Hi gang! Just figured I'd drop you a few lines to update you on what's going on. My website is finally up!
A few months ago, I picked up a rough, rusty 1963 Ford Thunderbird for $300 (scrap value). It would start if you poured gas in the carb, but it had been sitting for nearly 30 years (with a collapsed shed on top of it), so the tires were dry rotted, the brake and fuel lines were swiss cheese, and the unibody frame was rusted out in all the key areas. About three weeks ago, we gave up trying to make a 1990 BMW V12 fit in the '61 Cadillac for the Detroit area race last weekend. Without redesigning the massive X frame of that 5,000 lb. car, it just wasn't gonna fit. We took the beefy roll cage out of the pink Cadillac, cut the roof off of the Tbird, removed the windshield, cut the windshield frame (A-pillar) and leaned it forward, and dropped the cage straight down in it. Because of all the rust, the car wanted to fold in half just sitting here on the jackstands! I had to spend 4 days cutting and welding reinforcements, using the roll cage and scrap steel to tie the whole car together.
With only two weeks to build an endurance road racing car out of a pile of rust in the shape of a vintage Thunderbird, I had to pull out all the stops. I missed about 5 days of work, burned the candle at both ends, and worked endlessly on the car. Dave made a special weekend trip down, and Tom and Ron showed up early Thursday morning to spend the day helping. We were scheduled to leave at 9pm Thursday night for the 12+hour drive to Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. We left at 1:30am, with a car that we couldn't keep running long enough to test drive, and pushed onto the trailer. Tech-in at the race was from noon to 5pm. We arrived at 5:30pm, after a 16 hour drive that included multiple flat trailer tires and delays. The race officials kindly agreed to tech us in the morning. After all, the race didn't start until 10:30. By NOON, we finally finished building the car, and breezed through tech. I hit the track more than an hour and a half into the 15 hour race!
The big-block 390 V8 ran like a champ once we tuned it up, but the car handled like, well, an old car that needed the suspension rebuilt. Our Delco Pleasure-matic shocks were probably 40 years old, and the rear leaf springs sagged badly, probably because of the weight of the shed that had fallen on the car at some point. We had so much body roll, I thought we'd start rubbing the 3 gallons of plastic body filler and International Harvester Red tractor paint ($33/gallon) right off the body in the turns! Still, from a distance, my shoddy body and paint work looked AMAZING!!! I had hand-painted the whitewalls and numbers with a fifty-cent foam 2" brush, and the fake plastic wire wheel hubcaps not only stayed on throughout the race, they totally MADE the look. I had wire-brushed the rusted out rear bumper and sprayed it with chrome spray paint, and painted the car in the dark on Wednesday evening, the night before we had to leave. We had run all new brake lines and hoses, and had rebuilt/replaced the wheel cylinders/master cylinder for the four wheel drum brakes, so at least we had some marginal braking ability.
My goal was to fool people into thinking that the car was far to nice to be converted into an endurance race car, and boy, were we successful! One guy asked me how I justify this classic as being a $500 car (per the 24 Hours of LeMons rules)? I said it's not, I only paid $300 for it. He was incredulous, until I started explaining why, and pointing out the rust. The Thunderbird was hands down the crowd favorite! We had an audience in our pit area whenever the car was there, taking pictures and video, and talking to us. Everyone loved it! When the ancient CruiseOMatic MX automatic transmission failed as our 4th driver was finishing up his hour-long turn, we got right to work. I had brought a newer spare (C6) transmission (you can't even get a filter for the old one any more, apparently), but not having the crossmember/driveshaft/flex plate/starter/etc. that we needed to go with it, we couldn't use it.
Laying in the hotel bed Sunday morning, after we had spent hours racking our brains and unsuccessfully searching for the parts we needed Saturday evening, I decided to just take apart the failed CruiseOMatic trans, and see if we couldn't weld it into a direct drive (3rd gear only, no neutral or reverse) transmission. We kept telling ourselves, if we could make just one more lap, it would be EPIC, and worth all the hard work. We had to seal off the pump and torque converter to keep fluid in it, and added some 50 weight motor oil to the trans itself for splash lubrication. Many hours later (4:30 pm), with only an hour left in the race, we pushed the car up to the entrance of the track, and managed to get it rolling. I started it in third gear as they pushed, and it gradually picked up speed, and merged onto the track, to a standing ovation!!! Against all odds, we had done the seemingly impossible, and welded an automatic transmission into a functioning direct drive shaft! The track corner workers in their booths every few hundred yards ran out to give me huge waves, thumbs up, and even "we're not worthy" bows with their arms upraised. As I completed the nearly 2 mile lap and passed by the crowd again, nearly everyone was still on their feet and applauding!
It brought a tear to my eye, and made it all worth while.
The torque converter (think two fan blades opposing each other, sealed in a metal case, acts like a clutch by letting fluid slip between at idle, then the spinning engine side causes the stationary transmission side to turn by pushing the fluid between the fan blades faster as you increase RPM's), sealed and slipping, got red hot. We had known all along that it would. That's why we hoped we'd get at least one full lap before it quit. Somehow, though, it managed to hold on for about 23 MILES on the track, before the engine blew. I was seeing flames through the firewall, though I'm still not sure exactly how! I pulled off the track and hopped out, extinguisher in hand, and the corner workers had the fire out in seconds, but our weekend was done. We had gone out in a blaze of glory, after one of the most epic repairs in the history of the race series! Later, when the awards were being handed out, the award for Most Heroic Fix came up, and people in the crowd started shouting "Thunderbird! Thunderbird!"
Jay Lamm, the organizer of the race, told the crowd that he had something else for us, and then presented us with the first ever EPIC REPAIR FAILURE trophy. While it wasn't the $1500 prize we'd hoped for, it was certainly nice to have a trophy that no one else has ever received, and the adoration of all the racers present. They cheered for us over and over! We promised to bring the car back to another race (probably Summit Point, WV in June) with a new drivetrain, and race it again. Reliving those cheers kept us smiling for the whole 15 hour ride home. Now, we've got to get busy stuffing that BMW V12 into the Thunderbird. It should be much less difficult, as nightmarish swaps go, than the Caddy would have been...