The Adventures of Billy Possum

 

 

Redemption: “Betsy” Cools it

 all the Way to Reno for “Hot August Nights”

 

By Bill J. Castenholz

 

Copyright 2010, Castenholz and Sons

 

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

     For two years we had struggled with the overheating problem with “Betsy,” Mike’s 1930 Chevrolet Club Sedan. After a problem-filled trip in 2008, we thought we had the problem fixes and we again travelled up the eastern slopes of the Sierras in 2009, only to have the trip end in the middle of the night in the Mojave Desert. Betsy had to be towed about 20 miles into the town of Mojave in the middle of the night. And my wife had to come and get us with the tow car the next morning.

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

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

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

     “Mike, let’s use logic. The engine is generating just so much heat. This engine is running fine. It has to be something else.” The only “something else” was the radiator. But how could it be 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’s change the radiator and just see.”

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

     After two years of suffering with overheating 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 planned to begin on August 3rd.

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

 

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

 

Tuesday, Day One

Getting up 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 headed out toward Palmdale and then Mojave. We never tire of seeing the sun rise over the 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 flow of cars into the Los Angeles basin is nearly bumper to bumper for almost the whole 60 miles east to Palmdale.

 

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

 

 Mojave – our regular first gas stop.

 

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

 

 We never tire of seeing Red Rock Canyon.

 

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

 

 

Mike trying to look ‘cool’ at Red Rock Canyon.

 

     There used to be a tiny town of Little Lake. It was the first town after Mojave and 66 miles separated the two. But the road now bypasses the site and it is just a ghost town. When I was a boy I always 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 little gas station had a glass counter with a Lincoln penny board almost full. I would check it out every time we stopped there.

     Fortunately, somewhere between Mojave and where Little Lake had been there is the beautiful Red Rock Canyon, where so many black-and-white westerns were filmed years ago. Red Rock Canyon is a state park 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 the miles just clicked off. We had hoped to be to Bishop before noon and we arrived there 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. Trout are 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 a gall bladder problem, Bill was being very careful with his diet. As it happened, Mike is the expert on safe diets and Bill was instructed before he left home to listen to Mike and everything would be just fine. (Recently a half-day trip to the UCLA hospital has removed the problem.)

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

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

 

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

     Over the years things change. Needless to say, cars have changed a lot. And as a result the roads also have changed. What once was necessary, switchbacks and turn-outs for overheated vehicles, has now given way to super highways that just go straight over the mountains without giving a car a bit of trouble.

     Most of the road improvements are welcomed. 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 a straight-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 the mountain, but otherwise you might not even remember that you went over a summit.

     Fortunately the old Sherwin Grade has not suffered deterioration or abandonment. The road remains essentially as it was when I first remember going up it with Dad in the mid- to late 1940’s. The road is the same but now there are many summer homes where there used to be just wilderness. The switchbacks, the gravel siding, the gorgeous country, Rock Creek – they all have remained the same. A few years back I fished there and even the trout looked the same.

     So we eagerly looked for the turn-off to the old road. About 10 miles north of Bishop, just after the road makes a sweeping turn to the right and heads up the new grade, we took the little road to the left, made a turn to parallel the new road and just sat back to enjoy the wilderness. 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 same time immediately begins its upward climb.

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

 

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

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

     Then past Dead Man’s Summit, past Crawley Lake, Mammoth Mountain and then on to Mono Lake. Ah! Another summit to climb. Conway Summit is not a long grade, it is only about 4 or 5 miles from the base to the top. But it is a real climb. It’s the same road that has always been there. Actually there is no other way to lay the road. It just switches back 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 picturesque towns in all of California. Arriving from the south, the road opens out on a large flat that allows a view from many miles away. And just before the road enters Bridgeport, 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 Civil War-type canon on the lawn in front is very picturesque.

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

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 Beautiful Topaz Lake, partly in California, partly in Nevada.

 

     Another landmark that we look forward to is 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 gas station.

     Passing what used to be called simply the “Y,” but is now a settlement named Holbrook Junction; we moved on and soon were in the towns of Gardnerville and Minden. The “Y” is the junction of Interstate 99 and the road that goes off to the east and down into Smith Valley, where Bill once lived as a teenager.

     Gardnerville and Minden are two towns that have grown together and now, passing through, one can’t tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wednesday, Day Two

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

 

 A tiny portion of Lester’s stock of antique auto parts.

 

     Clutches anyone?

 

After breakfast we returned to Lester’s place and began our annual plunge into the nearly

endless supply of old parts Lester has for sale. Up into the first warehouse, with its attic brimming with everything from gaskets and carburetor parts to bearings and everything else you could imagine, then over to the other warehouse where even a bit of organization exists. These pictures tell the story best.

 

A view of one of the aisles in Lester’s second warehouse.

 

 Another aisle in the second warehouse.

    

 

 Part of the “Valve Aisle.”

 

Mike and Lester looking for another part for Billy Possum.

 

     As amazing as it seems, one can grow tired of looking at old car parts. After hours of pilfering through the old parts, we needed a break. Down to the NAPA store in Gardnerville, we bought a few things we needed and then went on to dinner. It was a fitting end to another "Billy Possum" day.

 

 

 

Lester Harris. A true friend.

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

 

 Thursday, Day Three

It was an early morning for us as we headed to Reno for the swap meet. We wanted to be there early as not to miss anything. It wasn’t a particularly large meet but there were some vendors we had not seen before and we 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 under construction – just south of Reno.

 

 Downtown Reno.

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

 

     We stopped for lunch at a casino in Carson City. We’re not gamblers so we find that 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 our purchases. 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 the Sierra Nevada mountains. We are headed west on Highway 88.

 

 

 One of the Sierra Nevada lakes. 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 we got to Highway 49 and the "Gold Country," we phoned Susan, Mike's daughter, and made arrangements to have dinner with her.

 

 

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

 

     After a great dinner in Jackson, we drove for several miles in the dark to where Susan and 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 on the road in Betsy.

 

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

 

     After breakfast we left Susan, drove through West Point and back to Jackson, where we visited 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 that crosses the Sierras. Green and gold colors predominate – the green of the trees and the gold of the straw-covered fields of the foothills.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

     Thus far Betsy had not given us a peep of trouble. How refreshing after the two trips we had 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 the car filled with blue smoke! Oh oh! We crossed over the freeway, stopped to check what was wrong and found no fire. The oil pressure was good so we limped the few blocks to Baskin’s. The time was a bit before 5pm on Friday afternoon. We hoped to catch Bruce or his dad Dick before they closed. Parking in front, we checked and it appeared we were too late. Bill dashed across the street to the Pep Boys (don’t forget, these are the “Bladder Boys"). But when he came out, Bruce was there and Mike was telling him that we had a problem.

     Bruce stayed a few minutes until the boys found the problem.

    

 

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

 our experimental prototype of the Billy Possum oil filter attachment.

(The production version will not have any external oil lines.)

 

     The original prototype “Billy Possum” full flow oil filter attachment was designed by Mike. He mounted a filter on Betsy’s transmission, plumbed it from a modification plate under the original oil distributor valve just behind the carburetor. This device works great but requires a gear-type oil pump to provide sufficient flow and 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 many thousands 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 Bill watched. Drenched in oil, Bill shouted “I think we found the problem!”

 

 The prototype oil filter attachment mounts the filter on the transmission with

 aluminum lines to and from the oil distributor valve.

 

     About an hour later the boys had sawn out the holed section of the oil line, put a copper, 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, some oil and miscellaneous odds and ends and several trips to the rest room.

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

     It was getting toward dark so it was decided to stop for the night in Tulare. Motel 6 to the 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 road in Betsy!

 

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

 

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

 

     We didn’t have very far to go today – Tulare is only about 150 miles from home.

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

     It always amazes 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 all the way in high gear!

     The boys have figured out why these two cars, both almost exactly as they left the factory, are so different.

     Betsy, a 1930 sedan, has 50 horsepower (according to the engineering figures). Bomber, a 1929 sedan, has 46 horsepower. But that isn’t what makes the big difference in hill climbing! There are three factors that are most important: the intake valve 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 are slightly larger than in the 1929 engines, allowing the 1930 engine to run at a bit higher RPM. That, coupled with lower (that’s right, lower) rear end gearing 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 up hills a lot better.

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

 

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

 

    Arriving home is always welcome. The trip was great and Betsy ran especially well but home is still home.

 

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

 

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

     Fortunately the tappets are easy to remove. 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 had taken out before the test. Within a half-an-hour or so the job was finished and Betsy was running again.

 

 Another successful test!

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

 

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

 

 We’re always sorry to see the end of another Billy Possum trip. But it is great to be back home again!

 

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

 

 Bye Mikey. Come back soon.

 

     Bye bye Mikey. Thanks for the ride!