Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Chevy Chevette Clutch

Growing up we did not have lots of ‘extra’ money: we were not starving (dad was a public school teacher in Texas, which is still today not a get rich scheme) and did not consider ourselves poor, but we did not eat out every night, or have expensive electronics like today.  I wore Sears Rustler jeans, when Wrangler and Jordache were the style.

My first vehicle was an old 1968 Chevy pick up.  This truck was two tone: algae green and rust.  Zero to sixty in 50 seconds, if you pushed her.  But made of steel and relatively safe for an inexperienced rural driver.  I was allowed to sell this truck to get cash for a new(er) used car.  I also borrowed most of the money from my grandmother (thanks Mimi!) who did not want interest on her investment.

I bought a 1979 Chevy Chevette 5 speed manual transmission much like the one shown above.  This car had literally been used by the proverbial little old lady to go to church on Sunday, and had the scratches on the passenger side door where her lap dog rode.  The scratches were there because the dog put its head out the window.  Why was the window down?  This car did not have an air conditioner.  My truck did not have AC either, so I was used to riding with the windows down anyway.  This car had the smallest domestic engine to date: a 1.6 liter 4 cylinder.  This all meant I would get 35 miles per gallon, though.

I installed a heavy duty stereo system (I could not outrun anyone to the party, but the party started when the music and beer showed up anyway, and I was the music.) and had a very efficient form of transportation that fit my minuscule budget.  I also worked every day from before dawn to after sunset to pay that car off between my junior and senior years.

Being a teenager, though, I still lacked the brain cells to avoid many stupid stunts in my new car.  While I might be outclassed on the highway by the average soccer mom (I could offer to race the Amish in their horse drawn buggy, but that would be rude), on dirt county roads too much engine was a liability.  Like European rode rallies, control is more important than horsepower.  In fact, my friends with the horsepower did not need to learn control (they thought) and thus visited the ditches of rural roads regularly, allowing my little modest granny mobile to carry the day.

I learned the roads in our county, planning out the possible race courses in advance.  I learned where I could ‘drift’ around a turn to keep my momentum high, and where it was better to slow down instead.  I even learned how to manipulate the hand brake, the clutch and gas to spin a 180 degree turn around (a ‘drug runner’s turn’) so that I could meet my opponent on the way back (that always got to them).  I am not saying that I won every time, but I should not have won at all given the disparity in vehicles.

This turn involved hard breaking, working the clutch, steering wheel, and hand brake together to make the car spin, then counter spinning the steering wheel and shifting into first while feathering the clutch to move the other direction.  Gravel goes everywhere, and you are moving the other way faster than if you used the brakes to stop your suddenly reversed momentum.  That point is important later in this story.

Now, the things we did on the roads give the parent in me chills today, and today is a different world where such antics would land you in jail, but in that time and place the local law practiced a ‘no harm done, no foul’ policy as long as they did not see us with other (adult) witnesses.  If we took out a fence, we fixed it.  Most of my friends were kin to almost every land owner so no one even thought of not owning up to property damage of that sort.  (We used to say that our parents would know where we were if we traveled through town on the highway at midnight going 60 miles per hour with the windows rolled up: that was how efficient the gossip network was)

My friends without cars would (of course) ride to parties with those who did.  Since I had the least cool ride, I often traveled alone.  However, several friends got curious as to how they could see me take the turn ahead, then be coming the other way so quickly.  I explained that I did not stop to turn around.  So one of them rode with me to see what I did.  He was impressed enough to talk it up at the next party.

That was how I got talked into loading five big teenage boys into a car made for three (two front seats and a tiny back seat) to show how this stunt worked. (Did you feel those chills?  Parents reading this all just cringed, and childless dead physicists rolled in their graves)

You see, I had not taken several variables into account (those undeveloped brain cells, no doubt).  I had never done this stunt with more than one other person and they were always in the front seat.  High school physics did not cover the concept of center of gravity, leaving me ignorant of my folly.  I had also never done this on a paved road.  You see, the skid I was to induce depended on the dirt and gravel under my wheels; oh, it could be done on pavement, but I had never tried before, a little fact which escaped me in the heady high created by peer pressure (never underestimate the stupidity of teen boys in small groups.)  I did not have a ‘feel’ for the surface, which is important to timing the required maneuvers.

Let me digress a moment to describe the road we were about to attempt this upon.  This was a paved county road, going down a gentle grade into a cross roads.  The crossroads widened enough to make such a turn, and was my target area.  The cattle fences on each corner of the crossroads were braced at 90 degrees, to support the fence in both directions, and to survive careless drivers who might miss the turn and destroy the fence.  These corners were stout: railroad ties with angle iron bracing, sunk deep into the earth by ranchers who wanted to be sure the malefactor did not drive away from a wrecked fence.

So I picked up speed down the hill, being goaded by my friends in the timeless manner of all teens raising a hoorah, and therefore hit the intersection with a bit too much momentum.  When I started the skid, I immediately knew I was in trouble.  The tires did skid, leaving rubber behind, but the three 180 pound boys in the back seat threw off my control.  NOW the fight began.  We passed the first 180 and continued into a 360, followed by another 180 degree spin.  I managed to regain control enough to stop the spin facing the right, reverse direction, but doing so used up all my cushion, and that fence corner loomed large in my rear-view mirror.  I jammed the car into first gear and popped the clutch, causing the transmission and tires to howl in protest as we left the road and crossed the right of way (thankfully there was no ditch) and drifted to a stop with the rear bumper kissing the fence.  Rubber smoke was laced with another peculiar smell I had encountered during road racing but never so strong.  The car was very quiet (the extra spin scared my passengers) as I attempted to head back up the road.  The car kind of leaned forward and refused to move.  This identified the new smell: burned clutch plate.  No clutch, no motion.  I explained to my friends that they were pushing and I was steering back to their cars, and that I needed a tow to Alvin’s shop, our local mechanic.

Not sure what my dad thought about a burned out transmission, but he did not say much: I paid for the repair, and these things had to be replaced every so often anyway, so maybe he figured it was just time.  I was out a car for two weeks, since Alvin worked tractors first (he knew who paid his bills with steady work, and it was not a 17 year old with a granny mobile!)

I lost that car on my 18th birthday when I was broadsided by a semi-tractor trailer, but that is another story.

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