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“Oh my God.”
That was Andy — one exhale away from a panic attack, which was how I felt too, only he has a better way of showing it.
There was no wonder we were both anxious though. We had built up to this very moment — the moment we were taking our 1965 Clark Cortez motorhome on its first drive … on the road.
So prepare yourself too because, to be honest, we weren’t going to share this story.
“Buckled in?” Andy asked me as he reached for his seatbelt and snapped it together.
See, after we fabricated our RV’s air intake system, rainwater poured inside during a storm so instead of moving forward on our mechanical overhaul, we knew we needed to make our RV watertight instead. This though called for different jobs to be completed, and one was replacing our two cracked panes of glass and our window and door seals.
I’m going to leave off another whole story on our plans to replace the glass and seals, but know Andy and I are — for the first time — considering breaking our promise of doing all work ourselves by hiring a professional.
And this is a fine dream …
we refuse to pay for our retro relic to be towed on the back of a flat-bed tractor trailer again.
That means Andy and I would need to drive our Cortez to the repair shop.
Let me say it again: We needed to drive our Cortez … away from the safety of the farm … and onto roadways … with other drivers.
I hear you now — Sure, this is what the RV was built to do, but welcome to our story where our steel beast rarely starts; it gets stuck in gears; it squeaks, bangs, and clunks when it does move so that — overall and understating — it is a hazard on wheels.
“Got your crash helmet?” Andy asked me as I pull the passenger seatbelt across the long two-person passenger bench. I throw a this-is-not-safe glance his way, but he continues adjusting his seatbelt so I did the only thing I could do — I pulled mine tighter … only it barely moved and draped loosely in my lap.
“It didn’t snap but it is done,” I said, trying to pull the belt apart unsuccessfully — which is good. At least it hooked. For whatever help that will serve me.
“Mine’s got room for whiplash.” Andy said this so matter-of-fact, which reminded me that our steering wheel and dash definitely do not contain airbags and our seats do lack headrests. It goes without saying vehicle safety in the 1960s was dramatically different than the 2020s.
I say all of this though because if your mind is where it should be (and you’re about to have a panic attack too), I need to confess a couple points to make you feel better …
First, we had a date scheduled to bring our RV in for an estimate — and this drive was not that date. Instead, as we waited for that time to approach, Andy and I thought it wise to check off some essentials — such as putting gasoline in our Cortez’s fuel tank.
This brings me to my second point: This seemingly simple gasoline-venture would technically be our first drive on the roadway … so we call this journey our ‘test drive’ because (the saving grace) the gas station is no more than half a mile down the road from the farm.
How hard can one tiny drive be?
“Okay,” I holler and clap my hands together — no doubt trying to drum up support and positivity. “Let’s go!”
With a turn of the key, the ignition fired up immediately and with a push of the gear stick, it moved seamlessly into first gear. “Oh God,” I could hear Andy’s voice quivering slightly, “everything’s working.”
The roar of our Cortez’s engine made me feel calmer — which I told Andy because it sounded quieter (and not like the painful moans of a dying animal). “Because it’s scared to death,” he told me and my anxiety skyrocketed back up. Thanks for that bit of honesty, I thought.
The suspension squeaked, the engine sputtered, and drawers inside flew open as we reversed out of the garage and gained speed down the farm’s gravel and dirt path.
“I’m so nervous right now — ” I told Andy held my hand to my heart.
“You’re not driving!” he interrupted back. “Think how I feel!”
A few minutes later, we reached to the end of the path, which means this was it — The roadway stretched ahead of us. Our moment of truth had arrived — Were we actually going to do this?
“Let’s just wait,” I begged as two cars approached. “Let’s just give it some time.” The cars passed but another was zooming our way in the distance. I never realized how fast modern cars moved until now. “Let’s just wait for this other one — “
“Love, I’ve driven out of a junction before,” Andy corrected me. It sounded as if his anxiety was mounting too, in which case a passenger-driver was the last thing he needed.
But the Cortez bounced ahead as he moved the gear stick from neutral and into first and pushed his foot down on the gas pedal. “We’re going — We’re going … ” he announced, and I felt this was more confirmation for himself than information for me. The Cortez turned onto the pavement.
“WE’RE ON THE ROAD!” I shouted, pointing my finger straight ahead.
Picking up speed, Andy moved the gear stick to second then third before I heard him also shout beside me: “WE’RE DOING TWENTY MILES AN HOUR — OH MY GOD! This is terrifying!”
More minutes passed as the Cortez raced (well, raced as fast as our antique lass can) across the road, and soon the country gas station’s tiny parking lot came into view. “I don’t know if our indicators are working!” Andy told me as he stretched his arm out the driver’s side window to manually indicate our left turn. Better safe than sorry.
The Cortez bumped along as we rolled in and moved beside a gas pump, then Andy turned the key and the engine died.
There was a second of silence before our shouts of disbelief were surely heard outside of our RV. “WE MADE IT! WE MADE IT!” we danced.
Now the supposed easy part — filling up our fuel tank …
“What should I put in?” Andy asked me. “Should I just put Regular in or should I give it super juice to get it clean?” This was a valid question. The only problem was that there was no answer due to the fact that our fifty-five-year-old vehicle had no octane recommendations.
Rationalizing the middle ground Extra would work, Andy grabbed the pump, popped it into the fuel filler neck, and began to fill up.
However, this is when we bumped into our dilemma …
Exhaling loudly, I watched as gasoline spilled from the fuel filler neck and down the body of the Cortez.
“That’s not good,” Andy stated, crouching to investigate before using all of his force to push the pump into the filler neck.
Still, it didn’t work.
“Woah, woah, woah!” he tutted again as still more gasoline rushed out as we just hit seven gallons in on our forty-gallon tank.
Clearly, we were not going to prevail and I could tell Andy was frustrated that this simple job would be our undoing. “I’m tired of wasting gas,” he muttered as he moved to pull the pump out and return it.
Our main problem came from the fuel filler neck … which we thought we fixed.
I want to pause here though because there were two disturbing realizations about this last sentence …
The first, Andy said the word “gas” instead of “petrol,” which proves he’s Americanizing, y’all.
The second is we remembered why many Cortez owners cary a plank of wood with them — They have been driving up and onto a piece of wood at gas stations so that the Cortez’s fuel-tank-side is lifted, allowing gasoline to better pour in, due to the zero-angle factory fuel filler neck. Danged if we voted to tote around a piece of wood though, so this gasoline-issue realization also meant returning to the job of adjusting our fuel filler neck angle — because we had done this before, so better yet maybe I should say ‘replacing our fuel filler neck entirely’. Essentially, add Fuel Filler Neck onto our ever-increasing Mechanical Restoration list.
Feeling a bit dejected, we hopped back into our Cortez and that’s when we were approached by our first stranger.
“I know you didn’t drive this all the way from California!” a man with a strong Southern drawl said, pointing at our California license plates.
I’d heard stories of how new friends are made quickly over classic vehicles; and with a vehicle as rare as the Cortez, I dreamed about the day Andy and I would be able to talk to people who had the same interest and excitement that we have for our antique. Therefore, this was surreal feeling — answering this man’s Cortez questions while sharing our passion and dreams with him — and in the end, this one conversation dissolved any unhappy feelings regarding the fuel filler neck. Again, I was reminded that Andy and I can do this — We can restore this vehicle. True, we had yet another job added but it was a tiny job, which meant that feeling of reward would come sooner — and that feeling is not something to overlook.
“I think I’m buckled,” I said as my seatbelt snapped again against my lap once more. We had said goodbye to the man and as he drove out of his parking spot, we prepared to leave the gas station too.
“Well, I think we’re insane,” Andy responded, starting the vehicle … only to point out the fuel gauge did not move. I was apparently optimistic when I thought one job needed to be added to our Mechanical Restoration list.
Still, I was somewhere else mentally — I was not focused on the fuel filler neck or the spilled gasoline or the broken indicator in the fuel gauge. I was taking in that very moment. “Show me how you feel to drive the Cortez,” I said to Andy as I grabbed my camera. He immediately laughed as I snapped this picture of him.
And looking at this picture now (as I play catch-up writing this post almost three years after the fact) I can still remember seeing our first test drive and this very moment he sat with a firm grip on the steering wheel as he leaned his head back to laugh with his eyes tightly squeezed together.
He was proud — of himself, of us, of our Cortez — and I was (and still am) too.
“Right, we ready?” Andy asked as we were about to make the turn back to the safe haven of the farm.
“Yeah, we’re ready,” I told him, but I was ready for more than that one turn. I was ready for the story of our Cortez — the restoration, the build, the overhaul, the travels.
Slowly bumping back down the road, I snapped more pictures of our first tiny journey and I found I, too, was laughing.
“Twenty miles an hour!” Andy announced again.
“No need to push it!” I responded only to immediately be told twenty miles an hour was far from pushing our steel girl. We both giggled as I silently realized I meant more than the speed down the road because the moment felt larger — momentous even — as if we were on the cusp of something golden and grand.
Turning onto the gravel path of the farm, the Cortez immediately released horrendous squeaks in defiance, as if it protesting as loud as she could that she didn’t want to go back to a place of rest but to stay on the move. I rubbed and patted the Cortez’s dash, hoping there was some way to communicate with the soul we felt she has. For now though, we were tucking her into the garage because a next job would be investigating the cause of the squeaks, which Andy believed was the anti-roll bar bushings.
“Ohhh,” I exhaled and realized I had been holding my breath for who-knows-how-long.
“Maiden voyage complete!” Andy said as he turned the key in the engine, turning our Cortez off.
The silence was immense.
We both book a deep breath and exhaled together.
“We’ve got to drive it — for an hour — next weekend,” Andy told me, making me chuckle. It was true — Our glass-estimate shop was a trek away so our small gasoline venture hardly seemed suitable preparation. “I don’t know if I can drive this for an hour.”
“Well, I’m certainly not driving yet!” I stated and watched as Andy both laughed and begrudgingly melted into his seat with his hand on his forehead.
But this is for another day, another time, and another story …