The Wages of Sin . . .

  • September 18, 2023

A battleship in service is ready for service, usually. But a battleship on static display may not even float – on account of the unnoticed rust that ate through its sides during all those years when people were just looking at it.

This happens to old cars, too.

Well, it happens when they sit for a long time, just being looked at. It just happened to my ’76 Trans-Am, which I’ve neglected by not doing much more than looking at it lately. I’ve been too busy with work and other things; the usual excuses that make no difference.

Neglect leads to rot, like it or not.

I finally found time to fire it up the other day and right away, it sounded funny. An ugly-sounding tapping emanated while accelerating. I began to ponder the possibilities – among them that the engine was dangerously low on oil, which was possible because I’d neglected to check it for months. I assumed it was full, which is like a pilot assuming there isn’t ice on the wings in winter. As in, not a very smart assumption to make. But the TA has an oil oil pressure gauge and it read a solid 60 psi, so it probably wasn’t a lack-of-oil problem. Gauges are much more informational than lights that come on when it’s already too late. Rather than lighting up “oil,” these idiot lights ought to illuminate “you lose.”

Anyhow, there was probably plenty of oil in the 455’s sump, in spite of my (ruefully) not having checked. So what else could be causing that unhappy-sounding noise? A sticking valve or lifter can make a noise like that – and if you leave an engine just-sitting for a long time, noises like that increase in probability as things inside the engine get . . . sticky. Varnish and crud build up – and not-running the engine doesn’t clean that up.

I pondered all of this as I turned the bird’s nose around to head back to drydock – deciding that it would be smart to be cautious and find out exactly what was making that noise rather than continuing to drive it while it was making that noise.

But as I made the turn, I felt something that didn’t seem right.

Normally, the TA is a crisp-turning, precise-steering car. The second generation (1970-1981) Trans-Ams were esteemed as much for their handling as they were for their acceleration. In fact, their handling was far better than their acceleration – which can be substantiated by taking one out for a drive today. Even though the last second-generation Trans-Am was built almost 43 years ago (in 1981) these cars feel like modern cars and can take a curve at modern car speeds, which is something not many cars made 40-plus years ago (that were designed almost 60 years ago) can do.

The second-generation Trans-Am handled better than the Corvette of the same era and was the first American car other than Corvette to offer 15×8 wheels and four wheel disc brakes. Models with the WS6 ride and handling option were the pick of the litter as they had those features and a “faster” steering box. But even the ones that weren’t WS6-equipped, like my ’76, were superb-handling cars.

But my ’76’s handling was feeling sloppy all-of-a-sudden. The steering felt disconnected. And as it turned out, this was almost literally the case. I got the car home, back in the drydock – and for the first time in a year, at least – I crawled underneath with a flashlight to see what I could see.

And what I saw was the a mouse – or some other beast – had eaten one of the rubber front sway bar end link bushings, such that the sway bar no served more than a decorative purpose. I continued looking – and found the source of the unpleasant noise I’d been hearing. Lucky for me, it wasn’t mechanically caused, per se. A valve wasn’t sticking. But the driver’s side exhaust pipe was just barely clinging to the exhaust manifold. One bolt of the two had worked its way entirely off the stud and was gone; the other was part way down. If it’d kept on driving, the pipe would have dropped off the manifold as I was driving and made another (louder) sound.

Luckily this did not happen – because I was at least smart enough to cut short my drive and find out what was making the sound – and causing the feel. Yet, I still feel like a schlemiel for allowing neglect to progress such that either that sound or that feel cut short my drive.

There is a lesson in this somewhere. I think it has to do with taking care of what you have and not just looking at what you have.

. . .

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