The trip was SUPPOSED to look something like this.
This article is more for the motor-heads amongst you, which, statistically, you are, since site stats show that most of our three readers are ‘Murican (and that’s probably due to the fact that George Washington invented the English language.) Enjoy the folly, and please do try and learn a little something from our experiences–so we can tax deduct this mess as an educational expense.
First of all, remember, this site is rated PG-13, so if you came to “Top Down Time” expecting to see boobage, cleavage, or chesticles of any variety, we recommend you head to one of our city articles and read the art section (or simply use the internet for the reason Al Gore invented it–to view porn.)
For the rest of you, the whole “Top Down” concept refers to the ‘Zoundsmobile–someday, we’ll explain just how the name came about–which is a convertible (top down, get it now?) supercharged (very bad idea to do to a car which needs to be reliable) Pontiac (company which no longer exists) Firebird (a bird which dies and is reborn–we’ve dealt with the dying part) Trans Am (unreasonably large internal combustion engine with nary a spare part to be found in Europa.)
How we got here
When the car was bought, it already came with the obnoxious graphics (which is precisely WHY it was bought), making it uniquely… something. It certainly has personality. I mean, which 6 year old doesn’t want to own their own real-life Hot Wheels car? And for the record, this was purchased way before it was time for a mid-life crisis–as if you need to set a timeframe on the BEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE!!!
You want it? 30,000 Euros and it’s YOURS!!!!
In any case, a limited history of the universe finds this sexy, sexy machine starting life in 1996 at a Canadian factory, where the finest Detroit engineers dictated the use of a mix of Metric and Imperial nuts, bolts, and hoses, to insure that no mechanic outside of the United States or Canada would be able to perform any repair, ever. Well played, US and Canada! Well played. From there, it was shipped to some dealer in the United States of William Jefferson Clinton, where it found its way into the hands of an Ohio couple, who later sold it to a kid in Pennsylvania. Between them, they put 60,000 gentle miles on it, only modifying it by adding a state-of-the-art 1996 five pound car-phone (that would be the old people) and taking it to a guy at a racetrack to tune the computer (that would be the kid). Oh, and somewhere in that mix, it gained its stripes… err… its flags.
Anyway, the kid needed a more practical car to drive hilly, snowy Pennsylvania in the winters, so he decided to dump the car in 2002 and get himself a VW bug or some such nonsense, guaranteeing him years of never-getting-laid-again-ness, which leads to the auto making its way onto… eBay! A test-drive later, a quick buy-it-now… and BAM! 10 grand and a set of keys switch hands. That would make it only the second in a string of highly impractical vehicles Top Down Nidal would purchase from eBay, none of which come with a top (much like… errr… better not talk about it.)
Top Down Ella on Top Down Ebay Vehicle #3
Now, to the typical New York City consumer, this car has everything going for it. It’s flashy, with flashy rims, so it will get stolen/vandalized if left out too long. The 5.7 liter (that’s 350 cubic inches for you rednecks) engine makes way too much horsepower and torque to be of any use in a crowded city, unless you like spinning your expensive, expensive tires into a fine, rubbery mist at stop-signs to the delight of eight year olds (and their sexy, sexy moms!) And the back seat is practically non-existent, unless your rear passengers happened to have fallen asleep with their legs across railroad tracks.
Due to these factors, between the years of 2002 and 2013, it racked up a whopping 12,000 miles. And most of those were on a half-dozen long trips to other states to play with toy soldiers (another epic topic we’ll discuss at a later time.) Yes… it was a most practical purchase, but the very reason you would never be stupid enough to get one of these is the same reason we’re in Europe on the road and you’re stealing time at the office hoping your boss doesn’t catch you surfing the net. Back to work, slacker!
But when the Top Down Trip was conceived, the reason for the ‘Zoundsmobile’s existence finally became apparent: what better car is there to tour the ultimately scenic European open road? Well, the actual truth is that there are plenty of better cars… but none of them were sitting in Mom and Dad’s garage, occupying space which was needed to fit a Manhattan apartment’s worth of furniture. So, it was time to bring the beast out of mothballs (it hadn’t seen the outside of the garage since 2009) and prepare it for duty. Make it so!
On a slightly financial note for the non-motorhead-inclined, it’s cheaper for General Motors to use the same engine in multiple cars rather than design a new engine for each one. So its fancy sports cars of the era–the Corvette, the Camaro Z28, and the Trans Am–all received the same engine. Problem was that it would be a marketing disaster if a $25,000 Trans Am or Camaro made as much power as a $50,000 Corvette, so GM “detuned” the engine, choking off its air supply and programming the computer to slow the car down. Now, as mentioned earlier, when it was purchased, the car’s computer had been tuned by a race shop to get rid of those pesky restrictions, and it ran like a beast. And that should have been the end of it.
But along the way, the old fuel pump decided to buy the farm, stranding us outside a strip-bar somewhere between the Philly docks and airport. We won’t get too much into that story other than saying that it involved a friend losing a kidney and the phrase, “when do the males get on the stage?” We kid you not. Here’s a picture of kidney boy telling us that we’ll always be #1 in his book!
But in any case, after Big Al The Brute pushed the car uphill, backwards, with 6 of us crammed into the bathtub, the local Pontiac dealership replaced the fuel pump and decided to do us the favor of reprogramming the computer to original factory specs, wiping out the work done by the racetrack mechanic, and knocking the car down about seven notches in the performance department. Boo. Hiss. This specific event is what caused GM to go bankrupt, Pontiac to die as a brand, and the collapse of Detroit’s once mighty economy leading to its subsequent sale to Canada.
With the car finally starting to show its age, the shocks–which keep your kidneys from boxing with your liver–were a tired 72,000 miles old. And compared to cars built in the 21st century, the brakes were spongy–though we all know that, as Gas Monkey Richard says, brakes are for quitters. And worst of all, the electric antenna didn’t work and one of the headlights wouldn’t close, making the car look like it was winking at everyone in the crosswalk! So let’s fix it using to the best source of concise, accurate, and unbiased information available, the internet, since we all know that if it’s on the internet, it HAS to be true! Well, 5 months and 5 grand worth of cosmetic, suspension, exhaust, braking and chassis modifications later, and the car was better-than-ever. Ready. Finito. Gata.
When to say when
Leave well enough alone? Hell, we’d still be in NYC if that were the Top Down Time philosophy! The problems all started when we ended up at a race shop in Staten Island (which is generally a bad borough to be in, so we were already in trouble). Talking to the guys in the shop, we asked them if they could reprogram the computer the way kid-who’s-probably-still-not-getting-laid-in-his-VW-bug did way back in the day.
Well, this is a speed shop… of COURSE they can do it! For more than a few thousand dollars more, they could also add a supercharger to give us as much horsepower as we dare push through the engine. SUPECHARGER?!?!?!?!? Well here’s my checkbook, 19 year old stoned-looking mechanic man who I’ve conversed with all of twice! Have at it! It’s easy. They’re experts. It’ll only take about 2 days. Tops.
After a week went by, we get the call. Because of blah blah blah, yada yada yada, computer this, sensor that, none of what was planned gets done. None of it. Again, we could have left well enough alone at that point, but instead, with fairies of “Pimp My Ride” dancing in our heads, it became a mad dash to throw a supercharger on the car before it hit the boat to Europe 4 weeks later.
After calling what seemed to be every speed shop and gearhead contact we knew on the East Coast, we found a shop in Long Island that looked legitimate enough, where the owner assured us that he’d have the supercharger install (12 grand) as well as an upgraded tranny (3 grand) to handle the extra horsepower done in a week (which is good, since, by then, we only had 2 weeks to get to the boat which was taking the car to Bruges).
Hmmm… I could just buy one of those for the money I’m spending on this old thing and it would be nothing but smoooooooth sailing. Naaaaaahhhh!
Well, let’s just say that the deadline was missed… badly. To make a long story short, 2 weeks turn into 6, we miss the first two boats, and the car, now supercharged with an obscene amount of horsepower, has a freshly-rebuilt hardened transmission… which is so shoddily assembled that it shouldn’t be pushing a moped. But we get the car to the ship, billowing a smokescreen of thick, white, vaporized transmission fluid the whole way, making the third and final deadline by about 10 minutes, and saving a week’s worth of boat time by shipping it to Antwerp rather than Bruges. We’ll fix the tranny once we get to Europe. The have trannies in Europe, right? (answer: no… they don’t… at least not that kind)
In Europe, we work our way through four cities and four countries in a rental sleeping-pill of a Volkswagen, losing our life’s collection of favorite CD’s when we returned the horrid turd. In city number four, Amsterdam, we returned the rental car as scheduled, and prepared to be reunited with our the ‘Zoundsmobile. Not so fast. Apparently, the ship had to make an unscheduled stop somewhere in Germany, and would be a week late, meaning…
...we were forced to travel in vehicles distinctly lacking in Top Down-ness.
So rather than pick the car up and drive on, we had to take an overnight train from Amsterdam to Prague, skip Germany altogether, and rather than head to Bratislava and Vienna, spend more time in Prague than planned and return via Oslo (by plane) to Brussels, then take a train to Antwerp, spend the night, and pick the car up the following day so we could drive all the way out of Belgium, across the Netherlands, zip through Germany, and into the Czech Republic all in one long day.
On a positive note, we did get to see some cool architecture from the train. Of course, we have no idea what those buildings were, other than that they’re clearly churches, and somewhere in Germany, so you can now have the fun of figuring out what they are so we could visit them in the future. Tell us what we’re looking at, and where it is, and win a prize!
Clues to help you win the mystery (so mysterious we don’t know what it is) prize:
- The train left Amsterdam for Prague at 5 p.m.
- There is a time visible on one of the structures, but we don’t know if it was AM or PM.
- The time of year was late August 2013.
- One of the structures is under some renovation.
- There are trees in both pictures. TREES!!! In GERMANY!!!!!!
Anyway, back on topic: the quick and sad version of Top Up Time is that we missed Vienna!!! The music! Think of the music!!! 😦 😦 😦 😦 Oh, and did we mention that, of course, the transmission hadn’t yet been fixed? We did, however, blow the doors off those two Mustangs in an impromptu quarter mile drag race, and we had the added weight of TWO people in our car. They didn’t even have to carry around a driver! Come on, Ford. Get your act together.
Gone in 61 Seconds, Fast and Furious 7, or Transformers 4? You decide.
The next four mechanics and counting
But hey, on a positive note, we had a car, and the top came down! The weather was amazing. And transmission or not, the autobahn is a WONDERFUL place! Sadly, we couldn’t hit the psychologically satisfying 200kph barrier due to Top Down Ella’s incessant screaming… something about the car violently shaking itself apart (the guy who balanced the tires must have been a bit drunk that day, and by a bit, we mean a lot.)
In any case, we did manage to make it to Prague, where English is significantly less common than awesome architecture, and then headed on towards Budapest. For those counting, that makes the trip a total of 700 miles in a 500 horsepower car with a failing transmission. Smarter moves have been made, but none of them were nearly as much fun. No matter. We get to Budapest, with the tranny hissing and spitting and growling and so pissed off at the world that it broke an exhaust pipe mount, just for good measure. Through the efforts of some very nice Magyars, we found a shop which worked on nothing but American cars.
To give you an idea of the rarity of the above picture happening, Budapest is a city of nearly 2 million people. 4 of them own a Pontiac Firebird of some sort. One of those birds is a convertible. The day we brought our car to the mechanic, the other bird was there waiting for us (it’s convertible top had decided to kick out it’s window during a particularly heavy rain… not pleasant). In any case, we were saved!!! Certainly, our problem must simply be a loose bolt, or a switch they had to flick, or they just had to top off the fluid. After taking the tranny apart, they found the following:
We disassembled the stall converter, signs of internal damage were visible – two huge (cca. 1″) metal shrapnels came out of it. All thrust bearings and pressure plates in the converter were out of tolerance ranges. We had the stall converter renewed, all needed internals were changed to brand new pieces. The nasty sound which could be heard when in trans lever was in Drive position now produces much less sound. The problem is, that this wasn’t enough to get this done. The transmission itself had been damaged by the metal pieces circulating in the oil system. The sound which could be heard when the transmission shifts gears is still present and will be until we get the transmission itself apart and fixed. I strongly don’t recommend driving with this transmission, although the original source of the problem had been solved.
The original source of your problems were the sloppy labor and gruesome parts quality (especially the converter). We had to deal with several “bugs” during the stall converter repair. Trans oil dipstick wasn’t secured, 2 of the 6 bolts were missing which secures the trans to the engine (special hardened bolts), fuel vapor return line left hanging, electric cables left sagging…etc.
Yeesh! The worst part is that all the sourcing of needed parts and work couldn’t be completed while we were still in Budapest, so we hopped a 5 hour train to Oradea, Romania, in an effort to salvage at lease some of our original schedule (we’re becoming quite the rail experts at this point.) Three days later, the car is ready, and the train trip back to Budapest is still five hours long (you think they would have fixed that while we waited.) Twelve hundred dollars (or sixty-eight billion Forints) lighter, we depart Budapest in what appears to be a repaired car with a very decent transmission.
Shortly after crossing the border from Budapest to Romania, we turned into a gas station in Valea Lui Mihai (no, not that Valea Lui Mihai, the other one) which had a rather steep entrance ramp. The bottom of the car scrapes horribly as we enter the station, which happens quite a bit (the scraping, not the entering of the station… though come to think of it, that happens quite a bit as well.) In any case, we think nothing of it. We fill up the car, go inside to pay, come back, turn the car on, and notice that the gas gauge shows 3/4 of a tank. It must have been one of those sensitive pumps that shuts off too fast… whatever. We need to get moving to stay on schedule, and we have enough gas to get to where we’re headed.
The following is an actual Google Street View image of the EXACT gas station… see if you can spot anything odd.
No, it’s not the guy peeing behind the station. After all, you didn’t know that the station had a men’s room (which it did… we know, since Top Down Nidal used it). It might be that there’s a police car filling up and getting gas, oblivious to the waterworks going on out back. Or, it might be that there’s a closed circuit camera right above the *cough* gentleman’s *cough* head. All in all, if the teller inside peeps what happening and tells those cops, it could make for an amusing Benny Hill style chase through the village.
Anyway, we start on our way to the next waystop, all the while smelling a fairly strong scent of gasoline. But we’re thinking that with the top down, the car just sometimes smells that way after being in a gas station. We drive exactly 9.2 miles and notice that the gas gauge is now at a quarter tank. Now, gas mileage in this car is a bit worst than your average Prius, but we know it’s not less than 2 miles a gallon! Pulling over and looking under the car, Nidal sees the fuel line GUSHING gasoline like it had too much tequila at a frat party, and there’s now a shiny, shiny pool of future fiery death forming right underneath the driver’s side, a couple of inches from the exhaust collector (which is nearly glowing red from heat). Nidal screams to Ella to RUN as he reaches in to shut the car down. As soon as the key is turned, we run across the street waiting for the cursed contraption to go up in a spectacular Michael Bay style ball of flame. But no such luck!
But now we’re in west-bumblef**k, Romania, at the side of the road, in the village of Pişcolt (pop. 3,285), at ten at night, wondering how we’re going to get this car to a mechanic, where we’re going to stay, who’s going to steal all our bags which are loaded in the back seat, which local horse cart is going to end up with new shiny rims, and in which hostel from the movie Hostel will we be murdered. Out of the blue, this mild mannered young fellow, who reminds us of a young Tom Bombadil (so we’ll call him “Tom”) comes sauntering by, looks at us, and asks, in broken Romanian/Hungarian “something wrong with the car?” Ella asks him if he knows a mechanic. He doesn’t answer, and instead tells Nidal “follow me” as he skips towards the house right across the road. Nidal’s thinking that if he follows this guy, he’s going to get a brick to the side of the skull, and Tom is going to get a non-functional trans-am along with everything inside. But Tom is already disappearing behind a fence, and there doesn’t seem to be much choice, so Nidal skips merrily to his doom. At least the cover of the heavy iron gate will spare Ella from having the see the grisly event.
Tom leads Nidal into this back yard and what does he see (beside Tom’s Hungarian grandma?) The rusting hulks of cars and tractors in various states of stripping, a home-made car-port chock full of tools, and a half-built (or was it stripped?) car sitting on top of a legitimate mechanic’s pit! WTF?!?!?! Tom points to the car and motions that he’s going to pull it out, and gestures to Nidal that he should pull the Trans Am in. Bloody murder averted, Nidal runs across the street, telling Ella to stand WAY back, turns the car on, gas gushing and all, and quickly maneuvers it into the “garage”.
When you break down in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t this happen to you?
Tom cuts off the shredded fuel line section, replaces it with a short section he pulled from one of the hulks in the back, and clamps it off. We try the car, and it isn’t leaking a drop. RIDICULOUS luck!!!! What are the odds of not just breaking down in front of this specific house, but also that he just happened to be sauntering home (we’d like to think, from the bar) the minute we figured out we were pouring gas?
So when he was done, we thanked him profusely and asked him how much he wanted. He said whatever we wanted to give, and that we didn’t have to give him anything, so Nidal hits him with a spanner, we rob the house, and leave before anyone can fetch the local constabulary (who would have been busy assisting in the pursuit of gas-station-pee-guy.)
Right before Nidal clubbed him half to death with a spanner. Ella finished the job.
No. Not really. It was about a half hour’s worth of work, all in all, and in Romania, mechanics at a proper shop get about $10 an hour, by our estimates. Factoring in that he used about a dollar’s worth of clamps and hose, and… we gave him 50 euros, because why not? He freaked out a bit, which was fun and we probably upset the town’s local economy for the next month or so, but it was SOOOOO worth it. We can only imagine what it would have cost to tow the car, end up at a shady mechanic, get a hotel for the night, lose a day, etc. etc. And we were in the middle of NOWHERE without a working cell phone. See kids, do as Terrance says, and always train, say your prayers and eat your vitamins, and angels will come out of nowhere and help you out when you need it most. (First person OTHER than cousin George who explains that reference wins a prize.)
But who cares about a little mishap with murderous flammable fluid? At least the transmission works fine, right? Umm.. well… by the time we’ve driven the eight hours from Budapest to Cluj, the transmission has eaten itself again. Whatever has been repaired has done us the favor of unrepairing itself.
At this point, we’re ready to drive the car into a river and call the insurance company reporting a theft, but that would have been the smart move. The first mechanic we bring it to throws it up on his lift and spends the next hour admiring all the awesome work that went into the engine, suspension, bodywork, etc. He checks everything he can and comes to the conclusion that the car is amazing (we just need the tranny fixed… and he doesn’t fix trannies.) With his giddy appreciation for the fine craftsmanship which does exist, we feel a spark of optimism once more, and redouble our efforts to find someone to fix the ailing transmission before we sell the car for scrap.
We do find such a shop, and are heartened when we pull in and see vehicles such as Porsches and Maseratis (you know, slower cars), but are slightly disheartened at the fact that most of the mechanics appear to have a look bordering somewhere between bemused confusion and abject fear. One looks under the hood and simply says, “there’s just too much stuff in there.” That’s it! We just need to remove some engine and we’ll be fine. Duh!!!
A series of tests later, and it’s determined that the converter which had been rebuilt in Budapest has committed suicide once again. Forget a rebuild… we need a new converter. Another few weeks and a thousand dollars later, and we have a converter shipped from the US and installed in Romania. And it works great! And of course the snows come the NEXT DAY. So the car makes its way to a garage, and is now rusting in peace until spring. Over the winter, on a trip back to ‘Murica, we plan on getting a few more bits to fix things which are wobbly and loose (much like the tourists in Amsterdam), including a camshaft pulley, some oil for the supercharger, and a map to get our asses back to Germany, where there are rumors of mythical mechanics who can rid us of any remaining gremlins!
Meanwhile, Top Down Nidal has given this “family” man the keys to cover some of growing gambling debts we’re not at liberty to discuss at this time.
A minor victory
But hey… it all ends on a good note. After missing 2 boats, driving 1,250 miles from Antwerp to Cluj on a bad transmission, dealing with a gushing fuel line in the middle of nowhere, and paying for a couple of thousand bucks worth of repairs which should have never been needed, the ‘Zoundsmobile is mostly roadworthy. On the way back to the garage where it will be parked for the winter, we had to drive up a steep hill to enter the town of Dej. What better way to test the engine/tranny/rear-end combo than slamming on the gas while going up a steep hill? As the pedal was buried, the noise which erupted sounded like a lion bomb just went off . After winning the struggle to keep the hood somewhere in front of the trunk and rocketing up the hill, we became aware of an occurrence which proves why we don’t need rear-view mirrors: as Nidal slammed the gas, a poor fellow in a pretty fancy looking BMW had just tried to pass us. Nidal hadn’t even seen him make the move, but he had driven to the left lane and tried to accelerate past. Really? Why would you do that, up a hill, when you’re about to enter a city? Must be showing off, trying to beat the flashy red… whatever that is. Well, once we showed him that the laws of physics don’t apply at 500 horsepower, we saw him in the rear-view mirror struggling to hold his car in a straight line. We’d imagine that the sound of a supercharged 5.7 liter V8 with 3 inch pipes sucking in 1.5 atmospheres could be a little disconcerting to a European. His next move was going home to change his shorts.
The ‘Zoundsmobile felt so dirty beating up on a production car it needed a bath
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Until next time, when we teach Americans what Europeans know about flying CHEAP, keep your Tops Down and your spirits up!
Car porn extra
And for the REAL REAL gear-heads among you, who keep asking about the technical details of what’s been done to the car, these are the actual upgrades done to the vehicle:
- Intercooled Procharger D1sc Supercharger kit including injectors(?), fuel pump, air massager, etc. with 8 pounds of boost
- 3.08 Eaton Detroit TrueTrac rear-end
- 6th gen front Corvette brakes with slotted rotors
- Braided brake lines
- Koni Sport On-Car Adjustable Shocks
- Sub-Frame Connectors
- Strano Rear Sway Bar
- Rear Lower Control Arms
- Adjustable Panhard Bar
- Shock Tower Brace
- Pacesetter 72C2237 Long Tube Ceramic Coated Headers
- 3 inch Pacesetter 82-1161 Y-Pipe
- 3 inch Electric Cutout Kit
- Cat delete
- Magnaflow 15620 Cat-Back Exhaust
- 17 inch rims
- New 245/40ZR-17 Michelin Pilot Sport A/S Plus tires
- Red Indiglo Gauge Faces
- Brass Headlight Motor Fix
- 2X Dual 3 1/4 Chrome exhaust tips
- 2800 Yank stall converter
- Hardened 4L60e automatic tranny
- Rag Joint Eliminator
- Remote Tire Pressure Sensors
These are issues which still need to be addressed:
- At high RPM’s, it sounds as if there might be an exhaust leak… not sure what it is.
- Since converter install, exhaust rattles at certain RPM’s. Need to find exhaust shop to sort it all out.
- Exhaust tips too low… need to be raised for cosmetic reasons. Need to find exhaust shop.
- Fuel Lines still unprotected beneath subframe. Need to reroute or otherwise protect.
- Need to properly wrap exhaust by fuel lines.
- Speedometer needle not connected to gauge. Falls off at high speed.
- Fog light lens broken–replace.
- Intercooler air scoop too low. Remove and replace with (switched) electric fan?
- Fuel pump too loud. Issue or not? Need quieter high-flow pump.
- Computer says injectors are 24 pound (stock). Either computer is wrong, or injectors need to be changed. (30+? 40+ pound?)
- Fuel pump too loud.. want high capacity but quieter pump.
- Supercharger needs oil change.
- Find a stiffer font sway bar that fits with the intercooler.
- Replace wobbly crankshaft pulley.
- After all else is done, need to get it computer dyno tuned.