Driving a Firebird to Phoenix (without insurance)

We didn't even think of the symbolism when we chose a Pontiac Firebird as our mode of transport for a month-long road trip from Seattle to Phoenix. All we thought was that we should have something very American - very big, or very fast, or very visible, and ideally all three. So when we found a bright red, T-top Firebird for $500 we leapt at it, brushing aside the fact that the driver's seat wasn't attached to the rest of the car, the turn indicators didn't work, and there was no key to open the trunk. It also had interesting swirly gouges down both sides of the body, as though at some time in its no-doubt interesting life it had been squashed between a pair of big trucks at speed. But the white go-faster stripe was still visible, making up for the fact that it only had the "small-block" 5-litre engine. My old friend Derek and I had already checked to see if an out-of-state licence was a problem for getting insurance, and it was, but that could be solved by the very accomodating agent who in true American can-do style said that we could pretend to be living with her and thus put her address on the papers.

So we bought the car, stuffed our backpacks behind the drivers seat, filled it up with petrol, and parked it outside our YMCA, at the top of big, steep downtown parking lot. Only then did we notice that there was a hole in the top of the exhaust silencer immediately under the fuel tank, and that the escaping heat had made the petrol expand so much that it was now running out of the filler, down on to the hot exhaust, and away under the neighbouring cars. Only then did the symbolism hit me, along with of visions of newspaper headlines like "Terrorist Macintosh users try to raze Seattle". Followed perhaps by "Mostly successful". But amazingly the fuel didn't ignite, so my rapidly conceived plans for hiking over the border to Canada wearing a false beard weren't needed. Instead we downed some beers and decided that we would at least get the exhaust fixed before moving on.

We put the car into Midas Mufflers the next morning and were surprised at how long they took to swap the back box. When we checked out their work we found putty plastered all over the place, and it looked like they'd fluffed the join and tried to fix it up rather badly. But we only needed it to hold for a few weeks, so we said nothing and drove away. Finally we hit the freeway and cruised down the beautiful Pacific coast to Lincoln City Oregan, kite town USA. Despite being an energy-crisis era car, it still guzzled gas, so we had to fill up with petrol again. Derek wanted some nibbles, so while he was in the kiosk I checked out the car after its first long run. Imagine my surprise, horror, and disbelief when I looked under the car and saw a jet of fuel spurting out of the tank directly on to the new exhaust that had just travelled 200 miles at rather high speed. I could even hear it hissing, and we were parked in a gas station with several thousand gallons more petrol below us. Even if our car was destined to rise again after the inevitable inferno, we weren't, so I ran into the kiosk to tell Derek and the owner that they might like to take a stroll with me to the end of the street. Quite soon. Or words to that effect. The owner considered this, and suggested that I move the car. Quite soon. So I offered him the keys, but quite soon we were all standing across the street considering new newspaper headlines, and piecing together what had happened, which was most likely that the Midas guys had slipped with a screwdriver and stuck it through the fuel tank, which they then tried to repair with a putty that didn't tolerate heat. But amazingly the Firebird again refused to ignite, apparently determined to meet its destiny in Phoenix.

Big Red continued to entertain us throughout our trip, insisting on having us strip down the distributor on icy mornings, losing her brakes at the Grand Canyon (where else ?), and best of all losing her fuel pump at 70mph in the fast lane of I17. But there was no great conflagration in Phoenix, just a cheque from Midas Mufflers to pay for the new fuel tank, and one from the insurance company returning our premium because the clerk had forgotten to use her address, and so the policy was cancelled on a technicality. So we weren't even insured during our serial arson spree. We sold the car for $1000, and having slept in a tent and lived mostly on rice and raisins, the holiday pretty much paid for itself.

But Big Red had one last surprise up her sleeve. Early the next morning we got a call from her new owner saying that half way home to Tucson all her electrical systems had mysteriously failed, and did we have any advice for him. We didn't, but sent him back $100 to cover his towing fees.
So in the end she decided to go out not with a bang but a wimper. Thank you Big Red.

© Mark Harris 2006

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