The Reality Of Owning An Old Car

One of the best things I ever did with my Volkswagen was take a gigantic trunk half as big as the car itself, strap it to the roof rack and slowly drive it home, across two boroughs of New York City. Because in that trunk is a tap and die kit.

A tap and die kit will make you feel like god, at least it makes me feel like one having spent time working on a few old cars. Old cars are full of old parts, and these old parts break. The replacement parts I always find myself buying are even worse, and there’s always some ultra-cheap bolt that strips and ruins an otherwise good part. The tap and die kit comes thru for you in these such times.

It is not the tap and die kit that is the subject of this story, though. I wish it was something simple like a stripped thread easily re-cut in a die.

A few weeks back I blew my brake master cylinder. Coming up to a stoplight, the brake pedal clunked almost to the floor, and my brakes worked at only the slimmest fraction of what they ought to. Brake fluid misted from the seal around the master, right onto the floor and the pedals.

I called a shop about it sometime later, and the old-timer on the phone figured my brake fluid overheated at some point and burned out some seal within the master. Not a problem, I figured, I’d just get a new master and replace it.

I knew that wouldn’t be the hard part. Indeed, it wasn’t too bad. Undo a few bolts, re-do them when you realise that you need one side tight to loosen the other bolts somewhere else, back apart, back together, and the old master was out. A little bit more cursing and the new one was in.

The harder part was finding time to get the car off the street for the job. (I went to the wonderful Broken Motorsports in Union City, NJ, run by Bill Petrow, a good man with whom I once almost died.) And harder than that was bleeding the brakes. I hate bleeding brakes. Tiny bleeder valves opened and closed, lying on your back while brake fluid always finds some way out of the little tube you’ve set and onto your tools, your arms, your car, your pants. It’s not difficult, it’s just time-intensive. The thing you get to at nine at night, when you can’t find your 7mm, and there it is, and I’ll just open up this bleeder and get this over with and ah shit.

It sheared.

It’s not that bad, honestly. It’s never a bad time being at Broken Motorsports. Talking about hillclimb builds and restoring rally cars, life and danger. Seeing old friends and older cars. An E30 with an S54 build, a set of Volvo P1800s that need to sell, a Subaru wagon in a similar state.

That and I had wanted to get into my rear brakes anyway. Change out shoes, and the adjustment stars, and the handbrake cables. It was just a job I wanted to do on a clear weekend day, not on a weeknight.

But it just comes with the territory. Sometimes your 45-year-old car is a bouncing capsule, twin carburetors burping behind you as you rocket up the highway, the star of your own Petrolicious video.

Sometimes it’s a $4 bus to Port Authority in the night, then waiting for a subway transfer home.

The value of various old cars is discussed in vague abstractions. Toyotas and Hondas are reliable. Porsches last forever. E30s are good to drive. But once you actually get to owning or maintaining any of these vehicles, the realities become concrete. That is, your old car is full of old parts, and those old parts break.

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