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The Spitfire That Wouldn't Die

My third Spitfire was acquired sometime in the early '90s. My demon-possessed Fiero was down for an ever-growing list of failures, and I was (once-again) carless. It was mid December and I was tired of hitching rides. I decided to call a guy a couple miles away who had once offered to sell me his '76 Spitfire for $1500. I asked him if the offer still stood, and he said it did. He said he had just put it into storage, but he'd be more than happy to go and get it for me. It was a bit tired-looking; rust coming through on several panels, and a nasty  parking lot gash on the driver's-side door. The top was still in good shape though; I had installed it for the guy a couple years earlier. I drove it home on Christmas Eve. I drove the poor Spit all the rest of that winter, and throughout the following summer months, rust holes and all. My dad always said, "keep the good parts shined up and no one will notice the bad." This proved to be true. I even hitched my little trailer to it and hauled my windsurfing gear to the beach in it. By the time the inspection ran out, my Fiero was back for another 6 months of trouble-free driving, so I put the Spit up for a partial restoration.

The body got redone in a lovely Viper Red, just in time for the fall Applefest car show, and just in time to replace the Fiero after blowing its second engine. This left no time to redo the very worn engine of the Spitfire, and like the fool I am, I drove it through the the winter of 1994-95. (I recall one alternator-changing incident along a rural highway at night, in the midst of the worst winter storm of that season.) By the end of that January, the engine had no compression left, so another form of transportation had to be acquired, and come spring, a spare 1500 engine went off to the machine shop, not to be seen again until fall. The reborn 1500 was now bored .030 over, and the stock 7.5:1 pistons were replaced with oversized, 9:1 pistons. The stock cam was left in for the time-being, in the name of simplicity; the botched-up factory exhaust was replaced with a Monza free-flow exhaust complete with header.

The poor little redhead didn't see the road again until fall of '97, when its history took a turn for the interesting. I was desperately looking for a fun vehicle to take to see my lady (interesting story in itself) in Quebec City, some 650-700 highway-miles away. A week before estimated time of departure, bugs were still being worked out; exhaust leaks, dirty electrical connections (Joseph Lucas: the Prince of Darkness), and a nasty driveline vibration at speeds over 50 mph. The right rear tire was found to have so many broken belts in it, the tire guy didn't even think I should drive it home. I told him I had two mounted spares at home, though, so I didn't see the need to buy two new back tires. So, I drove it home and did the swap. The spare tires were snow-and-ice tires, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to make the trip on them. The driveline vibration was still there. After going over all the universal joints, I discovered the rear bushing was gone in the transmission. This would cause at least a day's delay. After two days of transmission-swapping (it took a day to realize the clutch hydraulics were locking up), the Spit was ready to roll; or at least as ready as it was going to be!

Without road-testing the "new" transmission, I set off for Quebec on October 19th, 1997; two days late, and 2 weeks after the peak of the fall foliage in New England; but, c'est la vie... The trip across central Pennsylvania was mostly uneventful, but a bit slow-going, with a lot of Sunday drivers on the road. I had chosen not to travel an interstate highway, and I was paying the price with inefficient progress. The weather was beautiful though, and it inspired me to put the top down. My impatience with the slow-pokes was beginning to cause passing-lane fever, and at one point I recall a bit of a dust-flying incident along Route 6 when oncoming traffic thought I was surely a suicidal maniac, out to take a whole string of parading Sunday drivers with me. I'm sure I left no carnage, but the rear-view mirror image of all those cars scooting off onto the berm in a cloud of dust made me chuckle. The drive into upstate New York was beautiful, and having the top down really added to the charm; but by Ithaca, the chill forced me to finally put it back up. I decided to give in and hit the superslab for awhile, until I reached Route 11, which crosses the upper reaches of the state. By then darkness had fallen, and I settled in for some long hours of night driving.

Route 11 is mostly rural, occasionally passing through the little cow-towns that dot the country landscape, filled with a strange combination of upstaters with redneck ideals and imports with a one-of-a-kind New England-French-Canadian accent. Coming out of the little burg of Governeur, I wound up trailing behind a mid-eighties Oldsomobile with a half-functioning flashing license-plate frame. Not only did the flashing and blinking annoy me, but when the speed limit went from 35 to 55, he continued his steady 45. I assumed he sensed my urgency, so when I saw his brake lights come on, I took it to be a signal to pass, dropping into third and letting the Monzas announce my intentions. As I moved into the left-hand lane, I quickly realized why those brake lights came on; a local keeper of the peace, Governeur's best, I'm sure, was waiting up ahead for someone to brighten his day. I hesitated for a moment, then decided I had nothing to hide, since I still hadn't reached the 55-limit yet and it was a legal passing zone, and continued to pass. I watched my mirror and, sure enough, he pulled out behind the blinkmobile. He passed immediately, and settled in to an inconspicuous pace just behind me, for observation "in the name of safety". Attracting the attention of local police while out of state usually winds up being an expensive hobby, and I wasn't about to give up $100 of my trip funds, so I tenaciously adhered to all the New York traffic laws I could think of for a good 20 miles wondering "where in the hell does this guy's jurisdiction end?!!" Then up ahead I saw flashing lights along the highway. "Oh, I'm dangerous; they must have a roadblock waiting for me!" It turned out to be an accident in the westbound lane. My tail finally stopped there. When I got to the next little town, I decided to run into a McDonald's for a snack. When I came back out, sure enough, there was a police cruiser parked on the other side of the parking lot, behind my car. We played a bit of a waiting game for awhile; I just sat in my car straightening out maps and such, and then finally I decided I needed to take a chance and hit the road again. Luckily, he didn't follow me out of the parking lot (I slinked away as quietly as possible), and I didn't have any more trouble from that point on.

By the time I reached the border, I was so happy to finally be in Canada, I was grinning from ear to ear. The customs official must've thought I was high or something, but he didn't give me any trouble, and wished me a good trip. Almost there! It was a very dark night, so I couldn't see the mile after mile of farmland I was driving by in Quebec; but I could certainly smell the cow pastures! The double-coated vinyl top on the Spitfire is pretty snug, but not enough to keep a steady flow of fresh air from coming in... Somewhere on the other side of Montreal the speedometer cable snapped. From that point on, the only proof of mileage I had was an odometer stuck on 570 miles. Sometime in the middle of the night and some 16 hours after departure, I weeded through all the French signage and found my way through Quebec City, to my destination. I felt like I had just run the 24 hours of Le Mans! My ears buzzed and my right leg pretty much forgot how to walk.

My week spent in Quebec City was just heavenly. I had the best English-speaking guide in the world, and we had fun tooling around the old city in the Spit. It attracted the attention of many Quebecers, and just seemed to be at home on those narrow European-style streets. One particular thrill was driving it under the Chateau de Frontenac, quad Monza tail pipes echoing off the 300-year-old walls. All too soon, my stay was over, and on the morning of my departure back to Pennsylvania a fresh six inches of snow lay on the ground (and road). Not one to be deterred by nature, I set out in the midst of a virtual blizzard. I was suddenly very pleased that I was forced to do the tire swap! It took 2 hours to go 50 miles. Cars were scattered helplessly in the ditches, and tractor-trailers were jack-knifed by the side of the road. The slush and ice was so deep on the highway that it pummelled the bottom of the poor Spit; so bad that at one point it tore a hole right through the floorboards (and carpet), giving me a faceful of slush. Then the oil light came on. I figured this was a good time to fuel up, regain my composure, get some breakfast, and let the roads get cleared a bit. Oil level looked good and the engine wasn't knocking or overheating, so I assumed the oil pressure switch was just a casualty of the storm. I cast off once again.

By the time I reached the U.S. the snow had subsided. I took advantage of the opportunity to make up for lost time, and I didn't see any more snow until I reached the Great Lakes side of New York. The exhaust was noticeably louder now; apparently something was knocked loose during the storm, but it wasn't getting loud enough to necessitate further investigation. In Syracuse, I made the decision to hit the New York State Thruway. The $7.00 toll proved a worthy investment, as I found more snow from Rochester to the Pennsylvania state line. Some 15 hours out of Quebec City, a tired old British warrior found its way home again, perhaps the last hurrah of this sweet little readheaded companion.

Epilogue

About two weeks after returning from Quebec, I was driving the Spitfire to work. Several of the roads I would take have some sharp turns and hills, so it's a fun drive. I had just rounded a sharp hairpin curve and topped a hill going into a straight stretch, and something horrendous happened. I totally lost control of the car, but didn't know exactly what went wrong. I later realized that the left front trunnion had snapped, shoving the wheel, suspension, etc., up into the wheel well. The car dropped to its frame, sending me skidding helplessly down the road, tearing grooves into the pavement. By steering with the remaining wheel, I was able to maneuver the car to the side of the road. It returned home behind a tow truck, and wound up parked for the winter. After a couple months' break, I examined the damage. The impact of the wheel jamming into the wheelwell caused the whole bonnet assembly to twist, doing considerable damage to the sheet metal and overall alignment. The tire was blown, and there was a huge dent in the firewall section where it hit.

Oddly enough, the mechanical damage was minimal; I rebuilt the trunnion assembly, and was even able to get the tire remounted, as it had only broken from its mount. The body is still a bit messy, but once again, the Spitfire lives! Eventually, it will likely be cannibalized for the next project, but until it decides to lay down and die, it will continue to proudly prance through the streets, battlescars and all...

August, 2001

Spitfire #3 simply will not die. Held together by duct tape and epoxy, it continues to provide reliable transportation on a daily basis. The still-fresh motor absolutely thrives on 90-degree summer heat, and although the frame has all but disintegrated into pieces and body sag makes closing the doors nearly impossible, the car remains a complete pleasure to drive. A parking lot hit-and-run accident in July (the car’s fourth) has left the left rear quarter panel somewhat mangled, and has put the rear unibody section into a bad twist. Perhaps it is time for Spitfire #4 to make its appearance.

September, 2001

#3 makes the five-hour trip to Watkins Glen for the annual Vintage Grand Prix, and drives the track for the  commemorative parade laps! What a great way to go out in style! #3, I will miss you!

1997, 2001 Michael J. Henderson

http://members.tripod.com/~michaeljay