Diesel

What It Took To Build Her Was Almost Enough to Kill Her (And Us) Part 1: Stonewalled in Jackson

This is what was left of the transmission after 280,000 miles

This is what was left of the transmission after 280,000 miles

On August 5th, I made the last blog post that ended with a live status update of Trevor and Pandora’s Box stuck on I40. It was a light hearted post because we were in really good shape. The ambulance only needed another day or two’s worth of interior work. The Jackson crew told me their part would only take two days. J was planning on coming August 15th. We were in great shape to not only be finished early, but to be able to do significant road testing to work out the quirks and bugs that are sure to show up on a one off build of a 23 year old vehicle with 280,000 miles on it.

This little relay almost burned everything up. It was stuck ‘on’ and gave constant power to the transmission, frying everything around it.

And… we were basically on budget. Which is vital when you’re working with other people’s money. J decided to book a flight for August 22nd to give us an extra week just in case things ran behind.

Then everything just fell apart for me.

Planning the transmission work was the hardest part of this entire project. I know countless mechanics and car dealers across the country; this was the most critical part of the project. We had to find a shop that had the proper equipment to do this job, and I wanted to find a place that had experience doing the kind of custom transmission a project like ours required. The shop in Jackson, TN seemed to be the perfect fit. They came recommended to us, I knew a mechanic that worked there, and they specialized in upgrading light and medium duty diesels. I asked them for a quote and was told there would be no way to give a quote without tearing into the transmission and figuring out what needed to be repaired or replaced first. I felt like that was fair, so I let them know our MAXIMUM budget. I asked them to do it as cheaply as possible and explained that we didn’t need overkill, we just needed a transmission that was designed for hauling the weight we needed to haul, daily, across the country.

Part of my day job is recognizing fraud in automobile dealerships. As the warning signs started to mount with this particular shop, our team was pushed to the breaking point, and my stress level began to rise. The first sign of trouble was the date they picked up Pandora’s Box. She was supposed to be picked up a week prior to that, and every day I would get a phone call telling me they would come get her the next day. After consulting with the rest of our team, we decided it was best to not have the Jackson shop do the work, so I lined up another shop instead. We just didn’t feel like they were motivated to do the project. When I called the Jackson shop to let them know I was going to take the ambulance to an alternate shop, I was told they were less than 30 minutes from being in Jonesboro to pick her up. Sure enough, they were, so they got to keep the job.

Transmissions for a project like ours can run upwards of $6,000-$8,000. We didn’t have that kind of money and we still needed to spend a bunch more on the creature comfort elements. They called me after she was picked up, and agreed to have a quote for me first thing Wednesday morning. A quote on Wednesday and having the work done on Friday turned into a quote on Thursday, with work done on Saturday. My phone calls on Thursday, August 7th, and Friday, August 8th, weren’t returned. On Saturday, I was told she would be finished Monday, that I could pick her up, and the work would be “well under my budget.” Monday, August 11th, I drove almost two hours to get her, only to be turned away because she wasn’t shifting properly. Every day from August 12th through the 14th I was told she would be ready the next day, that they couldn’t get me a quote, but they knew what my budget was and wouldn’t be over it. Finally, on August 15th, I was told I could pick her up at the end up the day. I drove there, and waited almost two hours before the shop owner came to talk to me. He assured me that she would be done before I left Jackson that night, even if his guys had to stay until midnight. He told me he was going to donate about $500 of the labor in exchange for throwing a logo on the side of her, and I told him that’s great. I explained to him again exactly what our time frame was, told him exactly what we planned to do to her, and I let him know what J’s flight plans were.

I told him I’d stay in Jackson until she was done, and to call me ASAP so I could go home. I got in my car and immediately drove home. I knew I wasn’t going to get a phone call from him. I’m trained to spot liars, and I knew I was being lied to. Phone calls to the shop that night went unanswered. At this point, panic started to set in for me. J was flying here in a week. We still had plenty of time to get everything done, but I didn’t know how much I could spend on everything else we needed to order, and I no longer had any confidence in the Jackson shop’s ability or intent to get the job done.

The Hot Wired Crew moved this safely to the inside.

The Hot Wired Crew moved this safely to the inside.

By Monday, August 18th, I couldn’t wait any longer. I told them I would have to pick up Pandora’s Box by close of business even if she wasn’t done. I explained that if she wasn’t safe to drive, I’d need to tow her back to Jonesboro because there was just enough time left to do everything else we needed to do. I drove there to pick her up — they had moved her between a fence and the building, then parked a truck behind her to trap her there. I’ve seen dealers use this tactic before with customers. I took it as a battle move. They wanted to make sure I’d pay before I had a chance of driving away with her. They knew my budget upfront, but to this point they’d refused to give me a quote. I sent a mass text message to our team to let them know that the Jackson shop was about to try and screw us out of money.

The owner seemed nice enough about the situation. He agreed to donate the hours of a couple of his crew guys and give them a list of odd jobs to be done on the ambulance. He also agreed to install a donated muffler for us, since the delay was entirely on them. We agreed that if the transmission wasn’t 100% ready to go by the end of the day on Wednesday, that he would truck her to us Thursday morning and finish the job in Jonesboro.

His crew honestly ended up making things harder on us. Vinyl was torn, everything got over spray on it and our fridge was dropped and scuffed up.  The wiring for the solar panel was installed outside of the ambulance and was not protected from the elements in any way. They did help us paint, and said that they fixed the cruise and got the muffler on.

This was her final coat of paint. Hours before she left Jackson.

Pictured are Rickie and Lorie working their asses off in what was a difficult situation.

 

Thursday, Pandora’s Box was in shambles. It was too late for me to have J get a later flight, and almost everything was going to have to be redone on her. All of our hard work was crumbling away.

Epic failure was certain. … And everything just fell apart.

 

Bo

Fighting the Ride That Takes Me Home

The view from the gas pump. Hot Wired is RIGHT THERE!

The view from the gas pump. Hot Wired is RIGHT THERE!

For the third time in fifteen months I was stuck in a J. Loren touring vehicle. But this time was different. I felt like Tantalus. I was back in my home town and I could see our destination from inside the lifeless Pandora’s Box. A hundred yards away, Hot Wired awaited us. But because Pandora’s Box weighs tons, it may as well have been miles. And this time I don’t mind saying, “I’m to blame.”

Almost two weeks ago, we were ahead of schedule. We had most of our supplies ordered.  The various teams that I’d organized were each hard at work fulfilling their portions of the project. The plan was to finish gutting Pandora by June 30th and have her transmission shy of being road-ready so that she could make the two and a half hour trip to Jonesboro for the electrical work and AV installation.

Then, the [Mississippi] river met us. Eight straight days of downpours. Flooding and daily power outages. This took away our ability to get any significant work done. Rickie was able to squeeze in several hours of breaking her down, but we were basically at a standstill until the weather broke.

However, I believe when you give someone your word, you deliver on it, ‘come hell or high water.’ In this case, we’ve had a mild summer, so we only had to deal with the second half of that cliché. Floods will not stop us from being done on time! She was gutted enough to get her to the Hotwired team; she just needed a new exhaust system and some tires to safely make the trip.

The tires were acquired at cost, straight from a wholesaler, and purchased mafia style. I was told to drive to a car dealership in Mississippi and pick up an unmarked dealership truck.  Drive it to a warehouse at the Memphis International Airport where the tires were located.  Pay with cash only, of course. The transaction went down smoothly.  The tires were shuffled into my vehicle and transported to Jackson to be put on Pandora’s Box.

They used a forklift to change the back tires.

They used a forklift to change the back tires.

A simple carjack wasn’t enough to safely get her off the ground, so a forklift was used to change the tires. While she was off the ground, the existing muffler was cut-off to allow me to get her to the Hotwired guys quickly, so they would have enough time to do their job before the bunks will be installed.

Before I set off to Jonesboro, Trevor advised me to manually shift the gears.  This way we could stretch every last mile out of the existing transmission. So I made away with what we’d made… but I didn’t make it very far.

At almost the same spot where I wasn’t sure if Uncle Pervy was going to make it, Pandora decided she didn’t want to go any further. I dropped her into first gear… nothing. Second… nothing. Overdrive… nothing. At this point I decided I better throw her in reverse and at least get off the highway… but reverse wouldn’t work either. I couldn’t help but smile. Seriously, I thought the entire situation was incredibly humorous. What were the odds of the same thing happening to me twice, in practically the exact same spot? I called Trevor and told him to come get me. About five minutes later I put her in first gear; it caught, and I was off and running. I called Trevor and told him that unless something crazy happened, I would at least make it to Memphis and try to get the rest of the way to Jonesboro the next morning. When the time came, I charted my route carefully. Her turn signals don’t work and she’s not properly tagged.  I wanted to avoid as many turns as possible and make it without stopping. I figured I had just enough fuel to get there, and that I’d put a little gas in her at the gas station located next to the Hotwired building.

They call the stretch of I-40 between Memphis and Nashville Music Highway

They call the stretch of I-40 between Memphis and Nashville the ‘Music Highway’

As I started coming into Jonesboro, I was getting really nervous. The fuel gauge looked painfully low, but I was minutes away from being at the gas station. I tried to think if a closer option was available, but there wasn’t one. As I exited the interstate, the traffic light at the end of the ramp was green…PERFECT! I was able to cruise up to the pump. I put her in park, and she died before I could turn the key off. I smiled really big at this point. I made it! I filled her up, bought a green tea, and went back to crank her up.  Instead of her cranking, I began to learn a valuable lesson. Once a diesel runs out of fuel, air gets in the lines. You can’t just simply start it back up. After a couple of cranks, I looked up and saw Jim Frigo, a local radio DJ I know casually from doing several remotes together over the years [I also went to the same high school as his daughter]. He offered to give me a jump, and I explained that it wasn’t a battery issue. Before he even left the gas station parking lot, two diesel mechanics walked over and offered to help. THIS is what I love about my hometown. Jim had no idea who I was when he first walked over, and I offered no explanation as to why I was in an ambulance, he just wanted to help. These two guys didn’t know me either, but they were eager to get me going again.

Keep Calm and Chive On! (Duke of Randy and Duke)

Keep Calm and Chive On! (Duke of Randy and Duke)

After a few shots of starting fluid and several attempts to get her running again, we determined it just wasn’t going to happen. Pandora’s Box needed a lot more work than what could be done on the 4th of July in a gas station parking lot. The two men (Randy and Duke) dropped the trailer they were pulling and quickly hooked up a chain to tow me into the Hotwired lot.

The Hotwired guys blew me away with their plans. I hadn’t asked much from them because I was asking them to either donate or do the work at very little cost. Hotwired is doing much more than I could have ever asked for. I can’t wait to show everyone what these guys are doing, and why I picked this crew to help us on this project.

But until then, I’ll see you where the river meets us.

-Bo

It's tough to drive this thing and not play with all the buttons.

It’s tough to drive this thing and not play with all the buttons.