By Martin Bunn
From the March, 1967 issue of
This story was donated by
Gus Puts an Offbeat Combo Back in Tune
The "Mourners" were a real go-go group,
That Friday afternoon, the supermarket parking lot was jammed. But Gus Wilson found the Plymouth station wagon exactly where Mrs. Landers had said it would be.
She hadnt told him it was bouncing with children. Five of them, from four to about 12 years old, were whooping it up inside. Through closed windows came the beat of rock-and-roll music from the radio. Gus rapped on a window. A golden-haired moppet of six rolled it down an inch.
"Im not allowed to talk to strangers," she announced firmly. "My mother says so!"
"Just tell me where to find your mother."
"In the library. She works there."
Gus tried again. "Wheres Mrs. Landers?"s
"She went back in the store for something she forgot. She said if you came to fix the car, go ahead. Shell be out."
"Shes coming now!" bawled a boy, as a harassed-looking matron came to the car.
"You were quick," she said. "Im so glad. My club is meeting at my house at seven and there are a million things to do and this batterys gone dead again."
"Do you often leave the radio on while youre shopping?" asked Gus.
"Of course. It helps keep the children amused. They arent all mineIm only minding three of them."
Gus refrained from comment on the risk of leaving ignition keys in a car full of kids. "Ill check your battery," he said.
The starter responded with only a click. A hydrometer showed the 12-volt battery almost completely discharged. The fan belt was so loose it slipped in his fingers.
"Im sure its just the battery," said Mrs. Landers, as Gus adjusted the belt tension. "The other times a man hooked on another battery and it started fine."
"Until next time," returned Gus. "So far, I find three reasons why your battery let you down, Mrs. Landers. Leaving the radio on when youre parked is one of them."
"How can that matter?" asked Mrs. Landers stiffly. "I dont even make long tripsjust around town shopping and carrying about the children. Besides," she added triumphantly, "this car has an alternator. That always keeps the battery charged."
"Your short stop-and-go trips are the second reason," Gus continued. "In winter especially, when starter drain is extra heavy and you have to turn on headlights earlier, your alternator doesnt keep up."
"But they told me it would . . ."
"Alternators arent magic, Mrs. Landers. Theyll charge even at idling, but not with the motor off. Besides, the belt was slipping and not driving your alternator at full power. Ive taken care of that.
"Ill put in a charged battery I brought along. Well check and charge up yours and, when you come for it, Ill check the alternator output and the regulator."
With the Model Garage battery installed, the Plymouth started at once, its engine roar almost drowned out by cheers.
Gus stayed late that night, checking bills. He was about to quit at about 6:30, when the phone rang.
"Mr. Wilson?" an agitated feminine voice asked. "Im in awful trouble."
"Its Mrs. Landers, isnt it?" asked Gus. "That battery didnt let you down?"
"Oh no, its fine. I mean its awful, but it isnt my car. Its thatthat thing in our driveway. You must come and take it awayI dont care what it costs."
Though Gus wasnt eager to make a late service call, the woman sounded so upset that he hadnt the heart to refuse.
At the house, a long black vehicle loomed up in the driveway. It was a hearse! Its hood was up, and bobbing busily about it like acolytes were four black-garbed figures. Had he been called, Gus wondered, to get a stalled funeral moving?
He had another shock as he walked up. The four men, somberly dressed in black tuxedos, were all extremely young.
Mrs. Landers fluttered out of the house.
"My club people are due in 20 minutes!" she wailed. "Please tow it away. It looks as if somebody died!"
One of the young men pushed forward, his thin, handsome face showing concern as the woman went back inside.
"Im Bob Landers. Can you just tow us off? Its got my mother making like crazy."
Gus shook his head. "I didnt bring the truck. What are you doing with this?"
"Weve got a combo going for the weekend dances; call ourselves The Mourners. Its a gas. We play with deadpan, sourpuss faces. The gag goes over so big, we bought this crate to go to jobs inits a real blast at the scene."
"Its a 1950 Caddie and it goes pretty good," put in a tubby lad. "Only thing is, it starts up fine cold, but wont when its warm. When it quit here, while Bob was getting some music from the house . . ."
"It didnt quit!" hissed a redhead savagely. "You turned it off, Tubby!"
"So I forgot! It was missing anyway."
"Lets just move it before those old birds of Moms show up," put in Bob Landers hastily.
Gus leaned over the grimy engine. "Lets hear you try it," he suggested. He pulled off a spark-plug wire and held it hear the block.
Sluggishly the engine turned over, hesitating periodically as if barely able to get past compression. But a good hot spark jumped from the cable to the block. Gus signaled to cut the motor, replaced the cable, and looked at the big six-volt battery.
"Thats a 140-ampere-hour job," explained Landers. "We put in last week."
Taking tools from his kit, Gus loosened the distributor lock nut. After scratching a position mark on the casing, he turned it to retard the spark about 10 degrees, and signaled the boy behind the wheel.
The engine spun briefly at fair speed, and caught at once. Gus turned the distributor back to the mark and locked it.
"Gosh, that was wonderful," breathed the Landers boy. "Howd you do it?"
"Never mind that now," returned Gus, seeing Mrs. Landers twitching in the doorway. "Get this thing out of here. If you still want to know, see me tomorrow."
The four piled into the hearse more like firemen than undertakers, and the unwieldy vehicle backed out. A still-grim Mrs. Landers pressed a bill on Gus.
Before noon next day, Stan Hicks, Guss helper, opened the shop door in response to an imperious horn toot. In swept the hearse.
Stans respectful mien underwent a startled change as the four young men tumbled out, dressed formally as before.
"We couldnt stand not knowing," said Bob Landers to Gus, "even though were on the way to our next stand."
"A grade-school afternoon dance," put in the redhead. "So we can pay you, if youll tell us how you got it to startand at double forte, too."
"I made a far-out guess," Gus began. "But first, what have you done besides putting in that hot new battery?"
A chorus answered. Distinguishable in it were a few words "new points," "coil," "spark plugs," "starter," "tune-up."
Gus held up a hand. "I guessed youd tried all those, and that the ignition was okay. It isn't the first time Ive run across an old engine with lots of mileage, and probably thick carbon deposits, which the starter can barely swing over when warm.
"It acts as if the batterys low, but thats not the trouble. When the engine is cold, raw gas coming into the cylinders takes a few milliseconds to fire up and explode. But when those carbon deposits are hotand remember they boost compression, tooincoming fuel flashes into hot vapor that fires mighty fast. So fast, it happens before the top of the compression stroke. The explosions try to turn the engine backward, bucking the starter.
"Last night, I simply retarded the spark more than the automatic advance allowed. You heard the engine turn over faster before it started up. That was what did it."
There was a brief silence.
"How about leaving the spark like that so itll always start up hot?" asked the tubby lad eagerly.
Gus shook his head. "You couldnt get out of your own way with it retarded."
The questioners face dropped. "Thought if we knew the reason we could lick it."
"Well, you cantwo ways. One is a pretty expensive engine overhaul"
"Okay," chuckled Gus. "Its only a make-do fix, but easy and practical."
In the stock room, Gus picked up a hose clamp and a length of 3/16" steel rod. He bent the hose clamp around the neck of the vacuum-advance unit on the distributor and secured it. He then drilled a ¼" hole in the firewall in line with the clamp.
Having made a short L bend at one end of the long rod, he passed it through the hole and hooked the bent end into the hose clamp. Under the dash, he made a larger L bend at the other end of the rod. Then he loosened the distributor lock nut until a 10-pound pull on the rod would rotate the distributor casing. But he set the rod at the original advance mark on the casing.
"Start her up," said Gus.
Bob Landers turned the key. The starter churned as slowly as before.
Reaching for the rod, Gus slowly pushed it in. The starter picked up speed. He moved the rod farther. Abruptly the engine fired up. As it idled, Gus detected a slight skip in its beat.
He got out to file a nick in the rod at the firewall. Then he connected a timing light, pushing on the rod to advance the spark until the timing mark lined up. Then he filed a second notch in the rod.
"Youll feel those nicks drop into the hole," he explained as he disconnected the light. "Push the rod forward to start, pull it back to the other nick for running. But dont forget that, or the engine will have no pep, and will overheat besides. Now, what have you done about that miss?"
"Nothing," responded the redhead. "We just put in new plugs so it must be a warped or stuck valve."
"Did you gap the new plugs first?"
"Fellow we bought em from did."
Gus got his oscilloscope plug checker and hooked it up. At once seven normal traces slid up the screen. The eighth fell far short.
"Which of you dropped number-five plug?" asked Gus with a grin.
"Howd . . . Did that gadget tell you that?"
Gus nodded, shutoff the engine, removed the damaged plug, and held it out.
"See where it landed on the electrode? That closed the gap. There was no spark."
Gus reset the gap with a gauge, then screwed the plug back in. Restarted, the engine ran smoothly.
"Youre okay, Mr. Wilson," said Landers.
"Okay? Hes great," declared the redhead. "How much is this bill?"
"Mrs. Landers paid me enough last night to cover this," Gus said. "But there is one thing you can do for me"
"Just name it!" said the tubby one.
"Move it out," begged Gus, "before somebody comes inand takes the
Model Garage for the morgue."