A Story about Little Volvo Buddy AKA: King of the Road
Right outside of Richland the car started puffing white smoke out of the shifter and interior fans. I’d been smelling burning rubber or something for a minute, now it was clearly time to speak up. We pulled over, I opened the hood, more white smoke, looked underneath and watched a vat of oil dump out from under the car. A small environmental disaster. This was bad, and the worst the volvo had ever given in the previous 40,000 miles I’d been driving it.
The Tow truck showed up pretty fast this time. We convinced him to drive us to the venue in Walla Walla 67 miles away; getting ten of those miles covered by triple AAA and paying a chunk for a rest. We got there at 7:24 - six minutes early from the latest I could be. Middle of Nowhere sessions in Walla Walla with Raven and Writing Desk just finishing their sound check. We dumped the car across the street, loaded everything out and set it up. I went to the wine booth which was displaying a row of high priced washington wines, “Yeah, can you just give me something red that I can drink really fast?” They were nice people and it was a good show.
The next show was in Clarkston, 97 miles away. At this point I’m thinking the volvo is probably totalled, probably the transmission, maybe the engine cracked. I upgraded my Triple AAA membership to get 100 miles of free towing hoping that the next morning we could get the tow; which is in violation of their policy, but the only guarantee of making it to the show.
In the morning we went out to the car. The engine had no oil in it when we checked it. I called my Mechanic, Dennis Wilson, who used to build volvo’s in Sweden and told him the situation, “Well, just put some oil in it and start it, see where’s it’s leaking out.” We put two quarts in and started it up. Sometimes when you get an Oil change they can forget to screw on the oil cap, or the filter all the way and those will dump out. We watched them. Nothing. Sometimes it’s the oil relay, we watched that. Nothing. Except from the bottom of the pan in the center a car, A Niagara Falls of oil was dumping out onto the parking lot of Charles Smith Wines. I called Dennis Again and told him what happened, “It’s not like a camshaft or Engine crack if it’s leaking that fast. If it’s not the oil relay or Fuel Filter, I don’t know.. oh.. Yeah, I know what it is. I know what it is.” “Yeah” “Yeah, it’s that Mickey Mouse job you put on the Alternate Mount. I bet for sure it’s that.”
The Mickey Mouse job was the bolt in front of the engine, that holds the tightness of the belt to the alternator. The original bolt, that was bolted to the engine mount, broke off near Centerville Texas in 2013. The car died at a gas station/bbq and I met up with the Mechanic, who had a voice like Jim Varney, and when I greeted him he immediately went inside and stuck his burning mechanic hand in a bag of Ice.
He got right to it and figured out the bolt. He was having a tough time with the extractor, and in between trying to get the bolt loose from the engine mount, he was stuffing his blackened fingers into a giant bag of cheese puffs, scarfing them down and finishing it off with a oil soaked marlboro. He got back to it, and on a final pull ended up breaking off the extractor in the engine mount. I looked at him and he at me.
The next five hours he spent destroying drill builts in the engine mount to try to carve away enough space in the broken off extractor to hela coil a new bolt back in. I spent it there knowing that the life or death of the car depended on this stupid alternator mount - a car that had made it to New Orleans twice at this point with no problems, that pulled through having the breaks go out in the mountains of Idaho, that had survived a revenge tire attack - but he did it eventually and I drove off into another story that is too long and dark to tell here.
Then the volvo drove another 10,000 miles through the mountains of Colorado, Utah and Idaho, and the forests and coasts of Oregon and Washington before the bolt busted out again in February of 2014 and entered into another life or death scenario of the car. This time with the help of Eric Penney, we tried to Hela Coil it again but it wasn’t possible. Any attempt would not suffice. The cars fucked. There goes the volvo.
That’s when Eric noticed a plug with a flat head screw hold right above the hole where you put the bolt for the alternator mount. “what’s this?” He started unscrewing it. “Wait, is something gonna come out of there” “I don’t know” “I mean, doesn’t that need to be there?” He unscrewed and out came a short bolt. The solution was to find a similar threaded and sized bolt that would fit through the alternator mount, then we could secure and save the car. I spent two days going around Boise looking for the right bolt, having everyone shake their heads at me when I explained what I was doing. It turned out to be a plumbers bolt with a plumbers thread. I drove to the industrial plumbing supply building on the edge of town, had them shake their heads at me but came out with the right sized brass plumbing bolt that could mount the alternator. And it worked. The car kept driving. It went to Portland and back to Boise - Then on to Missoula where it completely ran out of Oil. I filled it with four quarts and drove it Moscow where a belt snapped and got caught in the AC unit. I made it eventually to Portland where I learned that the oil was coming out of the plumbers plug we Mickey Moused the alternator mount on. They called it a Noble Attempt, told me the brass bolt would never hold, and then sealed it up for me and it stopped leaking. Since then I drove 10,000 more miles on tours across the NW, all the way down to New Orleans again, all the way up the 101, all the way back to Boise and again through the NW all the way to Richland, Washington.
I got triple AAA back on the phone. What we had to tell them is that we were dropped off at a home shop, they fixed it, then the car broke again, and we were taking it to another home shop in Clarkston. They weren’t really going for it at first, but after a lot of back and forth told me they would make an exception and we got the tow.
We met some Greasy Locals, one with a Mickey Mouse t-shirt who threw some dirt on the oil stain and looked at the car. I gave them a cassette tape and we helped push start their truck.
The Tow Truck driver was 10 minutes late and I caught up him two alleyways down trying to tow another volvo. I flagged him down. “Hey, did you call about the volvo?” “Yeah, it’s another volvo down in the other alleyway.” “Oh, shit, I’m glad you said something!” He dumped us off behind Hogans in Clarkston two hours later.
All the mechanics take the weekend off in small towns, whoever could help fix the car or know someone who could had to be at the show. With these situations it helps to remain positive. I think about old Star Trek episodes and refuse to believe that there is not a solution to every problem - because there is and eventually you will find one.
I couldn’t find anyone. Except for Dave, who’s the old busser and barback at Hogans, he kept asking me about the car and offered to help. I didn’t know what was up the car, but I was weary about the fact that Dave could help at all, he didn’t seem to have any tools - halfway through my set I was talking him about what it could be, and he wanted to take a look at it right then - I told him let me wait until I’m playing. Dave’s 65 and works at Hogans for free as part of his therapy for his brain injury that he had 15 years ago. He used to be a bike mechanic and won me over with a tale of his YOYO and stories of meeting Elvis. We made a plan to look at the car the next morning.
We did the same thing with oil, this time with a pan underneath and the undercarriage cover removed so you could see the engine better. Started it, and we saw it - silky oil, water falling out of the Mickey Mouse job in the front of the engine. It was the brass bolt that must have snapped in half. I deliberated. Dave wasn’t sure the fix was in his area of expertise. I told him I know how to take everything off that’s in front of it, we just need a 10mm and 13mm and an Allen wrench for the Mickey Mouse job.
We moved forward, took off the fanhood and the fan, took off the belt to the alternator and moved everything out of the way. Dave removed the mount without unscrewing the brass bolt, it had snapped off in the engine. “We need an extractor. Let me go to the Hardware Store. You know we might be able to do this.”
Dave came back with a hammer, extractor and wrench. “I got the hardware store in the back of my pocket. I just go in there and borrow whatever I need.” He stuck the extractor in the broken off bolt and gently hammered it in, talking about what he was doing at every moment he was doing it. Slowly he turned the extractor and slowly the bolt began to come out - then finally it was loose. Dave looked at the broken brass part. “This was doomed to fail. You should keep it and make it into a necklace.” He elaborated on the Mickey Mouse job. “You know, this whole thing is kinda like a brain baby. We’re working in uncharted territory.”
We need to find the same bolt, except made out of steal. Dave went back to the Hardware store and came back 30 minutes later. “You called for a mechanic, but what you really wanted was a plumber!” He had a steal plumbing bolt in his hand. It fit inside the plug. We checked it out with the mount and he went to the store again and came back with some washers and a socket wrench. We had everything we needed and took a brief safety meeting.
Dave kept on saying the mechanic work was really good for his injury, and that a brain injury is a hell of a thing. That when he went to the hardware store, they have all these drawers and labels for all these parts and every drawer he opened, the part he needed was always the first one right in front. That digging through Mr. Bin, which was a bin full of used bolts, in the hardware store he was putting everything back where it needed to be and he figured out most of the organizing system of the store. “Mr. Bin’s made me a smarter man”.
It was really blowing my mind that all this was going so smooth, that was had taken days in the past job is taking dozens of minutes this time. When you’re in the brain of the car, understanding the mechanisms has everything to do with understanding yourself - everything inside of it has to be inside of you in order to fix it. Dave is Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenence. He’s the guy.
He fixed the volvo and we drove it back to Boise.