The Adventures of Billy Possum
“Bomber in the Clutch”
By Bill J. Castenholz
Copyright 2009, Castenholz and Sons
There are two questions that are asked most often when we are out on the road with “Bomber” or “Betsy.” “What year is it?” is the most often asked. But then the question comes “What do you do for parts” or “Where do you find parts?” or “Where do you find tires?” as if tires were the hardest parts to find. Actually that is how C&P Automotive was started. When we were looking for parts and would ask about a certain part the reply often was “No we don’t have any of those - we would like to find some of them for ourselves.”
First there were replacement brake parts for the 1928 and 1929 Chevys (we called them brake trunions). Then came rocker arm shaft and bushing sets and then more than fifty other parts and assemblies, including axles, drive shafts and gear-type oil pumps.
Most often the development of a part comes because driving the tens of thousands of miles we have accumulated on our trips, we identify the parts that break the most often or in one way or another fail, frequently during operation.
Fuel pumps are an example: we have had more fuel pump problems than any other type of failures. The result is our offerings of fuel pump diaphragms. This has virtually eliminated the pump problems (but not completely as we have also had valve failures and in one case a rocker pin worked loose - it took us hours on the side of the road to find that problem).
In “Bomber” I have broken an axle and a drive shaft with the result we have produced chrome-moly axles and drive shafts that simply don’t fail.
We once broke a clutch disc. Yes, broke it! The center hub broke loose from the disc. The strange thing is that we had just turned off of the freeway close to home on a trip of more than a thousand miles, including climbing the famous “Grapevine” on the grade from the Central Valley to Los Angeles, when the failure occurred. Mike and my wife hitched a ride home and brought the tow car within about an hour.
An example of an impending disaster – the hub has separated from three of the four quarters of the disc.
This original after market disc was removed from Bomber in order to install
our new “Original Billy Possum Brand” prototype disc.
Another example of a stock clutch disc failure.
This disc had been removed from Bomber some years ago.
It was the second of three clutch disc failures that we have experienced.
The prototype “Original Billy Possum Brand” disc prior to installation in Bomber.
So it became a concern to us that clutch discs were not to be found anywhere. It is true that we had in our stock a couple of NOS discs but all of the other used discs we had were irreparably worn in the hub splines. Even if we could find someone to put new facings on the discs, the disc hub wear often was excessive, and no new discs were available - anywhere. Thus the idea was born that we should develop a clutch disc. But a clutch disc is not something you just pound out in the course of a workday!
After much metallurgy, design and tooling development a disc was produced which met most of our requirements. However, we were not satisfied with using carbon steel for the disc. All of the original discs, both GM and aftermarket, were of carbon steel. But we have seen several failed discs. In order to produce a disc that was adequate, without the testing resources of a General Motors, we opted for chrome-moly as a material which we expected would hold up to rigorous everyday driving (as opposed to an occasional 4th of July parade).
Being a drive line part, a test as severe as we could arrange would be necessary. Our plan was to install the prototype in Bomber and put as many miles as possible on the disc in order to test it thoroughly. Starting with the 400 miles of Los Angeles freeway and back roads driving, we hoped to drive to Southern Oregon, cross the Sierras to Nevada, passing through Reno and down the east side of the Sierras, through the deserts and on back to Pacific Palisades - a suburb of Los Angeles.
The first test consisted of about 400 miles in and around Los Angeles. Perhaps 200 or more miles of stop-and-go in some of the world’s worst traffic nearly drove the driver crazy. But the disc, when removed, appeared as good as new. So it was replaced and the second phase of the testing was put in motion (no pun intended).
Sunday, Day Zero
Just in case: our much used tow bar and tail lights hanging in the garage.
These trips require that several “mechanics” are present. And this trip was to be no exception. Besides Bill and Mike, two junior “mechanics” would also be on the trip. Sam, who had been on our trip from Colorado to home several years ago, was slated to go as well as Matthew who was an old hand at this, having endured the several adventurous trips in Mike’s “Betsy.
So, by Sunday evening, Mike, Sam and Matthew were all at Bill’s house, ready to go. Only one thing remained: watching movies for most of the night!
Monday, Day One
4:30 am comes awfully early! So after giving the boys as much sleep time as possible, Bill awakened the crew, the luggage was loaded and Bomber was started for the usual 5 minute warm-up.
4 am: the Clutch Crew ready(?) to go.
Starting out on Sunset Boulevard, passing over the hump to the San Fernando Valley on the 405 Freeway, joining Interstate 5 just north of the Valley, sailing down the “Grapevine” into the Central Valley, we left Interstate 5 for the more interesting communities on Highway 99.
Passing through Bakersfield, we made our first destination - Fresno - by lunch time. After saying “Hi” to our good friends Dick and Bruce at Baskins upholstery shop, we headed off for lunch. Only we didn’t get very far. About a block from Baskins we suffered the first of our many vapor lock problems.
Vapor lock occurs when the fuel somewhere in the fuel system becomes hot enough to boil. The vapor then prevents the fuel from flowing thru the gas line.
Fortunately the problem occurred in front of a service station. With a borrowed water can the fuel pump and carburetor were doused and Bomber’s engine was soon started.
The Beginning. Getting out on the road is always exhilarating. Here we have entered the Central Valley.
On the road again, we left Fresno, stopped in Madera for lunch and then proceeded north to Stockton where we joined Interstate 5 again and finally arrived in Oroville for the evening. Except for the vapor lock problem, which had only occurred when the engine was started while very hot, we had no problems with the car.
That is, until the engine was restarted at the motel. A loud squeal occurred that really startled us because it seemed to be connected to the clutch operation. However we soon assessed it to be the pilot bushing. When I installed the bushing I had greased it rather than having soaked it in oil. The bushing was replaced when the clutch disc was removed and inspected at the end of the trip.
We had come 505 miles for the day - a record by 1 mile - for all of our exploits in Bomber over the past 28 years.
The pool at Motel 6 was very inviting and Mike, Matthew and Sam made very good use of it. Bill just slept. It had been a long day!
505 miles later - the boys cooling off.
Tuesday, Day Two
How peaceful Bomber looks in the Motel 6 parking lot. The beginning of our second day on the road.
After a 500 mile day we usually don’t show the enthusiasm that is evident at the beginning of the trip. Driving from Oroville without a stop for breakfast, the boys quickly arrived at Red Bluff. Red Bluff is a picturesque village on a gorgeous section of the Sacramento River. After lunch we proceeded to drive north toward our first destination of the day: Redding.
Arriving in Redding about 2:30 pm we were greeted with the hottest day that any of us had seen in a long time - maybe a lifetime - 115 degrees!
Stopping in a Sears parking lot (because Bomber told us that we better look for a stopping place immediately or else) we entered the store and soon struck up a conversation with a salesman who had lived in Los Angeles for many years. After recounting many familiar places and people we knew, we made a dash to the Starbucks across the road. Partially refreshed, we poured water on Bomber’s fuel pump and carburetor. Ceremonially we put some water on the outside of Bomber’s radiator. Actually, even though we had vapor lock on many occasions, only once did the coolant get near boiling - on a grade where vapor lock, prolonged by the use of the choke, caused the temp gage to read “HOT.”
115 degrees in the Redding Sears parking lot. The bucket of water was put in the shade to keep it from boiling in the sun.
Bill’s Aunt Octavia lives in Redding. Anytime we are near Redding a visit to Octavia is a must. Octavia will turn 98 years old this summer and it is always a delight to see her. She has a mind as sharp as any of us.
We went to the place where she now lives, an assisted living home which is very nice. Our plan was to take her to Home Town Buffet in Bomber. But Bomber said “You go along without me. I think I will just rest here by the curb.”
Redding, California: 115 degrees. Time to give Bomber a break.
Our purpose in stopping in Redding - Bill’s Aunt Octavia.
Sometimes it's good to argue with Bomber. This time it was not. Embarrassed or not, we called a cab and took Octavia to dinner. After another cab ride back to the Home, we said our “Good byes” and once again hit the road in Bomber. The engine had cooled and so had the day.
The funniest thing that happened on the whole trip occurred during dinner at the Home Town Buffet. Octavia was sitting and Mike was standing close to her. She reached up and patted Mike's stomach. Without so much as a blink Mike responded "Twins!"
Bomber to crew: “If you want to go somewhere you will have to go without me.”
Another vapor lock rest for Bomber.
Interstate 5 north of Redding. The country was simply beautiful.
About 65 miles later we arrived in Weed. The swimming pool sure felt good that evening!
The end of our second day on the road.
Wednesday, Day Three
The beginning of Day: A beautiful view of Mount Shasta,
nearly the highest mountain in the continental US - over 14,000 feet above sea level.
Leaving Weed we preceded north past Yreka and up the Siskiyou Grade, passing the Oregon border and on to Medford. From there we headed almost due north to Eagle Point. Our plan was to meet with Skip Geear aka the Junk Yard Dog. Skip has discovered many otherwise unknown junk yards with fabulous finds of old cars - many of them early Chevrolets.
Approaching an old highway bridge near Eagle Point.
Skippy land - Home of the Junk Yard Dogs in Eagle Point, Oregon.
Where are you, Skippy?
We had contacted Skip and told him that we were planning this trip to Eagle Point but my scheduling must not have been clear for when we arrived at Skip’s place Skip was nowhere to be found. After waiting for a few minutes we turned around and began our journey south, backtracking to Medford.
We stopped in a gas station and filled Bomber but then rolled the car into the shade and walked to a McDonald’s for a gourmet lunch. By the time we had finished lunch the car had cooled enough that we had no trouble starting it.
However, unknown to us at the time, the fuel in Oregon is required by state law to contain 10% ethanol. Ethanol in the fuel causes the fuel mixture to boil at a lower temperature. We were soon to find that out.
Leaving Medford we began our trip south again, but within minutes we were aware of an increased tendency for vapor lock.
We stopped in Ashland and immediately had vapor lock. We were told where the NAPA store was and limped there. We checked on insulation material which we were considering for the fuel line but the cost was exorbitant so we decided to press on.
The Siskiyou Grade had not been a serious problem on our trip north but going south it became a BIG problem. The hottest part of the day was approaching and Bomber was acting like a beast.
“Hey, Mike, the engine won’t run.” Vapor lock just south of Ashland, Oregon.
Vapor lock on the Siskiyou Grade approaching the California Border.
While Mike and Bill wait for the vapor lock to cool, the boys went for a hike.
But they kept an eye on Bomber just in case. They didn’t want to be left behind.
We were forced to stop several times along the grade. The car seemed much more sensitive to the heat than it had on the way up. We didn’t realize until later that the ethanol had such an effect on the vapor lock.
A very pleasant shower but of very short duration.
Sometimes it seems kind of lonely to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Fortunately this was our last vapor lock on the way back to Weed.
I recall that after our last vapor lock stop, we continued with the choke out enough to richen the mixture, finally reaching the top of the grade. The heat of the day was also subsiding and we did not experience any more vapor lock that day.
Bomber, being a 1929 Chevy, has a temp sensor that consists of a bulb in the front of the cylinder head with four bi-metal contacts in it. As the temperature rises each bi-metal contact bends due to the different expansion of the two metals in each contact. Therefore the gage on the dash is not analog but jumps from position to position as the temperature in the cylinder head changes. Normally Bomber runs at the low normal position, even on fairly warm days. On a hot day the gage will show a high normal reading. I had never before seen the gage go beyond NORMAL but on this one occasion, with the choke out and the engine barely running, the gage read HOT. We immediately shut the engine down and did not see the problem again.
Mount Shasta towers over the landscape as we again head south, approaching Yreka.
If only those clouds would dump rain on us. And they did!
Yreka! We made it this far!
On the way south back to Weed from Oregon. Dinner time in Yreka.
We had decided to stop in Yreka for dinner. We saw a Denny’s sign and thought it a great opportunity to get refreshed before driving the short distance to Weed for the night. We parked in the Denny’s parking lot and went to the front door. Oh-oh. The door was locked and it became obvious that no one was inside. Fortunately there was the Purple Plum restaurant across the street and we were quickly seated. Then we found out that the Denny’s had closed permanently - just that afternoon at 3 o’clock. It was a shock as Denny’s has always seemed so stable. It was a sign of the times!
After dinner came a delightful event. The sky had been beautiful with various clouds. It even looked like a gathering storm. How great it would be if it actually rained and cooled off.
The sky says it all - after several extremely hot days the clouds were very welcome.
A fill-up in Yreka. The clouds were not empty!
We finished dinner and drove directly to a gas station for a fill-up. And then it happened. A real cloud burst! It literally poured!
Under the filling station roof we unloaded our luggage from the running board rack, put the tarp down, the luggage back in the rack, pulled the tarp over the luggage and taped it closed. Now the rain would be welcome.
Ahh! An electrical storm with lighting and real rain. Later in the evening the hail was quite heavy.
We left Yreka and headed south to our final destination for the day: Weed. Weed is about 30 miles south of Yreka and before we arrived at Weed we experienced heavy rain and then hail. The hail was substantial, and although somewhat slushy, it was perhaps up to a quarter inch in size. No matter - it was very welcome.
With our electric windshield wiper swinging away we arrived at Weed and spent the night in the same motel we had left earlier that morning. Even with all of the vapor lock problems we had covered 214 miles.
Thursday, Day Four
The morning started out very relaxed. The boys loaded Bomber and casually drove down to Mount Shasta City where Bomber was once again topped off with fuel for the drive across the Sierras. Unlike many of the passes south of there, the summits we had to pass were in the range of only about 4500 feet above sea level.
Crossing the Sierras from Mount Shasta City. The summits are not nearly as high as those south of here.
Logging is very heavy here and we were continually passed by loaded trucks.
We were repeatedly passed by trucks going in the opposite direction to us, carrying great loads of logs. And there were some sections of the forests which we could see had been logged and then replanted. The conservation was more evident than we used to see.
One experience we had was worth noting. Due to continual road work on highways 89 and 64 we were forced to stop and wait for the oncoming traffic. When it was our turn we were the first vehicle in line. We had turned the engine off and when it was our turn to go we had vapor lock. Even going downhill the engine didn’t want to start and that created a problem. Once out of gear we had no way to get the car back in gear. Just as soon as we passed the escort vehicle I stopped Bomber by the side of the road. However, because of the grade our brakes were really hot. After restarting the engine the car distinctly pulled to the left when the brakes were applied. Thus the brakes were on the agenda for some work at the first opportunity.
And the day was much cooler than we had experienced in the previous three days. The result was that we not only had a beautiful drive through the woods but we reached Susanville by lunchtime.
Entering Nevada. The drive over the Sierras had been very pleasant with only one vapor lock occurrence.
From Susanville to Reno the terrain was typical eastern Sierra desert.
Reno traffic. We passed through it as quickly as possible.
Then on we drove to Reno. The “Biggest Little City in the World” has turned into an asphalt jungle! We kept wondering why all of Reno didn’t just move to L.A. – the traffic was just as crazy (not really - it just seemed so).
A very large bridge under construction just north of Carson City.
Other than taking a wrong turn where a freeway cross-over was roped off, we were able to pass through Reno quickly and begin our drive south to Carson City.
It was our plan to have prime rib at one of the casinos where low dinner prices are set to attract the gamblers. As it was, the prices were up from last year and the dinner wasn’t that great – but it was food and we were hungry.
Procuring a motel in Carson City, the boys quickly found the pool and cooled off. It had not been as hot as the days before but it was still warm enough to make a swim welcome.
Friday, Day Five
Before leaving Carson we stopped at a Kragan Auto Parts and found just what we had been looking for – a roll of insulation tape – the kind hot rodders wrap their exhaust headers with. Then, without doing any work on the car, we made the short drive to Lester Harris’s home north of Minden. We had also discovered a leak between the exhaust manifold and muffler header and we planned to fix that and adjust the brakes when we got to Lester’s.
Guess what! No Lester. Somehow my instructions to Lester were not clear because he was nowhere to be seen. We tried his other parts warehouse, the church where we thought he might be helping out and then back to his home. But still no Lester. Finally we left a note and drove to the NAPA store in Gardnerville. Gardnerville and Minden used to be two separate towns but with all the growth it is impossible to tell where Minden leaves off and Gardnerville begins.
Anyway, we came to the NAPA store and looked for some shade to park the car under. Then we spotted a beautiful park just behind the store. As we drove into the park suddenly the car began to flop-flop with what was immediately obvious as a flat tire!
Would you believe the road to the park went between the NAPA store and a tire store!
Our first trip to the tire store was to ask if they had an exhaust gasket. Sure enough they had a gasket board with just what we needed on it. I returned to the car to get the old exhaust gasket as a sample. Mike already had the car up on Bomber’s original jack but he was concerned that the jack wasn’t stable enough. Back to the tire store: “May I borrow one of your floor jacks, please?”
An example of man‘s kindness and God‘s provision. Our flat tire occurred in a park next to a tire store.
A typical stop to fix something - this time a flat tire, a failed gasket between the exhaust manifold
and the muffler header pipe. And also a chance to wrap the fuel pump-to-carburetor fuel line.
Mike has a unique way of teaching the apprentice mechanics - while Bill does all the work.
Back at Bomber the rear axle was raised and the tire and rim were removed. We quickly unlatched the rim, removed the tube and also the 1-1/2” drywall screw that had punctured it. There was a tear of about an inch or more in the tube as well as several punctures that occurred when the tip of the screw penetrated the other side of the tube. Back to the tire store. “Sure we can patch it – no problem." Soon the tube was back in the tire, the rim was latched and the tire filled with air.
Bill putting to use another of Mike‘s really good ideas: wrapping the line from the fuel pump
to the carburetor with high temp insulation. The idea proved to be brilliant - no more vapor lock!!
Since we used the spare on the car the repaired tire went on the spare rack. The new exhaust gasket was installed and Mike removed the fuel line between the fuel pump and the carburetor. We got out the exhaust insulation tape and began to wrap the fuel line. With two layers securely in place we reinstalled the fuel line, washed up at the park rest room and headed for the nearest Starbucks. Even with the cloud cover we had been working hard and we were in need of some cool refreshments.
One more incident occurred just before we got to Starbucks. We had taken off the front license plate several days earlier in an attempt to help the radiator cooling (even though it wasn’t the engine coolant but the hot fuel line that was causing the problem). Just as we prepared to turn in to the Starbucks Sam said he thought he saw something fall from the luggage.
I made a U-turn and saw a white plastic bag in the street. We stopped and Mike ran over and picked up the bag. The expression on his face looked to me like he had picked up someone else’s junk. But when he returned to our car he pulled out Bomber’s front license plate. It had been run over by at least one car. I was not a happy camper!
Fortunately a beverage for each of us from Starbucks put us all back in a good mood and we returned to the road, heading south, along the West Walker River toward Topaz Lake and California.
Always a beautiful part of any trip, the West Walker River between Topaz Lake and Bridgeport.
This is trout country! Another view of the West Walker.
After refueling in Bridgeport we quickly returned to the road and soon came to the top of Conway summit. We had adjusted the brakes back in Gardnerville but at the summit we made another adjustment. Just down from the summit is an observation turnoff with a fabulous view of Mono Lake. With a quick stop there for one more minor brake adjustment we proceeded down the grade. For the balance of the trip we had no further problems with the brakes.
The late afternoon of another day. Approaching the Conway Grade from the north.
A few minutes later, looking down on Mono Lake.
Time and time again we are attracted to the unique beauty of the eastern Sierras.
Typical scenery on Highway 395 on the east side of the Sierras.
Without even a stop in Lee Vining we passed Dead Man’s Summit and finally ran out of sunlight about 30 miles north of Bishop.
The end of another day on the road. Although we preferred not to drive at night the heat made us reconsider
and we decided to make a dash from Gardnerville, Nevada all the way to home - a trip of about 435 miles.
Going down the Sherwin Grade at night wouldn’t be a big problem but with road work in progress there was only one lane open in each direction. By the time we reached the bottom of the grade there was quite a line of cars behind us.
Arriving in Bishop we again refueled and stopped at a market for some groceries. Our plan was to drive all the way home from Bishop in the night (we didn’t realize that the exhaust tape on the fuel line had apparently fixed the vapor lock problem – after all these years!).
The crackers and sliced turkey was delicious. I don’t think any of us realized how hungry we were.
We left Bishop and had proceeded only about three or four miles when, of all things, flashing lights. We pulled over and waited for the officer. “You only have one tail light,” he said. “That’s right,” I replied “The car was made with only one tail light.” The officer was very courteous and didn’t even ask for my driver’s license but suggested that we shouldn’t drive at night. He thought the car wasn’t really visible enough after dark.
I did something that I don’t often do – I took his advice. We turned around and returned to Bishop to spend the night. We were tired and the suggestion of a soft bed sounded like a good idea.
However, after seven or eight motels, either with no vacancy or outrageous rates we decided to sleep in the car. We found a desolate place about a quarter of a mile off the main highway and settled down for the night. It was about midnight. It was very quiet and the sky was glorious with the Milky Way so well defined. But it was not very comfortable!
Saturday, Day Six
Bomber wasn’t made for sleeping. But I finally fell asleep for a couple of hours. When I awoke everyone was awake and my watch showed 4:30. “Time to go!”
It was still dark but within a half hour or so we detected the beginning of dawn on the eastern horizon. Then more and more the day crept across the desert until the sun burst forth. It would be a warm day!
We passed Big Pine and the restaurant where last summer we had made the decision to turn around in Mikes car, “Betsy,” and drive home. That had set the record for distance we have traveled in one day in the old cars: 530 miles! And with a blown head gasket at that!
After good sense made us stop in Bishop for the night we started for home only to stop for a
generator swap about 30 miles south of Bishop. The spare generator had a brand new cut-out that was faulty.
We removed the cut-out from the failed generator and put it on the good generator and it solved the problem.
We were grateful that we had daylight to see what we were doing.
Somewhere south of Big Pine, I think, I noticed the amp meter. The generator wasn’t charging.
Right away we came up to a side road and pulled off. Out came the spare generator, the tools and a spray can of mosquito repellant. Before we knew it we were attacked by a gazillion tiny but ferocious mosquitoes. The repellant worked great, we thought. However several days after we finished the trip both Mike and I were covered with the itchiest bites I can ever remember. They were still visible more than a week later.
Anyway we went to work and soon had the spare generator installed. I started the engine. “No charge!” Now what? We took the old generator apart thinking we would somehow be able to fix it right there. But then an idea occurred to us. We started the engine and jumpered the cutout. Voilŕ! The brand new, fresh out-of-the-box cutout was no good! We removed the cutout from the old generator, put it on the spare generator and off we went.
Incidentally, when we returned home I checked the other new cutouts we have, all 12 of them. All are NOS in the boxes. All are of the same brand. With an ohmmeter all showed good except the one we had taken on the trip! A small broken wire was detected. Such are the causes of so many of our adventures.
Passing Red Rock Canyon - about the last landmark before reaching Crazyville - pardon me - Los Angeles.
The rest of the drive home would have been unremarkable except somewhere between Red Rock Canyon and Mojave . . . more flashing lights! What! In almost 30 years in Bomber, and more than 70,000 miles I had never been stopped by police officers. Now, within 12 hours this was the second time.
“I stopped you for impeding traffic.” Well, the officer certainly was correct – there were 6 or 7 vehicles behind us. I pointed to the center divider and said that I wasn’t arguing with him but there had been plenty of opportunity for cars to pass but when one timid driver won’t pass it becomes nearly impossible for any other cars to get by.
He agreed but pointed out that it didn’t make a difference – if 5 or more cars were being held up by a car driving slower than the speed limit it is necessary to pull over at the nearest turn-out. (I must say I didn’t know this.)
Anyway the officer, after checking my driver’s license, registration and insurance, said this was only a warning but please avoid the situation in the future.
It’s funny. Driving in Los Angeles traffic we get so used to millions of cars beside us, in front of us, behind us that we really have to adjust when out in the country.
Our final gas stop was in Mojave. Then we dropped off Matthew and Cousin Sam in Santa Clarita where Tim, Matthew’s dad, was waiting for us. An hour later we parked Bomber at home and the trip was officially over.
Six days, 1650 miles, three states, numerous breakdowns and 115 degree heat – it had been a fabulous trip!
Several days later
Mike and I removed the transmission and the clutch – eager to see how our new part had held up. We had had a failed generator, a faulty cutout, a flat tire, a blown exhaust gasket, numerous vapor locks, a squealing pilot bushing and brakes that needed several adjustments. We had been stopped twice by police officers. We even ran over our own license plate. Two of the three people we had hoped to meet were not at home. But the clutch not only held up, it looked just as it did when we checked it at 400 miles – lightly streaked with dust but otherwise perfect!
The “Original Billy Possum Brand” disc removed after about 400 miles of testing.
The same disc after our test trip
After about 2100 miles there is only minimal wear and no indication of strain.
The trip was a complete success.
Our only problem is where to go next!