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Slick Thinking...

The Story of the PRDA and the Cannonball Run ~ Chapter Two

By Brad Niemcek

Cannonball Van goes up in smoke.

I don't want to seem to obsess about this, but I think I was once a victim of obsessive-compulsive urges. How else can I explain my compulsion about oil consumption. It reared its ugly head in our preparations for the 1971 Cannonball and produced one of the scariest moments we had on our cross-country quest for fame and fortune.

No matter what the reason, I was convinced that weıd need to add oil to the brand new Chevrolet V8 engine in the PRDA van sometime during the course of its first 3,000 miles of existence ­ maybe a number of times. Did I have any basis for that belief, any experience with new engines burning lots of oil? No. But there it is.

And, since our whole plan was to drive non-stop from Manhattan to Redondo Beach, California, I had to come up with a way of checking the oil level and adding new stuff (if needed) while on the move.

I came up with what I thought was a remarkably simple fix: I asked the guys at Briggs Chevrolet in South Amboy, NJ, to reverse the right (passenger side) tappet cover on the engine so that we could access the dip stick and the oil filler cap from inside the van. On a long downward slope, weıd turn the engine off, check the oil level on the dipstick and do our oil-adding thing, as necessary, while coasting.

Trouble is, it turns out the engine did not seem to like what happens when the rightside tappet the cover is oriented improperly. We found that out shortly after exiting the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey and accelerating to our, ahem, cruising speed.

What happened was a loud ³pop² and the van was filled with smoke. Yes, you can picture it if you try: A smoke-filled van loaded with 300 gallons of gasoline, roaring along the highway at something in excess of 65 mph.

We obviously needed to do something quickly. We quickly removed the engine shroud and discovered that the rubber filler cap ­ an unvented rubber stopper, really, had blown right off of its base. For some reason pressure would build up under the cover because, we guessed, of its non-stock orientation.

We replaced the cap. It blew off again. More smoke. Intense concern.

Much calm, intelligent discussion among the three of us ensued. It was Tony who finally came up with a solution. We need to vent the tappet chamber, he said. Well, we couldnıt just leave the cap off, could we? And we certainly couldn't have engine fumes pouring into the van for the next 3,000 miles either, could we?

Fortunately ­ and I have no idea why ­ we had the materials to fix the problem. (No, not really "we", it was Tonyıs brainstorm.) We ducktaped a piece of heater hose to the tappet cover in the place of the cap, then ran the hose out of the passenger side wing window.

And, then we held our breaths. And it worked! The open wing window made a little noise but a van is not a particularly quiet vehicle at highway speeds anyway.

We were finally able to proceed, in relative calm. And things stayed that way ­ until the fuel pump decided to fry itself. Why? These and other exciting questions will be answered next time.

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | To Infinite And Beyond...

Brad Niemcek. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.