July 15th, 2006

#117: The joys of driving a 21 year old car

Parking brake jammed on the '85 Fiero today. Right rear brakes nearly caught fire. They were smoking and trying hard to burn, so I tossed a half-liter of bottled water onto the rear rotor. It boiled off but at least it cooled everything down enough that it stopped smoking.

I was trying to get some gasoline and noticed that the car wouldn't stop unless I pressed the pedal all the way down. "No problem," thought I; "I'll just give the parking brake lever a yank and that'll adjust the rear calipers."

Well, it didn't. All it did do was to jam the goddamned parking brake cable. In the process of trying to free it, I managed to jam it even worse.

Still, it drove fine, and it was obvious that the brakes weren't dragging--the parking brake has never worked well on that car, despite new cables, pads, and calipers--so I drove home. And I got into the next town over when the car started to pull to the right, badly, a sure sign of a dragging caliper.

I pulled off into the train station parking lot to double-check, and a cloud of smoke drifted past--so I bolted out of the car, got the trunk open, and grabbed the fire extinguisher...but it wasn't on fire, so I sacrificed my bottle of water instead. (Bottled water is cheaper than a fire extinguisher.) This kind of situation has burned more Fieros than any of the problems which sparked recalls, I might add.

I called a tow truck, but the dumbass told me it was going to be an hour, so I cancelled that and had my parents bring my tools and a jack. By the time they got there, I had the car up on its jack and the wheel off. I just needed the tools to loosen the parking brake cable, and then I was able to release the stuck caliper. The drive home went fine.

Now I get to go work on my Fiero. The pads, obviously, are toast. The right rear caliper may be screwed up and sticking "on", or it may just be the cables. The cables probably need to be replaced, again. (I replaced them after I bought the car, in 2002.)

All told, it is not what I wanted to do with my weekend. Fixing the red Escort is beginning to look like more and more of a priority....

#118: Joys etc part 2

The damn rear calipers are seized again!

I replaced them last year, at the end of June. And the damn things seized again!

I nearly broke my biggest C-clamp trying to push the pistons back into their bores. They wouldn't so much as budge! Jesus, no wonder I didn't have any brakes in that car!

The rear rotors need to be turned. I'm going to take them over and see if I can't get that done--assuming they're worth saving. Otherwise it looks like I'm buying new rotors in addition to the new parking brake cables I need--

Oh, yes! The parking brake cables I put on in 2002 are utter junk now. The left side is completely seized, and the right side isn't much better. I haven't even gotten to the point of checking the main cable to the handle, but the parking brake handle is utterly FUBAR as well. I guess I don't know my own strength.

Although some enthisiasts would argue the point with me, I think the braking system of a Fiero is a thing of beauty...when it works. When it works correctly the car will stop on a dime; I had never experienced a car with such good braking performance until I drove this car with an essentially new brake system in it. But when it does not work, it's a nightmare.

The rear calipers are the weak link. The Fiero was among the first high-volume cars GM built with four-wheel disk brakes, and they really hadn't quite had a good handle on how to do that. The parking brake is what does it; the brakes were meant to self-adjust but didn't really do that all too well; the parking brake was part of the problem, as the parking brake mechanism is built into the caliper piston.

The brakes should self-adjust during normal driving; but practically speaking they don't. GM suggests the parking brake be used frequently to help them adjust, but that doesn't work either...and if your parking brake cables die, you're really out of luck. (And, for the record, you can't put anything on them like oil or penetrating lubricant. If you do, they'll only die faster.)

So, now I go to try to get my rotors turned. Whee!

#119: Yellowbeard

Yellowbeard was made in 1983. I never saw it in the theater. It seemed to me to be a sorely underrated comedy loosely built on a plot frame liberated from the general vicinity of Treasure Island.

It's basically a "Monty Python" movie. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle--arguably the front-liners of the Monty Python troupe--all have roles in the film. John Cleese reportedly didn't like the script, but was in the film as a favor to Chapman.

The title character, played by Graham Chapman (of "Monty Python" fame) is the utter worst of pirates. "Often forcing his victims to eat their own lips...," the opening exposition says.

The movie is full of humor. There are things in it which don't make a lot of sense, though. The casting of Cheech (Marin) and (Tommy) Chong, as Spanish priests, seemed odd, and Chong's feigned speech impediment in his role as El Nebuloso was distracting at best, and was never even remotely funny. In fact, the segments with Cheech and Chong are easily the weakest parts of the movie. The humor of that duo was built around recreational drugs, and their chemistry didn't work well in a pirate movie.

The movie centers around Yellowbeard's treasure. The pirate has been imprisoned and tortured in the hopes that he will reveal the location of his horde; whoever finds it will be wealthy beyond dreams of avarice. But Yellowbeard is made of sterner stuff and withstands twenty years of horrible conditions. On the day he's to be released, Eric Idle (as Commander Clement) informs him that he'll be serving another twenty years because he hasn't died yet. Yellowbeard breaks out of prison and goes to the home of Betty (played by Madeline Khan).

Betty is the last woman Yellowbeard raped before being arrested. She somehow ended up with his treasure map, and the son which resulted from their union--Dan--got that map tattooed on the back of his head.

Dan now works as a gardener at Queen Anne's castle, under the tutelage of Lord Lambourn, played by Peter Cook.

Betty visits Yellowbeard on the day of his release (or not, as the case may be) and tries to tell Yellowbeard about the existence of his son. She tries to approach the matter indirectly:

Betty: I'm talking about the fruit of your loins.
Yellowbeard: What are you talking about, woman? I haven't got fruit in my loins! Got crabs, though, and I'm proud of 'em!

Yellowbeard is not very intelligent, and somehow "fruit" and "crabs" become commingled into "prawn" (shrimp) and this exchange takes place later:

Yellowbeard: What, been out rapin', lad? Nice work, lad.
Dan: No, I haven't raped her.
Yellowbeard: No, you wouldn't have, would you, you poncy little git? You're not the prawn of my loins; your mother's a bloody liar!

The good thing about the movie is that it has many of these moments in which the viewer is expected to see the humor without the movie calling much attention to it. Overall the humor in the movie works very well while the scenes concentrate on the British cast.

It hits a brick wall whenever Cheech and Chong hit the screen. Ideally the roles played by those men should have been played by Python actors; Michael Palin would have been a natural for the role of El Nebuloso, and the role of El Segundo could easily have been pulled off by Terry Jones--and to better effect, at that.

This is not to say that Cheech and Chong are not funny--far from it. But as I said above, their humor is not well-suited to this kind of movie. Their chemistry works best in a modern framework; casting them as priests on the Spanish Main did not make much sense. Although they brought a lot of comedic horsepower to the film, there was no way they could make use of it given the plot and setting. Relegated to the "B" story, they were just tedious.

The movie suffered from having too many stars in it; and each star had to get his moment in the spotlight, so each and every one of them had his own sequence--this made many of the movie's "acts" too long, slowing the pace of the film to a tedious crawl in spots. Whenever Yellowbeard is ("and/or Dan are"?) on the screen, the movie works perfectly; when the action switches to others, however, it slows down or becomes uninsteresting. Even though Commander Clement is the primary antagonist, the movie spends too much time following his actions.

Even so, that would have been fine if the movie had not also spent almost as much time following the pirates Gilbert (Marty Feldman) and Moon (Peter Boyle) in their quest for Yellowbeard's treasure. And the worst part about the latter elements is that I can't even recall how that conflict was resolved, or even it it was resolved at all. Although the inclusion of these characters made for some funny scenes partway through the movie, it may not have been worth the drastic reduction in the speed of pacing. The funniest scenes would have been just as funny if they had been played by relative nobodies, and the writers would not have needed to include so much extraneous material.

But overall the movie is still worth renting from the bargin bin at the video store; it's got some wonderful chemistry and enough one-two punches to make it worth watching.