"Gus Wilson! How fortunate - there was
something I had to see you about."
Gus turned on the coffee-shop stool to
face the small, bearded man, a member of the local high-school faculty.
"'Morning, Mr. Lessing," he said.
"Cutting a class for coffee?"
"I don't think so," returned the
other, taking a notebook from his pocket and hastily leafing through it.
"No, I'm free now. I want to pick up a book I ordered and - yes, here it is
- to tell you about Paul."
"Paul?" asked Gus, sipping coffee.
"My brother," said Peter Lessing.
"He's on one of his recording trips, and stopped to see me, as usual.
There's some trouble with his car, so I sent him to you."
"I'm going back to the Model Garage
soon as I finish here. What instrument does he play?"
"Instrument?" Lessing peered at Gus in
amazement. "Oh, he's not a musician. My brother is an ornithologist, perhaps
this country's foremost authority on bird songs."
"This car's difficulty is most
serious. It is ruining his ears, which, of course are highly trained and
sensitive." The little man looked sternly at Gus, his eyes owlish above a
large, beaklike nose. "I am merely a teacher of biology. My brother is a
maestro of nature's melodies."
"Well, I sure will help all I can,"
promised Gus. "Is there anything else on your mind?"
"Let me think," pondered Lessing. "It
was something about my wife . . ."
"Maybe you better phone me,' suggested
Gus, swallowing his coffee. "What did you say's wrong with your brother's
"It chirps!" said Lessing.
As Gus drove up to the Model Garage 10
minutes later, a Plymouth emerged from the shop and drove down the street.
If Gus hadn't just left Lessing, he would have sworn it was he driving.
"Well, Stan," said Gus to his
assistant on entering. "Did you get the bird out?"
Stan stared at him dumbfounded.
"A guy I've never seen comes in here
15 minutes ago, complains his car chirps like a bird, and when he drives out
you come in as if you know all about it!"
"His brother told me. No sweat, huh?"
"The drive-shaft splines were dry,"
said Stan. "Soon as the grease I put in works through, the squeaks ought to
An hour went by. Then a car horn
demanded entrance. When Gus raised the door, the Plymouth drove in,
announcing its progress by a series of chirpy squeaks.
Apparently the Lessing brothers were
twins, though this one lacked the beard and wore a hunting hat and carried
binoculars instead of the book bag Peter Lessing affected.
"It's unbearable," began Paul Lessing.
"My ears are throbbing. I may never hear properly again. I believe I heard a
house finch this morning, but before I could stop, a cardinal answered this
car's abominable chirps and the finch vanished."
"Suppose you take a chair," suggested
Gus. "I'll drive the car and listen."
"Thank you. It will be a relief."
Gus got into the Plymouth, the back of
which was loaded with tape recorders, microphones, and other equipment. A
slow squeak began before he was out of the shop, becoming a rapid
chirp-chirp-chirp as the car gained speed. It seemed synchronized with wheel
rather than drive-shaft rotation. Applying the brakes had little effect on
it. Even without particularly sensitive ears, thought Gus, a few miles of
driving to that sound could be maddening.
Back in the shop, Gus put the car on a
body lift, the wheels hanging free. He turned them, listening for the click
of a defective bearing, the drag of brake lining, or the squeak of
out-of-round drums. None of these was evident.
"I should tell you," said Paul
Lessing, "that one mechanic wanted to install new brake lining, and another
a new drive shaft. But either would have delayed my trip. One man said the
antisqueak spring on a brake drum was missing or broken, but on checking
confessed himself mistaken."
Gus lowered the car enough to get into
it, started the engine, and ran the wheels briefly under power. There was no
"Fine! The chirp's gone," said
"Not really," said Gus. "I raised the
car to check some things that might show up that way.
Others wouldn't. The wheels and
suspension aren't loaded with the car on the hoist, nor is the body subject
to road stress. That makes a difference."
Dropping the car to the floor, Gus
drove it off the hoist a few feet. It chirped. Lessing covered his ears.
On the garage floor, Gus thought,
there was hardly enough body movement to cause a door or hood squeak. But
the weight of the car came into full play. Getting out, he looked at the
wheels for a long minute, then proceeded to take off all four of the full
wheel covers, unsnapping the serrated edges that gripped the wheels. Laying
the covers aside, he drove the car out again.
Around the block he drove, chirplessly.
Grinning widely, he reentered the shop.
"Cheer up, Mr. Lessing," he said.
"From now on, the birds you hear will all be up in the trees."
Gus rubbed an oily rag around the
wheel flanges against which the covers snapped, then put the covers back on.
"You are quite sure, Mr. Wilson?"
asked Lessing. "I don't understand."
"When the car's weight is on them,"
explained Gus, "the wheels flex a bit each time they go around. This causes
a little movement between them and the wheel covers where they touch.
Both parts being dry, there's a
slip-stick action that makes a squeak, which the drumlike metal parts
amplify. The oil I put on should quiet the racket by letting the parts slide
on each other."
"Wonderful," said Paul Lessing. "I
shall seek out that house finch again."
"He's back," muttered Stan when Gus
returned from a late lunch. "With a false beard and a different car."
Looking over his helper's shoulder,
Gus saw it was Peter Lessing standing beside a 1965 Pontiac.
"Wrong, Stan. It's his brother,"
whispered Gus. He turned to the customer.
"What is your problem, Mr. Lessing?"
"My wife and I had a disagreement
about this car," the little man answered. "Except for my yearly journey to
my Biology Association meeting, we use it chiefly around town. But on two
turnpike trips recently it began to shimmy distressingly. A friend suggested
wheel alignment, so I asked my wife to bring the car here.
"An inveterate bargain hunter, she saw
an advertised special and took it to one of those chain service shops
instead. They pointed out what they said was a dangerous condition - loose
lower ball joints - and said they would not be responsible for alignment or
our safety unless those were first replaced, at a cost of $90. As this is
what we had budgeted for the Association meeting, my wife says we must
forego it to repair the car."
Gus shrugged. "There's a lot of
confusion about loose ball joints. Some shops take advantage of it. My
twin-post hoist is free, so let's find out."
Driving the Pontiac on it, Gus
supported both the lower control arms just outboard of the coil-spring
"This is the only time you'll see any
looseness in lower ball joints," he told Lessing. "On the road, spring
pressure and car weight holds the ball firm. Here's what they probably
showed your wife."
He grasped the wheel at top and bottom
and rocked it across its diameter.
"There's less than a quarter-inch of
play, so it's within max radial tolerance. But we have to check something
Going to the tool bin, Gus brought
back a dial indicator, plunger extension, and clamp. He set up the
instrument on the steering arm, between the backing plate and tie-rod
connection. The plunger extension bore against the underside of the control
arm, near the center of the ball joint. With a heavy screwdriver under a
backing-plate bolt, he pried straight up. The indicator needle swung around.
"There's 40 thousandths' play," he
said. "When it gets to 50 on this car, it's time to replace the lower
The other wheel gave a similar
"Isn't it dangerous?" asked Lessing.
"The upper ball joints should be
replaced if they show any looseness," said Gus. "But the lower ones are
compression joints, safe within the specified clearance. Since 1963, a lot
of lower ball joints were mistakenly condemned by state inspection stations
Thousands of good ones were scrapped.
"Many returned under warranty checked
out well within the safe clearance. On later models some car makers reduced
that clearance - Cadillac cut it to 20 thousandths - to end such
"I hope you're saying it won't cost
$90," put in Peter Lessing.
"Not for new ball joints," said Gus
with a grin. "Wheel bearings are okay, control arms tight.
Springs don't seem soft. I'll balance
and align the wheels. Your bill ought to be way below that."
That afternoon Gus shifted a cupped
tire to the rear, then balanced and aligned the front wheels. Caster proved
somewhat excessive. Gus set in the necessary shims to correct it.
In the road test, steering was smooth
and self-straightening. No trace of shimmy appeared even at 75 m.p.h.
Satisfied, Gus took the car back to the shop.
When Mrs. Lessing phoned, Gus was able
to name a reasonable figure.
Just before closing time, Paul
Lessing's Plymouth rolled in to the accompaniment of loud chirping.
"Can't win them all, Gus," remarked
The Plymouth came to a stop. The bird
sounds did not. They continued as both Lessings got out, smiling. When the
song ended, Paul Lessing reached inside the car and flipped a switch.
"A special rendition for you, Mr.
Wilson," said the little ornithologist. "In gratitude for enabling me to
record the first song of the house finch in this area."
"And for saving me a considerable
amount," put in Peter Lessing.
"You know, Boss," muttered Stan as he
closed the shop door, "those splines were dry. But they weren't squeaking.
How did you know it was the wheel covers making like the birds?"
"Guess I was one up on you," replied
Gus innocently. "I got a merit badge for bird study when I was a Boy Scout."