Firing up a classic car with over a half century of history always brings with it a high probability of adventure and the unexpected.
When time and other things stand still
Dappled sunlight leaking through the forest canopy dances on the Corvette’s hood. It is a glorious morning on a twisting two lane that snakes through a state park. Elaine, my co-pilot for life, notices that the odometer on my recently restored 1961 Corvette stands poised to roll over to 59000.0 Actually it will be 259000.0, but in 1961 odometers only had 5 places preceding the decimal point.
A coordinated dance of digits that soon will resolve into a chorus line of zeros spin like a slow motion slot machine. Elaine, poised to nail the 59,000.0 money shot never gets the chance. At mid “.9” the odometer, as John Cleese might say, ceases to proceed.
Back home at the garage. The odometer might as well be a decal.
In planning my Corvette’s restoration, I never wanted an overlooked detail to haunt my post-restoration driving experience. With over a quarter of a million miles on my totally disassembled Corvette, I knew this was no time to cheap-out on rebuilding the instruments. The last thing I wanted was a fresh and eager car with tired instruments just waiting to crap out.
After contacting a Corvette instrument specialist on a recommendation from a respected source, I bundled up the speedometer, tachometer and clock for shipment confident that when my resurrected Corvette returned to the road it would do so with a freshly renewed set of instruments.
With a burst of Pollyanna-like optimism, I thought maybe the frozen odometer was just an anomaly, waiting for a second chance to cure itself.
Security guards at the local industrial park must have watched with incredulous awe as this Honduras Maroon and Ermine White jewel circled the empty service road in reverse. Yes, the odometer would go backwards. Having rolled in reverse a good mile, I, like a knight in a joust, briefly paused then kicked the stirrups on the hearty small block and burst forward with speed and conviction. This time I would conquer the barrier and enter the realm of 59,000.
Barrier 2, Corvette 0.
Clutching at my final straw, I drove to Park Ridge 66, the shop owned by my friend and vintage car expert, Bob Tasman. Up on the lift went the Corvette. Under Bob’s doubtful but supportive eye my plan of peeling off 10 miles to “free” the odometer commenced. I surmised that rewinding two of the rotating number barrels would do the trick. Ten backward miles later, I left Bob’s shop to get a high speed highway head start at pushing that odometer through the 59,000 mile barrier. Bob in a friendly kind of way expressed his complete doubt at any chance of success. “One of the tangs in the head unit got broken or was improperly installed,” Bob said as I rumbled off with a shaken faith not unlike that of a small child seeing Santa drawing on a Marlboro behind the Macy’s Christmas display.
Barrier 3 Corvette 0
Time for a phone call.
Truth be told, I had overlooked the earlier failure of the Corvette’s freshly rebuilt clock. In retrospect, it clearly foreshadowed dark clouds on the instrument horizon. However, I was so thrilled to finally have the Corvette back that I chose not to notice it.
Realizing that taking the speedometer out of the freshly but not easily reassembled dashboard was out of the question, my hopes hung on getting useful information from the instrument restorer himself.
“They never break,” said the man with whom I had entrusted my instruments and my mental health. The essence of my response included the information rich nugget, “well mine broke!”
Had he replaced the 60-year old odometer mechanism that was on its third time around as I had assumed he would? “No,” he responded, “We simply inspect and clean odometers.” He then added the kicker, saying, “replacing the unit would have added $50 to the job.” An additional $50 for a part that could now easily require thousands of dollars to replace and countless weeks of downtime. Did he not think that decision should have been left up to me? His response, “Well, they never break.”
As a chaser for that bitter pill, I asked about the clock he reconditioned that, now lifeless, only gives correct time twice a day. Oh they always break,” he says, “You get a year at most out of one.”
While I think I would have had a good case for justifiable homicide especially with a jury of vintage car owners, I instead have opted to simply enjoy my beautiful rumbling living recollection of mid-century American sports car history. Maybe the odometer will heal itself. If not, I am going on record for posterity that as of June 28th 2020 my 1961 Corvette had an honest 258,999.9 miles. I do not foresee ever selling it.
One of the joys of my bias ply shod, drum braked, dual carbureted, tube radio equipped Corvette resides in its ability to transport me back in time. Sometimes it even seems to make time stand still and, now, apparently the same will be said for its mileage.
That’s frustrating, Burton, I’m sorry you’re going through that on your otherwise beautifully functioning Vette!
Hopefully, my experience will assist others in being sure to confirm just what their reconditioning dollars are and are not paying for.
I recall reading a long time ago that early automobile clocks were controlled by a set of points similar to those found in a distributor. Kill the power to the clock when the points are closed and they’ll fuse together dooming the clock to twice a day accuracy. So when your car battery dies or is removed from the vehicle you stand a 50/50 chance of killing the clock.
Any automobile clock experts out there to confirm or rebut?
So well written but such a sad ending!! I had to have instruments sent off for my 54 vette and were still functioning fine when I sold the car!! Gynn
Next time (fifty years from now) I will get the name of your guy!