While on what started as a mostly straightforward visit with my parents, I took some time to drive a couple of my father’s cars: a 1933 Chrysler CQ Imperial convertible coupe, and a 1933 CT Royal Eight chassis.
Dad’s been restoring antique cars almost since I can remember. The first was a 1933 Plymouth PC convertible coupe, then a 1933 Chrysler CT Royal Eight convertible coupe. Both of these were complete restorations. The Plymouth was a relatively intact car: Dad drove it home from New Jersey (with Mom following, carting enough oil and water to refill the car a few times, as necessary; Dad carried a complete tool kit for the trip). Restoring the Plymouth was a comparatively straightforward affair that began in 1961 and lasted about three years. He did all the work on this car except for chrome, upholstery, boring the engine block, and grinding the crankshaft. When Dad hand-sanded the primer and hand-rubbed the lacquer paint, his biceps were very big for a slender guy who never lifted weights! We had many fond family memories and some good family stories thanks to that car and Dad’s propensity to drive the car (rather than trailer it) to car shows, including the big AACA national fall meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a 250 mile trip. (What about the Chrysler? Not now…)
In October of last year, Dad, with grandson Joshua’s help, put the final roadworthiness touches on the Swampmobile. I won’t go into the genesis of this, um, car now except to note that it truly deserves its name and to note that it in many ways it was the crowning touch to Dad’s 70+ year career of working on cars and being a barnyard mechanic, exhibiting the epitome of his art. Joshua rode with Dad (and vice versa) in October for the maiden voyage. Then, in February, Dad and I braved the cold—temperatures never broke 20ºF during my entire visit—and took the Swampmobile for a ride. More than anything, I wanted to ride in and drive the “car,” and Dad wanted me to do the same. It was a wonderful weekend: we got the thing out twice, and Dad set his speed record (over 40 mph) in the Swampmobile just driving up and down the street.
Although the synchromesh mechanism for a transmission was invented by a Cadillac engineer, Earl Thompson, and introduced in Cadillac and La Salle cars in 1928, 1933 Chrysler (and Plymouth) transmissions had no synchromesh mechanism. I had the benefit of learning to shift these cars without ever being formally, or even informally taught: I absorbed it simply be riding in the Plymouth and the Chryslers for years as a kid. There’s a rhythm to shifting these cars, and using the rhythm depends on how hard you’re accelerating and how much torque you’re trying to pull from the engine: accelerate hard uphill and you need to rev the engine higher, accelerate faster, and get through the transmission gates more quickly; accelerate gently on level ground and you can take your time. I’ve found it best to shift using a very light touch on the gearshift lever (despite its length), and to use fingertip and palm pressure rather than a grasp on the shifter knob.
Last weekend, I took the Swampmobile out to give one of my kids a ride. We had driven a couple of short lengths of the street, and was heading up the road for one last long run the full length of the block (a bit over ¼ mile or so). Going up the slight incline to the nice, wide turnaround, we lost power. The engine just stopped. I hit the starter (a “coincidental” starter, incorporating the starter switch into the gas pedal mechanism), the engine cranked and caught, and then died. I inferred that we had simply run the gas tank dry (look carefully at the February picture for the red can at the back of the car: it’s small, with all of just over a gallon’s capacity). With my son Rayden and a friendly neighbor assisting, we turned the car around and pushed it, getting about ⅔ of the way home from the glide down the slight slope. Rayden had sent a message back to base to bring us some gas, and once we refilled the tank, we were all set.
The next day, Rayden and I were out again, this time in the CQ. Dad had reviewed the slightly unusual start procedure with me: the car has an electric fuel pump (not exactly original 1933 equipment) that’s used, essentially, to prime the engine. (With the volatility of today’s gasoline, the carburetor float chamber rapidly loses its left-over load of fuel to evaporation. Priming with the electric pump allows for a quicker start, since you don’t have to crank the engine over and over and over while the engine-driven mechanical pump fills that float bowl.) Start the electric fuel pump running, and let it run until it starts to slow down. Then, turn on the ignition, set the hand throttle and the manual choke, ensure the hand brake is set, put the transmission in neutral and keep the clutch disengaged, and step on the gas peddle (same kind of coincidental starter as on the Swampmobile). Crank until the engine catches, and then juggle the hand throttle and the choke.
We backed the car out of the garage (with a spotter: between a slightly tight fit and limited rear visibility with the back window in place, it really helps) and let the engine warm up. Then, off we went.
About five or six minutes into the drive, while starting from a standstill at a light and heading up a hill, the engine simply wouldn’t take power. It ran at idle, but would stutter and lose power if anything more than idle was demanded. After the traffic cleared, I was able to back the car down into a parking lot and troubleshoot. About the only thing that I could realistically fiddle with there was the choke, to control the fuel-air mixture. In all my recalled experience of Dad driving 1933-vintage cars, once the engine was warmed up—3-5 minutes, unless it was really cold out, and it wasn’t this day—the choke should be pushed in and the engine left to breath fully. When I pulled the choke knob out a bit, though, the engine smoothed out and seemed like it might take power. After experimenting a bit, I found a choke setting that seemed to work, and we set off for home.
When I got home and talked with Dad, he confirmed my findings. On that particular engine, it needs more choke for longer than other similar cars’ engines he’d had.
Though it was still a little unnerving sitting in traffic with an 80 year old car that wouldn’t take power, it was comforting to know that I’d been able to diagnose and solve the problem correctly. I’ve since learned that this engine’s carburetor is set up more than a bit overly lean, and I don’t know why. It’s easy to rectify from the driver’s seat—just pull on a bit of choke—so it’s not really a big issue.