The Adventures of Billy Possum
Billy Possum Rides Again
By Bill J. Castenholz
Copyright 2003, Castenholz and Sons
Alright, I admit it sounded like a crazy idea! After all, the shipping couldn’t be more than $50 or $60. But I hadn’t been back to Muskegon since a couple of years after I was born there. And it would be great to see Ascher and Elaine, who now live in Chesterton, Indiana. Oh, I’m sorry - let me start at the beginning.
I saw an NOS (old but never used) front left fender for a 1929 &1930 Chevy on Ebay. When the lot closed, I was the high bidder. The seller, Harry, was in St. Joseph, Michigan. That’s when the gears started to turn. Rather than have possible damage to the fender in shipping, why not drive there and get it. After all, Michigan isn’t that far from Los Angeles. And I could visit the town I was born in, which I have no memories of. Further, before my wife retired as a teacher, she worked with Elaine in the local grammer school’s special education resource program. As time went on, my wife and I became very good friends with Elaine and Ascher, Elaine’s husband. But then Elaine and Ascher moved to Chesterton, Indiana. If we drove “Bomber,“ my 1929 Chevy, to St. Joseph and got the fender, we could also see our friends in Chesterton and possibly drive up to Muskegon. Now, what’s so crazy about that?
Normally our trips originate in Pacific Palisades, a suburb of Los Angeles, and end there. This limits how far we can go before we turn around and come home, considering that we don’t like to be away more than a week or two. The solution seemed to be to drive the car a week or ten days journey and then leave it in a safe storage for a short time, fly home, and then fly back and drive the car home. That would double our radius. We actually tried to drive to Seattle one time, but we went in October of a year when the rain never seemed to quit. So when we got to Eugene, Oregon, I said “Would anyone mind if we turned around and just went home?” Both my wife and my partner Mike said “Yea!” and we never made it to Seattle. But the concept didn’t die there.
Harry said he didn’t mind storing the fender for a few months, Ascher found a local garage to store the ’29 Chevy, the airline cooperated with very reasonable round-trip tickets from Midway Airport in Chicago, and the trip began to take shape. We would drive to Chesterton, rest a day or so, go up to St. Joseph and get the fender, visit Muskegon, come back to Chesterton and store the car there and fly home. In the fall we would again go back to Chesterton and then drive somewhere else, leave the car there, and eventually bring the car come, sometime next year.
How would we bring back the fender? There’s no room to put it inside or on the running board. But if we could find a fender which was nearly unrestorable but intact, we could put it on “Bomber,“ drive to Michigan, exchange it for the new fender, leave it with Harry and bring the new fender back, on the car. I phoned Carmine Palazzo and he had just the fender for us. It had a few cracks, a large hole where the headlight bar mounted, and several large dents. But we pounded out the dents, Mike welded a patch where the hole was and he also welded up several cracks. He painted it a dull black and voilà - it looked presentable - at a distance, of course.
Years ago we began making parts that were impossible to find for our cars. First the trunions for the front brakes of 1928-1929 Chevys. Then rocker arm shaft and bushing sets. Other engine and chassis parts followed, including gear-type oil pumps. Each time a new part was introduced, we tested it first. Last year we drove a couple of thousand miles, including two crossings of the Sierras, to check out our new 1925-1929 rear axles made of aircraft steel. Early on, we began marketing our parts under “The Original Billy Possum Brand.” Today there are more than 35 different parts which we have produced, most of them represented on the 1929. This trip would be a continuing test of all of the parts we have made and installed on “Bomber.”
Mike and I are usually accompanied by my wife but on this trip we decided to take one of my grandsons as well. Wilson is the oldest at 15 so he was offered the chance. He didn’t waste time deciding to go.
The trip was to begin on June 2nd. We were to arrive in Chesterton on June 11th, and after our planned trips to Michigan, we would return on Monday, June 16th. As it happened, Mike had a constraint and had to fly home on Wednesday, June 11th, so we planned to drop him off at Midway Airport a couple of hours before we arrived in Chesterton.
With everything ready and packed on the running board and in front of the back seat, we began our great adventure. With Wilson and my wife in the back seat and Mike riding shotgun, we left Pacific Palisades at 5:30am. It was Monday, June 2nd.
The first event of our trip occurred two blocks from our house. A pack of half a dozen Coyotes crossed the road ahead of us and ran across the Reikeberg’s front lawn. They looked very hungry.
Dawn began to break as we headed south along the Coast Highway, through the McClure tunnel and onto the very beginning of Interstate 10, heading east. Passing just south of Downtown Los Angeles, we continued through east LA and out past the many cities which lie east of the Metropolis. Then up the Pomona hill and then down again. By 6:30 the 18-wheelers, “Bruisers” as we call them were out in force. When big trucks pass us the noise is pretty loud. As we came down the Pomona hill, the truck noise was terrific. But the noise didn’t stop when the trucks passed!
When you burn out a rod bearing you recognize the noise right away. It is not a nice sound. And that was exactly what I was hearing. Just as soon as it was evident that we had a major problem, the engine was shut down and we coasted onto the little wedge of land where the freeway split at the interchange. I can still hear Mike’s first comment: “This trip is over!”
An hour into our trip
We didn’t have much time to think things over when one of the Metro Freeway Patrol tow trucks pulled up behind us. “Need help?” These freeway Good Samaritans are provided by Caltrans in conjunction with the Highway Patrol and there is no charge for their services. He towed us off of the freeway to a nearby parking lot used as overflow for the Pomona Fair Grounds. It also was a park-and-ride lot with a Metro Bus stop. About a block and a half away was a Denny’s Restaurant. We decided to have breakfast and collect our thoughts. Our immediate problem was to get home, about 45 miles away, and somehow get “Bomber” there as well.
Towed off the Freeway in Pomona
After breakfast we walked back to the car, gathered up a couple of things, put the luggage inside the car, locked it, and waited for the Metro Bus. About an hour later we were in Downtown LA. Then the Sunset Boulevard bus took us to within a couple of blocks of home - but it took several hours because it was a local, stopping at just about every street for more than 15 miles. We got off the bus at 5 minutes to noon.
Beginning the tow home
We had lunch, loaded the towbar and towing lights, along with the hitch, into the station wagon and drove to Pomona. Towing “Bomber” back home took about an hour. After dinner we dropped the pan and took off all of the rod caps. Number 4 rod had sprayed babbitt everywhere inside the engine. There was babbitt stuck to the cam shaft and the pan was full of it. Fortunately there was just enough babbitt left on the rod, in spots only, to save the crank - no scoring there.
Connecting rod bearings #4 without Babbitt (fourth from left)
Rod bearing #4 in the engine pan
We decided not to work late because we were already short on rest. So by 10pm we retired - at home - not where we thought we would be that night!
About 8am we began in earnest. We decided all of the rods would have to be changed. It wasn’t the first time we have had a problem with this set of babbitted bearings. Once before I burned out a rod bearing. And a center main also blitzed once. So we were not very confident with these bearings.
Head off, pistons removed
New connecting rods being installed
Mike adjusting the new rod bearings
Although we had a number of standard-size rods on the shelf, we also had 5 McQuay Norris brand rods at .020 under, along with 3 unused rods at .020 under from the same bearing source as the problem bearings. We selected what we thought was the best of the 3 and began fitting it along with the 5 McQuay Norris rods to the crank. We pulled off the cylinder head, popped out the pistons and old rods, and while Mike fitted the new connecting rods, I removed the old rings and began fitting new rings to the pistons. Oh yes, we just happened to have a new set of .040 over rings handy. I think it was a little after midnight when we fired up the engine and went for a drive to warm up the engine. Then a re-torque of the head bolts and readjustment of the valves finished off the “day’s” work. It was 2am when we went to bed.
Up by 5am, we again prepared to leave home. It was now Wednesday. The car pulled away - with a little less ceremony - about 6:30. An hour or so later, as we passed the Pomona Interchange a little “Yea” was heard.
Fuel pump problem on the California desert
In Victorville my wife and Wilson were pleased to see several packages leave their laps as we dropped off a couple of orders of “Billy Possum” parts at the local UPS. And then across the desert in earnest. But a few hours later the engine started to run rough and then quit. We were on a stretch of road with construction. Traffic in both directions was funneled onto one side of the road in a single lane in each direction. So we pulled off the road between the cones and started to figure out what was wrong. Mike insisted we get farther off the road. Later a road grader passed us and Mike’s concerns were confirmed. Soon a large highway sprinkler truck stopped to offer us water but we thanked the driver and sent him on his way. Mike said he thought it was the fuel pump so we put our spare one on - the one with the new “Billy Possum” diaphram in it. The engine started right up and off we went. Next stop: Hoover Dam.
We arrived at the Dam about 4:30 in the afternoon, too late for the last tour so we just drove around to the various observation points and then headed back to Las Vegas. It was dusk as we drove through what has become about the fastest growing city in America. Don’t ask me why. We already had enough dry desert. Oh yes, the temperature that day was 106 degrees, I believe.
The California desert was hot!
Our plan was not to drive at night but we made an exception this “first” day on the road. Fortunately, north of Las Vegas the traffic on a Wednesday was very sparse and we arrived in St. George, Utah, before midnight. The odometer told us we had just driven 504 miles since we left home that morning.
Needless to say, we were not eager to rise early this morning. We had breakfast and decided to change oil before leaving St. George. There was still some finely dispursed particles of babbitt to get out of the engine. With the new oil in the engine we prepared to leave. NO oil pressure! Could there be enough junk in the pan to plug up the oil pump screen? One way to find out. Under the car, we drained the oil, dropped the pan and checked the pump screen. There was a couple of strands of babbitt but not enough to plug up the entire screen. So, off came the screen, the can, and the bottom cover to the pump. The gears were perfect - hardly noticeable brightness where the teeth meshed. The shaft showed essentially no wear, the drive gear was secured to the shaft, the woodruff key was not sheared - in short there was absolutely nothing wrong with the pump. The engine would run. That proved the cam and distributor gears were not the problem. So we put everything back together, again put new oil in the engine, and it started and the oil pressure came up to where it should be.
We had phoned my daughter Karen and asked her to be prepared to express us, overnight, a new oil pump. She had just enough time before picking up her kids at school to go to our stockroom and pull out a replacement “Billy Possum” pump. Fortunately she didn’t have to send it to us.
By the time we had the oil pressure problem under control it was too late to leave St. George so we stayed again in the same motel as the night before. Wilson beat the heat by swimming in the motel pool.
So far we had been on this trip 4 days with only one day of driving. Wilson, my wife and I were on a bit of a flexible schedule but Mike had a ticket to fly home from Midway Airport in Chicago on Wednesday afternoon. Hmmmm.
Our total mileage for the day was 9 miles and we would start the next day from the same place as we had started this day.
The drive from St. George was uneventful and I think we were all ready for an uneventful few miles. Heading north-east, we connected with Interstate 70 and began to drive east in earnest. By dinner time we had arrived in Grand Junction, Colorado. We got a motel and had dinner. I promptly fell asleep but Jeanette and Mike sat by the pool and Wilson swam. I should say that Wilson surfs and takes to the water naturally. His father, born and raised on Oahu, surfed Waimea as well as being on the water polo team at Long Beach State.
Heading east in Utah
The day’s drive had been relatively easy, and I was surprised that we had covered 429 miles.
We began our Saturday drive about daybreak and again traveled on Interstate 70. At first the grade seemed mild but as we began to climb the Rocky Mountains, some of the grades were steep enough that we had to use second gear. When we reached Vail summit we thought we were done climbing. The elevation was 10,603 ft above sea level. Down we came but about 5 or 10 miles later we leveled out and then began climbing again. This time we really climbed and climbed. Second gear, then some low gear and finally we reached a summit - 11,156 ft.! I don’t remember being this high in any car before. “Bomber” was suffering from oxygen deprivation. Upon reaching the summit we started down, immediately entering the Eisenhower Memorial tunnel - about a mile of tunnel through solid mountain.
The lesser of the two summits in Utah
Earlier, in the week, all lanes but one had been closed on a section of Interstate 70, due to a flash flood which washed away part of the roadway. By the time we reached the spot, all of the lanes were open but we could see the repair crews busy finishing their work.
A short time later we stopped at Georgetown, Colorado. It is a quaint 19th century village with a very famous railroad, the Georgetown Loop, where the train actually climbs so steeply that it circles around and crosses over its own track.
Down from the Rocky Mountain summits at Georgetown
Wilson at Georgetown. Now you know why we take these trips!
We would like to have stayed in Georgetown for a while but we needed to keep going east. Soon we came down from the mountains and entered another exciting phase of the trip. Actually a little too exciting - Denver traffic. Some of these drivers must have trained on Los Angeles Freeways. We had been going a bit over 50 miles per hour when the rod bearing gave up. We than decided that 45 mph was going to be our limit. And that wasn’t really a problem most of the time, driving in the right lanes. The truckers are usually quiet courteous. If they honk, they honk after they have passed us. It’s a way of saying hello without being mistaken for being pushy. Unfortunately many of the automobile drivers don’t understand this and they just honk any old time. Sometimes it is a bit startling or simply a nausance. But on a few occasions, where a freeway junction splits into several directions, we are required to move into the left lanes. During heavier traffic times this can be down right thrilling!
We wanted to see Olivar, one of our customers in north-east Colorado. It was Saturday and we wouldn’t be to his place until the end of the day - at the earliest. So we phoned ahead and he said he would be in his shop until midnight. So we arrived in his town, had dinner, and then went to his place. He arrived back from dinner and we had a fine time talking old cars and such, as well as being shown around his shop and all. We didn’t get to bed until late - again.
Perhaps one of the highlights of the trip for Wilson was when he came across a unicycle among the car parts. Olivar generously told Wilson that he had no use for it and gave it to Wilson. For the rest of the trip our luggage on the running board included a unicycle. If we didn’t look like the Beverly Hill Billies before, we sure resembled them now.
On this Saturday we had moved another 413 miles closer to our destination.
We didn’t rise very early Sunday morning. And with a stop at Olivar’s before we left town, we only got on the road well after noon. Sort of a Sunday drive. So we only covered 209 miles and stopped in Holdrege, Nebraska.
Since we got up too late to visit a local church, we found a great “all you can eat” steak house and had our own Sunday “church” there.
We were again saved from an unfortunate accident that night. The frame on my wife’s glasses had broken so she was using her prescription sun glasses at night. She tripped on a curb and fell but her face hit the bag she was carrying and she only scraped her knees. Later her ankle swelled up but it wasn’t broken and she didn’t have a lot of pain.
It was too late to again change the oil so we decided we would do it the next day.
We left Holdrege and drove east to Hastings where we got gas. But something wasn’t right about the brakes. The pedal wasn’t returning properly and one of the rear drums was warm. We found a tire dealer in Hastings who allowed us to use his hoist. It didn’t match up with the car frame so we lifted the front of the car with the hoist and the rear with a jack. We pulled off the rear wheels and checked the brakes. We didn’t find any problem but decided to change the oil there. When we started the engine - no oil pressure! We allowed the engine to run at an idle for a moment or two and then the oil pressure came right up to normal. We concluded that the “problem” in St. George wasn’t really a problem at all. I should say that with this pump we run about 4 to 5 psi at an idle and about 15 psi on the freeway (all measured at operating temperatures). This pump simply takes a bit longer to prime than we expected, right after an oil change.
A garage in Hastings, Nebraska
Brake cross rod repair
While Mike and Bill fixed the brakes, Wilson found a friend
We left the tire company garage and immediately experienced the brake problem. So, around the block we found a restaurant, had breakfast, and then proceeded to work on the brake operators. We found the rear cross shaft (the 1929 Chevy has two cross shafts, the 1930 car has only one) was binding in its mounting bushings. With some WD40 we freed the shaft and then lubricated it with oil. The car was back to normal but we were covered with grease from being on the ground in the street under the car. The restaurant we had eaten breakfast in was serving lunch by the time we finished but they were very kind to let us use their facilities to clean up a bit. Then off we went, again heading east.
One more portion of excitement awaited us as we drove through Omaha. The drivers there seemed to be LA trained as well and we were very glad to get through the traffic and enter Iowa. That night we stopped in Walnut, Iowa, after covering 280 more miles. Considering the time we spent on the ground under the car, our mileage didn’t seem all that bad.
The first real rain of the trip occurred during the night in Walnut. We later found out that it had hailed near Lincoln, which we had passed that day - with hail stones larger than an inch in diameter. We didn’t want to think what “Bomber” would look like after being in a hail storm like that.
We got an early start Tuesday morning. Driving through the Mid-west has always been enjoyable for me. Some think it is flat and boring but I like the green and the gently rolling country that really isn’t all that flat.
The Mississippi River surprised me. I thought it would be fairly small where we crossed into Illinois, at Davenport. But it is a great river even that far north. Wilson was our Staff Photographer, and he wasn’t able to get a picture of the river and “Welcome to Illinois” sign so we turned around, re-crossed the river, turned around again, and gave Wilson the chance to photograph both the river and the sign.
We stopped 5 miles west of Peru, Illinois, took a motel, drove into Peru and had dinner. As we left, it started to rain, quiet heavily. We drove under a bank drive-thru roof and waited. Time to read the Proverb for the day. Wilson said he prayed the rain would stop. The rain stopped as Jeanette finished the Proverb and we drove back to our motel.
We noticed a field next to our motel. Newly planted corn was just a couple of inches above the ground. The next morning, when we left we couldn’t believe it - the corn was several inches taller.
We had traveled 389 miles on Tuesday, putting us just about 100 miles west of Chicago. Mike’s flight was for about 5pm the next day.
We got a fairly early start Wednesday morning. Illinois is flat, flatter than the other Mid-western states we had come through. But the country is really beautiful and we had picked a good time of the year to travel. All went well as we entered the greater Chicago area, even though the traffic was approaching the density of Los Angeles congestion. We arrived between the morning and evening rush times and that helped.
Midway Airport is very small, as airports go, but it’s hard to miss. The jets take off at an incredibly steep angle. We found what looked like a place to park across from the airport, behind some limousines where we considered another oil change. As was so often the case, someone pulled up beside us and commented on how interesting it was to see an old Chevy on the road.
We realized the space we were in was reserved for limousines so we just entered the airport, parked and went in to the Concourse. In addition to Mike’s one bag of luggage, we decided to try to check in the two large boxes of parts we had found along the trip. There was no trouble at the counter checking in but the bag and boxes were then sent to the X-ray machine. Both boxes were selected for opening and examination. You can’t help the inspectors, but you can talk to them. When one began going through piston rings I mentioned that the original wrappings were almost as important as the contents. The examiner took the hint and very carefully checked the boxes’ contents. All was deemed safe to load and they were resealed and loaded on the conveyer.
We said goodbye to Mike and left for Chesterton. The traffic was still “hairy” but before long we entered Indiana and it diminished. We had dinner along the way and arrived at our friends’ house in the early evening, remarkably intact for such a drive.
“Bomber” didn’t even move on Thursday. And we hardly did either. It was great to be “home” for a day. Ascher and Elaine’s hospitality was extraordinary. Not only did we feel at home, we began taking notes - this is the way to make guests feel at home!
Wilson, Bill, Elaine, Jeanette and Ascher in Chesterton
Taking our tools but none of the luggage, we began our final part of the trip - to get the fender we had bought on Ebay. Ascher and Wilson went with me. We left mid-morning and proceeded toward St. Joseph, Michigan. When we arrived, Harry greeted us and showed me the fender. It was exactly as he described. The absence of three small holes, two of which were for the rear hood latch, proved that the fender had never been on a car!
The headlight bar was removed, the front bumper and splash apron with crank hole cover were taken off and the fender unbolted. The new bolts we had used to put on the soon-to-be-discarded fender made the job easy. The new fender fit perfectly. All of the bolts were first installed loose to properly position the new fender. Then we tightened all of them and, using the tab under the fender below the rear hood latch, we drilled the mounting holes and finished putting the car back together. We thanked Harry, said “Goodbye” and returned to Chesterton. But first we drove through St. Joseph to Benton Harbor to see the lighthouse there. Less than a week later Benton Harbor was in the national news with racial riots and much property destruction.
As we turned off the freeway at Chesterton it began to rain. But within minutes “Bomber” was safely tucked away in the garage and our grand adventure was about over.
Wilson, my wife and I then drove back to Michigan, to Lansing, to see our son-in-law’s mother. Ascher very generously loaned us his car. I have to admit I was a bit tired of driving “Bomber.”
Michigan is so beautiful that I wondered why my father and mother moved to California shortly after I was born. Frankly, I think Michigan is so much prettier than most of Southern California. I was reminded that Michigan weather isn’t always so nice.
We made the decision not to go to Muskegon on this leg of the trip. I wanted to spend a couple of days there and we were just too tired. We would be returning in September. We would go there then.
We returned to Chesterton on Saturday, leasurly driving from Lansing back to Indiana in Ascher‘s car.
Sunday was a relaxful day with Ascher, Elaine and their daughter Aimee and husband Steve and family.
On Monday, Day Fifteen of our Saga, we drove “Bomber” to the garage where it was to be stored. Ascher had advertised in the paper for a place to store an old car and he found an excellent garage just a couple of miles from his home.
With “Bomber” safely stored, Ascher drove us to Midway Airport. We said “Goodbye” and then proceeded to cover the same country in about 4 hours that we had taken ten days to drive across. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: As much as I enjoy flying, the drive was best. You ought to try it.
About two weeks after we returned home, early on a Saturday morning I picked up Mike, and then Wilson and Baxter, Wilson’s brother and we went to “the Donut Shop.” It’s a place in Fountain Valley, about 40 miles south of home, where the “Donut Derelicts” hang out. Each Saturday morning several hundred serious hot rodders meet to show and tell. We were looking at a stock 1931 Chevy when a fellow asked if we were avid Chevy guys. Then he proceeded to tell us that he was at Chicago’s Midway Airport recently when he saw a 1929 Chevy. He commented that all of the luggage was tied on the outside of the car. Then he said he thought it was on the 12th of June. We corrected him. “It was on the 11th,” we said. And it was us he saw. How’s that for a small world!