Winter Clinic

Mel's transmission getting the full spa treatment

Greetings and Happy New Year after a long hiatus!

Mel has been at Earl’s Garage in Shoreline undergoing a number of repairs due to various leaks. We all hate leaking, especially as we get older, and I believe Mel deserves the same.

It all began in November when after taking Mel for a spin I came home and noticed the strong gas smell. After getting a new fuel pump I hoped (against hope) that that would be the end of it but of course it was not to be. After being out of commission so many years and 55 years old, it is inevitable that seals will fail. One quickly learns how many seals are on a vehicle and in the best stochastic tradition, that they will fail in a manner and severity that is random in nature but persistent in frequency.

Upon returning home with a new fuel pump, I looked underneath and sure enough there was a drip. I took Mel back to Earl’s and thus began a winter’s sojourn at Earl’s Garage, also known as Mel’s Clinic.

The Toyo visiting Mel at Earl's Garage in Shoreline

I’ve been going to Earl’s with all of our cars for several years, including the 2004 Mazda3, my 1992 Toyota pickup, and the 1987 Honda. They’ve taken good care of them all and Tim has been a great resource. Mel has become part of the family at Earl’s and I’ve received a lot of good tips and advice from the guys. They like Mel a lot and have kept him out of the elements the entire time.

Doug the mechanic did a great job getting Mel drivable. It’s been convenient to have Mel at a local garage and be able to visit Mel at Earl’s since they are in the neighborhood and very close by. Over the past couple months I’ve been able to drive by and see him up on the rack or parked in the back of the garage. Since Mel is not a daily driver, they’ve been more than accommodating in doing various repairs, including taking the time needed to find the source of several leaks associated with the transmission, engine and driveline.

I decided to bite the bullet and agreed with Earl’s that it would be good to remove the transmission, replace all seals, and paint it. It’s now one of the cleanest tranmissions in town! Here are some before and after shots:

Hydramatic transmission before cleaning and painting

Here you can see how much needed to be chipped and scraped away...

Newly painted transmission is now reinstalled on Mel

Hydramatic 4 speed automatic transmission (built like a rock)

We were worried that Mel might be a bit lonely at the garage but it turns out he was in good company and had someone to reminisce with. This Model A pickup has been at Earl’s longer than Mel!

Mel's buddy at Earl's - Ford Model A pickup

This guy makes Mel look modern!


Mel’s still in the shop. I’m going to have the rear main seal on the engine replaced and a little work done on the rear differential. That will cap a good initial investment to get Mel roadworthy and sound.

To recap the work done to date:

  1. Replace master brake cylinder, all 4 wheel cylinders.
  2. Replace brake hoses, brake shoes on all 4 wheels
  3. Turn and machine 4 brake drums
  4. Repack front wheel bearings
  5. Replace grease seals
  6. Bleed and adjust brakes
  7. Drain fuel tank
  8. Replace battery
  9. Remove spark plugs and oil cylinders
  10. Change oil and filter
  11. Rebuild carburetor
  12. Remove drive line and replace U-joints
  13. Replace fuel pump
  14. Remove and replace transmission, lines, cross-members
  15. Reseal transmission front pump seal
  16. Clean, repaint and reinstall transmission
  17. Replace rear main seal
  18. Replace rear differential front pinion seal and replace differential fluid.
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Home Again

Mel received a new master brake cylinder. The first replacement was defective and was the source of the Mel stranding two weeks ago, leaving Susan and I brakeless in Seattle. I think Barb was right; the leaking master cylinder would explain the smoke rising from the dash as the brake fluid hit the exhaust pipe as I happily careened down I-5.

Doug the mechanic also fixed the rear seal transmission fluid leak by replacing the seal. While the drive shaft was off, we decided to replace the U-joints on the driveline so one more fix accomplished.

Mel was a lot more fun to drive yesterday. I kept the speed around 45 going down I-5 without a hitch and later took him down to Lake Forest Park Towne Center just to get a better feel.

When I returned, I noticed a new fluid leak, not sure if it is transmission or engine but it is certainly wet around the bottom of the front axle. This should be no surprise since Mel hasn’t been worked so much in many many years and well, things happen.

Puzzling Evidence - a New Mystery

To gain a better philosophical understanding on what lies before me, I purchased a wonderful book titled, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. In it, he describes the pleasure of working on motorcycles and old cars, the challenges and struggles of finding and fixing things that go wrong – and learning the patient art of being a mechanic. In it he defines the stochastic art of fixing things not of our own making. It’s great advice:

“Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. This disposition is at once cognitive and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating.”

So I approach fluid leaks, faulty parts, and years of unknown mechanical history as an opportunity for a conversation with Mel, to fix and tend while leaving the creating to other aspects of my life. As Susan comes down to the garage and hears me mumbling to myself, she can ascribe this simply to having a conversation with Mel as we try to figure out the source of the problem and identify, through trial and error, the proper fix.

What I really will look into are new contacts who can put me in touch with the pros – I need to work these problems with a pro so I can learn the fixes and get it right. Denny D., are you out there? I’ll be consulting with you once we get Mel out to the island!

Next steps will be to give Mel a rest and get him out when the weather clears, which, given western Washington, will be around July 5, 2011. I’ll pursue the source of the leak and take it from there. I suspect it may be due to a dried seal that may be cracked or worn and now under pressure has started to weep. The rate of the leak is quite slow but I’ll find it.

A world full of mystery and unknown adventures!

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Not so fast

Well, I think Mel might have had too much of a workout yesterday. Turned out to be just an overnighter.

This morning I romantically planned to give my wife, the fair Susan, her inaugural ride with Mel. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the squirrels were packing nuts, all was well with the world.

I opened the garage door and we stepped into the cab. I pushed the small white starter button (which is strangely incongruous for a truck that size) and it started and then stopped. I pumped the gas pedal and pushed again. With a roar Mel started up and the garage filled with exhaust smoke. With no catalytic converter this truck is a gas burning carbon footprint be damned monster. The carbon monoxide alarm in the garage that I purchased (not for this use) went into high alert and I put my foot on the brake to shift into gear.

Nothing. The brake pedal went all the way to the floor. Uh oh. Meantime the CO alarm is getting increasingly shrill that we are about to smoke out the house.  I’m sure the cats are catatonic and I could use one myself.

I try the brakes again. Nothing. By this point Susan is looking worried with that what are you doing look and calmly encouraging me to shut the poor thing down.

No dice. My chromosomes and genes could not countenance such sage wisdom. I put the truck in gear and out we roll ever so slowly onto the driveway.

Still warming up, Mel’s tailpipe was putting out quite a mixture of CO and who knows what else. As Mel warmed up the motor idled down, the tailpipe emissions dwindled, and I, brakeless in Seattle, realized the inaugural trip with the fair Susan was not to be. I turned off the ignition switch.

I called Doug the mechanic and we talked about various possibilities. Doug was kind enough to order a tow truck to come down and pick up Mel.

Looks like brake fluid is leaking from the new master cylinder. I put brake fluid in and considered making a mad dash myself to Doug’s and soon concluded – despite my chromosomal make up and genes – that that would be a prime recipe for a Darwin Award. Despite Mad Max visions of making it to the sacred garage, I waited for the tow truck.

The tow truck arrived. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the squirrels were still busily packing nuts. And neighbors came by to observe Mel loading onto the tow truck.

I drove him with some brake pressure onto the flatbed trailer and turned Mel over to the fates, driving away on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

The inaugural wife trip awaits…

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After 42 years of waiting, my first drive

October 30, 2010 – picked up Mel today at the mechanics. I was very nervous anticipating the drive home from his shop in Lynnwood. However, after reading this blog beforehand, I was much encouraged that Mel would not let me down:

Still, the anticipation rose as we got closer. Susan and Claire were along and ready to jump in as needed. Claire was ready with the camera.

When we arrived the truck was out of the shop. As luck would have it, it started to rain just as Doug and I reviewed the starting procedure. Doug rebuilt the carb along with the other repairs. Mel started right up and sounded great. After idling for a few moments, it was time to go.

The final pre-boarding inspectionPre-boarding flight check – all systems go

I headed out and realized instantly the difference between manual drum brakes on a ’55 Chevy versus power brakes on a 2004 Mazda3. Steering was another revelation requiring a lot more anticipation of the curves ahead! The door is a bit loose and made some rattling noise. I turned on the vacuum assisted windshield wipers. They did their best to clear the rain coming down, their speed varying with the rpm’s of the engine. Oh, and not to forget the days of old with bias ply tires that definitely wanted to run with the ruts in the highway!

We stopped briefly at a gas station and I put in $20 of premium because for some odd reason, neither of my credit cards would work. So far with Mel I have paid only cash and I remember hearing that Mel only paid cash for their vehicles – no credit. I think he was telling me something. The project goal will be to save up enough to take him to each successive next step. I like the thriftiness of the idea and paying forward.
The ride home was off to a great start when I saw steam coming out of the dashboard. I was headed down I-5 through Lynnwood when the steam started rising. I didn’t smell smoke, electrical, or gas and the temperature gauge looked fine. So damn the torpedoes full steam ahead!

Mel Sighting in Lake Forest Park

I exited the highway without mishap and was greatly relieved that so far everything was just fine. I got Mel up to about 50 mph and didn’t see any problems (aside from the steam which eventually dissipated). At the corner of NE 205th I realized we were in good shape.

Mel Makes the Trip Home

When I got Mel home Susan and I worked on getting him into the garage. He’s bigger than he looks but we were able to make him fit. Now that he’s in we’re going to have to re-arrange the garage and consolidate stuff to make it a little less packed.

Mel's New Home in Lake Forest Park

What’s really amazing to me is the same smell of the truck that I remember in my earliest days as a child visiting Mel and Bernie in Pasco and going out to the garage to see the truck.  It’s a mix of grease and gas and old vinyl and yeah – Mel the truck. Much better to me than new car smell. It’s almost more evocative of those childhood memories than seeing the truck.

Mel has time to dream of new adventures during the winter

So the next repair will be to fix a transmission seal leak. I was very happy with the transmission overall. I had read a fair number of horror stories about the Hydramatic and was relieved to drive it home without too much difficulty. The greatest challenge I found in the short drive was the downshifts. I will experiment and get to know it a bit better. The rebuilt carb has a high idle speed but is perfect when in gear. I will run it a bit to see what to do. The next repair of course though will be to get the transmission seal fixed and check the drive line and universal joints at that point.

Time for research on restoration costs. I’ll also begin cleaning up the engine and of course doing a lot more research on restoration and next steps. Oh yeah – and taking Mel out on the few occasional clear days during the winter to keep him happy.

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It Lives! It Lives!

Just got back from the mechanics. Heard Mel start up for the first time. Engine sounds strong. However, the carburetor will need to be rebuilt. A transmission seal is leaking but I don’t want to proceed with that repair till I know the transmission is solid. Doug is encouraged since he is not seeing any sign of burnt transmission fluid. The tires have a lot of cracks so they will need to be replaced. Once up and running, then I can bring it home and begin cleaning and investigating next steps.

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Two beautiful ’55’s!

Claire made this composition which I think captures all the fun of the truck. Update today from the mechanic: Doug is very impressed with the truck and how remarkably free of rust it is in its current state. He expects to have it up and running by this weekend. Perhaps a Sunday drive if all goes to plan!

Susan and Mel - a nice pair!

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Mel is Legal

Today Susan and I went to the licensing office to get the title transferred and the truck registered. It all went without a hitch. I did learn that we have several licensing options. If I want to get a personalized plate, then it will need to be a regular operated and tabbed plate, with yearly registration. Another option is to get a collector plate and then there will be no ongoing charges. But this is more limited in that it would mean the truck is essentially used to go to shows, not for trips on a regular basis. The other downside is that you cannot get personalized collector plates; you only get a number assigned.  Even if we decided to go with the collector plates, we would still have to register and tab the truck for one year. So we’re going to go that route and revisit the collector plate idea down the road.

Another interesting option is that you can obtain plates from the same year and use those in lieu of other plates. Original 1955 plates on the truck would look pretty cool I think, but my preference is to go with the personalized plates.

Most reassuring is that we had no problems transferring title and making sure that Mel is not a renegade on the run (once we actually get him running on the road, that is). I’m hoping for a mechanic’s report soon and will report back then.

Next step will be to see if we can the personalized plates – some of you know the name I want. Stay tuned.

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