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Our road trip to the car show in Happy Jack reminded me of the adventure of a road trip, especially in a 37-year-old car.
Our friend George from in the Remember When Cruise Association told us about a show July 15 in Happy Jack, AZ, which is about 50 miles southeast of Flagstaff at about 7,000 ft. Since it's usually much cooler up in the mountains than in the desert, we thought we'd get a break from the heat, at least for the day.
George has a beautiful red '64 Impala SS that he has owned since 1970. It was a daily driver for many years, but more recently, he has done some major restoration work on it. The previous weekend, we had met Ken and Trish, who had recently bought a yellow '64 Impala sport coupe, at another show, so between us, we thought it would be fun to have a procession of '64 Impalas heading up I-17 for the show.
Things did not get off to a good start. We hadn't yet met up with the rest of our entourage when Samantha and I smelled burning rubber. We pulled off the freeway, opened the hood, and discovered that the clutch on the air conditioning compressor (which turns the compressor on and off) had gone out, and the belt was trying in vain to turn the compressor. This same thing had happened a year ago, and I had spent $800 on a new compressor. Turns out the one-year warranty had expired one week and one day prior. So, we would not have air conditioning on this trip. To make a long story short, it turns out there was a wiring problem with the auxiliary condenser fan I had put on a couple months earlier, and it caused the failure, so the shop who did the fan ended up replacing the compressor.
After we met up with George and Devona, plus Ken and Trish in north Phoenix, we headed up I-17. The highway has several long uphill stretches, but we had no problems until shortly after the turnoff to Prescott at about 3,000 ft. As we drove uphill, Betty would occasionally lurch and hesitate. I chalked it up to the altitude.
We were to get off the Interstate in Camp Verde, at the end of a long descent from 4,000 ft. into the Verde Valley. Betty continued running rough, but we kept going. As we headed toward the exit, we came up on the rumble strip on the shoulder designed to wake up sleepy drivers. At that point, Betty's right front hubcap decided to make a detour into the median. We pulled off, and while Ken and Trish kept an eye on Max in the back seat, Samantha and I went looking. It must be a pretty rough rumble strip because we came across several other hubcaps before we found ours, now with a small dent in the rim, but otherwise OK.
As we pulled into the Camp Verde McDonalds, Betty was running rougher than she ever had in the time I've had her. Over breakfast, Ken and Trish, who had been following us, reported a lot of smoke coming from our tailpipe. We decided it would be a good idea to replace the spark plugs (which had been in the car since the previous March) later that afternoon. On our way out of town, I spied a NAPA store, and pulled in to buy spark plugs. Good thing, too, since the heater core in Ken and Trish's car had started leaking badly. George has literally taken his car apart and put it back together again several times, so he was able to put in a bypass for the heater core so they could continue the trip.
We made it the rest of the way to Happy Jack without incident, although Betty was still running very rough and struggled up some of the hills. The show itself was fun; there were a lot of beautiful cars there. Unfortunately, none of our Impalas came away with any trophies. Plus, it wasn't quite as cool as we had hoped (mid 80s, and there weren't too many trees around the lodge to give us shade).
After taking a look at Ken and Trish's engine and making some adjustments, we went to work on Betty. George and Ken changed the spark plugs, and George also tried resetting the floats on the carburetor. He had rebuilt the carburetor on his car more than once, having finally given up and replacing it with an Edelbrock. I made several calls trying to locate a rebuild kit, but the closest one was in Flagstaff, in the opposite direction to home. So we decided to head back to Camp Verde and see how it did.
Well, it wasn't much better, but at least it wasn't any worse. None of our cars liked the high altitude, but even as we gradually descended into Phoenix, Betty continued to run very rough, especially at idle and when accelerating.
For several weeks afterward, George and I tried to determine the cause of what I called Betty's nervous breakdown. We rebuilt the carburetor, replaced the spark plug wires, and changed the vacumn advance to no avail. Unfortunately, it turned out the she had a burnt valve, plus the rings were shot (the cause of all that blue smoke). So beginning Labor Day weekend, we've started to rebuild the engine. At the same time, we're replacing some other parts and painting the engine compartment so she'll look as good under the hood as she does on the outside.
Despite the trouble we had, it was still a fun trip. In the time that I've owned Betty, I had become by that smooth, powerful, small-block Chevy V-8 and its reliable performance. I've taken her to Prescott and Tucson twice with no problem, so it's easy to forget that she's a 37-year-old car without the benefit of modern fuel injection and other automotive advances. It certainly made me appreciate my '99 Honda Accord all the more.
Of course, once we finish the rebuild, Betty will be back on the road for more adventures.
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