August 1st, somewhere over the Atlantic. This is Clay – on the flight home after a wonderful adventure.
I spent over a year preparing for this voyage – designing Car 54, thinking and re-thinking the details, what could go wrong and what would be needed to remedy whatever might go wrong. As the time grew closer, our stress levels rose. With prep time running short, I was forced to give up my tickets to the annual Sebring leMans race in March. Finally, in early April, it was time to go. Mark loaded the luggage, I gave April a kiss – and off we went! We set our sights for Times Square in New York City – 725 miles away – where the race was to start in three days. It was cold and raining when we had our first mechanical problem in West Virginia. 54 was running really poorly, and the distributor cap was arcing between the terminals. We remedied the problem by changing the distributer cap in the pouring rain.
We made it to Times Square on schedule and met up with the other drivers. On the morning of April 14, we headed west. Mark’s job was to assist with navigation and – most importantly – keep the web site updated with all the goings-on. (Old guys with an abundance of gray hair are not so handy with such tasks.)
Our run on those first days was uneventful – the way it’s supposed to be. Unfortunately, we were dealing with some pretty strong headwinds. They got so bad that – in either Michigan or Indiana – our license plate was literally ripped off the car! Of course, we didn’t notice right away – who knows where the plate ended up? This was not a small problem – we had registered the car and plates for import into China months ago, and it was clear that China would not let us in without a license plate. April came to the rescue by working with the Florida Dept. of Motor Vehicles and having a new one sent to meet up with us in Colorado. And of course the paper work to China had to be changed immediately, which was also handled, all while Mark & I were just enjoying a leisurely drive – or maybe not. On our way from Denver to Golden Gate, Colorado, we made a fuel stop while going over the Vail Pass in the driving snow. When I restarted the car it was running horribly. I quickly misdiagnosed it as an altitude problem, thinking it would clear up once we got back on the freeway and ran it some. Wrong, wrong, very wrong… We got on the freeway and had to limp to the precipice at 10 mph on (maybe) 4 cylinders, as there were no exits until we got to the top. There I had the opportunity install the second distributor cap in snow drifts 6 to 10 feet high – and me with a pair of Birkenstocks, thankfully with socks. The fresh snow on the ground was 4 to 6 inches. But #54 was running good again and since we were at the precipice it was all downhill from there.
We drove on to Golden Gate, CO, our layover for the night – where we checked into a very nice resort out in the back country of Colorado. The next morning we were up early and headed to Salt Lake City. We were running good for about 15 miles, just cruising and enjoying the beautiful scenery. We’re rolling past a 20′s vintage Hudson when we suddenly lost power! But the engine was still running…? I thought perhaps I had knocked it into neutral. A quick check said no, so we rolled to the side of the road. The Hudson and a couple others stopped to assist. A quick review of the situation pointed to the left rear wheel. It is supposed to be perpendicular to the road, but was at a definite angle. Clearly, we had broken the left rear axle – on Easter Sunday morning – in the middle of nowhere.
Some really great people jumped into action to assist. Chris Purdum was driving the Hudson we had passed, and he had a truck and car trailer following the group. He and co-worker Robbie Stevens changed their plans and the truck & trailer and gave us a lift to Chris’s restoration shop – Chris Purdum’s Customs & Classics in Salt Lake City – a mere 300 miles away! We arrive around 5PM and roll the car off the trailer and into the shop. Robbie and I immediately start the disassembly process, while Chris & Mark jump back in the truck for the 300 mile return trip to pick up the Hudson. We confirm the broken axle, and within an hour or so a fellow named Hugh shows up with not one – but TWO axles in hand! Mind you, it’s Easter Sunday evening and we’re needing an axle for a 1940 Ford. Sent from heaven – here’s Hugh with two – and he would not accept payment for them. Chris had called him along the way. I thanked him mightily and went back to the job at hand. As we got into the problem, the broken axle was caused by the left rear wheel bearing not wearing properly. Robbie and I worked and worked found an auto parts store open until 10 or 11 that night so we could get the required oil, band-aided the wheel bearing, installed the axle and had it on the ground ready to roll about 3:30 Monday morning. Both of us were worn out and greasy from head to foot. Monday was a long haul, driving from Salt Lake to Reno, and there was a driver’s meeting scheduled for 6AM. I got to the motel at 4:30, took a shower, laid down on the bed for 45 min. – not daring to go to sleep for fear of not waking up. Mark and Chris still were not back form picking up the Hudson. We later learned that – aside from the 300 mile each way -they ran into torrential rain and literally “white out” snow conditions.They drove all night and arrived at the driver’s breakfast meeting (which Chris was sponsoring) at about 10 minutes to 6. It was truly a miracle, but – thanks to an amazing gang – we all made it. I’ll remember it every Easter for the rest of my life. Thank you very much guys!
We hit the road to Reno, Mark and I trading off driving shifts. The winds were very heavy but we made it through. I forgot to mention that – when we had the distributor cap and axle problems – I called my friend Mike Goodman, an infamous hot rodder who provided tremendous help to us all along the way. He lined us up with a shop in San Francisco that would let us work on the car prior to putting it on a ship to China. Mike found a couple more axles and distributor caps and had them air freighted there along with new bearing races.
We cleared Reno and then headed on to San Francisco, being gentle all the way. I couldn’t have been more proud and relieved when WE MADE IT – and not only did we make it, but since it was a points Rally/race, we finished in 1st place! April was there waiting with champagne and flowers as we came around the corner to the hotel. We were somewhat behind the others because we were helping Chris Purdum with his Hudson as he was suffering some of the same ills we were dealing with earlier.
There wasn’t much time to celebrate our victory. The next morning I headed over to Roy Brizio’s Street Rods, the place Mike Goodman had lined me up with and where much needed parts awaited me. On my way over, little did I realize that this was one of – if not THE -premiere hot rod shops in the country. They apprehensively greeted me and a fellow by the name of Bob Lockwood drew the short straw and got to work with me. The original mission was to add to the strength of the rear spring, it was on the weak side and would be a problem on some of the unhighways in China, Kazakhstan, and Russia. While this was clearly a priority, it slid a little compared to the axle problem. Fortunately, both problems were with the rear end, so out and apart it came.
As we got into the axle bearing problem, it ended up becoming two problems: first – the original race was an integral part of the axle housing, and apparently had been a problem sometime earlier in it’s life. To remedy the problem, the housing was put in a lathe, turned and a new bearing sleeve pressed on. We could not locate any bearing sleeves of the proper I.D. so we had to have the bearing surface welded up to add material and then turned down to the proper O.D. to accept the bearing races we could locate. In the process of working thru this we learned whoever turned it in the fist place had not done it correctly. It was not concentric with the center of the housing, causing the bearing wear and the axle to break. Sooo, the machine shop had to weld it up, turn it to be concentric and of course accept the new race. Well, we got it done, put it together, put some extra leaves in the spring, tightened some nuts, bolts, and tended to a few other problems and we were running again. We went in to the shop on Wednesday morning and came out at 6:30 Saturday evening with April and I catching an early flight home Sunday morning. I cannot thank Roy and Bob enough for their help. Without them helping us fix the problem the right way – we would have never made it across China much less all the way to Paris. And yes, I did take an extra axle with me the rest of the way around the world and, no, thank God we didn’t need it. The right rear axle bearing started showing signs of wear somewhere across China but we babied it and it held together. It will be interesting take a look when I get 54 home and can get into it without having to drive it the next day. Well, 54 went on a slow boat to China and I went home to KY, got a few extra parts, did some custom work on a few distributor caps and prepared for the trip to Beijing.
For a father it was a great opportunity and trip with his son. We were trapped in the car for two weeks trying to get to the U.S. finish line and do it in 1st place. We succeeded with both, and we were friends at the end. We got lots of unsolicited positive feedback on Mark’s blog postings, many of which were put together as we were driving the highways, byways and late at night in the bed after long hard days of driving. Thanks for going with me Bud, it was great.
Move the clock forward to the 1st of June and Blake and I are on our way to Beijing, a long trip and a full ½ day, 12 hours ahead of beautiful Nicholasville. Talk about jet lag, we were doing it! We had a couple days before we picked the cars up. When we finally went to the yard and they opened the container, I don’t remember whose car was in with us but they came out first. I plunked my butt in the seat, turned the key and – SHAZZAM – #54 started and hummed! I heaved a big sigh of relief and backed it out of the container into the sunlight. No dents, no scratches, and still the same road grime as when I left her in San Francisco. We cleared customs and started our journey – good thing we don’t have crystal balls. Chinese driving habits and rules are pretty inexplicable, but we watched, learned and fell in with it. After a few days 54 was starting to exhibit some problems, again running rough, and just not right. We had some group discussion and diagnostics and decided the carburetor was the culprit. So I called my friend Mike Goodman and had him send me 2 new carburetors, and a couple plastic insulator plates to go between the carburetors and the intake manifold to help keep the carburetors from getting too hot and boiling the gas. In the meantime I borrowed a carb from Jack Crabtree, whose 29 Ford used the same Stromberg carb. We put it on and the problem improved substantially, but it still wasn’t what it should be.
I drove it around some and said to myself, “Self – we are going to change the distributor.” So we did, and the coil too. It ran well after that, but now I had used my spare distributer, my on-board parts supply was dwindling, but thankfully 54 was running the way it was supposed to. And a good thing too, because the next day was the worst driving conditions I have ever encountered – or ever hope to encounter – on or off-road. We simply wouldn’t have made it the way she was running before.
I forgot to mention that – a few days prior, we were running along a freeway around 50 or 60 MPH when the car simply died. It was as if I had just turned the key off, so off to the side of the road we went. We weren’t getting spark, so I changed the coil. The distributor rotor was a real mess, so we did a roadside cleanup and were off and running. Also, not long after we left Beijing I kept hearing a scraping noise from the left rear wheel. As you might imagine, it had me constantly worried. We had a 2 night layover in Xian, China, so while Blake was sightseeing, I took the left rear wheel and brake drum off. Apparently when we put it back together at Brizio’s the front brake shoe retainer wasn’t properly assembled so the little stud had come loose and is still laying along the road somewhere in China. Fortunately I had an extra long 10-32 screw I had picked up in Ohio for an air filter – it was perfect for the job. The spring and retainer were rattling around inside the brake drum making the noise. They were a little worse for the wear but useable. So I was able to bandaid it together and it lasted the balance of the trip.
We cruised thru the rest of China, an unbelievably large country and into Kazakhstan. Just after crossing the border into Kazakhstan, the alternator went out. It was nearly dusk and we had several hours of night driving ahead of us. We pulled into a gas station, up with the hood and off with the alternator. We got the new one out of the trunk and – you guessed it: the pulley was wrong! Fortunately, we were able to take them apart and exchange pulleys without too much of a loss of time. Of course, nothing is ever easy… While I was working under the hood someone noticed the left rear tire was going flat, so out came the tire plug kit and we plugged the hole only to find that not only did we have one hole but two. Got them patched, the alternator was working, so once again were off and running to Almaty, Kazakhstan. As I recall we got there around midnight, ending probably the most frightening drive that I have ever experienced. I felt sure we would end up in an accident that night, but we made without harm.
The new carburetors and other parts were waiting for us in Almaty and it was time for an oil change. Almaty was a two night stop, so while Blake was out sightseeing I went to a garage, changed the oil & filer, installed the new carburetors, did bolt tightening and found that the left tie rod end was coming apart. I didn’t have an extra one of those, but the shop said he could get it rebuilt for $40, so I said go for it. He did, and it lasted the balance of the trip. I was feeling pretty good about the car: oil changed, brakes adjusted, bolts tight, tie rod fixed, I’m ready to rock on to Moscow – a short-lived warm feeling of confidence. The following morning we left Almaty for Astana, Kazakhstan, about 100 miles out of Almaty. Blake was driving and I was dozing. We were running 50 – 60 MPH on a decent two lane road when something got my attention. I glanced at the gauges and we were at zero oil pressure, so off to the side of the road we went. When we changed the oil someone (don’t know who, could have been me) didn’t put the dipstick all the way back in it’s hole. Well, I don’t know if it blew out, or was siphoned out, but the end result was the left front fender was covered in oil. It had come out of the dip stick tube, blew thru the louvers in the hood and covered the fender and running board. The engine was still running when we immediately shut it off. I knew I had a problem, I just didn’t know how bad. I had a couple quarts of oil I put in it, Jack Crabtree also had some so we dumped it in. I reached in, turned the key and the engine was frozen, it wouldn’t turn over. I got that sinking feeling. Once again, we were out in the middle of nowhere – now in a land where the native language was Russian. We hooked a tow line on it and towed 54 probably 40 to 50 miles to a place with some restaurants and gas stations. Please don’t get an image of anything you would see in the states, it wasn’t. The rest of the group had gone on, we called for a rollback truck to come from Almaty and take us to Astana – the capital of Kazakhstan – about 800 miles of bad road away.
Astana was scheduled as a two night stay and would be a decent place to get parts flown in to. It was a two day ride in the rollback. The driver, Marat, was a great guy, he couldn’t speak English and of course Blake and I did not speak Russian, but we somehow managed to communicate. Our guides managed to find a small shop in Astana we could work in as well as an interpreter, Dima. When we arrived, Dima met us and led us to the shop – a one stall shop the size of a single car garage with a car lift. It was kind of late in the afternoon when we arrived but we put 54 on the lift and off came the oil pan.
The front main bearing and 1st two rod bearings were shot. Armed with the knowledge of the problem, I was on the phone to Mike Goodman and Rex Gardner. They gave me leads on the best remedy and chances for success and where to get bearings. The time change came in handy because I was able to find the parts and get them in the air the same day we diagnosed the problem. The next day, we were at the garage early in the morning and Erlan, the owner, met us. The car was up, the car was down, etc. most of the day as we prepared to pull the engine. We had it out and apart that afternoon. Erlan knew a machine shop that would turn the crank, I did the calculations on what dimensions the the main and rod journals had to be turned to and did the conversions to metrics — I was really sweating this part. We gave the info and the crank to the machine shop and got it back on Friday morning. UPS said the new bearings would not be in until Monday. MIR Corp., our travel agents, went to work on the local UPS office and managed to get us the bearings Saturday morning.
To work we went, and we had the engine together and back in the car Saturday evening. Sunday morning we were there tying up the loose ends, put oil in her, turned the key and by God it ran. Problem was there were some pretty substantial amounts of oil leaking on the floor. We traced it to a ¼” brass pipe about 2″ long that the oil pressure sending unit was mounted on. My heart sank, because I’m thinking in this land of metrics, where am I going to find a replacement for this – there isn’t an ACE Hardware handy. We removed the parts, Erland and I discussed it, he said he could take the parts to the “Master” and get a new one made, again, on a Sunday morning. Sure enough, in an hour or two here he came with one the “Master” had made. Next problem was we could not put it in because there wasn’t enough room between the block and firewall to turn the pipe with the required 45 degree elbow attached, or to add the elbow after the pipe was installed. We came up with a workaround using some flexible fuel line and were running and on the road to Russia around 3 in the afternoon.
She was running fine but I’m sure you can appreciate my apprehension. Anyway we drove and drove and she kept running with no problems. Every now and then Blake & I would say “and the engine ran well for the 1st 500 miles” and then later we would say “she ran well for the 1st 1500 miles” until guess what, she just kept running well. A couple days later we caught up with the group and were a happy family once again. But nothing lasts forever….
We eventually arrived in Kazan, Russia, where we again had a two night layover, and again while Blake was out sightseeing I took the car to a Ford dealer who was happy to see and help Jack and me. We had put just over 3000 miles on our new engine, so it was time to change the oil, and just give the undercarriage a once-over after all the rough road we had covered. 54 was on the rack, oil & filter changed, a myriad of loose nuts and bolts tightened, and the horn fixed – a true life saver. It had quit working back in China or Kazakhstan and was a bit of a worry, since driving life over there depends on a horn. It was an electrical contact problem at the base of the steering column.
I was glad we attacked it at the dealer, the fellow helping had the tenacity to run it down that I might not have had. While we were underneath it, we noticed that a metal bracket that attaches a stabilizer to the front axle had fractured from the rough roads. We removed it and the dealer was kind enough to weld it back together. We reinstalled it and after a pretty good washing were ready to roll again.
The next morning we were up and out – on the road looking for the next challenge/adventure. We were somewhere in Russia with me driving, and again something got my attention. I checked the gauges and again – no oil pressure. Immediately off with the key, over to the side of the road, up with the hood. Oil all over the engine compartment! The fuel line workaround we used for the pressure gauge had come apart. Fixed it, refilled the oil pan, held our breath, turned the key, and YES! She started and the oil pressure gauge jumped right up where it was supposed to be. Man, was I relieved.
We ran well thru the rest of Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and into Berlin. On the way from Berlin to Warsaw – just after a stop for gas – we pulled out onto a two lane road, and as we were getting up to speed a loud dragging noise started. I checked the gauges, all’s well there; check for power to the wheels, still had that – so the drive shaft hadn’t fallen out. So off to the side of the road again to see what had fallen off. The weld on the stabilizer bar had again broken and the end of the bar was dragging on the road making quite the racket. Well, it was easily removed and not mandatory for safe travel so we threw it the trunk and we were off and running once again. The original 32 Fords didn’t have one, and I could notice a difference in the steering with and without it- but as I said – we could get there without it.
I think that covers most of our problems until the next-to-last day when the fuel pump for the lower tank gave up. Fortunately 54 has 2 fuel tanks, each with it’s own fuel pump – so we were able to make it on in to Paris. I changed it out in the shadow of the Eiffel tower. We drove on to Amsterdam without further problems. But I know for sure that some time in my garage is needed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we drove her into the yard where she was loaded into a container for the ride home.
I have a lot of thoughts and emotions as all this comes to a close. Blake, like Mark, did a wonderful job of keeping our blog and fans updated. As you can see from this writing, it took a lot of really great people to help us achieve our goal. When people ask me what was my most notable memory of the trip, my reply is always the same: the time with my son and grandson was the best part of the trip for me. A man could not ask for a better opportunity to share with his son and grandson. Thanks to both of them for going, helping and putting up with me. And thanks to all those mentioned here (and the many that weren’t) for helping make the trip a reality. To those of you who followed us, I hope you enjoyed the adventure!