We are the people who work on old things

Yes it’s true, we are now the people who work on our old boat and we used to be the people who worked on our old house.  Plaster, woodworking, repairing marble surrounds, copper flashing and mission tile roofing, replacing galvanized pipes for newly soldered copper ones, refinishing floors, repointing bricks, reglazing windows, and restoring intricate plaster crown moulding.  That was then: the house.  This is now: the boat.   Someone really introduced us to another couple that way “those people who work on their old wood boat.”  At the time it made some sense because when we were in a slip it was because we needed shore power to work on the boat more conveniently and when we were sailing we were “out there” and absent from the view of the particular fellow.   It’s an interesting life–being the people who work on their old wood boat.

But right now all I can think is “Buttercup, oh Buttercup. How many ways can you make my life interesting?”  David and I recently took Buttercup for a “spirited ride,” let’s call it. A Sunday, a glorious day of driving our 1976 Saab 99 on winding roads, dirt and paved, up hills and over mountains, and along the seashore just as Buttercup loves to be driven. The drive was a ‘post tuneup check’ to see how she was doing.  She was to have her state safety inspection the next day and I needed to make sure she was in good form.  With little bits of rust here and there, the old girl is not looking her best and it was all the more important that she pass the inspection with flying colors.

On the drive we found all was good with Buttercup except we noted the rear shocks had seen better times and further since the ball joints I’d ordered from Rock Auto had arrived, it looked like we’d be spending a day working underneath Buttercup sometime very, very soon. We’d just need to find someone to do the alignment.  As an aside — Rock Auto has amazing deals on car parts for, shall we say “elderly” cars.  A further aside, Buttercup did pass her safety inspection just fine — more or less an emissions check, the inspector must still make sure brakes, lights, and all the rest work.  Lucky for Buttercup they are not as picky as we are and they didn’t do the big sideways jiggle/push/pull thing we do on the front wheels or they’d have noted the tiny bit of a giveaway that her right front ball joint wants to be replaced and they didn’t take her on a spirited drive or they’d have known her shocks weren’t up to snuff.  Fine for normal driving but not so great for rutted country roads.  

Gone are the days where one can get a selection of good shocks for any USA-based pre-1978 Saab model 99.  Having owned our 1974 Saab 99 Pepe for his last 34 years and 400K of his half a million miles (1982-2006) and Buttercup since 1998, I know a little thing or two about shocks for the model.  Before we owned Pepe, David’s father owned the car since it was new.  David had cajoled Dad into many things that were lifetime warranted to the purchaser — and since David did all maintenance for Dad on Pepe, that meant David owned the lifetime replacement guarantee on let’s see…a JC Penny (later Firestone) battery, lifetime alignments, and even lifetime warranted Koni shocks.  We used those on Pepe for about a decade during which we re-valved a few times and then gave up. The lifetime warranted Bilstein shocks? I blew through those on our Saab 900 in less than a month. Replaced and ruined again within weeks.  Let’s not talk about the 900 for now.

Back to shocks for the 70’s era 99 models. For our Mexico jaunts in Pepe, we used different springs, lifting kit/spacers and I obtained Bilsteins meant for a particular import truck with the same vertical pin shock mounting system and a little different range of motion. Alas while that was good for our ’74 99 for many back road excursions in the 80’s and 90’s it likely contributed to every shock mount point being ripped apart (on the road) and rebuilt (in a local welding shop nearby) a few times…even those trusty (lifetime warranted) shocks were rebuilt a few times and swapped out with the Konis on Pepe until finally I gave up on them when we said our farewells to Pepe in 2006 (RIP.)  Buttercup, with her original 1976 axle is stuck with those same old-style shock mounts.  When we got the car, we put the Koni shocks on her, or maybe it was the Bilsteins — whichever ones that were not on Pepe.  A few years later we threw some KYB shocks on the car thinking “we’ll find something different, later” and so now is “later” and we see that shocks for this car are available from only a few makers.

Though David reminded me that KYB really just means “keep your Bilsteins” I had decided I’d just get some decent KYB shocks for Buttercup and probably just needed to find a local sale.  It’s so hard to justify more than the basics for Buttercup when we drive so few miles and well, we try to keep the maintenance funds together for Mahdee’s much larger appetite.  These old ladies vie for attention, that is for sure.

Yesterday when suddenly Buttercup’s passenger rear side started making a clunk-clunk-clunk over rough road spots, I thought “hum, I’ve heard that noise–the shock bushing just popped off top or bottom of that shock.” David and I both have a lot going on right now and I hate getting dirty anyway so I also thought “I have an excuse to get someone else to replace these shocks! I’ll take the car by the local auto parts place” where I’d recently seen they have a model of decent KYB shocks “and I’ll have them put a set on the rear of Buttercup.”  I texted the same to David.  He came back with “sure, ha!” implying the shop couldn’t do the work.  I won’t say he jinxed it but I will say he was right.

I looked at the estimated cost and almost just bought the shocks and took them to the workshop to install myself.  But I hate getting dirty.  I have mentioned that? It’s always dirty, gunky, yucky work to get the nuts loosened up and off of the top and bottom pins of the shocks.  It’s sometimes really difficult to do, as well.  Wesley is playing “garage king” in the workshop while we wait on an electrical part so the logistics of getting Buttercup into our workshop would involve me PUSHING Wesley out of the way…no, no, not going to happen because then I’d have to push Wesley back inside the workshop, too.  The car is heavy and there’s a lip on the concrete sill that I would find difficult to deal with.  Therefore installing shocks on Buttercup would mean doing the work outside the workshop door rather than inside. Outside on the pebble-strewn, dirty, gritty asphalt.  Nope.  Not going to do it. Nope.  And David was tied up all afternoon with other things–so much the more perfect excuse to just pay someone to do the work.  The only things Buttercup has ever had anyone besides David and I do? a couple wheel alignments when we’ve replaced tie rods or ball joints– and we had a gas tank lining installed once.  Lifetime warranted lining, I might add.  Old habits die hard.

As I was filling out the paperwork for the shop to replace the rear shocks, I wrote details of the noise and then wrote “please report whether the top and bottom bushings were in place on old shock rear passenger side and if both are in place, please do careful inspect the rear suspension, panhard arm bushings, shock mounting points, and related that might produce a clunking noise from that area.”  No work on the front suspension requested.  I  knew they’d be likely to note the right front ball joint and was in enough of a hurry that I didn’t want to deal with a full suspension inspection by them.  Because Buttercup still has her reverse lock intact, I also gave them the standard Saab bit about “key between the seats, car must be in reverse to remove key, reverse lock is annular ring around shifter knob, pull up on ring while clutch is depressed to put shifter into reverse.  Only try to remove key once the car is in reverse. Do not remove key if you cannot get car into reverse.  Just leave key in ignition if you experience any problems.”

I sat in the waiting room an hour, anxious and unexpectedly worried about that reverse lock–playing the game of odds: will they break it or not? Thinking how ridiculous it would be for this car to have survived 41 years of driving without the reverse lock being broken and having it get broken now.  The service manager came out to the waiting lounge, handed me the paperwork and said “we can’t fix your car.”  I said “fix? what fix? do you mean install? Do you not have the shocks? You cannot install the shocks?”  and he said “No, we can’t fix you car.  There’s too much wrong with it.”  I asked “what’s wrong? Is a shock mount to the body ripped out?”  thinking that even though the shock itself seemed fine, my worst fear was true and I’d have to find a local welder for the work.  “No mam, there’s just too much wrong. ”  Now I was perplexed. I asked to speak to the mechanic to find out what “everything” was.  After all, I already knew about the ball joint… maybe he was looking at the front end, not the rear suspension. I actually knew that we should replace the brake pads sometime in the next few months.  We do that as a preventative though.  Brakes are not suspension…he couldn’t be thinking about brakes?  The hard to find MetalMasters are on back order and will be here in a few weeks.  My mind went automatically spinning through the logistics of going ahead and bleeding the brakes at the same time as doing the pads. Solid rotors made for different pads.  I really like the vented ones.  No reason to change them though. But I really like the vented ones.  Finding a place to take the old brake fluid.  Does O’Reilly’s do that? How about the US Coast Guard Auto Hobby Shop? But bringing myself back to reality, today! The brakes would be no reason to say “too much wrong” and not install new rear shocks.

The mechanic, a small Hispanic fellow, came out and said “the car, it pulls a little to the left when I push hard on the brakes but other than that I could find nothing.  I don’t work on old cars.  You should take the car to the people who work on old cars.”  I ask him “what about the bushings on the top and bottom of the rear passenger shock?” and he says “the bushing is there.” And I say “did you see any other missing bushings? Panhard arm or nearby anything?”  to which he says “no.”  And I ask why he didn’t go ahead and replace the shocks.  I learn that again “I don’t work on old cars, you should take the car where they work on old cars.”

So an hour wasted and I still don’t know what is causing the clunk, clunk, clunk.  As I got in the car I noted the key was in the ignition, turned to the position to keep the radio on, the car was in 2nd gear.  Guess the guy didn’t read the instructions but thankfully he didn’t break the reverse lock. I look at the time and realize David is likely on his way to the boat very soon, riding right past our workshop, so I text David to meet me at the workshop and I drive the few blocks there.  Took a look under the car.  Missing shock bushing as suspected.  Drove the two blocks to the O’Reilly Autoparts store to purchase something to use for shock bushings thinking “we have these things somewhere… but it would take more time to find them than to buy them.”  A four-pack of generic bushings is $4.49 plus tax.  One bushing needed.  Three spares for the glove compartment.  I wonder if I’ll remember they’re there in a few years when they may be needed? Jackstands and chocks in place, David laid in the gravel and grit on the asphalt and got gunky greasy fingernails while installing the cheap bits of rubber. He has a big loopy grin on his face.  He’s happy–but won’t admit it–that the mechanic didn’t work on Buttercup.  I wonder if he even notices the dirt?

We put David’s bike in Buttercup’s trunk and drove together to Mahdee.  The clunking is completely gone.  I mused on the way home thinking of what the mechanic said “you should take your car to the people who work on old cars.”

We are the people who work on old cars.

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