image copyright Kate Russell, 2015
this is car-not-car. it's virtues are not obvious. it embodies a number of things simultaneously. it's a roadster. foremost in my mind was the annual SoCal TT vintage rally run -- which i missed by a couple of weeks -- ancient cars driven... briskly. it's also just an old car that i can reliably drive to work and around town, practical within it's limits. it is also a art work/project, and an example of wabi tek sabi a description of how i think about aesthetics, power, and responsibility.
cars to me are prosthetic devices, tools to extend my (our) bodies' capabilities. it is modestly a machine for driving on the open road, not in the aspirational marketing way, but as a body extention/machine that you must intimately know and understand to operate well (or at all). [american] automobile aesthetics seem stuck in 20th century modernism; a veneer of shiny perfection covering deeply mundane design and increasingly sophisticated and hermetic technology, and always-hidden waste and ruin. it's rare that car enthusiasts view automobiles as part of a technological system.
"it will look good someday!" a man says to me out the window of his pickup truck on my second-ever drive up a neighborhood street. the car world is wide; there is dissent, but most dissent remains tightly bounded within deeply conservative car culture. the aesthetic is function fetish; function defines form, borrowed (and reinterpreted) from the various industrial cultures i have worked in, though it is still overwhelmingly automotive. operability, reliability, repairability remain goals, first and foremost. the overall look is quite intentional (though still evolving). the patina preserved, and the fit and finish is rigorous but not always automotive.
anyhoo it is still a car, and i intend to drive it hard.
my relationship with old cars has been life-long, but i was considering abandoning them. the ratio of fun vs. effort has long been drifting in an undesireable direction. rattles, squeaks, hard to find parts became impossible to find. more time spent prepping to drive than driving. i've driven old cars all my life (nearly all AMC/Ramblers). used cars became old cars became really old, became antiques, became freaky-old. in 2011 i sold the 1963 rambler classic station wagon i'd driven for 23 years; while it never failed me on the road, preparing it for a road trip was like prepping a spaceship for mars. i spent hours analyzing the failure mode of a single fastener that held the braces on the torque-tube drive; it would back itself out at irregular intervals. almost without exception, i knew the size of every single nut and bolt on the car. i could stick my thumb into the 500-page, greasy, dog-eared factory Technical Service Manual by memory to get to the right section. at 50 years continuously on the road, nearly half a million miles (89,000 on the odometer when i bought it, i drove it another 350,000), at more than five times past its design life, the wierdest things would fail; inocuous brackets, switches repaired four times over. i was about done.
... if i was going to drive old cars, something had to change. i thought: what if i simply removed every single thing that annoyed me about old cars? rattling doors, crumbling rubber, leaking windows, peeling chrome, luxuries more often liabilities (heat, wind-up windows). what really is important about old cars, to me? it was this line of thinking that coupled my car obsession to other pursuits in embodied cognition and wabi tek sabi, but without losing sight of the fact that the stupid car had to be fun to drive.
another factor that i decided would become dominant -- and part yankee frugality, part wabi tek sabi -- was to build the car as much as possible from the iron pile: 15 years of carefully collected rusty greasy steel and cast iron. i don't think i spent more than $3000 on this project for parts and materials in the 51 weeks it took to make, though there was a lot of stored capital in the donor car, my 1963 Rambler American from which i took many major components; engine, transmission, suspension, rear axle, etc.
yet another factor -- simultaneously minor and all-consuming -- was to "add lightness". there are two ways to make a car fast(er); insert a huge engine and all the attendant overhead required, the typical route of most performance enthusiasts, or "add lightness" -- remove mass. i chose the latter path; it fit with all of the other goals; simplicity, frugality, low cost, use the iron pile, reliability. "remove one pound, one thousand times", for a curb weight of 2520 lbs, which includes me (145 lbs), 20 gallons of gasoline (126 lbs) and a guesstimate of 25 lbs of tools and miscellaneous; 700 - 800 lbs of unwanted mass removed.
not that this car is fast by any measurement, though my '63 American (195.6 OHV, Twin Stick) beat a '70 Superbeetle in a street "drag" once.
i admit that the end result alarmed even me. it drives well, but visually it reminds me of the occasional 95-year-old Ford Model T's that show up at the Toluca Lake Bob's Big Boy friday meets. in a capitalist world devoted to commodity fetishism, a thing clearly an automobile that does not hew to the shiny performance car aesthetic is jarring, even to me. do i look like a crazy person, parked in the lot? how much do i care?
image copyright Kate Russell, 2015
for various historical reasons (ask me) this car family has spectacularly great documentation; a thorough technical service manual ("TSM" to Rambler folk) and the complete parts catalog, detailing every single component in the car down to the smallest washer. Nash/AMC/Rambler's frugality extended to design too -- parts interchange over this particular product platform's 40 year existence. it contains a vast number of standardized parts. a hacker's dream...
this 1961 Rambler (nee Nash) typifies the post-war car era: solid quality, brutal simplicity, reasonable standards of safety. though many American cars in this era were overweight barges larded up with needless decorative crap on top of inadequate brakes and comically bad handling, Nash cars were frugal, frumpy and old-fashioned, Nash's Rambler series in particular were quite spare but solid and reliable (with inadequate brakes and comically bad handling). my 1963 Rambler American got 25 miles per gallon on the freeway and is quite small; 3000 or so lbs and 100" wheelbase. market-wise, it's more-or-less comparable to a contemporary (2014) Toyota Yaris or Honda Fit; small, frugal, but not "cheap". at a time when gasoline was under 30 cents per gallon, Americans did not care much about frugality. they wanted fast and gaudy. Ramblers, like the Nashes before them, were "grandma's car". it was (and is not) cool to drive a Rambler.
i do get comments from people at random (in traffic, in parking lots, etc) as one might imagine. overwhelmingly they are baby-boomer-era white folk, who recall the make from their youth, or young import-scene men for whom the roadster seems to be appreciated as an alien exotic. it is interesting to note that more than half of the former are women who overtly state knowledge of the make, saying things like "nice Nash!" or "what year Rambler?". this is in contrast to men who get the make correctly less often, or assert that it is some other brand ("thats a Dodge, right?"). this is interesting to me for a couple of reasons: one, "my" cohort -- white Americans in their 50's and older -- men are typically obsessed with most-popular high-power cars from the era (i call it "Ford vs Chevy" syndrome) and openly scoff at cars that in their high school years were "grandma's car" (Nash and Rambler). women's interest in cars, apparently vastly less than the cohort's men, are rarely considered or made room for (attend any car event and you'll see). but clearly there is some womanly resonance with Nash and Rambler, and it's no accident that they appealed to women: one of the few, and rare, women car designers, Helene Rother designed Nash's interiors, and worked with Farina on Nash body styling. even given my long obsession with this stuff i found this out only recently. women in cars (sic) are not so much overlooked as overtly suppressed. baby-boomers are the worst generation, ever.
driving I-10 east, somewhere Blythe to Phoenix, heading to Tucson, 14 november 2014. overall, success. took it easy on the way out, feeling for problems; a brake line failed in phoenix -- surprise! -- generated some adrenalin but i was able to kludge it in a parking lot and got to tucson ok. it's a long drive and in an open car with minimal insulation between me and mechanism, driving is a full-engagement experience as expected and desired. though i'd driven this particular engine, transmission, suspension and brakes in the other Rambler American, installed in this insanely light car it was a new experience. there is not a lot of 'slack' here; the engine is working hard at 70 mph and operating it requires knowledgable attention. the cybernetic loop closed rather quickly, and other than my badly-designed throttle pedal and horribly worn-out seat everything became quite transparent within a couple hours of driving.
the drive home was much more fun, and faster. i had previously calibrated the electric speedometer incorrectly, so what indicated 70 - 75 mph was actually 75 - 80 mph, so it took only 7.5 hrs to get home, including three comfortable stops. by this point the car had achieved full transparency as a prosthetic device, and i trusted it more.
"trust" and feel in a situation like this is not entirely rational. the complexity of a machine like this is within the realm of "knowability"; unlike a modern computer, it is more or less possible to know complete operating state (short of surprises in metallurgy...). in a previous car (my 1963 Rambler Classic Cross Country wagon) i truly knew every moving and non-moving part; i knew the providence of each sound it made, having driven it as my primary vehicle for 21 years. i've not yet attained that relationship with this car, but i will (it's much simpler than even the Cross Country). there is a defensible part to this trust (exhaust note, tire whine, transmission sound/feel, suspension sound/feel, etc are quite predictably knowable) but there is multi-dimensional "space" bounded by the intersection of various parameters that produces subjective-but-testable areas of sensation -- it manifests as intuition but is right often enough to be trustworthy. "something doesn't sound right" requires investigation and more often than not reveals an anomaly, sometimes benign, sometimes not. the brake line failure on the drive out is a good example. the failure was that the steel tube fractured just inside the flare nut. i'd neglected to strap the long thin steel line to the axle tube to prevent vibration, a simple oversight; i hadn't put it on the to-do list. and i did hear a strumming sound on the drive to Tucson that i did not investigate. my mistake! but now i know what sounds emanate from seemingly-passive components (resonances in body panels, specific accoustic effects of the spinning drive shaft, ...) and anomalies will be more evident. since it was new, it was all 'anomaly'. soon it will be familiar.
this is why and how, to me, machines are situations and not simply objects. it is based upon the voluntary relationship with the machine that i attend to. this relationship to a product is not one desired or accomodated by it's designers or retailers; once out of the new car! fantasy bubble it becomes revealing, like the special sunglasses in the movie THEY LIVE!. to me, it's pleasurable (occasionally scary, or hard work, etc) but it reveals how the world works in a fine-grained way. this is a car made from hand built parts, vastly simplified compared to modern cars, little or no insulation from the underlying mechanisms.
did i say it was cold out? it was cold. the ambient temperature was variously 60 - 72F, but pushing a steel tub a mile a minute generates a gale. on the return i donned my cheap nylon rainsuit to keep the breeze out of my clothing, and with that the drive was quite pleasant.
image copyright Kate Russell, 2015
it started out life as an ordinary 1961 Rambler American 330; two doors, bench seat, heater, radio-delete, the optional overhead valve six and Flash-O-Matic (Borg Warner M35) transmission. like most inexpensive cars of it's type and era, it was driven into the ground. when i got it it needed a new everything, 15 years before.
it sat in my yard for five years before i decided i needed a roadster. at the time i was driving a 1963 American, a relatively rare hardtop with the same OHV engine but the "sporty" (sic) three-speed overdrive transmission and optional axle, and the two-level floor shifter. i decided the smart thing to do was to of course merge these two into a rambler roadster.
i found a way to restyle the sedan into a roadster and maintain the Nash styling and proportions based upon my "discovery" of the Golden Rule (needs a page). with that i proceeded to go with two overriding rules: add lightness, enforce brutal simplicity: if it did not have an immediate defineable function directly supporting drving at speed, it was deleted. much lightness was added, at last count 850 pounds of it (on the local truck scale it was 2250 lbs with me in it and half a tank of gas plus tools and junk).
the in-process construction pictures show details of most of the initial construction push in 2014, but are now a bit out of date, eg. showing my first ersatz hybrid leaf/airspring rear that was a miserable failure, and not the currently rigid wishbone/panhard system which is working great.