The Continental Pt. 4: Auto Mechanics 101
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
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On a sunny Saturday morning in June, Niklas and I packed up the Continental’s ample trunk space full and tight, and left Manhattan for our summer road trip. My knowledge of automotive mechanics increased exponentially soon after.
The first lesson occurred no more than two hours out of the city, when I learned about a multitude of possible scenarios that might cause overheating. I became familiar with radiators, expansion tanks, and coolant, which our car was spewing out at frequent intervals. I didn’t know that a radiator, like a toilet, could be flushed. Not long after, I began to grasp the inner workings of a non-working AC unit as I saw a dying compressor firsthand. I learned about leakage, pressurization, hose clamps, and fluid levels.
Further down the road, I was made aware of the complexity of general trouble-shooting for a thirty-year-old vehicle. I became versed in the process and expense of installing a new compressor and upgrading our Freon-based R-12 to the current R134A standards.
A few days later, I discovered what it feels like to die on the highway at rush hour. I observed how a car is loaded up, chained, and towed. I learned about loose parts sitting on the engine and hoses leading to nowhere—hoses that perhaps the previous AC mechanics didn’t remember to tighten. I was advised of the many different theoretical situations that can cause a car to die on the highway. I was also briefed on brake discs and master cylinders. I learned that, like a flower, brakes have pistons and that our old hole might be too large for our rebuilt piston.
Six different auto shops taught Niklas and me these things in six days. Poor old girl. During the first week her hood was open more than it was closed, a giant gaping mouth crying out for help.
We got an early start that morning and beat the traffic through the Holland Tunnel, watching the city grow smaller in our rearview mirror.
With the windows open and the wind in my hair, all of the previous month’s everyday stresses began to fly out the sunroof one by one with each passing mile. Niklas and I had finally reached full throttle…when we smelled something awful. At first we thought it was New Jersey itself, usually reeking of funk and sewage, but this had the pungency of a gas plant exploding on a plastic factory. We opened and closed the windows to figure out where it was coming from. When we changed lanes, it changed lanes. Then a strong smell of burning rubber filled the car and we knew without a shadow of a doubt; it had to be us.
We took the next exit and popped the hood at the first gas station. Water was boiling in and spilling out of the expansion tank; the stench stronger than ever. The gas station had a small auto shop, mainly for oil changes, but the friendly mechanic on duty cautiously checked the level in the radiator, added some water, and recommended we get it flushed as soon as possible.
This led to a series of Pep Boys visits on our way down the East Coast. Pep Boys Number One, near Trenton, New Jersey, asked why we would assume the radiator needed to be flushed and said it could be anything, and that besides, he didn’t have the right sized cap for a ’79 Lincoln.
Pep Boys Number Two, just north of Washington, D.C., said they could flush the system, but felt we had bigger issues. Dyeing the coolant, they checked for leaks. They found none, but did find some residue near the radiator that indicated it had probably leaked in the past and had been patched with a sealant, which, if flushed, could be washed out along with the possible blockage, leading to more serious problems. They also discovered that the AC compressor wasn’t working properly and the brakes were leaky—well, we had discovered both points upon leaving New York, with our sweaty backs stuck to the seats, nearly suffocating while breathing in gusts of hot air, pumping the brakes to the floor at intersections.
They suggested we not drive another mile until the overheating and air conditioner were sorted out, informing us cheerfully that they could do the whole job in three to five days.
Three to five days in D.C.? We were supposed to be in the Keys by the end of the week! Somehow within only a few hours, we had gotten very much off course. The Pep Boys people seemed obsessed with the AC. We explained that we weren’t concerned about that luxury at the moment; we needed to fix the radiator problem and head South. After much internal discussion and motor analysis, they suggested cutting the belt attached to the compressor as it might be slowing down the water pump, causing the car to overheat. In the end, it took three men five hours to cut one belt.
They were confident in their solution and wished us luck as we pulled out. Hoping for the best, we pushed on down the highway until midnight and chose a dumpy motel, where we celebrated with a six-pack.
En route the following morning, we realized we were still leaving a trail of coolant behind like breadcrumbs. We were told that coolant smells like maple syrup and therefore attracts animals, who drink it and then die. We smelled burning syrup several times, and thought about all the animals that would die in our wake.
At Pep Boys Number Three, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the mechanic pressurized the tank, tightened a loose clamp on a hose, and sent us on our way. Said he ran it for a half an hour and she was good as gold. “Hell of a car,” he said. “Hell of an engine.”
Therefore, we were confused as to why she was still leaking all along I-95, and we were surprised hours later when we died on the exit ramp as we slowed to pull into our motel. When we popped the hood, we were concerned to see that, yet again, fluids were boiling in the radiator and overflowing from the expansion tank. I guess he wasn’t one hell of a mechanic.
Those few days were an emotional roller coaster. The thrill of flying down the highway versus the frustration of running into unresolved mechanical issues would lead us to celebrate any arrival after a long drive with a glass of wine. We’d laugh about the day’s troubles in hindsight, only to wake in the morning to realize the troubles weren’t in hindsight—but in open sight—usually in the form of a green puddle directly below the car.
Yet, we tried to keep each other’s spirits up. Sitting on plastic chairs outside our hotel that night, Niklas reminded me that all problems are solvable. I pointed out that we were still working the kinks out. And we both agreed that all we could do was wake up the following morning and keep driving, pushing forward to the next destination. To just keep on keeping on…
Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Ducts, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.