Head Gaskets to the Mile — or spending time working on a model “A”
Owning your own car meant learning how to fix it, and preferably cheap. As I began driving my own car during the late fall and winter, there were, a number of thing to get used to: One was trying to see the road through a frosted up windshield. Being as a model “A” did not come with all the comforts of a modern auto, you had to compromise, by this I mean there was not a back seat heater, h*ll there wasn’t even a front seat heater. If you were lucky you might just get enough heat off the manifold to redirect it through a small hole in the floorboards to warm one foot. Heaters and defrosters as we know them today were still years away. What we did have was a six-volt electric glass plate that attached to the windshield with four suction cups that was about 9×12 inches in size with two wires leading to a switch on or under the dash. Now when this contraption warmed up you had this tremendous field of vision to view the road ahead. Freezing rain was quite another challenge, you had one option roll the drivers door window down and stick your head out and try to stay on the road with the rain freezing on your eyeballs.
The best accessory that you could have in a model “A” was the heaviest blanket you could find to try and keep as warm as possible. The second accessory was a set of tire chains. There were two common types that were a must. First you had the full wheel chain, you could adjust these so that in snow you kept them tight and if you got into freezing rain or icy roads you could loosen them off for better traction. A set of well adjusted chains and you could go almost anywhere you wanted to go. The second type of chains was the strap on chains. These were two crossers attached to a leather strap that fit though the spokes on the wheel. These would often get you out of some bad spots when you found yourself just to far into the ditch to drive out. Winter driving was an experience you had to learn to live with, as road maintenance was very spare if there was any at all.
Oh yes, another very important winter product was the sack of dry sand you carried on the floor in the back seat. Don’t leave home without it or you may find yourself stranded in the darndest places. The last and one of the most important items was your shovel, if you did not have much experience with one before winter you sure learned how to use it during.
Now as sure as a dog would chase a car, spring would follow winter and the days would get warmer. Now the old “a” would start to give you a different mix of problems to mess up your attempt to keep it running. As the weather grew warmer, so did the rad to the extent that I was constantly adding water. Well sir one day I found it lacked so much power that it would not climb the hill on my way home from work. I called my brother in-law Lorne, and he tells me I have likely blown a head gasket. Sure enough, when the head was removed the gasket was blown. Now not being very mechanically inclined around an engine at this time I merely installed the new gasket and reinstalled the head. This would become a habit each weekend for the next couple of months. Finally, someone put me wise to the fact that the head was likely warped and I needed it planed. Hence the gasket’s to the miles was not very good. I swear, never a weekend went by that I didn’t change a gasket on that *$#@ old “A”.
It was time for a change, but before I had a chance to sell it another calamity struck. It was a fine summer Sunday afternoon and three friends and I decided to take a trip down to Barrie and see what the girl watching was like down there. First things first it was time to divvy up what cash we had on hand to purchase some gas for the trip. As we were heading for a service station at the edge of town, and running quite well at the time, a sudden stop with rear wheels locked and tires screaming brought us to an abrupt halt. Once I had assured my passengers that indeed my brakes were not that good, I attempted to carry on our way. All attempts at pulling away were futile, the old “A” would not move in any forward gear. In total desperation I tried reverse and to my surprise we shot backwards along Colborne Street for about a hundred feet. Now to my surprise it went into first gear quite easy and once again we were off to girl watch in good old Barrie. By now you good old boys have this all figured out but for those that are a might younger I’ll keep going.
This time I had made it out Memorial Ave. to just pasted the Barrie road when, you guessed it that #$%@ model “A” done it again, right dead smack in the middle of the road she screeched to a stop that almost sent poor old George Switzer right through the windshield. Once again she wouldn’t move forward in any gear, and to move backward she would shudder and give a bang every turn of the back wheels. It was painfully obvious that there would be no girl watching in Barrie today, the only way I could move was in reverse so I backed the car about a half mile to good old Lornie’s fathers house on the Barrie road at the corner of Wynedott street.
Needless to say I was going to be without wheels for a week or two. The search started for a rear end assembly for the old “A”. Lorne had three old hydro poles that we lashed together to make a tripod to hang a chain block from. Then we would lift the old “A” into the air to drop the damaged rear end and make way for a new one when we found it. The search had been on for a few days, when a transport driver from Strathdee transport that made deliveries to the garage just happened to be in the shop and heard us talking about our problem. Now this chap (Johnnie Smith just happened to have an old 30 model “A” coupe parked in his back yard that he would be glad to sell. Hot dog, we got us a rear end! All we had to do was go get this old “A” from John and make the switch. It was all arranged that we would pick up the “A” on Sunday morning and get it down to the yard on the Barrie road.
Well sir, when Sunday morning rolled around Lorne and I went up to John’s home in the north end of town and found John enjoying a beer on the front porch. Now an exchange of green backs had not been determined at this point so we looked this old coupe over very close to see if there was anything else we could use. The battery looked good and there were two of the four tires that looked quite respectable.
“How much do you want John,” I asked?
“Well now I’m not rightly sure,” John says, “How about fifty bucks?”
“Only if you can show me a pig that can fly.” I said. “Twenty bucks is all she’s worth to us.”
“Well now it’s a dry day,” said John, “And this case of beer is getting dry as well so maybe thirty-five dollars will do.”
“Twenty-five dollars and not a half dollar more,” We said, “or we go get the other one (where ever it was,) down the other end of town.”
” Ok, twenty-five buck and she’s yours,” John said and away we went with an “A” in tow.
The trip through town went off without a hitch, and we reached our destination on the Barrie road where my old “A” was still hanging without a set of rear wheels and drive shaft. At this point we started looking this new addition over very carefully to see if there were any more goodies we could use. Sure enough, we found that it had just had a complete tune up before it was parked so we planned on swapping the plugs, points and condenser along with the distributor cap and wires onto my engine. Upon further scrutiny we found it had a re-cored rad, and as my rad had been boiling a lot lately we decided to make this switch as well.
Now Lorne is one of those devil-may-care type of guys and here it was, mid-morning on a beautiful Sunday in late summer and we would not start the work on changing the rear end over today anyway. Lorne turns to me and says lets take it out and see if we can blow the engine. A little gas and a boost on the battery was all it took to get this old coupe running. To say it ran well was one heck of a stretch of the imagination. The smoke out the tail pipe was minute in comparison to the smoke from the blowby that filled the car. Man could this thing smoke. There was no way you could drive this car and continue to breath with this blue cloud that had settled inside the car. We shut her down and backed off till the smoke settled.
Then the first thing to go was the roof off this old coupe. As we pulled it off we found that tar and chicken wire made up the fabric top so with it out of the way we figured we just might let the smoke blow right on out the top. Just to be sure we rolled down both side windows and opened the slides on the windshield for more air intake. We were ready for the road. However, I never did get an answer for my question: (What if it quits a few miles out of town?)“Not to worry”, says Lorne, “Let’s go.”
Spewing massive amounts of smoke we made our way to the southwest corner of town. The plan was to drive west on the old Barrie road till we reached the Bass Lake side road. Well sir, by the time we passed the chicken farm on the left side of the road it was impossible to see the barns for smoke. Thirty five miles per hour was about all this tired old girl would do, but it wasn’t the lack of speed that concerned me it was the constant rap of more than one connecting rod that signaled our approach that worried me.
We made it over the first hill in high gear but from then on things got a might slower. We made it to the bass lake road and turned north toward the beach. Fortunately there was little traffic on this morning and the few cars we did pass were soon lost in that huge cloud of blue/black smoke that trailed us through the countryside. As we approached the swimming beach, Lorne shifted into second gear to try getting up enough speed to make the hill at Teddy Bear’s store that was on the corner of bass lake road and number twelve highway. A quick shift into low gear and some enormous hammering by the con rods we limped over the hill and made the turn for home.
At this point Lorne pulled over and said to take the wheel he was blurry eyed from all the smoke. We were two miles from the edge of town and had only two more hills to climb. The first was right in front of us and not much time to get up any speed, so we decided it was best to stay in low gear to be sure we would hit the top without pushing. As we limped over the first hill a few cars pulled out and passed us, likely wondering what these two fools were up to. The old Ford was steaming pretty good by now and the largest hill was right ahead at the 4th concession, I believe its called Westmount Road these days. Now this poor old Ford had been through the wringer today but we were hoping she would not die right there at the entrance to the cemetery.
There was also another thing we had just thought of, the o.p.p station was just on top of the hill next to Parnham’s garage the local Studebaker dealer. We were so close to home we did not want to have to try explaining why we were driving this pile of smokin metal with I might add the plates off my 28 Ford on it. Well sir, it was to late to worry about all the what if’s we had to make this hill so out we jumped and ran along side pushing to give the old girl a little help. The running soon reduced to a slow walk as the ford set in low gear and hammering to beat all h*ll. It was almost enough to wake the dead. Thankfully they must have been the only ones to hear us because we snuck by the police station and by now was approaching that nice long hill going down the coldwater road towards town. Coasting down the hill we went two blocks and turned right at the park then on down across Mary Street to Mississauga street, then a quick turn onto Wyndott Street and we were safe back parked beside my old “A”. What a day, and that old “A” was still running.
Over the next few days we got the rear end, the rad and the tune up parts all installed on my 28 “A” I was back on the road. The first chance we got, Lorne and I borrowed the shop truck and hauled the old coupe of to Louie Fancos scrap yard on West Street. To our surprise we got 15 bucks for the beat up old coupe.
As fall began setting in the thoughts of another winter freezing my butt of driving that old “A” got me to thinking of selling it and getting something that had a heater, preferably one that worked. The guys that worked at Payne and tenant motors all parked their own cars on the empty lot next to the restaurant on the corner of Coldborne and west. This was kitty corner from the shop so you could see anyone that might be around the cars. To my delight a fellow came in the shop and asked if the model “A” was for sale. Now not wanting to look too happy about getting rid of it I asked what he was willing to pay for this great little car? “$45 dollars,” he said.
“No way, $65 dollars is the least I will take,” I told him.
“$55 dollars and that’s it,”he said.
“Well!!!!! Ok, it’s a deal but it’s got to be cash.”
Out comes the green backs. “Now where’s the pink slip,” he says and off he goes with one of the meanest head gasket eating model “A’s “ I ever seen. But would yaw believe it, this guy drove that old “A” back and forth every weekend from Orillia to his job in Toronto for the next six months and never laid a wrench on her. Ggeeeezzzzzz!
Pete Watson, Guelph Ontario Canada
Originally posted June 2005