Rescue No. 1

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Rescuing Erik Gundersen's 1969 America

The long trip home
Towing on the 10 freeway in Los Angeles


I found out about this car in 2000 when my friend and fellow 1100 email list member Peter Williams of the UK ran across it on the internet.  It was grazing the asphalt in a used car lot somewhere in southern California.  It had been sitting a long time and they were asking way too much money for it. 

I eventually got ahold of the owner, Erik Gundersen, who brought it back home (where it's been sitting).  We've kept in touch, as I was hoping to encourage
him to get it back on the road.  But, as luck would have it, his wife intervened (as women will sometimes do.....with a man's beloved little project car) and it was headed to the wrecking yard. 

Erik emailed me in early November 2002 and asked if I wanted it.  I was very interested and the pictures he sent showed that the car was 100% original and all in tact, with a very minimum of body damage and almost no rust.  Originally, I was going to have it transported, but after receiving quotes of $400, I knew it was time to break out my trusty "Austin America Tow Bar."  That little invention has more than paid for itself!  However, I've never towed a compete car and I've never towed for any extended distances.....not to mention towing on the freeway of Los Angeles!  This was going to be a 290 mile tow on some of the LA areas most notorious and populated freeways.  The "10" and "210" freeways, the "15" freeway through the valley.  And of couse, the "101" freeway.  This was the big leagues and I was going to tow an 1,800lb America with my 60hp 2,200lb VW Diesel Pickup truck!  Somebody could get an eye out.....

At any rate, my own car was not in need of anything this winter, so I've been wanting a project.

The car is definately in need of a "freshening" to say the least.  From the thick black engine oil (much of which was coating the engine and trans), the missing thermostat, the blown headgasket, the rusted-solid cooling passages in the block and head, the fan on backwards, the radiator mounted wrong and hitting the fan, (chewing up the front of the radiator) and a few other really choice repairs, it rapidly became clear that this was going to be a "project" in every sence of the word.
However, the body is very straight and very rust free! The original color was
Damask Red.  As you can see, the interior is pretty rough...headliner missing, door and quarter window seals rotted off, seat bottom upholstery torn up, dash switches all broken.  Plenty of fun to be had for the next few months!


Front view
Safe arrival home
Rear view
Hydrolastic's are a bit low.

Arrival at the bodyshop
Time for a little "R&R" and refurbishment

All Primed
Body work completed & ready for paint.
Painting finished
The Damask Red is beautiful
Starting to come together
Day 1 & starting to look like an America again!

Quite a change.
The trim really sets off the Damask Red.


Sun-baked interior
Southern California sun is tough on interiors
Front seat upholstery
A panel of pleats sewn up


A fresh interior
Starting to look like an America again
Front seats re-upholstered
Back to original condition
Rear seats re-upholstered


Reflectix brand insulation
Makes a huge difference in keeping the interior cool.

Headliner installed
Premade by Alexander Headliner Co. in Los Angeles, CA

Dash removed
Plenty of surprises lurking here

Engine Compartment
Tons of work to do here
Well, the engine and transmission have rapidly degraded (or should I say, been upgraded) into a full-on rebuild.  
Initially I did the standard precautionary measures for starting an engine that has been stored for a long time.
  1. Changed the oil and filter
  2. Pull the park plugs
  3. Squirt engine oil into the cylinders
  4. Removed the banjo bolt on the top connection of the external oil feed pipe
  5. Pour oil into that passage to prime the oil pump. 
  6. Turn engine over by hand and watch the oil pump move oil
  7. Crank engine over using the starter, with the spark plugs out until oil pressure is achieved

I then performed a compression test. 

  • 225psi in cylinder #4.  Probably a bit high due to the oil in the cylinders. 
  • 55psi in cylinder #3 and lots of air being pumped out of cylinder #2.  So, there is a badly blown headgasket between #2 and #3.  So ends the compression test and the attempts to start the engine.

Also, as I was cranking the engine over, I removed the radiator cap and noticed coolant was circulating while the engine is cranking.  That's not normal and is an indication that the thermostat has been removed.  I also noticed that the radiator had been recored and that the radiator fan was on backward.  An aftermarket water pump had also been installed.   The equation begins to fill in!   Someone was chasing their tail on an overheating problem!

First of all, these engines must have their thermostat, or they will overheat.  A blanking sleeve is available for non-thermostat/race applications.  Secondly, the aftermarket water pumps with the stamped steel impellers don't move enough coolant and cavitate a high revs.  A fan on backwards will still push air out through the radiator, but not at a very good rate.  All in all, a very good way to wind up with a blown head gasket.

Upon removing the headgasket, I found about a 1/4" section missing between #2 and #3 cylinders.  When I took the valves out of the head, I found the original cast iron exhuast seats were in very bad shape from being run on unleaded fuel.   One of the intake valves was bent, as were 2 of the valve springs.  It appears the head was dropped at some point as this is the only way I can imagine the top of an intake valve getting bent.

The more I dive into the engine, the more it appears that not only has someone done quite a bit of work to it, but the work is not very good.  That's a bad sign in an America engine because if they are not setup or built right, they will soon destroy this engine seems to be on it's way to doing.

I've decided to pull the engine and disassemble both the block and the transmission.  It's the only real way to build it nice and make it dependable.   Turns out to have been the right thing to do.  There was .018" clearance at the Primary gear which is only supposed to have about .0065".  The crank had over .004" clearance on the rods and mains, so it's getting turned .010" undersize, and getting thrust washers that are .003" oversized.  Laygear endfloat was equally out of spec on the loose side.

I also found a heavily damaged 3rd motion shaft ball bearing, and damage to the opposite end of the third motion shaft.  On top of that, 2nd gear was destroyed due to a worn syncro.   Some very expensive damage for sure and I'm really glad I found it now.

Parts are ordered and the machine shop has their work well under way....

Okay, I'm suffering from buyer's remorse right now.  I just got my parts and once again I'm reminded that these engines are expensive!  And, I didn't have to replace the pistons because they are excellent, as are the bores.

I think I have approximately $1,500 in parts righ now and only $300 of that is for extras like the Kent camshaft ($154) and the 3.1 final drive ($160).  All the rest were mandatory.  Now I'm thinking about what parts I can clutch disc, pressure plate, T.O. bearing, diff bearings, timing chain sprockets, etc.  All were good, and I sort of hate to re-use stuff like that.....but they sure add up!  On top of that:  $400 for the head rebuild, $120 to grind the crank 10/10, $80 to install cam bearings. 
Headgasket damage
Mmmm......this is not so good.
Exhaust valve seat damage
Cast iron seats and unleaded fuel don't mix

Cylinder head rebuilt
Converted to "Unleaded" with hardened exhaust valve seats.

Stripped down and degreased

Ready for paint

Fresh coat of MOWOG Green

Now that's alittle bit better

Engine/trans removal
Time to see what lurks inside

Inside the shredder
Ever wonder why your engine oil looks metalic?

Removing the Pinion Bolt
Okay, who tightened this?

Mainshaft damage
1st motion shaft pilot bearing has done this...cha-ching!

3rd Motion shaft repaired
Welded with 75 Rockwell hardness rod & ground back to standard

Damage to 2nd gear
A bad 2nd gear syncro is the likely cause of this...cha-ching!

3rd Motion Bearing Damage
Note the damaged ball and brass retainer...cha-ching!