David Luyer (luyer) wrote,
David Luyer

Phil's Caddy; Helpful people in downtown San José

For those of you who don't know, my brother and family are visiting very soon for the wedding. My brother has bought a black 1970 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Sedan (basically the same as the limousine model, but without the glass divider) to drive while he's over here and then decide what to do with (and to take back to Australia at some point in the future). It seats nine, or six with a *lot* of legroom.

It's actually quite impressive for its age - a 1970 car with climate control (set the temperature and forget), power seats, power windows and passenger controls for air conditioning and lighting, for example. And it's an extremely smooth car to drive, with comfortable seating - it's easy to see it was a "top of the line" car in its day.

If you're not interested in cars, you should probably skip the next section :)

The car has had a few teething problems, partly since it had been sitting idle somewhere in Nevada for the past 12 years or so, and partly due to poor maintenance. Fortunately it's a very simple car electrically and mechanically, so these are relatively easily and inexpensively fixed, and mostly shouldn't happen again for quite some time, but all of the initial problems put together have been quite time consuming.

On the good side, there's a few "practically unused" things on it - the tires and battery, for example, were changed many years after the car was last registered (it was only driven around 300 miles in most of the years it was unregistered, and the previous owner's ticket for driving unregistered on the same day as the new tire receipt in 2001 was sitting in the glove box as a hint as to why; it appears it was last registered in 1997).

When it first arrived it had no gas cap, probably because the pipe to the gas tank was severely bent and the cap wouldn't go on properly with it over to the side. Instead they'd stuffed paper towel in the pipe. That was one of the easier problems.

The neutral safety switch (controlling automatic brake release, starting, reversing lights, etc) fell apart almost as soon as I tried to use the car, so it wouldn't start -- took a while to work out that was the cause, though, as the symptoms were just that when I turned the key, there was a click but nothing happened; we spent a little while suspecting the starter or the starter solenoid. Fixing the "switch" meant rebuilding the part, as it is a hydraulic and electric part which is no longer manufactured and not easily substituted.

Getting the driver's side mirror into position was also a non-trivial task, I couldn't get it to sit in the right position the first time I drove it, so I was in the slow lane the whole way that day. Eventually I worked out a position I could put the controls in and successfully move the mirror into the right position manually.

After not much more use, the positive lead on the battery stopped conducting at a connection point which the previous owner had added (causing the car to cut out just as I was pulling into the driveway, when a tree branch swung down and hit it -- positive effect from that one, it was then very easy to convince the owners of the place next door to do some extreme pruning on their street tree). Again, once it was found, this was very easy to fix.

Another early discovery was that there's possibly a problem with the alternator; I needed a jump start the very first time I drove it after sorting out registration and insurance, to take it to the DMV for odo confirmation and plate checks, and the person who came to do that noted that it was only at 12.5V after starting, so I've been charging it overnight each time I use it. It also has a mild starting problem; it takes a while to start it the first time in the day, but subsequent starts on the same day have always happened the first time I turn the key.

By the way, the DMV couldn't find the FMVSS plate - I noticed where it was the next day, but they didn't mind that it was missing since it was a 1970 car and the FMVSS plates are noted on the form as "1970 and newer", so they weren't 100% sure if that applied. The odo reading is a bit of a joke as it's a 5-digit odo, so nobody has any idea how many times that's wrapped (based on the paperwork that came with it, it's wrapped at least once).

A little bit later, I discovered that it had a loose hose on the radiator which was causing engine coolant to boil off, but that was easily pushed back on and re-clamped, and now the coolant level seems to have stabilized. The engine oil was just a tad below "add 1 quart", I topped that up today so it's close to "full", doesn't seem like there's any major issues there either (touch wood).

And now we get up to today's issue...

Until today there was an unidentified problem where it would steam or smoke from under the hood, often the first time I stopped at a stop light in the day. It turns out the most likely cause was that the transmission fluid dipstick wasn't properly in place (it was out a little distance when I went to check the level), and the transmission fluid had been gushing out onto the top of the air cleaner, the engine, the underside of the hood and other nearby areas (as well as leaving a large puddle on the ground). Today, it ran out of transmission fluid completely.

The result of this is that it was sitting on a street corner, where people would normally turn, with hazard lights flashing.

Doing this in downtown San Jose doesn't seem to make people think "lets go around, he's having trouble". Instead, they react by sitting behind you and tooting you. Opening a door and waving them past doesn't help either. The only way to people them realize something is wrong with the car seems to be to have the hood up.

Anyway, I'm going to write about the car's issues here, then jump back to the people who helped me, or didn't help me, after the end of the 'cut' segment.

After I worked out that this wasn't something I was going to be able to identify and fix without help, I decided to try and get the car away from the corner. When the car was being pushed, I had all kind of trouble with the steering, it basically had no power steering when the transmission was out. But with a lot of effort, we got the car to a be parked outside my house, facing the wrong direction on a one way street. In the end, I called Nicole's dad, got some advice, worked out the issue, and fixed it.

I also hooked up a vacuum line which was disconnected on one side and covered over on the other side by the prevous owner. At least, the line there was around 2 inches long and that's the only potential place to join it to in the nearby area, so it better be correct :-)

After topping up all the fluids, I took it up to the local Kragen store to get a little more transmission fluid, and just as I was pulling in to the parking lot, the power steering cut out on me. It seems to be cutting out at low speeds and/or while braking, hopefully that's just a coincidence and not a systematic problem (I should probably try disconnecting the vacuum line I connected just to be sure, but it's highly unlikely any vacuum line is related to the power steering).

For those who haven't ever tried it, I'm sure you don't need to try to realize -- it's rather difficult to turn a 21 foot car with no power steering. It cut out on me three times today; other drivers were not understanding at all when I didn't make a tight turn at some lights and then had to go back and forward a number of times to get around, and it was a greater than five-point turn into both the Kragen lot and my driveway today. One theory on the power steering is that it's somehow related to the automatic transmission fluid running out, but I may not get to look into that for a while (the previous owners could have re-routed the power steering to use transmission fluid, which would mean there would now be air in the lines). (All the standard stuff on the power steering looks fine: the belt, the fluid level in the power steering reservoir, etc, and the power steering had never given an issue before today except for some noise the first couple of times I drove it, attributed to dirt on the belt.)

Anyway, now onto the real topic of this post. The helpful and not so helpful people in downtown San Jose.

When the car first cut out, the first "not so helpful" people were the other drivers, who were completely unhappy to go around, even though the street was mostly empty and I had the hazard lights flashing.

The first helpful person was an african american, who saw that I was having car trouble, asked me if there was anything he could do to help, put down what he was carrying, and started asking other passers-by if they would help. All the passers-by in the next few minutes were either white or hispanic. The response of the passers-by was very consistently split across racial lines. The hispanics were all happy to help, and with their help the car ended up in a sensible resting place. All the whites had an excuse. "I have a bad back". "I'm disabled" (what?!). "I wouldn't be any help". You get the idea.

Once we had the car in a semi-reasonable position, the people who had originally helped me all went off to wherever they had been going to, and an older white couple came past - older people often admire this car, and these were no exception; they saw I was pushing it to get it into a proper marked parking spot (with steering difficulty, the best we'd been able to do was put it in a parking spot outside my place, facing the wrong way on a one-way street, rather than in the driveway). They asked if they could help, and I pushed the car into position and then got him to hold it while I went and applied the break, so it was neatly taking up one parking spot.

The next kind person was the parking inspector. I vaguely remember him as most likely the same parking inspector who insisted on writing me a ticket when I had gone into my house for five minutes to give something to Nicole, many months ago, and had left my SLK in the street without putting coins in the meter. But this time he was very understanding; he asked why I had a car the wrong way on the street in a spot with an expired meter, listened to my story, then told me to not bother paying the meter and put a note on the windshield for other parking inspectors to not ticket it, asking only that I get it into my driveway somehow by the end of the day.

Finally, some of my neighbors came past and asked if I wanted help pushing it into the driveway (since this post is partly commenting on how most of the kind and helpful people today were non-white, for completeness, these neighbors are hispanic). By this point I'd talked to Nicole's dad and was reasonably sure I'd be able to fix it quickly, so I declined, but they of course said that if I needed anything I should drop by. And not too much later, just after I'd got it running again, I was off to get something to help clean up, checked I had keys in my pocket, shut the door, and of course they were the wrong keys -- my house keys and the keys to the car were both still in the car. Neighbors to the rescue :-) ... they found a wire coat hanger and, with quite a bit more effort than would be required on most cars, we managed to get a door unlocked (one of those things you want to be a difficult exercise, and it was).

The bottom line: my experience today was quite disheartening if you look at it along racial lines, in that those of my own race were fairly consistently unwilling to help (with the exception of one older couple) with an issue of another, but those of the other races were all very willing to help. Unfortunately, I'm not at all surprised.
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