I Almost Blew Up a Gas Station with This Car

'76 Vette

Learning Lessons the Hard Way

After the dust settles and you've had a chance to catch your breath, it's very easy to see with hindsight what one should or should NOT have done to prevent an accident from occurring.  But the fact is, some people simply do NOT react well during a sudden and completely unexpected crisis.

For example, I still have a hard time recounting this story without getting all red in the face.

I confess that I once experienced a case of unintended acceleration in my old '76 Chevette.

When I was in high school, I bought a set of driving lights for my car and installed them on the front bumper.  But I didn't know how to get a wire from outside on the bumper into the occupant compartment where the toggle switch was mounted.  So one day I worked on my own car out in the parking lot in the intervals between pumping fuel for customers at the gas station where I spent my summer.

I found a big electrical connector where all the wires from the engine compartment passed through the firewall.  I unplugged it from the engine side.  That didn't help me much, so I decided to unbolt the other half of the connector from the inside under the dashboard.  That was one of the stupid parts.  Turns out, I could have simply pushed a wire through any one of several grommets without even touching this big connector.  But I didn't know that at the time, eh.

Well, the inside half of the electrical connector obviously was never intended to be unbolted, because it was a Bitch to get at.  The little tiny sheet metal screws holding it in place were almost completely inaccessible and could only be turned a quarter turn, then flip the wrench over, turn another quarter turn, and so on.  When I finally got it completely unbolted, I realised that it had been a total waste of time and then set about putting it all back into place.

So here I am, lying on my back under the steering wheel, with my legs hanging out the door, my arm looped over the steering column and tangled in the various wires and heating ducts etc under the dash, painfully turning these tiny screws back into place, one quarter turn at a time, when all of a sudden ...

... THE STARTER MOTOR KICKS IN and THE CAR IS LURCHING FORWARD!!!!!

     JEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeSUS!

Trying to jump up from under the dashboard, I gave my head an almighty whack on the steering wheel.  Due to being half unconscious from that impact, my brain kinda stopped working.  [That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.]  I did do ONE smart thing right away though.  I pulled my legs up before they could get run over by the back wheels.  After that, things went rapidly downhill.

My first reaction was that I must have somehow driven this little bugger screw into an important wire, so I frantically started trying to back the screw out again [one quarter turn at a time] while the car is steadily bucking and lurching forward, with me still hanging half out the door!!!

At the rate I was fumbling with that screw, I would still have been chugging along next Thursday.  So I finally gave up on that and got myself untangled from under the dash, sat up straight in the seat, and saw that, Oh My Gawd, OH MY GAWD, we're chugging straight toward the gas pumps!

     Ferdinand, THINK!

Turn it off!  Ya, good idea.  Why didn't I think of that earlier?  But the engine isn't actually running.  It's just the starter motor cranking.  And, but, um, err, hmmmm, there's NO KEY in the ignition!  My head's really hurting now, trying to figure out why the starter motor is driving the car forward when there's no key in the ignition.  They never covered any of this stuff in my driver's education classes.  Meanwhile those gas pumps are coming ever closer ...

     Steer!

Steer.  Ya, that's the ticket.  Steer it away from the gas pumps!  The car can chug around in a circle all day long if necessary until the battery runs dry, but God forbid, PLEASE, please, don't drive over the gas pumps!

Except the steering is LOCKED!  F*CK!!  Why is the steering locked?  Well maybe it's got something to do with the fact that there's no key in the ignition, IDIOT!  So now I'm fumbling in my pockets desperately trying to find that key ...

     Times up!

The gas pumps are right here, right now!

BRAKES!!!  Yes, Need BRAKES!  Both feet!  Right now!!!

That slows the car to a crawl, except the starter motor is making an awful humming noise and if I release the brakes the car jumps forward immediately.  So now I'm stuck here and can't take my feet off the brake pedal until help comes, or until the battery explodes, or the starter motor melts, or the brake pedal snaps off under the pressure I'm applying ...

If ever there was an emergency, THIS WAS IT.  So I ratchet on the emergency brake as tight as I can get it.  Except that damn starter motor, even when red hot, generates phenomenal torque.  Sh*t!  The hand brake won't hold the car.

I'm fumbling with the hand brake, both hands pulling to save my life, when ... < BING! > .  No thank God, that wasn't the sound of the hand brake cable snapping.  That was the sound of the little light bulb finally coming on in my head.  Ferdinand suddenly has a GOOD idea.

Immediately in front of the hand brake, right under my nose, is the gear shift lever.  So, gee, why not just knock it out of gear?

    Doh.

Except the crisis is still not over yet.  The car is now safely in neutral and immobilised, but the starter motor is still cranking at a hundred miles an hour and things are smelling decidedly HOT under the hood.  What if it catches fire sitting right next to the gas pumps?

Disconnect the battery!  Yup, that's the plan.  Except the Chevette battery didn't have the normal top-mounted battery terminals.  It had those ridiculous side-terminals with tiny bolts holding the cables on.  And I didn't have a wrench that small.

After a brief moment of running around in circles, I remembered that there's a huge adjustable crescent wrench in the bottom drawer of the desk inside the gas station.  I retrieved that and started undoing one of the battery terminals.  Except I brought the wrench down too far and promptly WELDED it across both terminals.  I quickly yanked it off, noticing how hot the wrench had become and seeing that a big chunk had been blasted out of the chrome where the wrench had touched the other terminal.  But I finally got the terminal undone and, oh bliss, the starter motor stopped cranking and the crisis was defused.

Only then could I look around to ensure that no one had observed my panic stricken floundering, and that no one had noticed how close I'd come to blowing up the gas station.

It turns out the two halves of the electrical connector had come into contact while I was putting the screws back in under the dash.  I could have just reached across the fender and knocked them apart.  Or smarter yet, I should have disconnected the battery before starting any work on the electrical system.

I really hope that I'd react a little more quickly in the event such an emergency ever happens again.  It seemed like hours at the time, but it really was only a matter of seconds before my mind finally came up with the solution of knocking the gear shift into neutral.  But it's still quite frightening to realise that I can be so incredibly dense and dim-witted while in shock during a crisis.

I'm still extremely sceptical of people claiming that their vehicle started up all by itself and took off while they had both feet planted on the brake pedal.  You wonder how anyone could possibly be so stupid.  But then again, I've been there, done that, nearly blew up the gas station ...

       -Ferdinand-

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