The Adventures of Billy Possum


Reno or Bust

“Betsy” Heads for Hot August Nights

By Bill J. Castenholz

Copyright 2006, Castenholz and Sons

“Betsy,“ Mike’s 1930 Chevrolet Club Sedan, had not been on the road for quite some time when Bill and Mike decided to go to Reno, Nevada, for “Hot August Nights.” “Hot August Nights” is a tradition in Reno when the whole town, it seems, becomes a hot rod and classic car Mecca for a week.

The C&P Automotive boys had several motives for going on a trip: a new transmission rebuild kit needed to be tested, as well as the new replacement ball on the shifter lever. We also wanted to see our friends Lester and Janice Harris. Lester has one of the largest stocks of antique car replacement parts in the country. And Reno was a nice distance from home, about 500 miles.

Monday, Day One

Monday morning Mike picked up Bill and headed out of the Los Angeles area in the direction of the Mojave Desert. We picked up Matthew, Bill’s 15-year-old grandson, in Sand Canyon and soon we were on the Mojave Desert.

“Betsy” entering Red Rock Canyon.

The camp site in Red Rock Canyon. Our first sign of trouble ahead..

By Red Rock Canyon we detected a bit of a problem. The engine wasn’t running very smoothly. We decided to adjust the timing and this appeared to improve the situation.

However, before long the car seemed increasingly sluggish and as we progressed we began to see a problem with the engine temperature. When we stopped for lunch in Olancha and shut off the engine it began to boil.

Progressing further, we came to the beautiful Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery, constructed during the First World War. It was a very pleasant and cool place to work on the car.

Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery with the large pond in front of the landmark main hatchery building.

And in the pond . . . the larger trout were 18 to 20 inches long.

. . . but the boys weren‘t fishing. Instead they were draining the radiator.

The desert was not abnormally hot but the engine temperature had become progressively worse and finally, after about 265 miles the decision was made to return home. We had reached Big Pine, only about 15 miles from Bishop. We ate dinner in Big Pine and then began the return trip to Los Angeles, again passing town after town, such as Independence, Lone Pine (where Mount Whitney is so prominent), Olancha, Little Lake, Mojave, Palmdale & Landcaster, through the San Fernando Valley and finally home!

Although the engine seemed lacking in its usual power, the evening cool and the fact that from the high desert to the Los Angeles area the grades are mostly downhill, the engine temperature stayed below the red.

One last stop for fuel in Mojave on our return home.

We arrived home about 1:15 am. We had covered about 530 miles in the one day . . . in a 76-year-old Chevy . . . that wasn‘t running very well!

Tuesday, Day Two

A clue as to why “Betsy“ wasn‘t running too well.

After breakfast it was time to find out what was wrong with “Betsy.” It didn’t take long. A compression check showed #4 and #5 cylinders without any compression. As you may know, in these early Chevys, two adjacent cylinders without compression is a sure sign that the head gasket has blown at the very thin section between cylinders. The head gasket actually was an experimental one given to C&P Automotive to test-run. It had performed well for years but, as it had no fire-rings around the cylinders, when it failed, it deteriorated very quickly.

Preparation for a new head gasket.

Mike checking the exhaust valves before relapping.

Bill relapping the exhaust valves.

The rest of the day was spent changing the head gasket and also, as a safety measure, lapping all of the exhaust valves. The car was ready to run in the early evening but by the time a better selection of tools and spare parts was gathered together and packed, it was nearly mid-night.

The decision was made to again attempt the trip. Departure time was set for 3:00 am!

Wednesday, Day Three

A new day. On the road again!

Typical Mojave Desert scenery. Ah . . . and the road again.

Entering Red Rock Canyon for the second time

The camp site at Red Rock again. This time it wasn’t a car problem
- but a new name for the Chevy team - “The Bladder Boys.”

Lone Pine again. Mount Whitney is the higher peak directly above Mike.

The trip went beautifully and uneventfully until we passed Bishop. A few miles north of Bishop is the Sherwin Grade. Actually we had a choice of the new road, a divided modern highway, and the old switchbacked road which is much more scenic. Naturally we chose the old road.

Sherwin Grade above Bishop. The beginning of our real heating problems.

And one more stop to let the engine cool.

Our heating problems began almost immediately after beginning the climb. I estimate that we may have gone a quarter of the way to the summit when we pulled over to the side of the road and waited for the engine to cool down. When the temp climbed into the red we would stop. The water wasn’t boiling until we shut off the engine. Then the rear cylinders, which run the hottest would heat the non-circulating water to a boil and it would burp into the overflow tank. The overflow tank is a feature we added to the cars several years ago. By connecting the radiator overflow tube to the tank, which is hung from the radiator support rods, and with a gasket made from an inner tube in the radiator cap, the tank catches the expanding water or water vapor and then, by vacuum the water is returned to the radiator when the system cools down. This saves the coolant which would otherwise be dumped on the ground, with the result that the system does not empty itself and cause a coolant loss.

Each time we started the cooled engine and climbed more grade the temp would climb and within a half to one mile we would stop again. It certainly develops patience!

Eventually we came within about a hundred yards of the summit, where the old road rejoined the new highway. As we were resting for the last time a car passed us and stopped about 100 feet further up the grade. Out hopped a young lady with a camera. She strode over to our car, and with a big smile and a “PRESS” tag hung around her neck, announced that she was from the Mammoth Times and we were her story for the day. Her name was Christina but she referred to herself at one time as Lois Lane and that is who we thought of her thereafter. She did an interview while the engine cooled down and then we were off again.

A stop on the Mammoth Mountain Loop to check the compression. It was a carburetor problem.

We made it up Deadman’s Summit but decided to take the Mammoth Mountain loop in order to find a shady spot to stop because the engine had begun to run very poorly and even backfire once or twice. We stopped under the shade of a good-sized pine and decided to change the carburator. We also decided to run a compression check, hoping that we hadn’t again blown a head gasket. The compression check was fine but when we removed the carburator we found the brass plug at the base of the accelerator pump had worked loose and fallen out! The backup carburator was installed and off we went again.

Lee Vining is the town on the edge of Mono Lake. There we got gas and drove the 10 miles or so to the base of Conway Summit. Conway climbes a bit over 1000 feet in 4.8 miles. There was no way that “Betsy” was going to make this grade! As we sat at the base of this grade a California Highway Patrol officer coming down the grade swung a U-turn and pulled in behind us. He asked us if he could help and even offered to push us to the top of the grade. But his pushing bars were not matched to our bumpers so we thanked him and said we had better go back to Lee Vining. He offered to stop traffic both ways to allow us to U-turn but, instead we backed down to the road just behind us, and were allowed to make a turn and return to Lee Vining.

Our return to the service station at Lee Vining to back flush the rediator

We returned to the same service station we had just left and asked if we could use their hose if we removed our radiator. They were most helpful. But the anticipated dirt that we expected to see coming out of the radiator did not materialize. We put the radiator back on the car, reinstalled the hood and were ready to put coolant back in the radiator when Mike said he had put his finger into the radiator and it seemed slimy. He also said that when he used the bathroom soap the slime immediately came off. The decision was made to “borrow” a bit of hand soap from the service station owner. We put the soap in the radiator and drove the hundred yards or so to the restaurant across the street. It was about 7 pm and we were both tired and hungry.

After a very good meal we again drove the 10 miles to the base of Conway. But the heating problem seemed less pronounced and the decision was made to try the climb. About a third of the way to the summit is a turn-out. We decided to pass it as the temp was steady and somewhat below the red. At two-thirds up is a very nice viewing area. We passed that also and without a serious heating problem reached the summit!

About 25 miles further on is the beautiful town of Bridgeport, California. It’s courthouse is original and about 150 years old. We found a motel and called it a day.

Thursday, Day Four

The Bridgeport Inn. Preparing for another day on the road.

With a bit of shopping at the mercantile, we walked to the edge of town and had breakfast. Then, without further delay we headed out of town toward Reno.

Heading north out of Bridgeport on Highway 395.

“Betsy” couldn‘t resist the call of the road..

A great day to fish. The beautiful West Walker River.

A little rest for“Betsy.” A shady spot by the West Walker River.

Some fresh cool water . . . just in case . . .

Driving along the West Walker River. The Nevada border is only a few miles north of here.

Freshly bailed hay.

A bovine convention near the California-Nevada border.

The drive was really beautiful and soon we were where the road parallels the West Walker River. We stopped to fill our water jugs just in case, and proceeded past Topaz Lake and the California-Nevada border and on to Gardnerville and Minden. These two towns have grown into one fairly sizeable settlement. And the hot rods and custom cars were everywhere. In fact, we had never seen these towns so heavy with traffic.

Our destination was our friends Lester & Janice Harris who live a couple of miles north of the main part of Minden.

“Well . . . now what do we do?”

Mike refilling the radiator with coolant after flushing it with fresh water.

Lester has one of the largest selections of vintage auto parts in the country. It is always a delight to roam through Lester’s warehouses but part of this day we spent draining the radiator, flushing it and then refilling it with water and antifreeze.

Lester Harris

The door on Lester‘s old Hudson.

Just one of the many aisles of parts in one of Lester’s two warehouses.

Everywhere we looked were new old-stock parts

A small part of the gasket section.

However, among the parts we bought from Lester were a couple of carburetor pump plugs. Now our spare carburetor was available again! We also purchased a set of points, a capacitor and a rotor for the distributor. It was easier to purchase these than to dig through our spares to find the ones we brought along with us.

We had planned to stay with Lester & Janice and go up to the swap meet in Reno but the way the car had been running, we decided we had better turn around and head back home rather than fight the traffic in Reno. So, back to Bridgeport we went. That part of the trip was uneventful. Staying in the same motel in Bridgeport was nice because it is one of the few places we have seen with three beds. Matthew did not have to sleep on the floor in his sleeping bag.

Friday, Day Five

Another pleasant stay in Bridgeport.

We planned to take two days to get back home. A leasure drive would be welcome at this time. So we ate a late breakfast and then, coming out of the restaurant Bill noticed that the NAPA parts store nearby was run by Annett and Sons. Bill asked the woman behind the counter if the owner was related to the Annetts of Smith Valley, Nevada (about 50 miles due north of Bridgeport). She pointed to the man in the office who said he was from Smith. “Is there a Norma in your family?” Bill asked.

“My sister was Norma.” “We lost her to cancer last year.”

Norma had been a friend of Bill’s when he was in the 8th grade at Smith Valley Junior High School and she had come into the 7th grade. Incidentally, the entire Junior High School consisted of about 25 students in one room of the High School - the 7th grade on the right half of the room, the 8th grade on the left.

The Bridgeport NAPA owned by the brother of one of Bill’s Smith Valley Junior High School friends.

Bill and Al Annett had an interesting conversation and then it was time to start south again. It was just past noon.

One of those picturesque scenes south of Bridgeport, on the way to the top of Conway Summit.

A scenic turn-off on the way down Conway Summit. Directly above the front bumper
of “Betsy,” at the far end of Mono Lake is the town of Lee Vining.

The approach to Conway from the north was not nearly as steep as from the south and we soon reached the summit and very quickly we arrived at the base of the grade and then on to our “regular” gas station in Lee Vining. In addition to getting gas there we heartedly thanked them for their help and then drove on.

The Obsidian Dome, a mile or two off of Highway 395 offered Matthew
a chance to stretch his legs. He is the figure at the very top of the dome.

In one of our rare side trips we drove the couple of miles off the main highway to the Obsidian Dome, a black volcanic mountain where we suspected that the Indians of the area found the raw materials for their projectile points and also for trading to other tribes.

“Betsy” burped a bid of coolant when we stopped at the Dome but nothing serious and we were soon back on Interstate 395 and headed south toward Deadman’s Summit.

We not only passed this summit easily but decided to again take the old Sherwin grade down to Bishop.

Without even stopping in Bishop, we drove on to Big Pine for gas and then kept pushing south until we reached Independence. Independence has a very interesting museum, devoted largely to the Relocation Center of Manzanar where, during World War II, so many Japanese Americans were interned. One time Mike pointed to a picture in this museum and recognized his sister-in-law. Mike’s wife was born in an internment camp in Arkansas during the war.

We left the museum when the 5 o’clock closing time came, continued on down to Lone Pine where we had fast food and then again decided to push all the way home before stopping.

The end of another day on the road in “Betsy.”

With the cool of evening and the continually lowering elevation we were relieved to have no cooling problem and we soon passed Olancha, Little Lake and Red Rock.

But just before Mojave Mike said “Oh-oh.” The transmission lever had rotated slightly in the transmission top. This was another part we were testing.

One final gas stop in Mojave.

The transmission shifter lever has a ball pressed on it near the lower end. The ball is slotted and provides for the swiveling motion which allows selection of the different gears in the transmission. General Moters pressed the ball onto the shifter. The ball was of rather soft steel and the shifter is much harder, allowing for the ball to be swedged onto the shifter lever. But the soft ball wears very unevenly and most of those we have seen are very out-of-round. The test ball is of hardened steel but, even with a press fit, it had begun to loosen and rotate if enough force was applied to the shifter.

For the rest of the trip shifting was kept to a minimum and no further problem occurred with the shifter. The next day the shifter was removed, the ball pressed off and drilled for set screws. A set screw was installed from two directions and each was backed up by a second set screw.

The transmission shifter ball test is now continuing.

We arrived at Bill’s house about 1:15 am, almost exactly the same time as we had returned last Monday.

Saturday, Day Six

In addition to altering the transmission shifter ball the car was unpacked, some of the parts and tools we carried were put away and Mike returned home about noon.

It had been a tense trip at times but a very valuable one for us to learn more about these early Chevys and also to put the transmission parts we had installed through a good test. Our milage for the week had been an astounding 1470 miles!

Finally, when we reviewed the pictures of this trip we realized what a good decision it had been to make Matthew our Official Trip Photographer.