A thaw had set in. Even with the short
January day already darkening, the roads were still running with melted
snow. Spinning tires whipped up slush that spattered windshields.
As Gus Wilson turned the wrecker onto the turnpike, he concluded that mild
weather was bringing new problems along with relief from the cold.
Tired from his day at the Model Garage, he wished
that the late road call he was answering hadn't come. "Smells like the
engine's burning varnish," the state trooper had said on the phone.
"You may have to tow this one."
Gus booted the gas to get up to turnpike speed, and
settled back for the run. It took him nine minutes to cover the eight
miles to the location he'd been given. No disabled car was in sight.
He kept on-heading for an exit. And then- three miles from where it
should've been, he spotted the car, a 1960 Oldsmobile.
Gus pulled up behind it, made sure that his blinker
was working, and walked up. The driver stood beside the car, scowling
as if he had a grudge against the world. His face managed to combine
Flabby jowls with a hard, square jaw.
"Took you long enough," he remarked.
"Would've been here sooner if you hadn't moved from
where you were reported," replied Gus, aware of a nose-wrinkling aroma.
"Wasn't sure anybody'd show." growled the man.
"Thought I'd try it again."
"What stopped you this time?"
"Same thing as before. Can't get any
speed-it's like something is holding me back. Smells so bad, I figured
I'm burning something out, so I pulled off the road."
Grunting noncommittally, Gus opened the hood.
The smell was even stronger, much like that of oil on a hot exhaust
manifold. With his flashlight to eke out the failing daylight, Gus
looked for tell-tale oil stains. There were none. But the engine was
so dirty they might not have showed in any case.
Opening the radiator, Gus flashed the beam into it.
The water level was normal, too. The hoses looked cleaner than the
rest of the engine. Gus guessed they were new.
"Radiators the first thing I checked myself,"
snorted the driver. "There's plenty of water. Don't waste time.
I know how you guys charge-by the minute."
"Okay, anything else you want to tell me to save
time?" asked Gus.
"No; I dunno what's wrong. That's your worry.
Just get on with it."
Gus got on with it. The engine oil-level was
up to the mark. There was no sign of oil leakage from the
valve-chamber covers. He got in and started the engine, noting that
all dash indicators read normal.
Letting the engine run with the automatic drive in
neutral, Gus laid down a tarpaulin and crawled under the car. Fumes
from the breather pipe showed that it wasn't clogged. A new odor-not
of oil- was now very noticeable. Gus suddenly realized he'd smelled it
all along, but the blend of hot oil with the other made it impossible to
Gus wriggled out, revved up the engine and looked
for leakage that might occur with increased oil flow and pressure. The
smell of hot oil now seemed like something subtly different-transmission
fluid. He might have recognized it sooner, Gus felt, if it hadn't been
for that other elusively familiar smell.
"Had any trouble with your transmission?" Gus asked
"Nope. Always been all right. Don't try
selling me a big repair bill on that!"
Gus put the transmission in drive and revved the
engine to a fast idle. It took several seconds for the car to lurch in
response, confirming his suspicion. After a short time he let the
engine idle normally and put the transmission in neutral. He got out
and reached cautiously for the transmission dipstick. It was too hot
Using a rag, he pulled it out. The fluid
level was low. The filler pipe gave off fumes and an acrid odor.
The transmission case was blazing hot. Gus cut the engine.
"It's quicker to ask you than to check," he said.
"Did you drive with the hand brake on?"
The man snorted. "I ain't that stupid.
And before you ask, I didn't push or tow nobody, either. Or climb any
steep hills. I only just came from Wilton Park, and the road's all
flat and easy. Ask me another."
Surprised, Gus said, Wilton's only about 12 miles
south of here."
"Sure, only got this far because some jerk at the
gas station there never finished working on the car till an hour ago."
The smell that wasn't oil once more floated past
Gus's nose, annoyingly familiar yet not normal to a car.
"Your transmission's overheating badly," announced
Gus. "I'm trying to find out why. If it isn't upshifting-"
The elusive smell was the kind you got from a
freshly painted radiator. Gus put his flashlight on the inside of the
car's radiator. Fresh paint gleamed.
"Forget it!" snapped Gus as the man began another
spate of grumbling. No more questions. I might have caught on
sooner by daylight. Why didn't you tell me you just had the radiator
"What for? It's got nothing to do with the
oil, or the transmission, either."
"It has plenty to do with your transmission fluid!"
He slid under the front of the car. The torch
showed exactly what he had expected. Setting thing right took Gus
scarcely a minute. He got up and went toward the wrecker.
"Hey, wait. You ain't going to leave me here,
are you? Asked the grumbler, plaintively.
Gus thrust a cupped hand toward him. "Take a look.
These were at the bottom of the trouble. I'll be back."
From the wrecker Gus brought a can of transmission
fluid. He added enough to bring the level in the car up to normal,
then wrote up his bill.
"Hold on!" protested the man, his heavy chin thrust
toward Gus. "You hand me two pencil stubs, tell me that's the trouble,
and expect me to pay you for that?"
"Your radiator has a bottom section for cooling the
transmission fluid," returned Gus. "When a mechanic takes off the radiator,
he plugs the two lines from the transmission so it won't run out.
Often he sticks a couple of pencil stubs in them."
"That's what your mechanic did. But I'd bet
you were swearing at him when he put the radiator back, beefing so hard he
just forgot to take the stubs out and reconnect the lines to the oil cooler.
With no cooler, the transmission ran hot. It was sluggish because it
was short of fluid, and some of what was left boiled up into froth that
couldn't transmit power."
"Chances are no permanent harm's been done, but you
can have somebody else check that later. Right now you can drive off
to any place or any garage you like-long as it isn't mine."
"Now pay up."
"Sullenly the man paid and got into his car.
Automatically looking back, Gus spotted a car approaching in the near lane.
The Oldsmobile's driver didn't see, or didn't care. He roared out into
the other's path.
Brakes squealed as the oncoming car swerved wildly
onto the shoulder, narrowly missing Gus, and came to a stop 50 feet away.
Its driver promptly backed up. The small sedan, an impudent little
beetle of a car, stood quivering as though frightened by its escape.
Emerging from the glare of the wrecker's headlights, the driver proved to be
a rather overdressed young man who looked as if he'd enjoyed the close call.
"Lucky I couldn't go fast," he said with a grin.
"Since I had to stop anyway, I thought I would ask you to help me.
I'll make it worth your while, and being out on another call anyway, you
needn't tell your boss you made an extra buck."
"What's your trouble?" asked Gus.
"This little bug's buggin' me. Usually she
wheels real good at 70. Today it's so warm I shut off the heater.
So right off the engine slows down like I'd shut off half the gas. The
more I turn down the heater, the slower it goes, until I can't do more than
50. It won't go any faster unless I turn the heater on again."
"When did you start?" asked Gus.
"Since it turned warm. Of course while it was
cold I never turned down the heater. A gas station sold me a set of
new plugs this morning. Didn't help. This afternoon I had
another guy look at it. He said I needed a new carb, but he didn't
Gus opened the rear hood of the Volkswagen and
played his flashlight on the little pancake engine. All the plug wires
were tight. The little mill chuckled sweetly, responding at once to
From the black fan housing in front of the engine
came something Gus had to look twice to believe. A little wisp of
steam. Steam? From an air-cooled engine?
Shutting it off, Gus took a closer look. The
rapidly dispersing wisp looked like steam, smelled like steam. But
there was no other trace of moisture. The distributor was clean and
bone-dry. So was the fan housing itself. The whole engine was so
well sealed from road moisture the car could ford streams.
But the trouble had appeared only since the thaw-or
when the roads got wet-which was the same thing. Gus had run into one
forgetful mechanic today. Was he now on the track of another?
With his flashlight he examined the edges of the
underpan around the engine. They were tight and dry except at one
spot. There had been a forgetful mechanic.
"Here's your trouble," Gus told the driver.
"The lips of the pan gasket weren't fitted around the pan edge there, but
left under it. When the air stream hits them at 60 or so, it forces
the lips down and opens like a scoop. So they act like one, taking in
road spray and funneling it onto the fan casing. From there it blows
back onto the plugs on this side. They short out-and the car slows
"But the heater, man! What's that got to do
with the heater?"
"When it's on full, it routes engine-cooling air
into the car, and the housing gets hot enough to evaporate that spray, so
the plugs don't get wet. When you turn down the heater, you're opening
dampers that let the cooling air flow straight out in back. So the fan
housing runs cooler, doesn't evaporate the water, and the plugs get wet."
"When you slow down to about 50, the gasket lips
flip shut. No more spray gets in. The engine hits on all
four-until you try speeding up again."
The young mans eyes gleamed. "That's so far
out it just could be."
'It was," said Gus, folding the rubber seal
carefully over the edge of the pan. But you'll be okay now."
"Glad you showed," said the young man, handing Gus
some folded bills. "This suit you?"
"That's fine," said Gus.
"Remember, you don't have to tell your boss," the
young man continued, "so it's all payola."
"The boss?" he said. Never tell him a thing.
He's one of those guys who always knows it all."