By Scott Longman
The brake pedal went right to the floor. He was doing sixty and approaching four lanes of heavy cross traffic.
Our case study is a guy we know who goes by “Mr. Mopar.” His project car was a ‘64 Dodge that had been born with a modest six-cylinder engine. He supplanted it with a high-performance 383 out of a ’70 Road Runner. Although he wisely replaced the transmission with the one from the ‘Runner, he let common sense take a powder on the rest of the stock drivetrain, including particularly the rear U-joint.
Upon hitting the street, the first worthy adversary he encountered was pedigreed in Stuttgart—no further invitation required. The light changed, they both went at it, and for a glorious few seconds, his wrenchwork was explosively vindicated. He slam-shifted into second gear, then slammed into third.
Slam-shifting places enormous stress on a drivetrain, even if it had been designed to withstand the torque being put through it. Here, the rear U-joint wasn’t even close, and it went all Democratic on him, leaving the four-foot-long steel driveshaft to flail wildly, alternately tearing up pavement like a backhoe and rearranging the floorpan like a baseball bat rearranges tin foil, until the yoke splines slipped out and it screamed out from the under car. But before it did, it tornadoed through the single brake line plumbed astern (only one in 1964) and likewise snarfed the parking brake cable. So Mr. Mopar was doing maybe 60 miles an hour, half a block from a very busy, four lane cross street with zero brakes.
He tried the immediate action drill of all serious drivers: he downshifted. Downshifting changes the mechanical ratios by which the engine relates to the drive wheels, and, therefore, to the road. The engine has friction and compression and energy-eating reciprocating mass which can serve to function as an indirect brake. It didn’t work for Mr. Mopar because his transmission was as disconnected as Lynn Cheney.
He then depressed the parking brake pedal. That has to be done with modulated care, because it might lock up the rear wheels, which is a surefire way to lose control. Well, he was saved from that peril, in that the driveshaft had also taken out the parking brake cable.
So, Mr. Mopar figured out that he had no hydraulics, no downshifting and no parking brake. What’s left? The slalom. Slaloming is a potentially fine way to lose control of the car, but given high-speed, certain impact as an alternative, it was looking pretty good. In this move, the driver aggressively swings the car back and forth along the line of travel, as if slaloming around traffic cones as vehemently as Isaac Newton will let him. The resultant scrub on the tires can bleed off a substantial amount of speed, assuming you don’t go into oversteer and have the rear end turn on you like the National Archives.
Mr. Mopar did his best to slalom, but it wasn’t quite enough. He was still doing flank speed nearing the intersection, so he took the E-3 option: he Employed the Extrinsic Environment. To his right was a drainage ditch, punctuated with barriers of driveways into a strip mall and then a gas station. Had he gone into the ditch, the driveways would’ve brought things to a horribly entropic conclusion. To his left, across the oncoming lanes, however, was a shallow swale, a slight hill, and an unfenced golf course, to include a very nice green. He recalled it was a public course, so his decision was made. He put the Dodge into the swale, losing velocity, up the hill, losing more velocity and continued his slalom along a soft, yielding and heretofore immaculate carpet of Bagger Vance’s dreams. The Kentucky grass did a splendid job of converting his kinetic energy into greenskeeper’s ischemic trauma.
Exhaling for a very long moment, he stepped out, surveyed the damage, noted an absence of apparently interested witnesses, and then, with characteristic panache, jogged across the street to the gas station. There he negotiated towing services, and further negotiated remarkable memory impairment, getting the Dodge home—sans divot fees.
And, presumably, a better set of U-joints.