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Rocket in the Road

Rocket in the Road
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ROCKET IN THE ROAD
By Lance Lambert

Friends and acquaintances assume, since I make my living writing about old cars and producing TV programming about old cars, that I’m knowledgeable about the repair and upkeep of old cars. Believe me, that assumption is wrong.

Many decades ago I was the proud owner of a very nice 1954 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 two door hardtop. It was black, lowered three inches and shod with chrome reversed wheels. For readers not versed in old car “coolness”, lowering a car makes it look better and ride worse, and adding reversed wheels makes the car look better but destroys wheel bearings. Perhaps an appropriate analogy is when women, and some men, wear high heels. It looks great but is bad for the body.

So there I was driving along Tacoma’s 6th Avenue, the main cruising street for all of T town’s north end young road devils. The several mile asphalt and concrete strip includes three traditional 60’s style drive-in restaurants; Frisko Freeze, Busch’s and King’s. I guess back then they were just drive-ins since it was the 1960’s when this experience happened. The endless cruising started at Frisko Freeze, at the east end of “The Ave”, and ended, or rather provided the turnaround spot for the return trip, at King’s Drive-In, located very close to the Narrows Bridge, also known as the “Galloping Gertie” of collapsing suspension bridge fame. It was a warm summer afternoon and along for the ride was Darrol; another hot rodder from the ranks of Tacoma’s less than stellar youth. All was well until the Oldsmobile indicated it was time to replenish the fuel system. The local Shell station came into view and I signaled my intended turn into the lot when suddenly the black beauty decided that it was not going anywhere. It made all of the appropriate noise when the gas pedal was pressed but it just sat there thundering, thanks to the well worn exhaust system.

As stated earlier, my mechanical expertise is a bit lacking. It was obvious which end of the car housed the engine and where the hole was located to pour the gas into, but beyond that I was at a loss. Darrol, thankfully being a bit of a stout and sturdy fellow, helped push the gazillion pound Detroit built carcass into the gas station. From out of the garage sauntered the on-duty mechanic who asked if he could be of assistance. This was back when service stations were not just a place to buy three gallons of gas for under a buck. They also had people working there who worked on cars rather than just selling you beef jerky and a 62 ounce smuchie. Usually mechanics of the era were scruffy guys named Earl that had the ability to diagnose any automotive malady just by the sound of the motor. I was confident that this particular Earl was not going to let me down. He listened intently to my description of the Oldsmobile’s dilemma and then rendered his verdict. “It might not be operating properly due to the fact that your driveline is lying out in the street.” Yes, just as he had stated, there in the middle of one of the most traveled thoroughfares in town was my car’s former driveline. The driveline, in case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, is a long metal tube that connects the transmission to the rear wheels and causes the car to move forward, backwards or sideways if you’ve overestimated your driving skill.

Earl diagnosed the cause of the problem to be either a worn U-joint (don’t ask) or the result of excess exuberance by the car’s owner when accelerating. My guess is that it was a combination of both theories.

We pushed the broken chariot into the garage where Earl began doing things that, to this day, seem very mysterious to me. It turned out to be an easy fix and Darrol and I were quickly able to return to the goal of the evening; arrive at each of the drive-ins in the grand manner that only a couple of mechanically deficient 17 year old kids can accomplish.