The Volvo Parts, Accessories &
Performance Specialists Since 1963

Trans-America Challenge 2012

2013-05-23 - Frank Gump

Article used with permission from VCOA's Rolling Magazine.

When an 84-year old motor enthusiast makes his 74th acquisition a 1965 PV544 there has to be a reason. It starts with the fact that I am not a collector despite the 74 cars but, in keeping with the surgical ethos, it’s all about bringing the dead back to life. I look for cars that were parked/abandoned and then try to get them back on the road. When I started in the 60s, the only way to socialize such activities was through car shows. Even though I bought a compressor and every new air gun that came along, I wasn’t suited for 400 wet to 1200 dry, blocking, and then rubbing out orange peel. Once the car ran I lost interest and looked for another. Until I met John Brown, that is—a Brit who came up with HERO, the Historic Endurance Rally Organization.

Factory supported rally car racing ranks right below F1 in Europe and John had been a navigator in international events like the Monte Carlo and Acropolis Rallies. He noted the enthusiasm for historic motor racing and applied it to historic rally cars, which soon became anything built before 1972. This was my kind of thing—a chance to be part of the old car scene without lining up screw heads, authenticity manuals, and clean undercarriages. Admittedly, British rallies came with arcane things like route books with tulip diagrams, time-mileage tables, trip meters, and control points where your arrival was timed to the second. For many competitors, just getting from London to Cape Town, which Betse and I did in 1998, or Peking to Paris was sufficient.

I did some additional rallies in my 1960 Mercedes 220 SE and expected to use it when I signed up for the Trans-America Challenge 2012—New York to Alaska—but two problems came up. The first was a commitment that prevented us from leaving New York on May 8, plus the fact that my 220 SE wasn’t ready. My need for a replacement coincided with a fellow SCCA member’s retirement and his decision to sell his 1965 PV544 Sport (VIN 434521), an original California car except for the paint. I checked it out with Joe Lazenby, who provided spares based on his experience driving his 544 from California to Pennsylvania.

The rally participants consisted of 53 teams. Each car has to have both driver and navigator and, as would be expected, the majority came from England. A sizable Dutch contingent was followed next by Germany. Belgium, Portugal, Australia, and New Zealand were also represented. Six of us came from the U.S., which greatly reduced the expense since the Europeans had to not only ship their cars to Port Newark but also back from Anchorage. My problem was somewhat different, in that I had to drive west, catch the rally, meet my navigator, who preferred Air Canada, in Vancouver, and then drive back from Alaska. A total of 11,200 miles, which is asking a lot from a 50-year old, never touched car no matter how many spares you carry.

The makeup of the teams and cars was eclectic to say the least. The chemistry between driver and navigator is critical, given the fact that you will spend weeks together from dawn to dusk and that the navigator, and not the driver, is in control of the car. Since it’s not racing and the route book never connects one hotel to the next via a direct route, the navigator’s skill usually determines the outcome. Wives predominated, but Alastair Caldwell, former McLaren team manager and winner of the London Cape Town event in a 280 SL, brought his 94-year old mother. Being a considerate son, he drove a Silver Cloud II on this occasion.

All-female teams are part of these rallies and this one was no exception. Two German women in their 20s driving a 1924 Bentley 4½ started, but were involved in the only serious accident of the rally. Making a wrong turn—a U-turn—resulted in them being broadsided by a pickup truck that overturned the Bentley, causing severe but fortunately not fatal injuries to both driver and navigator. This happened on the second day and also took out the most interesting car in the rally because the owner was the uncle of the Bentley driver and had to stay with his niece.

The fact that Hermann Layher would participate with a priceless 1928 Mercedes S greatly impressed me and lends strong support to those who feel that even historically significant cars should be driven. There were four other prewar cars in the rally, the oldest being a 1916 Lancia Theta which had successfully completed the Peking to Paris Rally in 2008. The car was reliable and fast, scary fast considering that it had only rear wheel mechanical brakes. Two Bentley tourers remained, but the most beautiful car was an Alvis drophead and the most unusual a 1937 Dodge Coupe with right-hand drive. Fords, Mercedes, and Jaguars predominated in the postwar entries, but there were three Volvos—another 544, a 1967 144S, and a 1968 142.

On May 22nd I set forth, suitably nervous because I have always tried to abide by the 5, 50, 500-mile rule and my Volvo had only completed the 5 and 50 part. Summit, N.J. to Joliet, Ill. was uneventful but the next morning the generator light would not go out. A look under the hood was not revealing—the new fan belt was spinning the generator and there were no loose connections. I had both a spare voltage regulator and generator, but it wasn’t clear which one I needed to replace so I headed for the nearest Volvo dealer, two traffic lights from the interstate. Before I got very far the generator light went out. I debated briefly but opted for a U-turn and back to 80 West.

The light continued this behavior every morning until I replaced the regulator with a used spare in Saskatoon on the way back. This solved the problem but only for two days, after which it was back to waiting five minutes every morning for the light to go out.

When I got home I had a voltmeter and measured about 1 volt at the D+ terminal of the regulator, probably from residual magnetism in the field coils but not enough to put out the light. After driving around the block for five minutes, the D+ terminal now measured the expected 14 volts. It still wasn’t clear to me if the delay was in the regulator contacts—they have to close to energize the generator field poles—or in the generator itself. Since the voltage regulator had been replaced, the next step would seem to be the generator.

I used the car for errands the next day but didn’t have time to work on it, so the following morning I got out my spare generator but decided to check again before making the switch. This time the light went out promptly just as it had done for the two months prior to the trip. My thought is that during a 200+ mile trip, where the regulator contacts have to open and close thousands of times (in the Volvo regulator, current and voltage windings use the same core and contacts), something happens that makes them sluggish the next morning. I could buy a new one as opposed to the used regulator I put in, but it would take a 200-mile trip to properly test it and I’ve had enough seat time in the car for this year.

I caught up with the rally cars as they were crossing the border into Canada from Idaho and stayed with them to Vancouver. I picked up my navigator at the airport and the following day we headed north through Whistler, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics, in a tongue of agricultural land featuring fruit trees and vineyards to Quesnel.

Day 2 started the time trials on dirt roads, called gravel sections by the British. Canadian dirt/gravel has stones up to three inches in diameter creating an awful din but fortunately no damage. Over night was in Smithers, a town created as part of the Northwest Staging Route—a series of airfields designed to ferry planes to Russia under the Lend-Lease program during WWII. Once in Fairbanks, the planes were taken over by Russian crews who flew them over the Bearing Strait.

Day 3, at 532 miles, was one of the longest and brought us to Watson Lake on the Alaska Highway. It took us through a very remote region and the organizers required all cars to have fuel for 300 miles, which meant a five gallon Jerry can for the Volvo.

I was looking forward to the section on the Alaska Highway (also known as the ALCAN Highway), because for those of us who came of age during WWII it was the only good news during that first difficult year. I was a ninth grader in 1942 and remember following the amazing feat performed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they built a highway across 1,523 miles of sub-arctic wilderness, averaging up to eight miles a day and completing the task in less than eight months.

I was a college student when it was first opened to civilian traffic in 1948 and my roommate and I were determined to take on this once in a lifetime adventure. He got married and I went to medical school, but I wanted to see what remained of the old road. It turns out that the Army didn’t really build a road, rather a single-lane dirt track with corduroy and temporary bridges called a “Pioneer Road” designed to support a more usable road being built by civilian contractors. This created a fair amount of confusion since the public road engineers frequently found that they couldn’t use the Army track and disparities of several miles were frequent.

The civilian road was still under construction in 1943, when it became obvious that Alaska was not about to be invaded and scarce wartime resources were reallocated elsewhere. The result was that the Canadian government was reluctant to take over the road after the war, since its poor condition would require significant additional expenditures. However, hardy souls wrote glowing reports leading to a gradual increase in tourist traffic. Maintenance picked up, along with relocations of the worst sections, and proper bridges. Paving started in the settled sections to deal with dust and by the 1980s it was virtually complete from Dawson Creek, mile zero, to Fairbanks.

What we drove in 2012 still follows the same general path as the old ALCAN Highway but that road and the associated romance is long gone. Despite the significant improvements some excitement remains, as I can attest having been held up on the return trip for three days by a major washout south of Teslin, resulting in a night in the backseat of the Volvo.

Day 4 of the rally brought us to Whitehorse, Yukon’s major/only city. It was a trading post throughout the 19th century, because the Yukon River was navigable up to the rapids that gave rise to the town’s name. It became a real town in 1898 along with Skagway and Dawson City as a result of the Klondike River gold rush and these three towns represent the backbone of the present day tourist industry. Skagway, a port in the Alaskan panhandle, was the primary point of entry for the “Stampeders” who then had to climb over White Pass to get to Whitehorse and the Yukon River and on to the gold fields around Dawson City.

The three towns are very different today and a lot of this has to do with the Alaska Highway. Dawson City was north of the most direct route to Fairbanks and had to be bypassed. As a result it became a ghost town after the gold ran out, but tourists love the few remaining buildings, the wooden sidewalks, and the unpaved streets. Skagway also has wooden sidewalks, but is far more picturesque because the false-fronted buildings that lined its main street at the height of the gold rush have not changed even though the streets have been paved. It didn’t have the Highway, but it was a seaport and in 1900 investors from London and the U.S. built a narrow gauge railroad through 600 miles of challenging terrain to connect the port to Whitehorse and the Alaska Highway. Today it’s a regular stop for cruise ships and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, which did yeoman work during WW II, now operates up to 22 tourist trains a day for the scenic trip over White Pass.

After Whitehorse we left the Alaska Highway to take the more challenging road to Dawson City and then on to Fairbanks and finally to Anchorage. We were less than 100 miles from the goal when the Volvo suddenly stopped and not even a cough on restart efforts, suggesting an electrical problem which turned out to be a loose connection at the distributor terminal. The problem was that you can’t properly tighten this connection unless you take off the cap and use a 7 mm wrench on the head of the stud, which I failed to do when I made up a new wire from the coil to the distributor to deal with the previous owner’s kill switch. The rally organizers always include mechanics in the package and they solved the problem in no time.

Most of the participants shipped their cars back to England from Anchorage, but some elected to drive back to Newark. The drive back was complicated by road closings, but the Volvo did well almost to Edmonton when it became hard to start and started missing badly. I decided to push on to Saskatoon, a city of sufficient size to have a Volvo dealer. Fortune smiled on me at Autosport, where I met Bob Gawdon and Jeff Preston who not only know Volvos but love the old ones.

The points were the problem, which didn’t disturb me since a set was included in my spares but it turned out they would not work in my distributor. The correct ones did not exist in Saskatoon but arrived the next day from Edmonton. Between working on the car and working the phones to get the right points and condenser my car got a lot of attention. When I went to pay all that was asked was that I pose for some pictures.

The old Volvo, and even older owner, brought me other instances of amazing kindness along the way—a motel room offered up when I landed in Butte, Montana along with every high school track team in the state; a navigator who slept in her car so I wouldn’t have to spend a second night in the backseat of the Volvo; and the U.S. Customs agent who took the time to straighten me out at night when I found I was in Montana instead of on the road to Minot, North Dakota.

Despite all the work Jeff was not completely happy with the Volvo because of a miss at high RPMs. He could see that I was anxious to get home and the miss appeared only at speeds over 65 or so and I had no problems after leaving Saskatoon. I did study the miss and it would kick in no matter what the load or throttle opening was, so I suspected the distributor rather than the SU carbs.

Once at home I decided the easiest way to deal with the problem would be to get a Pertronix electronic ignition kit. Turned out that my distributor number went with the 1800 and not the 544, which explained why the spare points didn’t fit. The 1800 carb may be a retrofit but I expect it’s because the PV544 Sport with the B18 engine had a different distributor than the earlier 544s.

The Petronix ignition has to be tied into the positive and negative terminals (primary winding) on the coil. As all 544 owners know, there is no access to the positive terminal since the wire from the ignition switch is enclosed in a metal sheath. I used a standard coil but inserted a four-prong Bosch relay activated from the negative terminal of the old coil, making it possible to use the ignition switch as before. As suspected this solved the misfire problem and the Saskatoon tune-up now provides improved performance.

A repeat Trans-America Challenge will take place in May 2015. Betse and I made a deal with Alastair Caldwell to sign up again if he would bring his mother.

Frank Gump lives in Summit, N.J. and can be reached at s.gump@verizon.net. For more information on the Trans-America Rally, please see www.endurorally.com/pages/trans-america-2012-rally. Article used with permission from VCOA's Rolling Magazine.