Three on the tree…a ticket to freedom

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The annual car show held in conjunction with the Riverton Rendezvous is one of my favorite events. If you’re a member of the generation that once worked on their own vehicles, you probably share the same sentiment.

The cars of today just don’t have much pizzazz. They all look the same, have the same features and their universal blandness is maddening to a true “Car Guy.”


The magic lines of Bel Airs, GTOs, Camaros, Novas, and Mustangs can’t be confused with each other, they are unique works of art, disguised as modes of transportation.

The universal sameness of today’s cars is a stark reminder of how far the automobile industry has fallen since the halcyon days when Detroit, (aka Motor City) was the center of the automotive world. Imports, plastic parts, lightweight frames, and the demand for higher miles per gallon while packing in more people, (including cup holders and now USB ports) have lessened what was once an American passion.

They’re just ways of getting from A to B now, they’re not the stuff of teenage boys’ dreams as they once were.

As the appeal of today’s cars have dropped, it’s not a surprise that we’ve raised an entire generation that can’t do the slightest repair on a vehicle.


One afternoon four years ago I looked down from my deck towards North 8th West in Riverton and spotted four teenage boys standing around a car. I drove down to see what was wrong.

They had a flat tire. All four were on their cell phones trying to get one of their fathers to show up and change the tire.

I asked them if they had a jack and a spare. One of them held up a tire iron, “You mean this?” he said.


“No, that’s a tire iron,” I said.

They all looked dimly at me with confused expressions.

“Good luck,” I said and drove back to the house.


Sure enough, about 10 minutes later a 40-something guy showed up, changed the tire, and off they went in their blissful ignorance back to school.

Yes, it was a sad commentary on the youth of today.

There are still a few gear heads out there, youngsters who relish the challenge of nuts, bolts, wrenches, gauges, and fluid levels, but they are now a rare breed.

They weren’t just two generations ago. I guess you can’t blame them since so many administrators, guidance counselors and teachers tell every teenager that college is the only path to success, and getting your hands dirty making a living is somehow demeaning. It goes on far too often and now we have a generation with the highest self-esteem in history that can’t drive a car with a manual transmission and don’t even know where the dipstick is located. (We know where the dipstick is, and maybe it’s not in the engine at all.)

As a kid, we rode bikes everywhere. In Fairfield, California when Dad was stationed at Travis Air Force Base and later at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento a bike meant freedom. We lived in vast, wide-open areas of Northern California. If my bike tire went flat, I bent a spoke or lost the chain, Dad wasn’t going to help me fix it. Neither did any of my friend’s fathers. We learned to patch punctured tubes with Monkey Grip (remember that?) straighten bent spokes with a wrench and slide the chain back on by loosening the rear tire and putting it back on both sprockets. If we didn’t, we walked.

My first car was my parent’s 1962 Nova 400 station wagon. It had a 194 cubic inch engine that in its heyday was underpowered, and by the time it came to me, it had almost no compression and wasn’t worth repairing.

I found a 250, inline 6-cylinder engine that fit the bell housing and motor mounts designed for the 194. I later learned a 283 V-8 and the magnificent 327 V-8 of legend also had the same bolt patterns and would have fit, albeit a little tight.

I learned a tremendous amount working on that Nova. My dad lifted the engine out of the back of his pickup with a front-end loader and I hooked a chain over the limb of a tree attacked to a come along. I lowered the engine onto the motor mounts, bell housing, and bolted it in place.

The only other step I had to do was align the pressure plate, slide the transmission into place, attach the linkage, and connect the driveline and I was in business.

I loved that car. A few improvements from the JC Whitney catalog for a stereo and some custom lights and I had one fast machine. The three-on-the-tree gear shift was my ticket to freedom.

Yep, I raced it and dropped the clutch off the line at full RPM too many times and burned up the clutch after a few months.

No problem, I knew how to change one out, and they weren’t that expensive.

I picked one up at NAPA one Saturday morning. The NAPA store was close to the Gem Theater in those days. They had a core charge on the clutch of a few dollars but would refund my money when I brought the old one in.

I drove the NOVA back to my grandmother’s house on Gasser Road, blocked the wheels, pulled off the driveline, removed the four bolts holding the transmission to the bell housing, disconnected the linkage, and pulled out the transmission.

The transmission only weighed about 90 pounds, and there was ample space under the car to work without jacking it up.

I pulled the old clutch, replaced it with the new one, reversed the process, and hopped into the driver’s seat to check my work.

It wouldn’t shift. No matter what I tried the clutch stayed in place. I could crank the starter and the car would move since it was locked in place.

I was working alone, so all I could do was pull the new clutch, replace it with the worn-out one, reassemble everything, and drive it back to NAPA.

I suspected it was the throw-out bearing, but that was working perfectly.

The counter guy at NAPA looked at the clutch and was amazed.

“Sorry kid, they built this one backward,” he said. “Take a look at this.”

He pulled another, identical clutch out of a box and sure enough, the center hub extended too far on the side away from the springs.

“Sorry about that. Here you go,” he said.

I took the new clutch back to grandma’s house, and in about 45 minutes I had the car shifting like a dream with the correct part.

Imagine doing that today.

Garages no longer have mechanics, they have technicians. Computer diagnostics and specialized tools have taken the place of intuition and knowledge.

To be fair to the kids of today, you can’t do much on a modern car aside from rudimentary maintenance or maybe a little cosmetic work.

You can’t drop a wrench through a modern engine, and so many of them require metric tools that you can’t just look and see that you need a half-inch, or nine-sixteenths wrench to loosen a bolt.

We live in a different time. Cell phones, video games, and digital entertainment are eroding the fabric of America.

I’m thankful I grew up in a time when tools, bruised knuckles, and a little hutzpah still mattered.


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