Somewhere around mile 125 the right hand top tensioner let go and began flapping around inside Bridget’s passenger compartment like an errant moth. It smacked me in the head, brushed up against my cheek and snapped in the interior wind, a wordless banner proclaiming YOU’RE AN IDIOT! THIS IS CRAZY! But who checks a canvas top tensioner before a big trip?
“What the hell,” I raved, loud enough for my earplug-wearing wife to stir herself. Silently (as far as I could tell, also wearing earplugs against Bridget’s 1500-cc din) she wrapped the broken cord around one of the aluminum top stays.
It was the trip’s first mechanical glitch, and would prove to be prologue. Everything else that would happen would be of similar scale and difficulty, even as disaster constantly loomed.
The temperature outside was in the high 90s, with humidity near the same. Bridget’s oil pressure, according to her two year old VDO gauge, hovered around 22 PSI as we humped up various Allegheny mountains at 65 miles per hour, 3200 rpm.
Ten pounds per thousand rpm is the minimum rule of thumb, right? But she seemed to be holding steady at 22 or so, with no overheat light flashing and no sense of overt weakness in the engine (other than the usual overt weakness displayed by a 47-year-old, 46 horsepower engine pushing 2100 pounds up a 2500-foot peak), and who can say how accurate these gauges are?
I made a mental note to shut her down and have her towed home if the pressure dropped below 20 at any time during highway travel, crossed my fingers and put my foot down.
The 31st Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix
The idea of going to the Pittsburgh on Vintage Grand Prix has intrigued me for ages. To be one with all that historic alloy, sitting in the shade of Schenley Park, smelling that heady mix of gas and oil and varnish, wax and sunscreen and barbecue. It just seemed like a thing to do. But I was pressed for time and, thinking a toe-dip might be the way for a first timer, I booked a space for the “Countryside Tour,” a GP-related activity scheduled for Thursday, July 18. I asked Karen if she’d be interested in accompanying me and, to my surprise, she said yes.
“It’s mid-July,” I said. “It will be hot.” (This was in February).
Karen said she would be up for the trip, and so I reserved a room an an in-town bed and breakfast, thinking we’d maybe see some cool old cars just cruising around in the city during race week.
The other reason for the in-town reservation was this: the Countryside Tour was scheduled to wind up at a place called the Coventry Inn, in Indiana, PA, but the starting point was not set in February–or March or April.
Or May. Or June.
Getting a centrally-located bedroom was my idea of hedging my bet. If the starting point ended up way north of the city, but we were staying 60 miles south, we could end up with a very long ride first thing Thursday morning, I reasoned. Better to go central, guaranteeing some kind of commute but also guaranteeing it’d be short. Or, at least, short-ish.
The Google Map indicated 270 miles from our house to The Arbors B&B. Before setting out I filled the tank and added about a pint of oil–the last of the 10W-40 diesel oil I used for the change before Carlisle. I bought three quarts of VR-1 20W-50 and stowed one under the passenger seat.
We stopped for gas around 3 o’clock at the spot where I-70 suddenly becomes a big confusing truck stop. Missed the Subway/Shell sign and ended up at one of the 13 other gas stops on that half mile strip. With the low oil light now glowing steady (normal–normal! on hot days at idle, when you have a gauge and the oil light T’d in at the case. Right? Right!) I found I could not open the hood to access the fuel filler. The latch mechanism seemed to work, but the pin would not pop and so I had to resort to the emergency pull I rigged up when I re-did the cable last spring. Glad I had it.
We were doubly glad we’d left the top up as we neared Pittsburgh at rush hour. The canvas at first gave us only the blessed shade we’d had all along, which was enough. But then the skies opened up and the rain came. I was glad both for the top and for the Rain-X I wiped on the glass before Carlisle. It was still working, beading the water away with nary any need for the windshield wipers.
Those wipers are the slowest ever–about a five second round trip.
The rain was short-lived and on arrival at The Arbors I fixed the cable latch with a screwdriver–either the cable had stretched in the heat or the screw had let it slide just a hair or the taped-together two cables had loosened and the main one jammed…. I reset the emergency wire as well before closing the hood and again blessed my own foresight for installing that thing a few months ago before latching my and my wife’s overnight bags in there. Nothing dampens a vacation like having to wear the same clothes for three days in 90+ degree heat.
(And then having to flatbed home because you can’t put gas in the car).
I also tied the broken top tensioner with a knot. Seems the sewn seam pulled loose under a flap in the top; no way I could have seen it.
TD Replica Droogies, Nicky’s Thai
The Arbors B&B bills itself as a “Country Inn in the city,” and you would not believe. The road to turn on is Irwin, which is one lane wide and ends in a dirt driveway where it T’s on Maginn Street–which is another parked-up, donkey path of a road. We missed the private driveway to the B&B and had to turn around a hundred feet later at the ball field. There were people playing there, folks messing with cars in the driveways of the modest houses, while our “private drive” was nearly hidden in shrubbery.
Once through the unkempt portal we came on a gravel drive and a fine looking old home with a newish aluminum sun room attached. There was one car parked near the porch so I stumbled out the car after nearly 6 hours on the road and was quickly greeted by Jim, our knowledgeable host.
Jim’s a small red-haired guy who works as a dance instructor when he’s not baking muffins and keeping the B&B running. The owner, meanwhile, was elbows deep in the broken hot tub. It would not be fixed before we left, but no matter. Jim’s dinner suggestions along with clear and concise driving directions would prove invaluable. We would ignore his directions at our peril.
I zipped up Bridget’s side curtains to ward of any rain while we sacked out.
We were sacked out for about 15 minutes when Bill Haas arrived with his wife Audrey. A strapping truck driver with jokes at the ready, Bill came in his regular car since his TD, which he’s owned for less than a year (I think) is under extensive renovation. He’s already done the remove-the-leaves-from-the-front-beam trick–bravo!–and is in the middle of welding in new floor pans.
Another five or ten minutes after that Dan Grant drove in with his TD and his wife, Gaynor. Dan and Gaynor had just returned from the Old Country for a family reunion, so if anything Dan’s British accent was enhanced. Another super nice guy.
The six of us repaired to a place called Nicky’s for Thai food. Supposedly the best in town and I enjoyed my meal quite a lot. Gaynor told Karen and I all about their family–with people on almost every continent, while Bill and Dan talked mostly shop, from what I overheard. I’d have loved to have spent a couple hours with them over a few beers but I was fading fast by the end of the main course, and Karen was just as wiped out. Bill was kind enough to lead us back to The Arbors and, given my state of mind and penchant for wrong turns, I suspect he saved our marriage.
[Audrey, Bill, Dan, Gaynor and me–taken by Karen in the fading light with Dan’s TD in the foreground]
The Countryside Tour was originally advertised as starting at 10 a.m. but, last week, we got word from the organizer that we’d step off at 9–from the Century Inn on Scenery Hill. Google informed me that our morning commute would be 43.9 miles and take 53 minutes, necessitating an early start. We were the only guests, and Jim offered muffins, granola, yogurt and the like. The Arbors features light fare, apparently, and we were happy to get it. Jim got up with us and regaled us with stories from the Christmas Shop across from the Century–The Elves Lair. He’s friends with the owner who once, in a bid to slow the speeding traffic along Rt. 40, apparently moved his personal rocking chair to the double yellow and sat there in protest until the cops came.
Jim crossed out the first eight steps in our Google directions and gave us three turns to avoid a complex detour. We still got to the Century a bit after I’d hoped, but plenty of time before our scheduled departure.
The whole point of this trip, for me, was bragging rights: Yes, my car is not a proper British sports car, but it is fuckin’ seriously old and absurdly underpowered, and I did drive it all the way here from Baltimore. That’s my pitch, and I was ready to pitch it anywhere it might fly.
On the way there, at the split where I-79 merges onto I-70, we spotted a nice looking dark colored MGB broken down by the side of the road. Her chrome wires gleaming in the morning sun, the car looked immaculate, and the driver was folding up the tonneau. We were doing 60, three lanes away at the time, so there was no way to pull over to help. At lunch we met the driver–he and his wife got a tow and a rental car to complete the circuit. Well done!
We spotted the group along the side of Rt 40, sped past, turned around in a construction zone and backed in next to a white Miata with “The Last Open Road” and “Finzio’s Sinclair” stickers. Turns out the driver was supposed to be in his Jag, but had trouble with low oil pressure. Ha! We don’t need no steenking oil pressure!
Bud Osbourne had helpfully arranged the tour cars in nine different flights of three and four vehicles, with each flight led by a local MG or Triumph club member. This seems like a more sensible system than running 30 cars strung out along the road attempting to stay together as one. Of course, it also means the group leaders must be many and experienced. I want to thank our leader, Ann Rogers, and her husband Bill. They came in a nice ‘74 Midget and were the best hosts we newbies could have hoped for.
Ann bought her car in the early ’90s, she said, before she met Bill, a big guy who folds himself into it like a lawn chair. He said his back is better since they re-did the seats with new padding and upholstery. He said he’s thinking about buying a project car of his own, and I proselytized the TD replica cause.
“Lot’s more interior space than the originals,” I said. “Much more leg room. And you can be part of the British car club and the VW club!”
The folks were welcoming. I had to explain to more than one fellow tourer that Bridget was a VW under her skin. She still had her admirers even in a field that featured several gorgeous MGAs, several TR6s, at least two Healey 3000s, two E-types, a very loud TVR, a real (I’m told) Porsche 356 convertible and this buffed aluminum holy shit 1954 Aston Martin DB2/4!
The third member of our group, Peter Hutchinson, did not make it. He was supposed to be in a TF (which won top honors at Carlisle this year) and I never heard what happened. Hope he and his car are well.
The road was long and winding, with many hills. Ann nicely offered to let us pass on the hills if necessary, as her car has even fewer cc’s than ours. But it was no trouble. We followed as well as I could, usually a few more car lengths behind than a competitive person would.
Eventually we reeled in the Mustang flight.
The oil pressure seemed to hold steady enough at that dangerously low level, but now the Volts gauge was acting strange. Instead of the usual low reading around 12 to 12.5 volts, it now wandered promiscuously between 8 and 16. There seemed to be some connection to the tach–more rpms usually meant more juice–but the relationship was by no means linear.
At the second break, at Ohiopyle park, I told Ann and Bill what was happening and that I’d just as soon keep rolling. “That old generator probably can’t put out enough current to do any damage, and the battery’s under warranty,” I said. “We’ll just use the headlights and such to scrub ampheres as necessary.”
And so we did, turning on the lights as the volt meter neared the redline, and turning off the lights at idle. It seemed to work well enough, but I wanted to get a new voltage regulator installed as soon as possible.
As it turned out, I actually had a spare stowed under the passenger seat–left there by the previous owner. “Looks new,” I marvelled as I showed it to our guides after we pulled up at the Coventry Inn. I was even lucky enough to be in the shade, having rudely and ignorantly nudged a fellow cruiser and his immaculate ‘65 Mustang out of it by pulling in behind him after doing a U-turn. Having run out of turning circle I signaled him to pull forward, which he grudgingly did.
“Wanted the shady spot for yourself, eh,” he smiled as he got out of his car.
Anyway: three screws and four wires, and right up on the fan shroud! If the part (which was in the spot I plucked it from when I got the car; no idea of its provenance) is good, I’m home free, I thought.
Lunch was chicken and some boiled eggs, a bit of salad and blueberry pie that really made my afternoon.
Karen had answered 25 of the trivia questionds and spotted 17 “Ten Commandments” signs on various lawns (there were 50 or more, according to Cindy Osbourne, Bud’s wife and the apparent creator of the “gimmick pages”). Karen’s score was good enough to get her one of the early prizes–this awesome Vintage Grand Prix back bag.
“Ed, they gave everyone a prize,” she sighed.
“But,” I said, “you were good! You came in, like, 5th.”
Dry Wiping High Voltage
After lunch it was time to head back to the Arbors–61 miles but a two hour drive, as it turned out. Karen did not want to hang out in the heat whilst I changed the voltage regulator and so we decided to chance it on the malfunctioning one, using the same volts-scrubbing technique.
We did not realize that the regulator was about to malfunction much more.
On the way home the needle pinned at 16 with the headlights on. I turned on the emergency flashers, and that helped a little, but we were still over 15. Then it pegged 16 again so hard I’d swear I heard the needle hit the stop. Eventually I went for the wipers. Quite a sight we must have been, jamming into Pittsburgh’s sweltering, very sunny rush hour, with all the lights lit and the wipers wiping.
“I’ve never seen them go that fast!” Karen marveled.
“They’ve never had so much juice pumped into ‘em,” I laughed, any second expecting all the fuses to pop and/or the electronic ignition to fry and leave us completely stranded.
It was close to 5 pm by the time we made it home. We were both too tired to call any of our new friends or old relatives. Karen grabbed a cold shower and I ate some snacks we’d forgotten to bring on the tour before going out to change the regulator.
The swap took all of 20 minutes, delayed only by a single stubborn screw holding one of the wires to the old one. There was no visual difference between the dodgy regulator and the spare, but the volts meter looked much more normal with the new one in. I added a pint of oil to the crankcase and went to fill the gas tank again, glad not to have to employ the backup plan of asking Bill Haas for his regulator.
I got a much needed cold shower, noting some pretty good sunburn on my neck. Karen and I both slept for an hour and then headed off to the James Street Gastro Pub, a neo “Speak Easy” Jim had suggested which features jazz and stand-up comedy along with the inevitable artisan cocktails. He even left directions on the table, but instead of using those I told Karen we could go with the iPhone GPS.
Six U-turns later we arrived. Seems the iPhone could not keep up with the car’s actual position. That, combined with the tendency for Pittsburgh roads to amble around steep hillsides and meet up in five-way intersections, left Karen just slightly stressed.
The James Street G-pub is a pretty cool space, with an upstairs ballroom, a downstairs bar and show space and the restaurant and pub in the middle. The menus are in old record sleeves. Makes me wish for those old records.
Karen enjoyed the meatloaf and I thought the fish & chips were passable. We were too early for the entertainment and I was too tired to risk drinking more than one beer before trying to find our way back to The Arbors in the dark.
I’d booked us a couple of tickets for the 10 a.m. tour of Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright’s residential masterwork. Karen and I had wanted to get there for years but it’s a long ride for just that one thing. I thought it fit perfectly into this trip–and the trip home from Falling Water was, according to Google, only three and a half hours. I thought we might make it home before rush hour.
But getting to Falling Water by 10 required another early morning. We grabbed breakfast (Jim made scones) and packed out by about 8:30, but before we got on the highway I looked at Bridget’s gauges and saw they both read zero: No oil pressure; no volts. I pointed to them.
“Is that bad,” Karen asked. “Should we pull over?”
“Nah,” I said with the overconfidence that comes from a string of good luck. “It’s just the fuse for the gauges. I’ll change it when we get there.”
I did not see fit to tell her that the brake lights are on the same circuit. No one can see Bridget’s tiny brake lights in the day time anyway….
With no pesky low oil pressure or high voltage readings to distract me, the top-down trip to Falling Water was pleasant and uneventful. We arrived at 10:05, just about 20 minutes after we should have, and the helpful staff slotted us into the 10:30 tour with no fuss. I put Bridget’s canvas up and we repaired to the blessedly air conditioned gift shop to wait for our tour guide.
Even the gift shop, where Wright’s designs are riffed and kitched to within an inch of irrelevance, inspires. These are patterns and ways of building that seem eternal. I wanted to buy about half the stuff I saw there. Didn’t.
If you’ve not been to Falling Water, by all means take at least the one-hour cheapo tour. It’s a magnificent house in a magnificent setting, and should inspire even the most dull-witted home improvement duffer (such as myself) to think more clearly about what needs doing and how it should look when it’s done. The indirect lighting, the cantilevers, the Asian-inspired simplicity of line–it’s all understood by everyone now and yet still too often forgotten by architects, designers and decorators.
At the time it was built, of course, it was revolutionary.
We were lucky to have a couple of tall people along for the tour. I had read that Wright liked to play with ceiling heights to create visual interest, and that he favored low ceilings. What I did not know was just how low. The main salon at Falling Water–a spectacular stone-floored space of at least 35 by 35 feet–features a seven-foot permitter ceiling.
The ceilings in some of the bedrooms are lower still–6’4″ or so. One of our tour mates had to duck down in the room itself–and not just through the famously-proportioned custom walnut doors.
The gorgeous built-in shelves, desks and cabinetry throughout the house were fashioned of marine plywood, our young tour guide informed us, the better to withstand the humidity of a house built over a stream. She said it had flooded only once that she knew of.
Though not mentioned by the guide or in any literature I’ve come across, the house appears to me to have a distinctly nautical aura. The materials (well, the wood) and proportions are redolent of a ship, as is the thought about how it all fits together and works to serve the people inside. Though the decks are scaled grandly, and some walls are mostly glass, many of the windows are more like port holes, disgned for ventilation more than light.
It’s a fantastic place and worth the tour price.
At the end they give you the pitch to join the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which Karen did. I was most intrigued by the four-bay carport which, in the ‘70s, was converted into offices and the media room where we sat to absorb the pitch. Even the car port was a splendid bit of architecture.
Karen returned to the gift shop while I looked at Bridget’s fuses. I spotted the bad one right off- a red 16-amper that was mostly melted. Fished around for another like it, settled for a glass tube model and tried the key.
Now I had no tach either.
Turned out the melted fuse was still hanging on. The white one next to it–8 amps; also slightly melted–was the culprit.
I replaced it with another like it, put the bad-looking red one back in place and we were good to go. After lunch on site (Karen said her Cuban was hot pig-on-pig action), we strolled to the parking lot just as the sky opened up. We huddled under Bridget’s modest canvas top for about 10 minutes waiting out the cloudburst. A group of Mustang owners hailed us as we pulled out, the leader saying to look for them at the Grand Prix tomorrow.
Ah, maybe next year. Hell, probably next year.
The trip home was much like the trip out–albeit slightly more down hill. I-68 has more and higher peaks, perhaps, but at least it doesn’t devolve into a truck stop.
Oil pressure held steady at 20-21, which was frightfully low but not bad considering I had the headlights lit, and that usually subtracts a few pounds from the oil pressure reading. Don’t ask me why.
The volts gauge behaved admirably, as did the fuel gauge. After a stop-and-go trip around the beltway we pulled in our driveway around 5:40 p.m., burned, bushed but unbowed.
A day later I’m ready to do it again.