TheAdventures of Billy Possum

 

 

Redemption: “Betsy” Cools it

 all the Way to Reno for “Hot August Nights”

 

By Bill J. Castenholz

 

Copyright 2010, Castenholzand Sons

 

Alright,I admit it. I was skeptical when Mike said that he had solved the problem.

     Fortwo years we had struggled with the overheating problem with “Betsy,” Mike’s1930 Chevrolet Club Sedan. After a problem-filled trip in 2008, we thought wehad the problem fixes and we again travelled up the eastern slopes of theSierras in 2009, only to have the trip end in the middle of the night in theMojave Desert. Betsy had to be towed about 20 miles into the town of Mojavein the middle of the night. And my wife had to come and get us with the tow carthe next morning.

     However, with Betsy fixed, according toMike, we decided to make another trip – this time not only to Minden, Nevada, to seeour friend Lester Harris, but to go all the way to Reno for “Hot August Nights.”

     Bill insisted that we make a “dry run” toprove that the problem was finally fixed. So we planned a day-trip thatincluded a hill climb up the Ridge Route to Frazer Park, a turn west throughFrazer and into the back roads, up and over the winding two-lane and finallyending up back home. The trip would amount to about 150 miles.

     Starting out in Pacific Palisades, we droveSunset Boulevard to the 405 Freeway, turned north over the Sepulveda pass andinto the San Fernando Valley. We had only gone about halfway across the Valleywhen it was obvious the problem was not fixed – not at all!

     “Mike, let’s use logic. The engine isgenerating just so much heat. This engine is running fine. It has to besomething else.” The only “something else” was the radiator. But how could itbe the radiator – the radiator was supposed to be NOS when we bought it at a swap meet.And Mike had it boiled out after the first overheating incident. “Let’schange the radiator and just see.”

     Back home we grabbed a new radiator andput it on. “Let’s take a short drive and see if it’s any better.” We started outand just kept driving. First we drove over Topanga Canyon into the Valley, thenthrough horrible traffic along Ventura Boulevard and finally to a favoriteBob’s Drive-in in Toluca Lake for dinner. “It’s fixed! It’s really fixed!”

     After two years of suffering withoverheating we had fixed the problem by changing the radiator. Overheating. Radiator. Da! Now you know why the boys never refer to themselves as“experts”!

     The “Hot August Nights” trip was plannedto begin on August 3rd.

     About 2 weeks before the trip one of ourcustomers phoned to suggest that we make a run of cam followers (tappets). Wedidn’t need too much encouragement because we had already once made a prototypeset of tappets out of cast iron. They did not wear well. But last year we againlooked into making them but got busy and set the project aside. So we took thedesign we had and quickly machined a couple of sets. Off to the heat treater, then to the centerlessgrinder and then finallyon our own machine for grinding the slight angle onthe bottom of the tappets. On the Saturday before Tuesday’s D-day, weinstalled the tappets.

 

We’er going on another Billy Possum car trip!”

 

Tuesday,Day One

Gettingup at 3 am isn’t all that much fun. But the excitement of another trip helps.Blurry eyed, we did our final packing. I kissed my wife and off again we went.The time was 4:15 am.

     First we drOve east on Sunset Boulevard,over the hill and into the Valley on the 405, a change of freeways as we headedout toward Palmdale and then Mojave. We never tire of seeing the sun rise overthe desert. It is always so beautiful.

     While we are heading north-east, the oncoming traffic is leaving the desert behind. Even at around 5 am the flowof cars into the Los Angeles basin is nearly bumper to bumper for almost thewhole 60 miles east to Palmdale.

 

Anearly morning essential – coffee (Sorry, Starbuck’s).

 

 Mojave – our regular first gas stop.

 

     Usually we have breakfast in Mojave but weskipped it this time, only stopping for gas before heading north for that longstretch of high desert between Mojave and Olancha.

 

 We never tire of seeing Red Rock Canyon.

 

Anotherregular stop for the “Bladder Boys,” the outdoor bathroom at Red Rock Canyon.

 

 

Miketrying to look ‘cool’ at Red Rock Canyon.

 

     There used to be a tiny town of LittleLake. It was the first town after Mojave and 66 miles separated the two. Butthe road now bypasses the site and it is just a ghost town. When I was a boy Ialways looked forward to reaching Little Lake after the long drive from Mojave.Dad would get gas and a cup of coffee at the diner. I still remember the littlegas station had a glass counter with a Lincoln penny board almost full. I wouldcheck it out every time we stopped there.

     Fortunately, somewhere between Mojave andwhere Little Lake had been there is the beautiful Red Rock Canyon, where somany black-and-white westerns were filmed years ago. Red Rock Canyon is a statepark and, just off the main highway about a quarter of a mile is a bathroom.Naturally this is a favorite stop for the “Bladder Boys.”

     Betsy was running fabulously well! And themiles just clicked off. We had hoped to be to Bishop before noon and we arrivedthere ahead of schedule. (The reader has to understand that the word “schedule”is used very, very loosely on a Billy Possum trip.)

     Bishop in August is fishing country. Troutare the fish and they usually don’t come very large – speaking from experience,an 8” trout is nice, a 10” is quite large.

     We didn’t stop for lunch this day.Our wives had sent us off with lots of goodies and due to a bit of agall bladder problem, Bill was being very careful with his diet. As ithappened, Mike is the expert on safe diets and Bill was instructed before heleft home to listen to Mike and everything would be just fine. (Recently ahalf-day trip to the UCLA hospital has removed the problem.)

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 Lone Pine, California. The peak centered inthe right hand group of mountains is Mount Whitney.

It is the highestpeak in the lower 48 states – over 14,000 feet.

 

     So we stopped for gas at the north end ofBishop, satisfied our hunger with very healthy snacks, and headed for one ofthe most fun parts of the drive – Sherwin Summit.

     Over the years things change. Needless tosay, cars have changed a lot. And as a result the roads also have changed. Whatonce was necessary, switchbacks and turn-outs for overheated vehicles, has nowgiven way to super highways that just go straight over the mountains withoutgiving a car a bit of trouble.

     Most of the road improvements arewelcomed. But not if you’re driving Betsy (or Bomber).Then, you look for the old roads, or what’s left of them.

     Sherwin Grade is now astraight-over-the-mountain highway that few people pay any attention to. Oh,maybe you might turn off your air-conditioner until you get to the top of themountain, but otherwise you might not even remember that you went over asummit.

     Fortunately the old Sherwin Grade has notsuffered deterioration or abandonment. The road remains essentially as it waswhen I first remember going up it with Dad in the mid- to late 1940’s. The roadis the same but now there are many summer homes where there used to bejust wilderness. The switchbacks, the gravel siding, the gorgeous country, RockCreek – they all have remained the same. A few years back I fished there andeven the trout looked the same.

     So we eagerly looked for the turn-off tothe old road. About 10 miles north of Bishop, just after the road makes asweeping turn to the right and heads up the new grade, we took the little roadto the left, made a turn to parallel the new road and just sat back to enjoy thewilderness. A few miles of straight, level road brought us to “Paradise Camp,”or whatever it is called now. The road makes a sharp left turn and at the sametime immediately begins its upward climb.

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 The beginning of the OldSherwin Grade, a few miles north of Bishop.

 

     Unlike our August trips in Betsy last yearand the year before, Betsy didn’t make a whimper. Up, up, up we went. Soon theview from the rear of the car was of the pastures and flat land surroundingBishop thousands of feet of elevation below us.

     All too soon we came to the point wherethe old road joined the new, just short of the actual summit of Sherwin.

     Then past Dead Man’sSummit, past Crawley Lake, Mammoth Mountain and then on to Mono Lake.Ah! Another summit to climb. Conway Summit is not along grade, it is only about 4 or 5 miles from thebase to the top. But it is a real climb. It’s the same road that has alwaysbeen there. Actually there is no other way to lay the road. It just switchesback and forth until you get to the top. The view, looking back at Mono Lake,is splendid.

     Next comes Bridgeport. Bridgeport is one of the most picturesquetowns in all of California. Arriving from the south, the road opens out on alarge flat that allows a view from many miles away. And just before the road entersBridgeport, it makes a 90 degree turn to the left. The result is that from a distance you get a broadside view of the town strung out on the highway.The court house (Bridgeport is the county seat of Mono County), with its CivilWar-type canon on the lawn in front is very picturesque.

     We judged our gas poorly and had to refuelin Bridgeport. That was a mistake we had made before. However, calculating ourdistance to the Nevada border where the gas prices are severely better than inCalifornia, we only had to buy a couple of gallons.

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 Beautiful Topaz Lake, partlyin California, partly in Nevada.

 

     Another landmark that we look forward tois the beautiful Topaz Lake. It lies partly in California, partly in Nevada.And just as we crossed the state line, we were able to fill up the gas tank.It’s almost a ritual, leaving California and looking for the nearest gasstation.

     Passing what used to be called simply the“Y,” but is now a settlement named Holbrook Junction; we moved on and soon werein the towns of Gardnerville and Minden. The “Y” is the junction of Interstate99 and the road that goes off to the east and down into Smith Valley, whereBill once lived as a teenager.

     Gardnerville and Minden are two towns thathave grown together and now, passing through, one can’t tell where one leavesoff and the other begins.

     Our first official meal of the day wasdinner and it was very welcome.

     We had planned to stay with Lester Harrisfor a couple of days, during which we would drive into Reno for the swap meet that waspart of “Hot August Nights.”

     “Hot August Nights” is billed as a bigdeal. And it probably is for the sleek hot rod crowd. But for us the swap meetwas what we really came for.

     Spending a couple of days lookingthrough Lester’s enormous stock of parts was far more exciting that justlooking at hot rods and custom cars with their multi-thousand dollar paint jobs.

     Lester said he would leave the house openfor us and that he would be home around 9 pm. So we ate a leisure dinner andthen drove to Lester’s house. When Lester came in we talked for a while andthen went to bed, eagerly anticipating a great day of pilfering through ancient parts fromevery known type of vehicle made in the last 80 years.

 

Wednesday,Day Two

     The next morning we had an unexpected pleasure. Wednesdaysare the days Lester’s car club meets for breakfast. So we piled out of bed abit earlier than we had otherwise planned, and met about 15 or 20 of Lester’sfriends.

 

 A tiny portion of Lester’sstock of antique auto parts.

 

     Clutchesanyone?

 

Afterbreakfast we returned to Lester’s place and began our annual plunge into thenearly

endlesssupply of old parts Lester has for sale. Up into the first warehouse, with its atticbrimming with everything from gaskets and carburetor parts to bearings andeverything else you could imagine, then over to the other warehouse where evena bit of organization exists. These pictures tell the story best.

 

Aview of one of the aisles in Lester’s second warehouse.

 

 Another aisle in the secondwarehouse.

    

 

 Part of the “Valve Aisle.”

 

Mikeand Lester looking for another part for Billy Possum.

 

     Asamazing as it seems, one can grow tired of looking at old car parts. Afterhours of pilfering through the old parts, we needed a break. Down to the NAPAstore in Gardnerville, we bought a few things we needed and then went on todinner. It was a fitting end to another "Billy Possum" day.

 

 

 

Lester Harris. A true friend.

 And the proprietor of one of the largeststocks of vintage auto parts in the entire world.

 

 Thursday, Day Three

It was an early morning for us as we headed toReno for the swap meet. We wanted to be there early as not to miss anything. It wasn’t aparticularly large meet but there were some vendors we had not seen before andwe found a few pieces of interesting literature, as well as the usual“junk” that we, like everyone else, wind up taking home.

 

 A new bridge underconstruction – just south of Reno.

 

 Downtown Reno.

No, that’s not amirror we are looking at – but a mural in south Reno.

 

     Westopped for lunch at a casino in Carson City. We’re not gamblers so we findthat the casino lunch is good bargain, good food and not at all expensive.Then back to Lester’s where we gathered up our personal belongings and also ourpurchases. We had seen enough of Hot August Nights so it was time to head over the Sierras before it got dark.

 

 

 The beginning of another crossing of theSierra Nevada mountains. We are headed west on Highway88.

 

 

 One of the Sierra Nevadalakes. This one was emerald green – due to algae.

 

 Ham’s Station on the down slope of Highway 88,a few miles from the Gold Country.

 

     Before wegot to Highway 49 and the "Gold Country," we phoned Susan, Mike's daughter, andmade arrangements to have dinner with her.

 

 

 Mike and his daughter Susan.Susan and Jock’s home is in such beautiful country!

 

     After agreat dinner in Jackson, we drove for several miles in the dark to where Susanand her husband Jock live. They have a lovely home in the woods just outside of West Point,California. We spent the night there. It was another delightful day onthe road in Betsy.

 

 Downtown West Point,California. Yep, that’s the whole town.

 

     Afterbreakfast we left Susan, drove through West Point and back to Jackson, where wevisited one of the great bookstores on Highway 49.

 

 Back in Jackson, one of the“Gold Country” towns situated on California Highway 49.

 

     Highway 88, to the west of the Gold Country, is beautiful but very different from the part thatcrosses the Sierras. Green and gold colors predominate – the green of the treesand the gold of the straw-covered fields of the foothills.

 

Highway 99 just north ofFresno. Typical “artwork” on America’s rolling stock.

 

     JoiningHighway 99 just east of Stockton we began our “downhill” drive through thegreat Central Valley. We passed through Modesto, Turlock (where each January wego for the best auto swap meet in California), Merced, Madera and then on toFresno, where we planned to stop and see our friends at Baskin’s AutoUpholstery. Bruce Baskin, like his father and grandfather and great fatherbefore him operates the business. First an automotive garage and general autorepair, Baskin’s now provides some of the best automotive interiors you willsee in hot rod and custom cars.

 

 Baskin’s Auto Supply.One more stop at our friends in Fresno. This time forrepairs.

 

     Thus farBetsy had not given us a peep of trouble. How refreshing after the two trips wehad made in Betsy, in 2008 and again last year.

     Oops!Just as we pulled off of 99 on the Civic Center off ramp in central Fresno thecar filled with blue smoke! Oh oh! We crossed overthe freeway, stopped to check what was wrong and found no fire. The oilpressure was good so we limped the few blocks to Baskin’s. The time was a bitbefore 5pm on Friday afternoon. We hoped to catch Bruce or his dad Dickbefore they closed. Parking in front, we checked and it appeared we were toolate. Bill dashed across the street to the Pep Boys (don’t forget, these arethe “Bladder Boys"). But when he came out, Bruce was there and Mike was telling him thatwe had a problem.

     Brucestayed a few minutes until the boys found the problem.

    

 

 After nearly a problem-free trip we are forcedto stop and fix an oil leak on

 our experimentalprototype of the Billy Possum oil filter attachment.

(The production version willnot have any external oil lines.)

 

     Theoriginal prototype “Billy Possum” full flow oil filter attachment was designed by Mike.He mounted a filter on Betsy’s transmission, plumbed it from a modificationplate under the original oil distributor valve just behind the carburetor. Thisdevice works great but requires a gear-type oil pump to provide sufficient flowand pressure to force all of the engine oil through a modern filter. An“Original Billy Possum Brand” oil pump does the trick.

     Well,the oil lines Mike made were of aluminum and after manythousands of miles the speedometer cable housing wore through the soft oil line.

     Confirmation that the boys had discovered the source of the smoke came when Mike started Betsy’s engine while Billwatched. Drenched in oil, Bill shouted “I think we found the problem!”

 

 The prototype oil filter attachment mounts thefilter on the transmission with

 aluminum lines to andfrom the oil distributor valve.

 

     About anhour later the boys had sawn out the holed section of the oil line, put acopper, double-ended fitting in its place and cleaned up the mess they made.It was thanks to Pep Boys for all of the fittings, the hacksaw blade, someoil and miscellaneous odds and ends and several trips to the rest room.

     Off todinner at the south end of Fresno and then on the road again.

     It wasgetting toward dark so it was decided to stop for the night in Tulare. Motel 6 tothe rescue! It was another day in the life of Billy Possum and the C &P Automotive boys.

     NOTE: You may have noticed a copper line in the pictures, just above the cylinder head. Mike had experimented with this as a means of drawing hot water from the rear cylinders and improving the circulation of coolant, especially to the number 6 cylinder. No difinitive conclusion has been made as to the effectiveness of this.

 

Saturday,Day Five

 

 What a way to wake up! Another day on the roadin Betsy!

 

     The day began with the warm sun of a Californiasummer morning. Looking out of the motel room at Betsy, one could tell that itwas going to be another fabulous day on the road.

 

 Nearing the top of the“Ridge Route,” about 75 miles north of home.

 

     We didn’thave very far to go today – Tulare is only about 150 miles from home.

     Afterbreakfast at Denny’s, gas in Bakersfield and the climb up the famous“Grapevine,” it was all downhill to home.

     It alwaysamazes me how Betsy climbs the “Grapevine.” In Bomber, Bill’s 1929 sedan, the“grapevine” is a 2nd gear-hill all the way. Betsy makes it up allthe way in high gear!

     The boyshave figured out why these two cars, both almost exactly as they left thefactory, are so different.

     Betsy, a1930 sedan, has 50 horsepower (according to the engineering figures). Bomber, a1929 sedan, has 46 horsepower. But that isn’t what makes the big difference inhill climbing! There are three factors that are most important: the intakevalve size, the rear end gearing and the fact that the 1930 cars have wheels and tires 1" smaller in diameter. The intake valves on the 1930 cars areslightly larger than in the 1929 engines, allowing the 1930 engine to run at abit higher RPM. That, coupled with lower (that’s right, lower) rear endgearing and the smaller tire size (also lowering the effective gearing), means the 1930 car can go just as fast as the 1929, but can go uphills a lot better.

    What makesthe difference even more accentuated is that in going up a hill in the ’29, ifit is downshifted, the car has to slow way down to prevent over-revving of theengine. That’s because the ratio between high and 2nd gear isso great.

 

 Are we ready to go again? Stay tuned foranother adventure of Billy Possum.

 

    Arrivinghome is always welcome. The trip was great and Betsy ran especially well buthome is still home.

 

 Mike removing the tappets(cam followers) after more than a thousand miles of testing.

 

    We werehome but the trip wasn’t over quite yet. The ostensible reason for this tripwas to test the set of prototype tappets. (Tappets, or cam followers as theyare often called, transfer the vertical motion from the camshaft to thepushrods and thus open the engine valves.)

    Fortunately the tappets are easy toremove. Off came the valve cover, the push rod cover, the rocker arms and shaft assemblies,the push rods and then we simply replaced the test tappets with the tappets we hadtaken out before the test. Within a half-an-hour or so the job was finished andBetsy was running again.

 

 Another successful test!

 And the beginning of another addition to theBilly Possum line of early Chevrolet parts.

 

     It didn’t take long to inspect the tappets and see that they had performedbeautifully. Time to add another part to the long list of “Original BillyPossum Brand” inventory!

 

 We’re always sorry to see the end of anotherBilly Possum trip. But it is great to be back homeagain!

 

     The tripwas over for Bill but Mike had another 25 miles to go to his home.

 

 Bye Mikey. Come backsoon.

 

     Bye bye Mikey. Thanks for the ride!