Shift Happens (or Doesn’t)

My faithful readers will recall the clutch cable problems the Puddle Jumper had last year at the Catskill Drive for our 356 group. The cable was replaced in a parking lot in upstate NY using a borrowed spare from another traveling member (thanks Jeff). It was a little shorter than the correct one and prevented the use of a second locking nut on the transmission end but worked just fine the rest of the year. I thought about replacing after I got home but under the “if it ain’t broke , don’t fix it” policy I left it alone. A few hundred enjoyable miles in the spring and summer kept it on the list for the 1100 mile run to the 356 Registry East Coast Holiday. The engine in the Speedster was back up and running (boy these old cars break a lot) but didn’t have enough miles on it for a long , steady speed , trip. That looked like a great plan when the departure day began with heavy rain. The Speedster would’ve been awash while the coupe kept me dry.

The plan was to drive the 410 miles to brother Bill’s house in Maryland, pick him and Beverly up for the second day drive to meet a bunch of friends in Wythsville, VA for dinner, then another couple of hours to  Blowing Rock, NC. I asked WAZE to plot the shortest route and it director me out the Mass Pike to Rt 84 and to the Merritt Parkway into NY. Not the way I would normally go but I’ve contested the WAZE instructions before and always been wrong so I went with it. I figured that since it took real time traffic in to account maybe the rain was backing things up on Rt 684. I needed to make a pit stop so when the rain slowed down a bit I ran down a short exit ramp on the Parkway to bail out. As I depressed the clutch pedal to downshift to third gear it went quickly to the floor and didn’t come back. I had lost the clutch cable again.

After you drive these old cars long enough, when something mechanical fails you tend to know exactly what failed. Throwing the gearbox into neutral I rolled to a stop to decide what to do. There was no doubt in my mind that the nut on the transmission end of the cable had fallen off and so the cable could no longer move the release bearing to operate the clutch pressure plate (TMI). I looked at the odometer to see that I was 212 miles from home and WAZE said I was 198 miles from Bills house. I was clearly out of AAA tow range. And it was still raining.

I have driven standard shift cars without a clutch before and even did a drive from Cape May, NJ to Boston with two kids in the car back in the ‘80’s. That was in a BMW 535is when the hydraulic slave cylinder failed. Since I figured that all I needed for a fix was another 8mm nut and the ability to install it, a drive to Maryland was the answer.

Old guys in old cars all know how to drive a standard shift without a clutch. It does depend upon a good strong battery and a well running engine. I will share the secret but know that this trick will not work with a modern car. They are wired so that the starter will not engage unless the clutch pedal is down which will disconnect the engine from the transmission and they needs to be connected for this to work.

The engine needs to be warmed up before attempting this procedure so with the car in neutral, just start the car and bring it up to operating temperature first. Then shut it off and secure everything in the car including passengers. With the ignition and hand brake off put the car in first gear. Turn the key on, release the hand brake, depress the gas pedal down half way, wait a moment and then engage the starter. The car will act like it was hit in the rear as it hops off and begins to move off in first gear. Now you have it moving in first gear how do you go to second gear? Lift off the throttle and pull gently and it will “fall” into neutral. As the engine speed slows a little pressure on the gearshift lever will drop it into second gear. If it doesn’t drop in just raise the engine speed a little and try again. Light pressure is all that is needed so don’t force it into gear. It gets better with practice and higher gears are easier. Downshifts are the same but with a higher , not lower, engine speed. Remember that if you stop the car you’ll have to start over so don’t stop.

On the remaining miles I only had to stop three times, once for gas, once in a traffic  jam and once to go to first gear to drive into Bills garage. Don’t try to downshift into first while moving, it’s too hard to match the engine to transmission speed while moving.  You will be surprised how slow you can go in second gear and still keep moving. It was a bit tense a few times but EZ Pass really helped on the Delaware bridge and the Baltimore tunnel. Bill was waiting with garage space and tools so I pulled up the floor boards to see if my diagnosis was correct, it was. The nut on the front was in place, the one on the rear was missing. 

We pulled the right rear wheel to allow access to that side of the transmission where the cable was mounted to measure the size of the nut we needed. Off to dinner and Ace Hardware and back to the garage. We bought a threaded sleeve (metric of course) to extend the cable length thinking that would let us use an additional lock nut for a permanent fix. When  it was all back in place it appeared that the cable was way too long so it came apart again. That time I couldn’t get any resistance on the pedal and the cable still seemed way too long. What was going on here? With a spacer on the cable I finally got some resistance but it didn’t seem right. With the car up on jack stands and in neutral, I started it up to test the fix. It made terrible noises. Sounded like metal scraping on metal in the area of the clutch. Our night and my ride to NC was over. We deduced that somehow the release bearing, with no pressure from a connected cable, had dropped off the yoke that held it and the shortened cable had pushed that yoke into the pressure plate. Ouch.

It was midnight and Bill suggested that we pull the engine out to find the problem. No chance, I suggested we go to bed but before we did we needed to push the car out to put Beverly’s car back inside.  With the wheel back on and the Tub on the ground we started to push it out of the  garage. As I walked over the spot the transmission covered I looked down to see a small C shaped clip laying on the ground. It was one of two clips that hold the release bearing onto to the yoke. The only clip like that used in the entire car. I had new clips at home waiting but that was a long way away.

That find told us that our conclusion was correct but left three questions unanswered:

1.   How did the clip get out of the transmission housing

2.   Why didn’t the clip fall out somewhere in the last 198 miles   

3.   Why did it wait until it was in Bills garage to drop the clip       

These cars never cease to amaze me, I swear they are alive. See last months column.

It turned out to be a great weekend as I took Bill’s Acura (2006 – 147k miles) and followed his Speedster to NC and had a great time. There were lots of Tubs from the eastern states and the weather was clear and sunny all week. The Puddle Jumper missed a great Holiday but I didn’t.

A good friend who attended the Holiday was heading to Boston from NC  with an empty trailer to pick up a 356 so for the cost of a dinner he scooped up the Puddle Jumper in Maryland and brought it back to Mass for me. Aren’t car friends great?  Repair report to follow.

-Tom Tate