because his employer’s name had a distinctively Italian sound to it. My familiarity with Italian names is not such as to exclude the possibility that the name might be one from southern Italy. Pete discharged us at the Hilton with only moderate scraping of James’ bumper on the asphalt.
Next morning, Sir Robert took me in search of a water pump. We had it by noon and, that afternoon, he displayed his not inconsiderable mechanical skills by installing it while I helped him, immeasurably I am sure, by dropping wrenches, bolts and assorted other tools and by fetching things for him. I recall scrounging some gasket sealant and getting a special wrench from Bill Elder who was repairing his brakes. However, to this day, I have still not found two things that Sir Robert sent me for. If any of you happen to run across either, perhaps you would be good enough to let me know so that I could get them for Sir Robert to repay his kindness in repairing James. I know he desperately wishes to have these items because he asked me to get them so often. They are, a pail of steam and a left-handed wrench.
That year I entered James in the Concours judging. I did this not because he is a number one but in order to get, for a measly twenty bucks, a list of areas in which he might be improved. The judging proceeded over about four hours. Now I know why an expert is defined as a person who knows more and more about less and less. Be that as it may, James was awarded a third which was beyond my wildest expectations. At the awards banquet, ( I am sure you remember the super-frozen bullet parfaits!), James was awarded his third. I leapt for Joy but she .... Oh, that’s an old one. Then came the hard luck trophy. As a relatively new member of the club I had not realized that this award was made on the basis of the loudness of the applause for the hard luck candidate. James and I did get a good loud clap. So did Bill and Louise Elder and Jim and Andrea Krausmann.
Now here is the bone I still have to pick with George Riehl, our beloved president and perpetual M.C. He ran out of third place awards and promised to send me one. Yeah George, the cheque (I spell it that way just to aggravate George), is in the mail too. I still have a blank space on the wall for that award. I should tell you that I have never mentioned this to George. I decided that it would be better to hold off till I wrote this article and then embarrass him. I hope I have succeeded. I know, George will tell me that, owing to laches, (look it up, George), in making my claim, I have forfeited my third too. But that was not all he messed up. Bill Elder and Jim Krausmann are both competent mechanics. While they sustained their share of hard luck getting to the meet, both limped in under power. Both are and remain well aware of the ancient maxim concerning the hard luck award: "The Hook Always Wins". As George sought round after round of applause for anyone but the Canadian, each generously deferred to yours truly as the person who, in view of his total mechanical ineptitude, should receive the award. Let’s face it, replacing a water pump to Bill Elder would be like me having to replace my dip stick. Both proclaimed to George their willingness to yield to their inept Canadian cousin. But the M.C. was unwilling to let it go without a battle, even if the contestants wanted none. He hummed and hawed but eventually handed me his only hard luck trophy, (which I wisely seized and held on to), but promised others to Bill and Jim. I have not troubled to ask them if they ever received theirs. I think I know the answer. A bird in the hand is a Riehl Trophy, all others phantoms.
Eventually I got Joe, my restorer, to repair the N.Y. State stone chip. James went away for the winter and emerged to face another season. He missed Chicago only because I had to do so too. We made preparations to travel to Spencer N.C. and the Reverend Carl Kreps' meet. North Carolina: that’s the place where Baptists decry sexual intercourse on the basis it might lead to dancing. They are also down on drink. And how! I recall entering a certain restaurant with Sir Robert, Doug Mayer, Paul Del Grande, (he of six meals daily), and my son-in-law, Dick Coles, among others, after the long drive to Spencer. Man, was I parched! And the locals had recommended such a lovely tavern! When the comely serving wench approached our table - the loudest in the establishment - I asked nonchalantly for a double martini, that almost indispensable aid to launching an evening of revelry. It was her turn to laugh. Didn’t I realize that this was the dry part of N.C? This is my definition of the ultimate disappointment; to drive eleven hundred miles working up an immense thirst and to be rewarded with a Diet Coke! I think we should change the name of Spencer to Volsteadville!        
James, being a good-ol’-boy from the muscular sixties, has never really been weaned from leaded gas. He and I have been in a state of almost constant warfare about his regrettable tendency to ping. It is the automotive equivalent of a fart in a crowded room (or spacesuit), but ever so much more damaging. I had more or less solved the problem just before N.C. by having Dave, my mechanic, install a limiting device on the vacuum advance. It worked "pretty good", as they say in N.C. Just across the street from the Transportation Museum where we held the show, there is a small auto specialty shop. The proprietor was selling leaded racing fuel out the back door. I put ten gallons of the stuff in James and for the first time discovered what it was like to own a 300 in the days when they were sold. What ping? What power!
Dick and I had driven to the meet in tandem with Sir Robert by way of Auburn N.Y. which is really out of our way. We had less time to return and so, on Sunday morning we struck out alone to proceed straight north up I-77 and I-79 towards the frozen north. We stopped for a bite at a restaurant just before entering I-77 about 50 miles from Spencer and about seven hundred miles from our destination. When we left the restaurant, Dick pointed over at James who was parked on a slight incline with his nose facing just slightly down near a concrete curb stone. He then asked in his best, matter-of-fact-Sunday-morning-and all-garages-are-closed voice,"What is all that green liquid in front of our car?" And there it was. That beautiful puke-green shiny liquid designed, a) to keep the coolant from freezing in winter and, b) to stay within a closed cooling system. We rapidly determined that James had split the upper tank seam in his thirty-four year old radiator. (The water pump was fine, thank you.) The good news was that it was only that seam and only partially. We tossed in some Barz-leak and began the remainder of our journey. We finished that night about midnight without incident. Now there’s a car with heart!
James is now, finally, a car with a radio. He began life as a radio delete. He didn’t even have an exterior miror. I had a left remote installed with the original restoration. I wanted a right exterior mirror and a radio. The project began easily enough. I travelled to a local wrecking yard and removed the AM pushbutton from a ‘64 300 Sport which had been sitting in a field for God knows how long. I took it to Gord Vidler, my old radio whiz. I left it there. I returned near winter’s end and asked after the radio. He handed it to me and said, "No charge". He said it worked fine, thank you. He had replaced the light bulb and lubricated the slides. I found a right exterior mirror about 40 miles from home but it did not have that little wedge shaped base plate that makes ‘62 mirrors fit the ‘63, ‘64 fender contour. This was going all too easily. I now needed only the spacer and an antenna. I had a spare power antenna for a ‘64 but no spacer or crown nut. Couldn’t find either anywhere. The manual antenna on the 300 Sport was broken. Finally, in desperation, I succumbed to Mitchell’s extortionate price demands and bought an N.O.S. manual. I am too embarrassed to divulge what I paid for it. Only after I got it home did I realize that its correct placement conflicted with the correct position of the right exterior mirror.
I can be stubborn when I want to be. I decided to go with the power antenna. I removed the crown nut, spacer and the right exterior mirror base from Suzie-Q. I took them to Art Cast, in Georgetown. (One of Art Cast's more famous projects was casting a larger-than-life statue of former Prime Minister George Diefenbaker.) They made moulds and cast the three parts in bronze. Now Mitchell's antenna was beginning to look like a bargain. I took the bronze crown nut to John Bierstaker, who bought a special blind tap, (with my money), and tapped the required, odd-ball thread into the crown nut. I took all three parts to Roman Widanka for rechroming. Three months later I returned to pick them up. The pedestal base was beautiful. The crown nut was beautiful. The spacer, the weirdest of all the three pieces, was beautiful too - but it was the wrong one! Yep! Roman’s helper had mixed it up with another no-name spacer. Have you ever noticed how many million bits and pieces reside at a rechroming shop? I took a short look around and realized that a needle in a haystack might be the easy alternative. My heart sank. Roman was unflappable. He rubbed his chin slowly. He asked if I would kindly call him the following Monday. That looked like a better alternative than recasting the spacer. I called. He had remembered where mine was sent. R & M Restorations! Hell, they likely had more loose parts lying around than Roman did! He had called R & M and they had assured him it would be back by Friday. It was. Next trip was up to Archie’s Auto Body to have the hole cut in the right rear fender. The hole has to be cut just where the flat area rises into the little fin - at least it was a fin to Elwood Engel if not to Vergil Exner - without damaging the paint, thank you. One day's labour. Finally the antenna was installed. Next back to Gord Vidler to wire it up. Following a lead from Sir Robert Merritt I had found a correct power antenna/map light switch from Murray Parks in Ohio. Gord installed it only to find that neither switch worked. He disassembled both and made them work. If you notice an extraorinarily stupid smile on my face when I turn on James' radio or put his antenna up or just check his right mirror, perhaps you will understand. I was dropped on my head as a baby. I like being bankrupt.
James missed Arkansas and Michigan for various reasons although Lynda and I made the Michigan meet in our daily driver. Between those meets we drove him, again by way of Bob’s Motel, to the W.P.C. national meet in Rutland Vt. Lynda drove her turquoise and white ‘65 Valiant 225 slant six - the leaning tower of power - convertible, We call it her 150-L. (It proudly wears the manual antenna from a ‘64 Chrysler. That’s another story.) It never burned a drop of oil. James won a First at the show. I have the book to prove it. ( WPC News, November 1997, Vol. 29, Number 3, page 11.)
George, before you burst a water main, you must understand, 1) I did show James with his hood down, 2) at W.P.C. meets, judging is not done à la slit-your-throat Concours, as is the custom of the 300 Club International Inc. It is done like a people’s choice by those who enter vehicles. The entrants are given ballots for each class and choose one, two and three. Voilà! It isn’t very scientific but it’s fun and leads to just as much rancour, tension and acrimony as our method. A case in point was mine.
There was only a handful of three hundreds at Vt. Two of them were "trailer queens" extraordinaire. By no stretch of the imagination could even a moron consider that James was in the same class of over-restoration as the two "C’s" in question. They were far better than off-the-line perfect. Every chalk mark in place and fresh. What I wish to do is to tell you all about a true gentleman, a man who maintained his dignity and composure in the face of insurmountable odds. His name is Tom White. I intend to get to know him better - if he will speak to me after reading this. He was the owner of trailer-queen number one, a georgeous red C convertible. He was seated at out table (or were we at his?) at the awards banquet. I am not sure if he knew that under W.P.C. rules, if he qualified for a "best-of-show" or "best-of-class" award, he automatically forfeited any first, second, third within-the-class award. Naturally, best-of-show and best-of-class awards are handed out at the end of the programme. Well, as the M.C. got to the Letter Car class, he announced number three. Tom White displayed no emotion. Polite applause. The M.C. announced number two. I think I detected a slight twitch in the muscles at the corner of Tom's left jawbone when his car, one of the two obvious best, was not mentioned. I too was surprised a little. They announced number one - Ken Langdon. Until then I always thought that the ultimate pleasant surprise was a tit full of whisky. I, not knowing that the two trailer queens had in fact won best of class and best of show, was first! I told the award person, (Note the political correctness - that is to make up for the tit full of whisky), that I thought there must be some mistake. He assured me that the universe was unfolding as it should. I was quite able to agree. I am less certain about Tom. His jaw was working for real. If James was pinging, he was ponging. As the M.C. droned oh-ever-so-slowly through all the remaining classes of cars - and at W.P.C. one may enter a 1997 Neon; somebody did but that’s another story - Tom resolutely sat - facing straight forward - a polite smile firmly in place. Talk about stoicism! Talk about courtesy! He smiled. It was killing him but he smiled. Finally, the very last award. Some were beginning to leave the hall. (W.P.C. awards are no better than the 300 Club’s). The M.C. announced the winner of the prestigious best of show award, none other than Tom White! He returned to the table nonchalantly carrying that grand silver bowl. Talk about a relaxed smile! Talk about the universe unfolding as it should! Justice was done. I shall never forget Tom White's miraculous composure in the face of overwhelming provocation.
James got me back from Vt. in fine style but was beginning to miss some and had begun some time earlier to burn more oil than was warranted, even for a thirty-four year old 413. To make a long story short, I have remanded him into Dave’s custody for open heart surgery. His newly rebored engine is now at Dave’s garage with new pistons, new valves, new valve springs etc., etc. (I will win the battle of the ping. James compression is down to 9:2). His transmission is rebuilt and the rest of him is near St. Catharines, Ontario, having some remedial detailing done to his engine compartment and his dashboard. I hope he will emerge more beautiful than ever and ready to travel to South Bend to make all those Studebakers envious. Maybe he will get a chance to drag with Doug Mayer’s B, which is also undergoing open heart. Maybe, Paul DelGrande’s F convert will be far enough along to be trailered down for viewing. I promise you, if it’s there, it will be worth the price of admission. It is to die for.
James - well he is still our first love but a trailer-queen he is not. Nor will he be when the present round of surgeries both remedial and cosmetic is complete. James will, we hope, be a beauty, but he will remain a driver, born to work, to earn his keep and to give his happy owner that rush of pleasure he feels when a truly great road car struts its stuff, all 413 cubes purring, hardly ever even stressed, rolling down life’s road and smoothing out its bumps, physical and metaphysical for me and for the lovely Lynda. Ask Ralph Waldo Emerson. He knows how it feels.
So endeth part two of The Book of James.

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