St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Buick Balks

Traveling Tribulations

We are down in Louisiana, with nice weather, and even some green grass on the ground with camellias in bloom. The trip was reasonably easy with the worst driving conditions on the Monday (Jan 10) right after a snowstorm swept through Missouri, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana, on Sunday.

We pulled into a rest stop, which was not plowed, not shoveled and a real mess a full day after the snowstorm. I asked the cleaning man “Why aren’t there any snow plows out today clearing the roads?”
“Govn’r Baba (Haley Barbour) is a devout Christian man. He b’lievs God dumped it on us, so God’s gotta get rid of it!”

We stopped at a gas station ($3.09) to fill up and get a gallon of washer fluid. The price had been jacked from $2.99 to $9.95. I complained and the clerk said “well, it’s still selling.” I bought a 2 liter bottle of diet 7-UP, added 10 squirts of soap from the bathroom, shook it up at a cost of $1.89

We had some car troubles along the way. I intentionally drive older vehicles because they cost less overall most of the time. When I do have to pay for a car repair I think “it’s just one car payment,” remembering when I bought new cars and paid for them every month for many years, never getting out of debt before buying the next one. I find most older cars get by on two payments per year from age 5 to 10.

We are driving Margo’s 1995 Buick Roadmaster with a 5.7L V-8 that we save for pulling our small popup trailer camper. It has been a three payment per year car since we bought it six years go. Generally, I don’t mind a few car problems along the way on a trip as it keeps things interesting and at times exciting on what could otherwise be just a long boring drive. However the Buick threatens to go beyond just interesting, to worrisome.

These Roadmasters (called Road Monsters by many) are big; have huge engines that could easily pull a semi-tanker trailer fully loaded with gasoline (actually not a bad idea considering the amount of fuel they use). The towing package includes air leveling shocks to keep the rear end at the right level whatever the load. Their biggest downfall is the vast amount of complex automatic and power features.

Margo always had the idea that camping in retirement meant hauling a 40 foot trailer with two bedrooms, kitchen, dining, living and exercise rooms with multiple slide out compartments; bringing the full comforts of home on the road, versus me planning to get a slightly bigger tent to replace our 1973 canvas model.

She passed her dream to her Uncle Ray, a used car dealer who only sold Buick Roadmasters and my constraint of $5,000. He picked out a white 1995 Roadmaster with 95,000 miles on it; in beautifully new looking condition and sold it to her for $5,000—a “favorite niece” discount for a car that probably cost $30,000 new. I think the maroon real leather seats were the clincher for Margo.

It has been a challenging car. The first problem was that if you left it sit for a week, the battery died. I put in a new battery—no different, just took longer to die. I couldn’t find what was wrong and eventually took it to my local repairman who also had a long search. “I finally had my young mechanic crawl in the trunk while I shut the lid and sure enough, the trunk light stayed on!” he said, charging me for three hours labor at $75 per hour plus a replacement switch.

As we planned to hoard the miles on this car just for pulling the camper, it sat in the garage for months at a time before being run. Three months later, the battery was dead again. I took it back to the same repairman. He couldn’t find anything—nothing drawing current other than some really tiny amounts for the clock. “Leave it with me and we will keep an eye on it.”

Two weeks later he called. “The car has a towing package with air leveling shocks in the back. The air compressor that pumps up the shocks to keep it level, comes on every day and runs for a while. There is probably a very slow leak somewhere in the system. I couldn’t find it. Replacing the air shock system would be about $2000, so I just rewired the pump to only work when the key is on. When it sits for a while and you turn on the key, it will immediately pump up again, but not while it is off. Should work OK until the air shocks spring a leak big enough I can find.” Only $200 and all labor this time.

The next trip south, the rear end pumped up and stayed up, whether you turned the key off or not. The Buick dealer in Natchez, Mississippi found a short in the pump wiring. “Should’ve been easy, but somebody re-wired the pump and took me couple of extra hours to figure out what was going on. He let the wires hang and they rubbed against something and wore off the insulation” he said as he handed me a $196 bill for labor and parts (tape and wire).

After that we went on several more trips and it pulled the camper fine; ran fine and smoothly, and only needed a new dual pipe/muffler exhaust system ($500), a new alternator ($200) and the air conditioning quit (estimate $500 for repairs). We skipped the air conditioning repair as most of our trailer trips were in cool weather anyway. Eventually we had to replace the AC pump with an idler pulley as the clutch was getting ready to grab and tear the drive belt (which by the way we replaced too) along with another tensioning idler pulley (another $80 each).
I had been mildly grumbling about the car; the mileage was about 16 pulling the camper versus about 25 with the Olds 88, and we were paying lots for repairs. When we had to replace two of the tires we found that they were a size that had to be special ordered at $150 each. Margo got tired of my grumbling, and said—lets trade it in during a trip returning from Colorado one winter after having visited Scott at Keystone Ski Lodge.
On the way back, out on the prairie, a coyote streaked across the road in front of us and we banged into it hard at 75 mph. The coyote was killed, and the front bumper and fender had $2500 damage—just cosmetic stuff, but with my $1000 deductible collision, was hard to justify fixing—so I said no, lets just drive it until it quits. That was two years ago. This year I had some new brake lines put in. The heater no longer gets above warm, the air shocks are permanently deflated, but it does run and pull the trailer pretty good anyway. Of course, $60 per tank fill twice in a 12 hour day of driving does seem pretty steep. Margo has vowed never to buy a car on her own in the future, so I guess that is worth quite a bit!
The first real annoyance on this trip down was the leak in the heater core that I fixed with stop leak and then the heater quit heating. I think the heater core got plugged with the leak gunk, as one heater hose is very hot and the other not so hot, indicating the fluid isn’t circulating. That is why, when I left off the story last week, I had just put cardboard in front of the whole radiator hoping to heat the whole thing up so hot, it would remove the clog in the heater core, and get Margo out of hypothermia—all her shivering and whining made it hard for me to concentrate on driving. I couldn’t resist saying “well, I think it was you who picked this car…” which did heat her up a little.
With the cardboard in, we pulled out on the freeway and took it up to 70 and cruised along watching the temperature gauge go above the normal 200, to 205, then 210, and 220 and the heater warm a little. Suddenly there was the smell of antifreeze and a cloud of smoke coming from under the hood. I pulled over as far as I could get along the freeway and shut off the engine and popped the hood.
The radiator was gurgling; the engine steaming with wet antifreeze, all spraying out of a tiny pinhole in the upper heater hose. “It’s not serious,” I told Margo, “I will just let it cool a little and then wrap duct tape on the hole.” I popped the trunk and took out my toolbox (I carry enough tools to pretty much overhaul the engine if needed), but couldn’t find the duct tape anywhere. “Margo, would you look for the duct tape, please.” I asked warmly.
With a towel, I opened the radiator reservoir slowly letting off the rest of the pressure and steam then wiped the hose dry and cleaned it with windshield washer fluid and let it dry while Margo was still rummaging through the camper drawers and trunk for duct tape. Finally she said ”we must not have packed it.” That was a real shock, for along with wire, duct tape is probably the handiest temporary car repair you can get.
I noticed a copy of my new book, “St Croix River Road Ramblings” (only $22 to Russ Hanson, 15937 Co 27 Blvd, Pine Island, MN 55963 – Scott will fill your order) in the back seat. I print the books, then staple the pages together and cover the staples and back with high quality colored duct tape for elegance and to keep the staples from wounding the reader. Maybe I could peel the tape off and use it on the heater hose. Carefully, I pulled off the 11.5 inches of tape. It was still good and sticky. I wrapped it tightly around the heater hose leak three times and then took a few feet of wire and carefully wrapped that around the tape so it looked like the stents we used to keep open an artery at Mayo. I removed the cardboards, topped off the antifreeze and headed on down the road into Illinois.
We motelled overnight and in the morning the Buick wouldn’t start, just clicking sounds when I turned the key—signs of a dead battery. I always carry a 12 volt lawn mower battery with me camping. It lets me have some electricity even if the campsite doesn’t so I don’t have to run down the car battery. I took it out and jumped the Buick and it started! “The camper lights don’t work,” said Margo as I did my morning tire and light check. Looking under the camper hitch, I noticed that with the air shocks not working, the hitch was running lower and dragging the wires. Sure enough, two were worn completely off and must have drained the battery sitting on the icy pavement. I cut them, bared the ends and reconnected and then took the duct tape from my copy of the $20 “Second Book of Stories of the Trade River Valley” and taped them together and tightly to the hitch and we were on our way.
Louisiana was sunny, greener, and pleasant. We chose Tickfaw state park near Baton Rouge, LA. Our first disappointment was that LA has dropped the 50% camping discount for senior citizens as of last June. It now is $16 per night instead of our budgeted $8—adding $240 per month above our budget.
We hit a huge pothole near the park on the second day looking around. The Buick got what my hard of hearing Grandpa fondly called a “purr” (he didn’t like a muffler as he couldn’t hear the purr to know the engine was running). Looking underneath I could see one of the muffler’s had broke loose at the front connection. You can see how we fixed it in the photograph accompanying this story.
If you need one of the new books mentioned above to carry in your car for emergencies, send a check to Russ Hanson, 15937 Co 27 Blvd, Pine Island, MN 55963 where son Scott will fill your order. I would recommend at least two if your car is over 5 years old! Scott promises to send us the money here in LA so we will have enough to keep the Road Master comfortable.