November 22, 2017

Ain’t Misbehaving?

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

Saturday I took my friend Jim Crossman for a Daimler ride.  The weather cooperated ― I guess.  It was hot.  The top was down.  When we moved, the wind felt wonderful.  The car cooperated ― at times.  It didn’t strand us.  It didn’t overheat despite the temperatures and necessary in-town driving.  But at times it was balky and stuttered.   I wanted it to speak plainly.

Finally it did.

I spent the drive imagining that the mixture was too rich.  That fouls the plugs at low RPM.  Higher engine speeds burn them clean again.  But, being honest, that might not be the only trouble.  The real issue might be a technical problem.  The factory manual ― written in 1959 ― specifies Arthur Champion sparkplugs, N-8, for normal driving.  Unfortunately, Champion no longer manufactures an N-8.  Their sales literature recommends a modern resistor plug, RN12YC as a substitute.

Why is that a problem?  Bear with me.  The Daimler has copper core plug wires, an old fashioned oil-cooled coil and breaker point ignition.  Resistor plugs require carbon-cored plug wires, a specialized coil and most often electronic ignition, too.  Mixing and matching ignition parts is always problematic.  Right now I have an old-fashioned harness with newly designed sparkplugs.

I thought about that as I drove.

Surely this is why I have this car.  If it was ever complete, if it was always in tiptop condition, would it lose its allure?  Perhaps.  I prodded myself for additional reasons.  Technical problems are educational.  Right.  Still when you’re showing off ― or at least trying to ― it’s nice if the car behaves.

I explained all that to Jim, giving the car an excuse.  I threw in additional reasons, too.  This engine was silent, moldering away for more than 30 years.  Surely any reasonable person would expect a break-in period while the bugs work themselves out.

A glance toward the passenger’s seat showed Jim unimpressed.

I carried on.  The car’s misbehavior was doubtless my fault.  It took far longer than it should have to discover that grounding  problem in the voltage regulator.  The spark is stronger and far more reliable now that issue is corrected.  Still, what else remains uncorrected underneath the hood?

Jim was polite. “Yes,” he agreed, nodding.

Damning with faint praise is something to which writers, especially, are extremely sensitive.  My hands gripped the wheel in frustration.  The Daimler is so exhilarating when it’s on its mettle that I miss the performance immediately when something is off.  I ground my teeth and wondered about myself and my relationship with this car.

It’s my baby.  My child.  Is that why it offers its best only when no else one is around to see it?  Pampered and spoiled, is it more likely to act up than be mannerly?

An inward glance showed me wringing my hands.  “I tried to do the right thing!”
All the while, intent on showing who was really in the driver’s seat, the car misbehaved.  “I can misfire if I want to!”

I snarled something inarticulate from behind the wheel.

Jim glanced over, eyebrow lifting.

Being caught in conversation with a car, pleading for it to drive properly, to be a nice little vehicle, is embarrassing.  “Weren’t you repaired better than this?” I demanded aloud, hurt by its antics.

The Daimler all but stamped its tire.  “I’m British,” it proclaimed, grille turning up in a snit.  “I get to act up.  It’s my birthright.”

My first vehicle was a 1966 Land Rover.  Looking back on the education it provided, it’s tough to argue with that logic.  But completely out of patience, I downshifted, stomping on the accelerator at the same time.

The car seemed to float a moment.  Blue smoke boiled around the rear tires.  The car squealed in surprise.  Suddenly we were going much faster.

Jim gasped from the passenger’s seat, frantically grabbing his hat.  “That’s OK, John,” he offered.  “Really.  I believed you when you said the car could do it.”

The Daimler gargled smugly for a moment, adding, “I just have to want to.”

A proud parent, I was too pleased to listen to Jim.  I was busy patting the dashboard.  “There.  There.  That’s a nice little car.  See?  You can behave when you want to.”

It misfired the very next moment.

I laughed and turned to Jim.  “I really have to locate some old-fashioned, non-resistor sparkplugs.”

He shook his head.  “I think that you’re dangerous enough with the ones you have.”