By Jon Reed
Kenny’s father left Thursday afternoon for a three-day weekend business trip to Chicago, and Kenny said we could change his family’s car into a hot rod for the weekend. He had somehow found a more-powerful, triple-barrel carburetor and racing manifold to install, so we could go street-racing and no one would ever be the wiser. Asking whether he had checked with his parents on this scheme only drew a blank stare. We would change the parts, tune the engine, and put it back like it was before his father returned.
Unfortunately, Kenny knew less about cars than Denny and I, who were supposed to help, but he talked a good game. So, on a cold fall day, we were in his garage Friday night taking the Mercury engine apart, thinking it would only take a few hours, leaving time to still attend a Friday night dance. This was Kenny’s chance to show he knew something about engines, but first removing the hood, followed by the existing air cleaner, carburetor, fuel line, and intake manifold was only the beginning. Installing the new manifold, specialized gaskets, and assembling three two-barrel carburetors and linkage was far more difficult.
Bending and installing new fuel lines so there were no leaks, and adjusting everything to work properly, was a major task for a skilled mechanic much less three neophytes. By 11:30 pm that night, a lot of previously good engine parts lay scattered on the garage floor and we were far from success. A partially-assembled, inoperable triple-barrel carburetor and manifold sat beside a non-functional progressive throttle linkage, all lying on a piece of cardboard, staring up at us. Thoughts of showing off Kenny’s hot-rod Mercury at the Friday dance had been abandoned hours before.
Tired and colder still, we agreed to meet first thing Saturday morning without raising suspicions. Three of us worked all day trying to assemble the new system with fumbling, freezing fingers. Tools didn’t work, parts didn’t fit, tubing connections leaked, linkages were binding, gaskets didn’t seal, and gasket cement was all over the place as we attempted to finish.
Late that night, still under the glare of the garage’s single 60 watt bulb, we had it all together. We were all surprised the engine just wasn’t running right, back-firing and trembling, but we had no idea what to do about it. It had all seemed so simple the day before. Kenny was becoming desperate, and decided a test run was a good idea. Looking back, I’m surprised the engine didn’t explode in a ball of flames, but Kenny said he knew someone in Allen Park who could adjust carburetors. Of course, the test-run would occur without reinstalling the hood, which made sense since we would probably damage another fender in the process. Besides, with the hood off, at least the Mercury looked like a hot rod.
Once the engine started, it surged and misfired all the way south on Schaefer Avenue, raw gasoline spraying back on the windshield so that Kenny had to turn on the windshield wipers to see forward. Continuous use of the washer fluid to clear the gasoline meant, not surprisingly, we soon ran out of washer fluid. But, with the three of us in the front seat, we continued west and down Southfield with Kenny peering through bottle-thick eye-glasses and smearing windshield, wipers frantically clacking back and forth. Still spraying gasoline, bucking and lunging, we neared Allen Road, whereupon the engine expired with a mighty cough and backfire. Unfortunately, it happened in the middle of the Southfield and Allen Road intersection, and we ran the battery down trying to re-start the engine. The three of us frantically jumped out and tried pushing the Mercury, but quickly discovered 150 pound teenagers have some difficulty trying to push a recalcitrant, almost two ton lump of Mercury off the road. It was late, and cold, which made everything a little more desperate.
Making matters more interesting, while still trying to push the Mercury out of the blocked intersection, an Allen Park Officer of the Law pulled up, lights flashing. To our dismay, he responded to our pleas for a push by threatening to ticket all of us if we didn’t get the car out of the way in two minutes flat. Without the slightest degree of sympathy or patience, he must have seen a juvenile delinquent movie the night before or didn’t want to scratch his squad car bumper. He simply watched and waited until we had the Mercury safely off the road, still dribbling gasoline, before driving off.
I found an open service station and called my father, asking if he could drive down and help us get the car started. If only to get me home in one piece, he finally agreed, arriving a half-hour later. It was obvious it wasn’t going to start so he fastened a heavy tow strap with metal hooks that Kenny found in the trunk stretching from the Mercury to our family’s new 1957 Chevrolet’s bumper. Then began the harrowing tow back to Dearborn on less-traveled streets. This was before cars could auto-blink the tail lights signaling others they were nearing a slow vehicle.
Of course, the Mercury’s power brakes didn’t work with a dead engine so, after a long nervous drive with Kenny almost running into the back of our Chevrolet several times, we were only a half-mile from home. After one too many panic braking maneuvers by Kenny, the tow strap end fastened on the Mercury’s front bumper came loose. The metal hook flew forward, smashing out the back window of my father’s Chevrolet station wagon.
My ever-patient father stopped a little further on, got out, sighed, retrieved the tow strap, and, without saying a word, drove home leaving us where we were. We pushed the Mercury into a vacant lot, locked it, and walked the rest of the way in silence. I never found out what happened to the Mercury or Kenny as a result of our adventure, since he was reluctant to share any lessons learned. But I decided I might have to pursue a career in engineering if I was going to continue tinkering with cars.