They get by with a little help... Story of a sitting 928
They get by with a little help…
After months without a day off, you’re relaxing on the couch reading Jonathan Franzen on your second day of leave when your friend calls. At year end, people tend to remember what they’ve been putting off for days, months or even years, and you get roped into helping him start up that old car of his.
Unlike the Beatle’s song, somehow your friends tend to get more help from you than the other way around. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be much of a task, since you’ve known about this car and have been telling your friend to start it up and get rid of it for some time, only it’s sitting in his aunt and uncle’s garage in a small town outside Tarragona and by now it hasn’t been started for nearly five years.
After what seems hours, the doorbell rings at around 10 a.m. You put down the novel you don’t really want to stop reading, and quickly dress for the job in dark clothes, bundling up in your jacket. November and December haven’t been much of a winter so far, but now just before the New Year, it’s getting colder out.
Shutting the door asking yourself how you wind up in these situations, you run downstairs where your friend picks you in the old burgundy SAAB 9-3 beater he uses as a daily runabout. You get in the car reflecting on its run down state, with a myriad of stuff littering the seats and foot wells, and for a moment you think of your own glistening black 900, which you brought back to life from a blown head gasket after slaving over it for months, sitting in your parking space, spotless, and completely functional in all its unassuming glory.
On the way to Tarragona your friend gets up to cruising speed and asks you how come the steering wheel is shaking. He’s a good guy and you love him but it pains you how people like him can spend 200K renovating their flat and then expect any cheap ride like this 9-3 he picked up for next to nothing to drive perfectly without any issues. Granted, you’re not the average driver whenit comes to old cars, and got thrown into learning how to maintain them while living in a Banana Republic, where it was hard to find mechanics you could trust. But at least your expectations are more realistic!
It’s abeautiful December day, and the pale winter sunshine lights up the browns and greens of the gently rolling countryside south of Barcelona under a cyan bluesky. The olive trees have been harvested and are bare, the citrus groves still bear yellow and orange fruit, and the almond trees are preparing to frost the landscape later in the winter withtheir pretty white blossoms.
After less than an hour, the destination appears on the horizon. A typical Catalan town on the Mediterranean, it sits below the Mussara foothills that lead up to the Priorat wine country. As you approach the town taking in its Baroque church tower standing tall above the terra cotta patchwork of roofs, you feel a certain sympathy for the place,with its irregular stone houses and winding, narrow streets, although you’ve never been there. These are the towns you missed so much while living overseas, where in most places society’s relationship with the land was less than a century old.
Reaching the town, your friend takes a street so narrow you’d almost hit the buildings if you opened the car door, rolling up and down and around tight corners, until he passes the big church with its looming tower and parks outside a garage door. Inside, is a dusty shed with a crooked wooden back door that leads down to a sunny courtyard, with a pool, a patio and a shady tree brimming with lemons. The old house had been renovated at some point in that rushed Spanish interior style of the 1970s instead of leaving it in its original 17th century state with less invasive updates, as is the style nowadays. But some parts of it are decidedly full of character, like the winding staircase that leads down to the main entrance hall with a hugely tall ceiling lined with timber beams, or the statuesque 19th century mahogany closet that someone had brought back from Cuba.
It’s half past noon already but your friend wants to run some errands, so you go down to the butcher shop together and as you stand idly by while he gets through the chit chat with the lady behind the counter, about how his elderly aunt recently had her leg operated on after a bad fall, or how the butcher’s mother passed away last year, it finally strikes you that he hasn’t been here in ages and that his car is going to be a bear to get started.
Next stopis the bakery, where you buy some ‘coques de recapte,’ those pizza-like pastries made of a flat, thin dough covered with slivered onions, peppers, andthe occasional sausage, to take to his aunt and uncle’s house. Standing in the baker’s shop, you watch the woman pull the freshly baked pastries from the shelf still hot from the oven and fit them in cardboard boxes like the local pizzas you could never find anywhere else but here, and feel warm inside as you realise that away from the city there are still places like this.
The aunt and uncle have been expecting us. Although no matter of yours, it turns out your friend originally told them he was leaving the car in their garage for just a few weeks, but that was nearly five years ago. So, needless to say, they are glad to see us. The aunt, who is probably in her 70s and must have been a local belle in her youth, smiles lovingly at your friend, although rightfully with a hint of impatience as he’s really overstayed his welcome with their garage.
You get through the second round of chit chat, where they exchange each side of the family’s state of affairs, they go over how long the car has been sitting intheir garage, and they settle how much to pay the Moroccan who has spent all morning washing the half inch layer of dust and dirt off the car, and then finally it’s time to get to work and see if you can start it.
The garage is only a few yards down the street. Asthe folding door rises you finally see the offending automobile, and your mind goes into overdrive as the memories of an old friend overseas who had the same model flood your senses. A 928S automatic, like most examples still in circulation it’s not worth anything in its original, worn out state, but is still the car that made every kid in the world want to be Tom Cruise in 1983, when he starred in Risky Business as a teenager who went to town in his father’s then hugely expensive car, and wound up dropping it into Lake Michigan.
Your friend looks at you handing you the keys and you come out of your trance. Time to get on with it. The car’s dark green metallic finish still has swirls from the dust that’s just been washed off, and although you can tell the poor thing has been shoddily repainted here and there, the bodywork is straight and is pretty decent overall. But you can never judge by appearances with a 28 year old car. Especially when for the last 5 it’s been sitting idle, taken for granted, and forgotten.
The car is backed up against the wall on the driver’s side, so you turn the key in the passenger side lock and as you crack open the door and a wisp of dust flies out like you had just opened an Egyptian sarcophagus, you feel sorry for the old car, and for a moment can imagine it hurtling along the Mediterranean back roads of the 1980s with its happy first owner. A time whenyou had such high hopes for yourself. When you thought you would always live passionately, finding inspiration in every experience, in every moment. Sharing your feelings unabashedly. A time when you felt alive…
...From their friend
Pulling the car's elongated door open, you think for a moment how much heavier it would feel if it wasn’t made of aluminum, and rest your knee on the dusty passenger seat as you lean over to put the key in the ignition and see if it will turn at all. But it won’t.
Your friend looks at you, intent to see if he can help and you shout from inside the soundproof cabin, “Jumper cables. We’re going to need jumper cables, remember? But there’s another problem…” you add. “The darned key won’t turn in the ignition. Do you have any oil?”
He gives you a surprised look and remarks, “Oil? What for?”
“The ignition’s stuck,” you shout back. “I almost broke the key.”
“Really?” he replies with a puzzled look. “Well, those are the only keys I have.”
As you try to figure out why the key isn’t turning you realize the magnitude of the task ahead. Aside from getting the thing started, the front and rear tires on the left side are out of air and completely flat. You release the parking brake, put the gear lever in neutral and try pushing the car forward but it won’t budge. Granted, it ‘only’ weighs three thousand pounds but would at least roll if only the tires were full.
“We’re going to need an air pump for the tires too,” you say to your friend, pushing the door open. Ordinarily, you would have brought your own tools along yourself but it’s your second day of leave and you weren’t planning ondoing any of this.
So you both jump in the 9-3 and run out to find a hardware store. There’s a shop where the main road enters the town that looks like it might have multi-purpose oil. In the car, your friend asks to borrow some money and you hand him a bill from your wallet while beginning to feel like Mother Teresa. Time, help, money,-anything else?! He disappears into the store and after a few moments, emerges holding a can of 3-in-One in the air triumphantly, saying, “We’re in luck!”
Ok, you think to yourself. So we have the oil, now let’s see if that will make the key turn in the ignition. It’s going on 2 p.m. and there’s no telling whether the car will be even drivable once you manage to get it to start.
Back at the garage, it turns out the 3-in-One can came without the straw that is critical to getting the oil into the ignition lock, so your friend leaves again to go back to the store and find the straw, and the jumper cables, and a pump of sorts to put air in the tires. After what seems avery long time while he’s gone, you figure out that the reason the key won’t turn is because the steering shaft is locked in place and with some tugging to and fro on the wheel you finally get the ignition to unlock so the key will turn. And it does.
Now for some juice. The battery in the 928 is at the back of the car, so you clamber out of the cabin and raise the sagging rear hatch lid just enough to lift the carpeting and find it disconnected, as your friend had told you it would be: a huge, 100 Amp Bosch unit suitable to power a midsized truck. Once reconnected, you go back into the cabin and turn the key finding there’s just enough power left for the instrument panel to light up. Maybe you will get this thing started after all.
Meanwhile, an Arab-looking man shows up at the garage holding a pair of jumper cables. He can barely speak Spanish but you realize he’s the same fellow who cleaned the car in the morning and, accepting the cables, you open the engine hood while he stands by staring awestruck at the behemoth 4.7 liter V8 engine. Your friend arrives in the 9-3 and with the Moroccan’s help, you proceed to connect the cables to the battery in the running car and attempt to jump start the 928 while your friend revs the engine in the 9-3.
Turning the key in the ignition of the dormant car it makes a rumbling sound and nearly starts but the engine quickly stalls. You attempt this again and again, until it dawns on you that the oil level light flashing in the instrument panel otherwise known as the ‘idiot light’ may becoming on for a reason. Pulling the dipstick, it turns out the engine is completely dry of oil and you certainly feel like an idiot!
“We’re goingto need some motor oil, too,” you say to your friend, and notice him shift his weight uneasily from one leg to the other at the prospect of spending more money on a car he’s getting rid of. You both jump in the 9-3 again and drive down to the nearest gas station on the main road. Living on cash from his apartment rentals, your friend doesn’t use his bank account for withdrawals so he asks you for money again, saying he’ll pay you back tomorrow. As you hand him the last bill in your wallet you can hear the Beatles’ song ringing in the back of your mind as you make a note to yourself to stop worrying about bothering your friends and to get used to asking for their help more often yourself.
In the garage, the car swallows half a 5 liter jug of 20W50 motor oil and you silently hope you haven’t caused internal damage from starting an oil starved engine. Rigging up the jumper cables with the running9-3 again, you attempt to start the 928 and it fires up but dies down and stalls again. The scenario repeats itself several times until you start questioning whether there’s enough fuel inthe tank, and feel déjà vu as you say to your friend, “We’re going to need fuel. This thing sounds like it’s dry as a bone.” Smiling ironically before he can ask again, you add, “Let’s stop by a cash machine first.”
After buying fuel and getting it into the tank with a funnel, the smell of gasoline jolts your senses and you realize it’s nearly 5 p.m. and you haven’t eaten anything. The spare boxed ‘coca’ in the back seat of the 9-3 looks very appetizing and you stop to enjoy it chatting about life with your friend while you fumble with your phone texting back and forth to your old college classmate overseas who once had the same car and is touched to hearabout your story with another 928 S.
Only the story hasn’t finished yet, and after the break you get back to attempting to start the car with fuel in it. This time, the engine catches and roars to life for the first time after nearly five years, managing to hold a lumpy idle. Although the car isn’t much to look at in its dusty, forlorn state, the V8 rumble sounds truly magnificent in all its 300-plus horsepower glory.
But then, as usually happens with neglected 28-year old automobiles, the unpredictable mishap that you were dreading occurs. The idle slowly develops a knocking sound that clearly is coming from the engine and your friend yells, “Hey! It’s leaking underneath!”
Getting down on your knees, you look below the undercarriage and sure enough, a huge pool is rapidly forming of a fluid reminiscent of a thick, chocolate shake. What a mess, you think to yourself. No wonder the oil level was low. That’s got to be oil mixed with coolant!
Basically, what’s happened is that from letting the car sit still for such a long time, the seals in the oil cooler –which on the 928 is located inside the actual engine radiator– have blown, so the two fluids, oil and coolant, have begun to mix and leak through the worn seals creating a fast growing puddle of a gooey, oily, sticky mixture that resembles what you would expect from a very sick elephant with indigestion, only it probably doesn’t smell as bad.
Now what!? You think to yourself. The knocking sound is obviously from lack of lubrication in the engine, since the oil is literally pouring out of the radiator mixed with coolant and starving the cylinders from lubricant. “We’re not going to be able to drive it,” you say to your friend after turning the engine off. “Better start calling a tow truck.”
Staring in disbelief, your friend starts looking up at the ceiling saying, “This is just what we needed!” And you feel sorry for him, but still think that it’s his own fault for not having done this sooner. It’s just plain wrong to let these old cars sit for such a long time, and after all, you had been offering to help him do this for at least 2 years!
The towtruck is on the way but you’re still going to have to put air in the tires in order to at least get the car to roll. The fun part is going to be getting the wheels off the car to take them to a shop with a compressor, because the cheap ‘Made in PRC’ air pump your friend brought back is certainly not up to the task.
“Let’s get the spare wheel out,” you say to him. “We’re going to have to replace the front wheel because the tire’s badly cracked. The rear one looks ok.”
It’s already 7 or 8 p.m. and for the next hour or so, you somehow manage to raise the front and rear axles using the undersized aluminum emergency jack from the car's tool kit, standing on one leg with the other up in the air for balance, and extract the left side wheels within the less than 2 feet of space between the car and the wall, not looking forward at all to how badly your buttocks and thighs are going to ache tomorrow from all the gymnastics.
With the tires finally full, the tow truck shows up and you get behind the wheel of the hitherto dormant 928 to drive it onto the flatbed. It starts and lurches forward with growling acceleration, apparently drivable, but the engine knock reminds you that the only way it should be moving is on the back of that tow truck. Once on the flatbed and strapped down, you and your friend spend the next forty five minutes sweeping up the puddle of brown goo and scrubbing the garage floor with degreaser.
“You’d better promise me you’ll dispose of this waste properly or I’ll never help you again!” you say to him, and he promises.
Later that evening, after leading the tow truck to drop off the car at a repair shop and driving back to Barcelona, it’s somewhere around midnight and you’re both sitting at the bar of the Sagardi restaurant on Aragon and Muntaner street, having a late dinner. Your thighs are beginning to hurt and you think of your first New Year’s resolution: To start asking for help from your friends more often yourself.