Winter Beater Blues

here were you on Tuesday; February 3, 2009? I know exactly where I was… and so do plenty of frustrated motorists who happened to share the road with me on that snowy day when my car broke down. A chintzy but clean California rig with zero rust, my recently departed ’92 Mazda 323 was purchased last year for the sole mission of transporting my fleet of cats cross-country from my just-sold El Monte, California digs to the new homestead in rural Massachusetts. Maybe you read about it. If not, go to the Archives and scope out the Steve Mags Speaks column from the February 2008 edition of MoparMax.

I bought that bright red cat mover from a backyard used car lot advertising “any car for $1,700”. I have a belief that if a car will endure a 40 minute road test without puking, farting or blowing up, it’ll generally go 40 hours – the approximate time it takes to go cross country. Just meet it half way with fluids as needed and don’t push it too hard. I’ve had great luck driving cross country in this mode so far in cars as varied as a ’76 Volare wagon (360 2-barrel, 904), a ’75 Valiant (225 Slant Six, 904), a ’67 Dart (273 4-Barrel, 904), a ’62 Valiant (170 Slant Six, 904) and just this past September in a ’65 Dart GT (273 Four Barrel, 904). All of them were relatively trouble free, though plenty of oil, coolant, power steering fluid, ATF, spare tires, belts, hoses and tools were along for each ride just in case.

So when I concluded my pre-departure 40 minute California road test in the Mazda, the only ding was a slight slip when the automatic transmission’s lock-up torque converter engaged at highway speed. Mind you, it was only a momentary flare, then the fluid couple was as good as solid. I even jabbed the gas pedal numerous times to “pick the scab” but every time the slip was only a momentary spook before the gear engaged and everything was cool. A stack of small bills totaling $1,700 – including smog certificate and title fee – and the Mazda was mine... mystery transmission and all.

Well after a semi-successful cross-country kitty jaunt – and several months of bonus-time, driving all around Massachusetts for an additional 2,000 miles or so, the transmission problem blossomed during that fateful Tuesday afternoon. I was traveling on Route 32, a two-lane state highway that runs between Palmer and Ware, MA. The heavy snows of this particularly brutal winter clogged the shoulders making passing – and pulling over - virtually impossible. As the Mazda crested a slight rise, the transmission went into full Neutral. Just like that, with no warning the transmission seemed to disconnect itself from the engine. I wasn’t beating on it, wasn’t speeding or anything. And yes, the fluid was properly filled… I’m good like that.

My instincts told me to move the gearshift into various positions in hopes that the valve body would recognize a successful fluid path and restore forward movement. But no, the car slowly rolled to a stop – right there in the middle of the lane. My goose was cooked. Immediately behind me were at least six or seven cars and it only took a minute before they began honking their horns in frustration. I remember saying to myself: “Hey guys, it’s not like I’m stalled here on purpose”. Man, I sure wished I wasn’t me at that moment.

The reality of the situation was actually very dangerous. There I was on an ice slicked road, an inch of snow falling every fifteen minutes, opposing traffic hustling past, and I was immobilized with no place to go. I opened the door and tried to push the car over to the side of the road as impatient drivers whisked around me at any opportunity. Though the Mazda weighed less than 2000 pounds – an easy task for this one-man push squad – my boots kept slipping on the snow and progress was measured in inches. Beyond that, there was so much packed snow on the shoulder from previous storms, there was really no place to push the car even if I could have. So I closed the door and sat down inside, doing my best to ignore the disgusted honks and angry shouts.