Wastelands of Suburbia

A place where the cast-off ephemera of the last four generations comes to rest, and is discussed fondly....Like junk, or the injection-molded minutiae of history? Welcome home...Junkyards, yard sales, roadside oddities, thrift stores and more-your memories are deep inside the box, so keep shaking.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Wilkommen Mein Greta!

And so the Circle of Life continues...you are looking at the first pics of my new/old ride, a 1987 Mercedes Benz 300D Turbo, whom I have affectionatley christened "Greta"-how I came about owning her is a look into my psyche and a testament to the miracle that is the Internet.

(Greta bravely weathers her first Pennsylvania snowfall.)

First, however, a word of advice-ALWAYS give your cars a name-it's simply good Karma, or in this case, Car-Ma. When your car has a name, it can take on a personality. If it has a personality, you can learn to deal with the nuances of it's personality.

When you are in the corporate world, you learn how to handle interoffice relationships by reading books like "Dealing with Difficult People". With cars, you read Chilton's, Haynes, or Clymer's manuals instead (or those by Robert Bentley if you are smart and one is available). If your car is giving you trouble, there's a good chance it's because you have treated it poorly, and it is showing you how you have hurt it's feelings. Leaking fluids are often just like tears, their various colors showing you what kind of mistreatment you may have caused. Some cars cry because they fear old age, or from memory of abuse from a previous owner. Sometimes cars, like babies (Or some of the psychotic ex-girfriends I have had) cry "just because". It is your job as a good parent to find out why, and to remedy the situation.

When stuck for a name, the default is to use my criteria in order to find one that seems to fit. Here I will generously offer it for free (normally a $150/hr value). The above paragraph should leave no doubt as to why I gave Greta a girl's name, but there is more to it than that. First off, she's German-I will most likely get the snappiest response from her if she knows I am talking to her ("GRETA! SCHNELL!" as I chase some graying mullet-bearer in an ancient Trans Am). Second, she's old-"Greta", therefore is more appropos than the sexier, though still Teutonic "Heidi". "Heidi" is a new BMW 325ic, not a 20 year-old, drab diesel sedan. So, nationality is a good place to start. Honda or Toyota owners have endless choices, most ending in vowels. Volvos and Saabs can use some of the same names as their German counterparts, or the names of the members of Abba. If you are dumb enough to drive a Renault in this country, a French name is de rigeur (not to mention the national flag, a plain white surrender rectangle, fastened to the antenna). A Jag or Vauxhall is easily tagged with Nigel or Clive, as many of the female names are interchangeable on both sides of the pond (though "Fergie" is a good bet). Your favorite Spice Girl or Pink Floyd member is also a good choice. DeLoreans could technically be named Irish or American. You will know, however, in a very short period of ownership, however, if your car is male or female. This whole arguement does not apply to trucks, whose plastic testicles are often seen hanging from their rear differential here in the US, leaving no doubt as to gender.

Meanwhile, back to Greta. Greta was born, and took her first steps as I was completing my junior year of high school. If cars aged at the same speed as humans, at her 20 years I'd be robbing the cradle, and most likely the envy of all my male friends. Since, however, cars have a tendency to show their age at a much more accelerated rate, Greta is more like a MILF with self-confidence issues, in need of an Extreme Makeover. As such, my friends instead think I am nuts.

(Around here, you only roll with bulletholes if they are REAL-these will have to go)

As I have been known to make the occasional bad automotive decision, this is not an unfair conclusion, but know this-Greta was acquired not through purchase but trade, and therefore any fiduciary judgments are hereby null and void. Moreover, she was traded for an OLDER motorycycle (albeit my beloved Satanic Scoot, the '84 Honda V65 Magna), so technically I'm trading UP. Finally, she is still a Mercedes, a product of superior engineering by very uptight, regimented people who smoke a little too much and make really weird porno (though much of that argument can be said of the Japanese as well).

I found Greta on Craigslist-the great clearing house of the internet. She resided in Toms River, New Jersey, in the possession of a truly great character named Carl. Carl personifies the likeable brand of Jerseyite to me-A bit loud, fast talking, and funny as hell. A tree trimmer laid off for the winter months, He conned his wife and son, along with the family dog, to drive the 2.5 hours to my hometown of Stroudsburg to show me the car. I recall him mentioning the promise of dinner and our infamous outlet shopping as his bribe to them.

He was looking for a bike in trade, and since my back injuries have left my motorcycling future in question for the time being, the bike was really only taking up space and collecting dust. Carl said he had had it with offers of ancient wrecks with no titles, hauled out from under porches and out of lakes to be offered up against his car. After all, he had done a fair amount of work in his short ownership period (Greta had been given to him to pay off a debt, not unlike some third world men have done with their wives, I suppose).

Carl had the right answers to a lot of my questions-I had done some research prior to even considering Greta. Some of it was courtesy of fellow blogger Mr. Jalopy, a great amateur mechanic and owner of an '87 300TD (the wagon version of Greta). The rest was gleaned off various forums of owners and enthusiasts.

For example, Greta had he original-equipment Becker cassette still installed. Becker is not known for great stereo, but they are decent, and original equipment in Mercedes as well as some other German models. It's existence in Greta's dash was a good indicator the audio wiring was unmolested. The next question, however was obvious-her power Hirschmann antenna was broken, and a ten-dollar rubber ducky was in it's place. Mercedes has a recommended lubricant for the Hirschmann, and an original antenna is usually evidence it was used, and again, proof of careful maintenance.

Her condition was 50/50-from fifty feet away at fifty miles an hour she looked damned good. But the ratio translated to other aspects of her. She was blessed with straight and un-corroded sheetmetal, but some budding Chip Foose had poorly sprayed her with a coat of pseudo Anthrazitgrau, covering her weatherstripping along the doors, as well as her body trim. Her interior carpets were surprisingly in good condition, though her front seat upholstery was copiously taped. Many of the normally nagging high-mileage issues were absent, though some others took their place.

Nonetheless, after a test-drive, I was in love. Carl was equally smitten with my bike, and a deal was made. A few days later he arrived with Greta on a trailer, being pulled laboriously by a late 90's Jeep Grand Cherokee. Paperwork was traded, chains were loosened, tie-downs secured and the Honda was on her way to a new home.

As Greta undergoes her slow, deliberate transformation, I will keep you apprised of her progress.

RIP The Big Old Car...

Well, I guess we all have to go sometime. My beloved 1994 Mercury, AKA Auntie, has gone to the big junkyard in the sky. A rusted out torsion box was the cause-unable to be welded, she was parked for the last time. In a final act of defiance, she refused to start (dead battery) for her funeral procession to Sibum's Auto Parts in Stroudsburg. It's a shame, especially since the picture you see here is pretty much how she looked on her last ride, sans hubcaps of course (soon to be available on Ebay).

Auntie had given me many a good run-from home to Mechanicsburg and back, picking up surplus at the Naval Assist Facility, down to Philadelphia for shows at the TLA, into Jersey and NYC for various events and meetings. I will miss her deeply but life goes on, and soon the circle will again be completed.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Auction goodies...

I scored a ton of stuff a while back at an estate auction-with everything else going on, I am just getting to go through everything. I had only intended to walk away with a hand-carved tiki statue (at left, something of a rarity here on the cold, rainy East Coast), but the lure of the box lots, like a siren's call, drew me to my ultimate doom-but only for a buck.

For the uninitiated, let me start at the beginning. In the state of Pennsylvania there seems to be two ways to do estate auctions. FIrst is to have an auction company come and take all the merchandise away, and sell it off the block at their auction house. Far more exciting is the on-site auction, where treasure can be seen as it is hauled out of the nooks and crannies of some ancient house in the deep woods.

As a high school senior I had the opportunity to work for an auction company as a runner-it was here I learned most of the good, and bad, behaviors of my adulthood. Good, in that I learned never to be intimidated by a three-hundred-plus-pound dealer who has his heart set on something we are both bidding on, as he glowers menacingly (a dealer usually only bids to half a given item's value, so the collector nearly always wins in such a showdown). Bad, because I learned to packrat stuff (now known by the politically-correct name Colyer's syndrome, a genuine CONDITION, wow!), and also learned to be a cheap bastard. In general, however, I did learn the value of things and the sheer amount of stuff one human can accumulate in a lifetime. I also learned short of fresh produce and groceries, there is really no need to shop anywhere but yard sales, flea markets, and auctions.

Back to my ton of stuff-I took a day to visit an on-site auction with my friend and sometimes-attorney, Chad. He had seen a set of barrister's bookcases he wanted to look over advertised in the paper. I, having been through the gauntlet of auctions before, decided to go along to help run interference, and because I had not been to one in a long while.

I was pleased to find that the auction company was my old alma mater! I made the rounds and said hello to my old cronies, and grabbed a seat on the front lawn. The previous homeowner had been a military officer in WWII, and had, apparently, spent some time after the war in Europe-souvenirs of every description were displayed. Old uniforms, china, hand carved statues, books, photos, and trunks full of items yet to be discovered.

When Chad's bookcase came up, he balked-Chad, you must know, is as cheap as a $2 watch. Since his girlfriend is due to move in soon, he needs to class up the joint, and the bookcase was just the thing. I started bidding for him when he dropped off, citing that he would thank me later. In the end, he scored a beautiful unit (one of two for sale) for just $375-anyone who knows the pricing of these knows twice as much is not uncommon in some areas of the country. He looked at me with uncertainty and I gave him a "just trust me" look back.

As an auction draws to a close, box lots begin to go up for sale-these are as the name suggests-boxes of items too numerous or of too little value to go over the auction block individually. A lot can be one or more boxes, and it is here you can often find some great deals.

Having done this before, I quickly reaquainted myself with my favorite dealers of days past, and introduced them to Chad. Eric, my favorite dealer, actually once worked with me in my UPS days, and looked as if he hadn't changed-long, unkept hair under a knit hat, scraggly beard tied at the bottom with rubber bands like Captain Lou Albano of wrestling fame, and a constant smile. Eric had taught me a lot about antiques, probably more than two straight guys like us should know. We quickly began digging through the boxes, looking for anything the auctioneers had missed of value. Chad spotted a few things in a lot Eric was interested in-they began to debate, neither one wanting to give up what they were interested in, lest mention of it build value to the other. Once they realized they were interested in different things, they agreed to let Eric bid, and he would simply sell Chad what he wanted out of the lot.

Now, of course, this behavior is actually considered illegal in the state, something about conspiracy or something. But, like whistling on a Tuesday in some towns, it's not usually enforced unless you are dumb enough to speak up in front of the auctioneer. Both Eric and Chad were smart, however, and got away with what they wanted for less than $5 a piece.

I had bid on a lot of books-TONS of books, all with interesting titles relating to witchcraft and the occult. I got outbid, but later found the buyer was only interested in a few glass items in one box-he told me to take all the books I wanted, so I took them all. Great move, as I found in with them "The Practical Handyman's Encyclopedia".

(At one time in America, the average adult male usually had a set of do-it-yourself encyclopedias on his hand-made bookshelf or workbench-this set is my second, the first being a Popular Mechanics set from the Fifities)

Now, I am a sucker for old handyman books for several reasons-one, as a lover of vintage ephemera, you can often get great plans for furniture and the kinds of gadgetry and ingenuity you just don't see anymore. Two, it's a great "slice of life" kind of journey, back to a time when every suburban male seemingly had a drill press, lathe, and table saw at hand to make or repair whatever he needed.

The Encyclopedia was no different, with plans for everything from small fishing boats to vacation homes and everything in between. Volume 9, however, proved to be the Rosetta Stone of Handyman-dom. For a whopping 36 pages, there is an entire section devoted to HOT RODDING. Not auto repair, not painting your car under your home-made carport, but honest-to-goodness HOT RODDING.

(Think the compact craze is new? Think again! Rodders were taking advantage of the lighter-weight small cars (for the time) and turbocharging back in the Sixties)

Back in the early days of hot rodding, there was a nearly direct line to aircraft engineering in relation to performance. The early rodders, some of them pilots or aircraft mechanics during WWII, applied some of what they had learned to their race cars. Streamlining and Turbocharging were two things directly descended from aircraft design-The latter allowed a plane to achieve better horsepower at high altitudes, letting an adequate amount of combustible air to the cylinders of the engines. When applied to early race cars, a significant power increase was realized on the ground, and both turbo and super-charging are still used today. Early salt flats or dry lakebed racers were also often constructed from the large auxilliary fuel tanks attached to the bellies of long-range bombers during the war. These "Belly Tank Racers" were among the fastest on the perfectly flat surface of Bonneville and other dry lake beds.

(Forget Old Skool-this is the First School-the So-Cal Speed Shop Belly Tank Lakester in 1949, turning a speed of nearly 140mph. Photo Courtesy of So-Cal Speedshop website)

(So-Cal Speed Shop founder/owner Alex Xydias poses with the recently restored Lakester at El Mirage dry lake bed. The car currently resides at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA. Photo Courtesy of So-Cal Speed Shop website)

All in all a great haul-stay tuned for more on projects from the encyclopedias as the blog rolls on.

More Craigslist Gold!

Another great Craigslist find-a 1920s British-made board track racing motorcycle frame! Tank and wheel are not correct, but look at that springer front end! No price listed, and I'm afraid if I call I'll buy the damned thing.

Back in the early part of the 20th Century, velodromes (cycling tracks) dotted the landscape, and cycling was a much more popular sport than it is today, save for, say, Europe. It was only a matter of time until these tracks would become the domain of motorcycles (having evolved from bicycles anyway). Speeds above 100mph were recorded, and the racing was extremely dangerous. The bikes were started by pulling them with another motorcycle-they were geared so high there was really no other way to start them. Once rolling, the rider relied on his body language to steer and control the bike, as it was balls-to-wall at full throttle with NO BRAKES.

As a result, accidents were common, as were deaths, not only of riders but of spectators. Multiple-death accidents eventually spelled the end for the 'dromes, and many were dismantled as other forms of track racing became the norm.

The only photos of a board track race known to exist-photos courtesy of www.daheim.com

I look at this frame and I can't imagine doing 100 on a board track with it-100 on my Magna is scary enough WITH brakes...