Sunday, September 25, 2011

Roo Chasin' Adventure - Los Angelos to Detroit in 48 Hours

As seen in previous posts, I purchased a 1984 Ford XE Falcon utility - the Roo Chaser - sight unseen from a guy in Devore, CA. This was always one of my dream cars and now that I had it, I was not prepared to risk shipping damage by a bargain basement freight broker or pay $1,800 bucks to get it back to Ann Arbor by a trusted individual. The thought of the car sitting in freight lots, surrounded by paint-huffing vagrants around the country made me a little nervous. 

My driving partner was Andrew, a guy who puts my diagnostic and ghetto rigging abilities (which I'm pretty proud of) to shame. Andrew is well qualified to have on a trip like this - he's got a V8 RX-7 and a nearly 600HP Duramax truck, enough said. All in all, the trip was done in 48 hours, door to door. Each of the other 10 hours were spent either eating, sleeping, contemplating, or fixing the car. The total budget for the trip: about $800.
To say the least, the trip was an epic. In the end, I'm very, very glad I made the trip for several reasons. It was an insanely fun experience that you don't often get the opportunity to do after college. Also, it forced me to deal with most of the car's issues in a very short time - I now know this car extremely well.
Andrew was kind enough to document the entire trip with very detail notes. Below is the story from his perspective, with my italicized interjections.

Shipping or Driving: Matt wasn't sure if he should ship the car or drive the car back. My vote was to drive it, and eventually I convinced him of that. Especially when the only legitimate shipping quote was $1800 and the cheapest, not-so-legitimate quote was $1200.

Route: The route was either going to be I-40 based or I-70 through Denver. We opted for the first one because we'd be avoiding the crazy altitude in Colorado. I was also a fan of this because I hadn't driven the I-40 route yet.

Tools: We needed everything, but we could only take 2 suitcases at 50lbs a piece for free. Ended out with complete 3/8 and 1/2 inch socket sets minus some of the bigger pieces, full metric and standard wrenches leaving the larger ones behind as well. Screwdrivers, pliers, vice grips, channel locks, flashlight (very much an afterthought and very much needed), and duct tape (forgot this). Also, I tossed in a multimeter. This was almost a necessity, but we avoided any critical work with it. 

Flight out: We got our tickets from DTW to Ontario, CA for $135/piece. Not too shabby! Ontario is only about a 20 minute taxi ride from where the car resided.
The Trip
The flight out went flawlessly. We found out that Matt could have taken 2 bags at 70lbs a piece because of his gold status. Next time we'll have more tools! Once in Ontario we got our bags and a taxi. The taxi ride cost $55! Yikes! I hate taxis, but this was definitely the cheapest option. Once at the guys place we looked the car over and it looked great. Other than some shady wiring under the hood no potential issues were obvious. It had a rebuilt radiator, new radiator hoses, new fuel pump, new battery, new tires. Pretty well all the things you'd worry about were fine or replaced. When we fired it up it sounded great. Idled great. Ready to roll! So we headed off to Walmart to buy water, food, and whatnot. The plan was to find a lake and place to grill out on the way so we bought some brats, buns, and beer as well. Put this all in a $8 cooler and headed out.
30 miles in - Matt was getting concerned about a rattle he was hearing in the engine. I could here it too. Sounded a bit like detonation, but not quite. Matt was (is) pretty sure that it was a rod knock but I wasn't convinced. We stopped to check it out and successfully overheated the engine on the exit ramp. Hmmm…not a very good start. I couldn't hear the rattle that Fireball (Matt) was talking about when idling and revving, but cruising I could here it.  I decided it was a non-issue, and Fireball conformed to my conclusion.

60 miles in - Overheated again. Let it cool down and suck the coolant back into the radiator and headed out. Current outside temp about 90deg. Couldn't wait for evening and the desert so we stop overheating. Also, the car was vaporlocking like mad, so when we would take off the thing barely ran until we got some speed. This problem was compounded on onramps, where the car was decidedly NOT 'fast as hell'. This combined with the transmission's inability to downshift made merging almost impossible.
90 miles in - Overheated again. This time we let all the pressure out of the radiator and filled it up with coolant. It took a whole gallon plus what was in the overflow tank. Hmmm…much more than expected. It must have been low when we left right? Current outside temp is now 95 degrees. Isn't it supposed to start getting cooler after 4pm? The current time was probably 5pm but I really don't remember. More vaporlocking problems. Makes starting hard, and overheating worse when lean.

180 miles in - Overheated again. Much better than our 30 mile overheat breaks that we've been having. Did a full fill again in the desert and headed out. Current temperature was unknown as my phone didn't have any data for this area, but it was certainly not getting any cooler. And more vaporlocking problems… 

250 miles in - Stopped at Needles, CA for fuel. Overheated getting off the interstate. We filled up with gas and tried to get back onto the interstate to cool her off, but this didn't work. Ended out parking in some questionable housing area of Needles and walked to Denny's for dinner with all of our stuff in clear visibility in the back. This newfound trust in mankind is one of the many pluses of the El Camino lifestyle. We needed to let the Roo Chaser have a solid cool-down before heading out again. I was kinda hungry when we started walking but after being in that heat, I wasn't hungry at all when we got there. I had 5-6 glasses of water and a skillet. Matt had 3-4 glasses of  iced tea and half of a half salad. He also lost his appetite walking in the heat and general thought-provoking nature of the situation. When we returned to the car we decided that it was a good idea to remove the hood for better airflow through the radiator and hopefully keep the gas lines cooler to decrease our vaporlocking problems. 

It fit perfectly as if the engineers had seen this trip coming from 27 years ago. I had brought a tow strap in my luggage so we wrapped the hood good and tight so that it wouldn't fly out. It would also cover all of our belongings in case of rain, thieves, etc. I noticed that the straps were chafing the hood so naturally I took some underwear out of my bag and put the strap through the legholes. 
460 miles in - We might have had another stop in the meantime for coolant, but I don't remember for sure… In the meantime we discovered that the car couldn't run over 70mph and it would start acting like it was vaporlocking. The problem got worse as the fuel gauge went down and I remember thinking "damn, we just filled out spare gas can with water, how about that". I remembered a certain 1980 ford that would do the same thing. I didn't fix this problem in the ford till it wouldn’t go over 35mph though. The Fords problem was the fuel filter, and the Roo Chaser had the same issue. We kept driving. Between the 250 and 460 mile mark my phone picked up the temperature again. We were hoping for cold temperatures, but it was 109 degees in the desert that night. Ahhh! No AC in the car, hot underhood air now blowing into the cab, and 109 degee ambient temperature. We couldn't have been any sweatier if we had spent 12 hours in a sauna.

550 Miles in - I was driving somewhere east of Flagstaff, AZ and Fireball was sleeping. Actually, he was out cold. The headlights in the Roo Chaser are horrible. I ran the brights most of the time, but was a bit worried about the charging system so I'd run dims sometimes. Anyway, brights or dims didn't make any difference for what was about to happen. I saw something white in the road. I looked closer and realized it was a cooler - like a big Igloo cooler. At this point in time it's about 10 feet in front of the car, so no time for evasive manuevers. KAPLOWEEE!!! I hit it at 70ish mph. Along with this cooler explosion I yelled. The combined excitement woke Fireball up out of his deep sleep and he informed me that the last time that had happened to him (being woken from a deep sleep abruptly, not hitting a cooler) he was sleeping on a beach in Australia and was woken up to a Maglight shining in his face and a cop kicking him... We didn't bother stopping because there wasn't any steam being emitted from the radiator and figured there was nothing we could do anyway. The outside temps were dropping at this point in time fortunately.

615 Miles in - We stopped in New Mexico in Indian Reservation area for fuel and water. Matt was driving now and I was sleeping. This gas station/truck stop was the shadiest place I've even been. Fireball had watched this shady Mexican dude loading what he suspects was stolen stuff from peoples cars around there. And, he observed a drug deal (almost certain it was meth) go down between the (s)he person who was working the counter at the gas station. We bought some water, oil, RTV, and duct tape. Never know when you might need duct tape and we always needed water with the Roo Chaser. I've never been so glad to leave a truck stop. Super shady if I didn't already say that a few times! 
Whatever it was that was manning or womanning the counter was completely high on methamphetamine. While I was waiting in line (because for some sketchy reason you CAN'T pay at the pump even though the equipment is there), a guy with a Harley in the back of his Z71 stopped, came in, and said "Hey, remember me??" to the counterperson. She stared at him blankly as she sorted through the remaining memories from the last couple days. He said "it's me, from last April, remember?". Whatever he was there for last April or last week, it was not reputable and he ended up just going back outside. While I was filling gas, an exchange cash for something in a bag was made between them outside the store and he left. I went back in to buy the aforementioned supplies and it took literally 5 minutes just to ring up the first item, the RTV which she wasn't aware that they sold even though there was a price tag on it. She was obviously stalling and looking outside and I can't stress how much I knew that this was a theft ring. Andrew walked out to the car to get the important stuff and stood watched at the door. After that happened, everything got rung up quickly and we were out not a moment too soon. In our hurry to leave, we remembered that we forgot the item at the top of our list: a radiator cap. Neither of us wanted to go back to look.

720 Miles in - this was the only stop purely for sleep and nothing else. We both napped for about an hour and headed east to Albuquerque.

770 Miles in - we stopped at a bank where we brushed out teeth in the parking lot, filled the radiator, changed clothes, and got breakfast from across the street. None of this looked too out of the ordinary for the locals.

Roughly 900 miles in - It was daylight again and we stopped for fuel and water as usual. Also, we decided that it was time for a radiator cap, removal of the thermostat, and a new fuel filter. The fuel filter was because the car would barely drive at that point in time. It died all the time and we couldn't have gotten onto the interstate if we had tried. We also discovered that the tank vent wasn't working so I sliced some of the rubber out of our fuel cap. Ohh, we knew this because we had a glass fuel pre-filter under the hood. We could see the air in it, and the lack of fuel flow. When it was idling and I pulled the fuel fill cap fuel immediately went to the glass filter and the car was slightly better. We found a Napa to get the goods. Met some oldtimers at Napa and learned about how the government was messing up our country. When I pulled the thermostat housing off I discovered that there was no thermostat. Welp, guess it wasn't sticking after all causing our overheating problems… The fuel filter made the car drive amazingly. We should have done that when we were still in CA. We both concluded that the car was a lot closer to 'fast as hell'. Our vaporlocking problems were pretty well solved now. Partially due to the lower temps, partially from the removal of the hood, and primarily because the pump didn't have to work so hard get fuel into the bowl of the carb. 4psi will only push so much fuel through a plugged filter.  

1030 miles in - Seeing lots of cops in Texas and being warned about the panhandle's cops, I knew it was only a matter of time before we got pulled over and harassed about our situation. Sure enough, a cop pulled right behind us and stayed there. He then started to come up along side us. I looked to the left and saw the cop, expecting to be waving us over in the way that southern cops sometimes do to avoid the commotion and attention of the siren and lights. It makes it much more personal. Instead though, he was taking a picture with his blackberry before gassing it and heading off.

1060 miles in - Driving down I40 looking at the brownness in Texas, Fireball saw a bunch of Cadillacs sticking out of the ground in some farmer's field. Cadillac Ranch! We had to stop. As we were walking into the field some guy came up to us and asked what in the world the car we were driving was. Then two more guys came up and asked the same. They went to look the car, with the hood in the bed, and the steering wheel on the wrong side while we looked over the Caddies. Ended out talking with them for 20 minutes or so. The car was running much better at this point in time, and we only were filling up with water every fuel stop. This was almost the halfway point of our journey.  

1215 Miles in Weatherford, OK - Stopped at a gas station for our standard. The first people we talked too were a carload of Australians!! They were here for some conference and also looking for parts for a '40 Ford and '57 Chevy. They were more than excited to meet Fireball and look the car over. They also said that $4500 paid was a job well done as most of the XE Falcons had rusted away or been crushed with spikes in metal prices. After that, we met some other hillbillies from the area. One larger man said that we needed to get 'water glass' to put in the radiator to fix the head gasket problem. I guess it's also called sodium something and is the same thing put in the oil of the cash for clunkers cars to destroy the engines. And, it's available at pharmacies with the primary use of a laxative. Seizes up leaks and engines, but gives people the squirts. The next guy there we talked to was extremely toothless and said that he'd install head gaskets for us if his wife hadn't just had twins. He was pouring stop-leak into his Chrysler K-Car, which also needed a head gasket. He also recognized the Falcon and had claimed to have seen the XF model that was built to run Baja back in the 80's. Another bearded local gentleman got out of a 70's Dodge conversion van hobbled over and occasionally interjected to the conversation about country methods for fixing headgaskets.
1275 miles in - we saw the wildfires of Eastern Oklahoma that were prompting the burn ban. It was incredibly hazy and looked almost like the sky does right before a tornado. Very eerie. 

1300 miles in - Andrew was passing the time and cooling off by gauging motorists' reactions to him hanging his feet out the window (on the "driver's" side of the car) and texting at the same time. 

1330 miles in - We're just getting to Oklahoma City - Garth Brooks' hometown of Yukon -  and I was driving. Traffic wasn't too bad, but there was construction which slowed us down, and the Roo Chaser decided that it wanted to overheat again. Also, we had been seeing signs that I44 was a toll road. Not looking forward to this at all...stopping makes overheating much worse. We filled up with water on the side of the road as usual and kept rolling. We had found a state park between Oklahoma City and Tulsa that looked like a good place to take a bath in the lake and grill out our brats.

1400 miles in - Andrew was driving and these two girls in a CR-V pulled up from behind and lingered there. They then got up along side us, holding a sign that said "Say No To Drugs" written in Sharpie on a piece of paper. Given that we had three-day beards, hadn't showered in that same time, car full of garbage, and the hood tied to the psychadelic mural wearing tailgate with tow straps and underwear, I couldn't argue their point. They flipped the paper over and wrote "How far to Vegas". I motioned that I was far too high to tell them and they took off. 

1440 miles in - Toll booth #1 - I saw the signs…I thought about going through the I-pass lane as we just had a temp tag in the window that the camera probably wouldn't pick up, but I obeyed the law. Matt woke up to pay the toll, and as we rolled into the toll booth the car died. Not a big deal. After paying the toll I tried to fire up the Roo Chaser. Crank-crank-crank-vrooooom-die….Crank-crank-crank-vrooooom-die….Crank-crank-crank-vrooooom-die… The toll booth Lady says "come on Betsie"! Crank-crank-crank-POOF… a large cloud of fuel vapor blasted out of the air filter. This time I pushed the gas pedal way down to make sure it didn't die. Crank-crank-crank-VROOOOOOOOM! No dieing action. I'm holding it at about 4000rpm and the toll station lady is looking emotionally confused. Angry, scared, perturbed, thankful that the car is running; all emotions wrapped into one. I go to drop it in gear and hit reverse. Tires squack and we lunge backwards a bit. Then I hit drive. Roo Chaser is still running and I'm powerbraking it like mad. Fireball says to the lady in the toll booth "off to Detroit!" and we take off out of there. I haven't laughed that hard in a long time! The car has no hood, right hand drive, a couple of dirty looking guys driving it, stalled in a toll booth, blowing fuel vapor clouds out of the air cleaner, squeeling tires in reverse heading for the cars behind us that are no doubt getting mad at us. Absolutely hilarious.

1480 miles in - Toll booth #2 - We're getting off the interstate to go to the state park for our lake-bath and grilling out. Pulling up to this toll booth I wasn't going to let the Roo Chaser die so I kept on the gas. The engine is cutting in and out as we're approaching the toll booth. VROOOM---die-die-die---VROOOOM---die-die-die---VROOOM...very strange, almost synchronous stalling of the engine. When I was about 50 feet from the toll booth I figured I'd kick it into neutral and coast in. (Information update: The shifter in this thing is anything but stock and doesn't work well. You really have no idea what gear you are in and it doesn't shift predictably at all) I hit reverse and light the back tires up. Obviously not ideal, so I try to go back. Hit drive and figure that's good enough. I'm powerbraking it at the toll booth and Matt's trying to take care of the money situation. Well, this is a bit different than most toll booths. They actually asked for our receipt from the last stop and gave us a refund. I didn't realize that we were getting a refund and started to take off as soon as Matt gave the ticket to the lady. We did get our $1.50 back eventually and headed out. The Roo Chaser was asking for more water at this point in time so we pulled over and refilled again.
1490 miles in - I discovered what was causing the synchronous stalling about 10 miles later when I was getting ready to turn left onto a back road. When I had the brake pressed and used the turn signal the car would stall every time the turn signals were lit. From then on, the only turn signal used was a verbal beep-boop-beep-boop by myself. It worked great!
As soon as we pulled into a camping spot at the park - nearly 30 miles off the highway - a park ranger came up to us and asked if we were spending the night. Great…we just got here and are now getting kicked out. But, this wasn't the case. He just informed us that the water was broken and told us to have a nice driving break. He even let us grill out, despite the fire ban that’s in effect in Texas and Oklahoma. Awesome! Dinner was great and a cold beer has never tasted so good. The campers about 200 yards away were listing to Patsy Cline and square dancing. I know this because someone was making dance calls from behind of the tents. It was really an awesome soundtrack to just grilling out and sitting on a table in middle of nowhere, Oklahoma. After a beer, we went down to check out the lake situation and take stock of any copperheads around the water. When we went down to the lake to take a bath we discovered that the water wasn't so deep, and that the mud was quite deep. I washed up with hotel bar soap standing up to my knees in mud and the water only about 12 inches deeper than that. The swamp bath was amazing as horrible as it might sound! Headed out refreshed and ready to roll. We filled back up with water and fuel just before getting back on the interstate.

1610 miles in - Time for more fuel and water. This was around Springfield, MO, I believe. I was 
getting pretty tired so passed off driving responsibilities to Fireball.

1744 miles in - Matt was stopping for a nap as he was pretty well beat. I told him that I was good to drive so we swapped seats and I went to drive off. He had pulled off onto the shoulder of the exit ramp, which had been our standard so far - no big deal. When I went to drive off he said "we might be high centered here". Well, I drove about 12" and we stopped. Stuck. I tried reverse and no motion occurred. Looked underneath and saw that the shock and spring perch were sitting on the pavement and the right rear tire was not on the ground. We tried prying and pushing and breaking pavement out and everything else imaginable. Finally we decided that getting sticks or boards or something was the only option left. Just shove something under the tire and back out of our predicament (we had no jack, so this wasn't an option). I found a 2x4 that was propping up a street sign and snagged it. We hammered in under the tire and Fireball was able to drive the Roo Chaser out of the predicament and back onto the pavement. After all this monkeying around it was time for a water refill after which we were on the road.

1830 miles in - We were getting low on fuel, Fireball was out cold, and the Roo Chaser wasn't asking for water… Strange. I pulled off at an exit to get gas and the station was closed. It was about 5:30 in the morning if I remember correctly. Unfortunately this wasn't a normal get-off-for-fuel exit and we had to cruise around on backroads to get back on the interstate. Matt woke up during this process and was surprised (as was I) that the Roo Chaser hadn't started overheating yet. When we did get fuel it only wanted about 1.5 quarts of water, and the overflow didn't have much water in it. Hmmm…maybe the headgaskets fixed themselves? Maybe someone put some liquid glass in the radiator when we weren't looking? I let Fireball drive from here because I was getting close to tired. Another hour of driving and I would have been dreaming and driving. As I fell asleep I started dreaming about the lack of coolant consumption and was imagining people coming up behind us while we were driving and injecting glass water into a coolant port in the rear bumper - crazy dreams. I was actually convinced that this had happened in my dream, despite how ridiculous is sounded once I woke up.  

2090 miles in - We stopped for more fuel and water. This time it had consumed water, but still didn't blow over into the overflow. The engine finally realized that it liked water and quit spitting it out all over the place! Fireball was beat again so I took over the driver responsibilities so he could sleep.

2250 miles in - We barely made it to exit 157 in Indiana, running on fumes. Almost to Michigan! Fueled and watered the beast and headed back out. Fireball took over driver responsibilities. We were feeling pretty good about the trip at this point in time. We were almost back with no major issues. Neither one of us mentioned our spectacular success though, for fear of kicking a leg out of bed or other major driveline issues. We capped off the drive by taking a nice backroad from 69 to 94 to unwind a bit and save some distance on the highway. We had one more water fill up just before the airport where I got my car and headed to the oasis for a very long, cold shower.

2305 miles in - The car rolled up to my driveway in Ann Arbor which was completely packed with tailgaters for the football game. I found a spot to park the car and poured myself out of it, immediately bombarded with questions and offered beer, which I took straight into the shower. A perfectly refreshing end to an awesome - and very lucky - trip.


  1. Awesome story. Reminds me of a trip I took from Dallas to Salt Lake in a Craigslist delivery van. We had to roadside repair that stupid thing a dozen times, but it was a lot of fun in the end.

  2. Nice work! At least you made it back and got a good story out of it - there's a whole lot of nothing between Dallas and SLC.

  3. Pull your intake manifold off and have a look. may not be a head gasket, i had a similar issue on my 302 XF panel van. The actual manifold had corroded away along with the gasket fitted 20 years ago!

    Solved that problem by dropping a 351 in!

    Best not to run straight water either, a coolant mixture is better.

  4. Thanks! I'll take a look. It's also got a tick in the bottom end now so it might all be coming apart anyway. At least the intake's got to come off first!

  5. An awesome story!
    A very Australian way to bring your Australian car home.

    Love it :-)

  6. drop me an email sometime, I have an XE ute in FL.

  7. Cool story mate, looks like the ute has a LTD Fairlane front end on it XE's are a bit different to that.

  8. Great had me riveted to the computer.

    Great stuff and welcome to he group.

    Melbourne, Australia

  9. Not too bad. Stopped for fuel 10 times over 2305 miles?

    How big is the tank? 18 gallons?

    That's 180 gallons, thats 12.8MPG not bad. I'm guessing it's a 351 with no overdrive?

    Get rid of that ZL front end though. Put the XE or XE Ghia front back on it.

    Also checkout

  10. Thanks for all of the great comments. has been a great resource for me.

    I want the XE front badly but parts are too expensive to ship over here.

  11. chev_one

    Sounds Like the trip i made buying a 79 chevrolet camaro from Deniliquin (UTE CAPITAL) and bringing it back to Sydney

  12. Great story, thanks for sharing

  13. Once you get all of your tools organized like this, it'll be straightforward to stay it that method and you may longer pay the wasted hours finding out that screw driver that's out of place Garager tools.