The Little Radiator Fan that Couldn’t

The Little Radiator Fan that Couldn’t:

Piecing Together a Broken Summer in Time for the DVAROC Autumn Tour

I went for a great drive last Sunday. And, if you’re reading this right now, you probably did as well. So I won’t bore you by telling you what you already know: that the route was wonderfully planned; that the cars were great; that the people were knowledgeable and friendly; that the weather was uncommonly brilliant. But I will tell you that I was exceedingly grateful for all the people, cars, and roads that made that drive possible. The DVAROC Autumn Tour, after all, didn’t just give me another great drive to tuck under my belt. Far more than that, it gave me and Bella, my ’88 Spider Quadrifoglio, a second chance at Summer.

BMW, a company that seems to spend more on advertising in a year than Alfa has in its entire century of existence, put out a brochure for the 1-Series convertible a couple years ago that had some great one-liners. My favorite? “Summer is not a season. It’s a state of mind.” And in case it seems like my train of thought is already derailing, I should mention that I bring up this line to make a single point: My Summer (and I capitalize that term out of sheer respect, referring both to the season and the state of mind) was abruptly and prematurely ended when an exploding plastic radiator fan decided to cut short a wonderful drive. But, just a few days ago, I got that Summer back.

On one of the final days of August, just after Irene had barreled through New Jersey leaving downed power lines and flooded basements in her wake, I backed Bella slowly out of our cramped and dirty two-car garage into the humid air of a Summer night. Accompanied by a ‘92 Miata and a ‘66 MGB driven by close friends, I drove through the thick, velvety darkness down familiar back roads littered with hurricane debris and scattered memories. Our three car chain illustrated the progression of sports car dishevelment through time, three souls lost at sea but hoping to find home again in the wake of a powerful storm and a tumultuous season. My friends and I piloted those cars, relics of Summer’s fallen grandeur sifting through a season lying in branch-strewn ruins on the ground, with our hearts more than with our hands. We twisted through the maze of back roads blanketing the Sourland Mountain just outside our small town of Hopewell, New Jersey.

That drive, though, ended in a panicked bout of sweating and swearing when an unfriendly sound under the hood prompted me to pull my car off the road and into a parking lot. A close inspection revealed a shattered radiator fan, a tattered fan shroud, and a radiator in the process of doing just what my nervous bladder wanted to do. A comforting voice from my MG-driving friend:

“Well, aren’t you glad you drove the car enough to break it?”

Bella had become a great friend, but she was still a machine, and a quite imperfect one at that. I had broken her, and, to be honest, she had come pretty close to breaking me. I needed to head back to the University of Delaware in just a couple days, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to fix the car before then. So I called AAA, and spoke with a pleasant gentleman (“don’t worry, I specified a flatbed as soon as you told me what kind of car it was”), and waited for the tow truck.

In a way, Bella’s timing was impeccable. It was already midnight by the time the fan packed in, and I had just swung off the tight back roads and onto the far more accessible Route 206 in Hillsborough. But, in other ways, the location of the breakdown was devastating. The 7-Eleven, at which I had intended to buy a refreshing cup of coffee to carry me the rest of the way through that night, was just a block away. Somehow, somewhere, omnipotent cosmic forces had ripped me off. Karma owed me the second half of a great drive. And a cheap cup of coffee.

When I found out that the start- and end-points of this year’s Autumn Tour were just twenty miles from my home, then, I knew my karmic upturn was on its way. I had been back at school for over two months—two long, Alfaless months—and my depressed doodles (one of a vomiting and wheelchair-bound Alfa serpent titled, simply, “Sickly Alfa”) reminded me that I had to act quickly to correct the balance of the universe and reestablish my chi. I was going to head home on Friday before the drive. I was going to fix my car. And, darn it, I was going to drink that cheap cup of coffee that had been withheld from me that night. In short, I was going to take back the Summer—and end it the way it was meant to end.

Well, I did make it back Friday, but there were a couple of small problems. First, I wasn’t able to get home until 10pm, thanks to an accounting exam written by either the devil or a BMW engineer. Or quite possibly both. Second, I had forgotten a few things: November is cold; November nights are colder; and I am the single least competent mechanic in the entire Northern Hemisphere. But, desperate to revive Bella and my fallen Summer, I was undeterred.

The surgery commenced shortly after my arrival home. I had ordered all the parts thanks to Vick’s Autosport and the Alfa Bulletin Board, and they were already to be moved into their new residence. On the same floor where I had spilled gear oil, motor oil, and brake fluid from that same Alfa, I added a Pangaea-sized stain of coolant. Apparently I had failed to properly locate the plastic drain pan. After spilling the contents of the car’s entire cooling system onto the garage floor, I managed to pull out the ruined parts. And, several hours and just as many bloodied knuckles later, I managed to fit most of the new parts into their proper places. (Who needs a fan shroud in winter, anyway?)

By just 3am—clearly, I was making great time—the car was ready to accept a new supply of coolant. I managed to only spill 20% of the fluid while pouring with my bleeding and cold-crippled hands. Then, for the first time in months, I started the car and allowed the engine to warm up. Everything was going great. The temperature gauge slowly rose. The needle arced up to the center of its travel. It crept just past center, the thermostat opened, the needle began to creep down, then—POP! Steam. Coolant. Fear. I shut off the car and jumped out, realizing with a relief that a hose had simply popped off the water pump. False alarm. I snugged up the hose, tightened down the clamp, and resumed my work.

The gauge crept back up, hit the center, then quickly started swinging right. I shut the car off and my stomach felt like emulating the “Sickly Alfa” portrait of yore. I knew the radiator was in good order, though, and I assumed that I had simply trapped an air bubble somewhere in the cooling system.

Evidently, I was right for once. After another half hour of starting the car, venting the radiator cap, topping off the fluid, and repeating the process, I was able to bleed any air out of the system and coax the car into holding a steady operating temperature right at the center of the temp gauge’s travel. I test drove Bella by strutting around the block a few times, and, once my confidence had been restored, I set out on a very important mission.

Guiding the Cross-and-Serpent across the serpentine roadways of Hopewell, I headed toward my favorite gas station, conveniently open 24 hours and situated on Route 206 near Hillsborough. I filled the near-empty tank and sauntered back into the nonexistent traffic of 4am Saturday. I had one more stop to make.

When I pulled into the 7-Eleven parking lot, I had crossed a cosmic finish line. Somewhere in the heavens far above, planets were moving into alignment and Orazio Satta was smiling softly. I had made it. Bella had made it. We had made it. I stepped out of the car, along with my brother who had been helping me through the long night. We walked into the store where I made myself the best cup of cut-rate coffee known to human kind. I drank it with the pride of knowing that I finally understood my place in life. Some Alfa owners can really drive. Others can work on their cars with surgical precision. Well, I can’t do either of those things with any more competence than a drunken ape. But I can love Alfas with the best of ‘em. So cheers to everyone who fixes, drives, and loves their Alfa. I might never be very good at those former two, but I hope my developing skills as an Alfa lover will earn me a place amongst you great folks for many years to come…

Which brings me to the real point of this story: The Autumn Tour. After spending Saturday recuperating from the previous night, I was ready to introduce Bella to a host of eager comrades. And I was quite pleasantly surprised when I discovered that this trip was not to traverse the foreign back roads of the Delaware River’s west bank in Pennsylvania, but would instead cover the familiar streets near that River’s eastern shore—some of which were the very back roads of Hopewell down which I had careened through the serenity of that fateful, late-Summer night.

I had a wonderful time at the Autumn Tour, and, from the smiling faces and enthusiastically driven cars, I suspect that everyone else did as well. Thank you so much to everyone involved with the organization of this great trip. Thank you for giving me the excuse to reintroduce Bella to that eternal state of mind, and for providing me with the opportunity to share that Summer and its endless back roads with a full house of nice folks and lovely cars. The Tour confirmed two of my long-standing suspicions. I now know, conclusively, that all Alfa owners are terrific. And, just as importantly, I now have proof that Alfa Romeos are built not with nuts and bolts and rivets and spot welds—but with magic. What else could have held my new radiator fan together for so long?