If I’ve learned anything about owning a vehicle that’s older than I am, it’s that they have a quality that is almost human-like. Call it personality or charm, but one thing is for sure, you are going to develop feelings for them and think of them like an additional family member.
Tezarae is no different. At fifty-two years old, she’s like a lovable aunt…Aunt Tez. She can hold her own but she’s also a little delicate. I’ve grown quite fond of Tez during our drive from Washington State, south to San Francisco, and I have faith that she’ll get us to our destination. I’ve been gentle coaxing her down the highway whispering, ‘c’mon old girl’.
A few things about Tez that are pretty cool. First of all, Tez is short for Cortez, Clark Cortez to be exact. She was built in good old ‘Murica in 1964. She’s from Michigan and was actually manufactured by the Clark Forklift company. Her serial number is 230 . Clark manufactured less than 3700 Cortezes and according to a fellow Cortez owner, there are likely less than 600 still on the road today. I guess you could say that Tez is a fairly rare vehicle.
But as uncommon as she is, her parts are generally all available from neighborhood auto supply stores; the front transaxle is the only difficult-to-service or replace part on her. She’s powered by a six-cylinder Chrysler 225 ‘slant six’, an under-powered but robust gasoline engine. When it’s cold, there is a choke to help get Tez started (something you might be more used to seeing on a lawn mower than a car). And to help slow her down she’s got hydraulic drum brakes.
Speaking of brakes, Amanda and I had an exciting few moments recently while driving West on Highway 299 in Northern California to a friend’s house near Humboldt County. For those of you who haven’t driven the mountain roads in NorCal, you might call them treacherous. 299 is characterized by steep grades, sharp curves, and beautiful scenery. As you wind down out of the hills to the coast, you pass through redwood groves on steep hill sides where you have to navigate hairpin turns.
As someone who has driven LOTS of different cars and trucks including semi-sized, fully-loaded production trucks (thanks Burning Man), I am well aware of the hazards of mountain driving with large vehicles. I understand the necessity to keep your brakes cool so that they function when you want to stop. With any vehicle, but ESPECIALLY with older vehicles that have drum brakes, you want to pulse (or pump) the brakes instead of just standing on the pedal all the way down the hills. You also ideally want to downshift instead of constantly braking – it’s much easier to let the engine compression modulate your speed and it keeps your brakes cool in case you need more stopping power.
After reading the title of this post, I’m sure you have an idea of what we experienced while winding down the hills on 299. After what seemed like hours of curving roads (in the pouring rain no-less), Amanda and I were coming close to the end of the steep downhill driving. I had been doing everything correctly, pumping the brakes when I was using them, downshifting and letting the engine do the work to slow me down. But all of this didn’t seem to matter. There was just SO much downhill driving as we descended from the mountains that Tez’s brakes started to heat up.
Just as soon as I thought that the brakes were starting to feel a little ‘weird’, we hit some of the steepest downhill grades of the drive. As we rounded one bend, I was able to make out a 10MPH sign followed by a hairpin turn just ahead. I had Tez in second gear and was attempting to slow down more but all of a sudden the brakes went from tired to non-functional. My heart began to race. Amanda asked what was wrong and I was only barely able to say, ‘the brakes aren’t working!’ as we rolled forwards towards the sharp turn. Standing out of my seat against the brake pedal I was able to slow us down just enough to swing through the turn and into a straight section of road with a big enough shoulder to pull off.
I immediately jammed the emergency brake to the floor, still standing on the brake pedal and finally down-shifted to first gear. As I down shifted I took my foot off the gas and Tez slowly lurched to a stop as the combination of the brakes, first gear and the emergency brake was enough to slow her 8000lbs to the point of stalling. My heart was pounding, but I managed to get her to stop safely on the side of the road after complete brake failure.
Sliding open the window, I instantly smelled the acrid, carcinogenic scent of burning brake pads. I got out of the driver’s seat to take a closer look. Upon closer inspection of the wheels, I saw smoke rising into the damp air. The smoke and drizzling rain lit up in Tez’z headlight beams creating an ominous looking scene. Amanda and I narrowly escaped catastrophe. Getting back into the coach, I imagined other scenarios with less benign outcomes. We were very lucky that I was able to stop our new vehicle safely and without any damage as most alternative outcomes involved steep hillsides and large trees.
Amanda and I sat on the shoulder of the road for thirty minutes, allowing the brakes ample time to cool off. Once I felt safe to start driving again, I eased Tez onto the asphalt and began navigating the windy road ahead of us very conservatively. After a few more steeps and bends, the road mellowed out and we were once again on comfortable terrain.
Safe on the other end of a scenario that could have ended in disaster, I’ve taken time to reflect on the experience. I was aware of the short-falls of 60’s era drum brakes but this ‘near miss’ was a good reminder that assumptions can lead to bad outcomes. In the case of Tez and windy NorCal roads, drum brakes just don’t perform well enough to stop an eight-thousand pound vehicle repeatedly on steep grades. I was a cautious driver but I am even more careful now when driving Tez downhill. Our newest topic of internet research: disc brake conversions!