London Calling: The show must go on

After some discussion with the local producer about replacing my car with a Camaro, it was decided that “The Phantom” needed the authenticity of a white 1967 Mercury Cougar to match the crime scene photos. A guy named Joe had trailered in a 1980s Ford Crown Victoria from Austin for the scene.

Joe, being an absolutely amazing guy, agreed to use his trailer to pick the Cougar up from the transmission shop where they had FINALLY looked at the problem around 3 p.m., but then said they wouldn’t get to it until Monday.

Three of us could not push this car up the ramp. She’s a heavy girl.

We deposited the Cougar in front of the gas pumps at the Sunny’s Convenience Store, carefully making sure the axle didn’t slide out when we were rolling it around.

These gas pumps don’t actually work. #acting

Mary’s one question was whether or not there would be a food buffet where all the actors could just graze in between shoots. There was — sort of.

As the production assistants finished setting up lights and removing all the blatantly modern signage from the gas station, I was issued my authentic 1983 street wear — a grey polo with a grey sweater. Apparently in the crime scene photos, Kevan Baker was also wearing a hat, so they stole a sweaty baseball cap off one the PAs and stuck it on my head.

I’m going to look goofy as heck in this movie. Also, watch for continuity because the bloody, dying gas station attendant falls into my arms. However, that meant my sweater got bloody on take one, and we did it about 25 times. Then we switched back to some pre-death scenes after I was bloody. Should be interesting to see if it shows.

Hurry up, and wait. That’s what making movies is all about.

So after all the intense gas pumping, stabbing, and first aid scenes, they wrapped it up with a Police ID of … you guessed it, the wrong Carlos. To add a bit of irony, the actor who played the actual killer was used as a stand-in with the Police for the ID scene.

They shot this scene from behind the car to catch the bright mag lights shining in onto the perp. They had instructions to let the light wander off the guys face onto the camera lens and then back. I’m really curious to see what it actually looked like in the camera.

The Cougar rolled out of scene, taking 5.

Once we finally wrapped, Joe trailered the Cougar back to our hotel and unloaded her in the parking lot for me before going back to the set for his police cruiser. Thanks, Joe!

Now we just have to get the Cougar back to Houston …

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London Calling: The Cruise to Corpus Christi

Sunny skies and open roads

I had to drive to work in the rain. Driving in drizzle during rush hour in Houston is the most hazardous thing you can do in a car. You’re almost guaranteed to get rear-ended sooner or later.

However, I made it to work, and my day ticked ever so slowly away as I waited for the big road trip.

I managed to get out of the office by 4:30 p.m., gassed up the Cougar, and we tackled traffic heading south out of town. She was purring like a kitten.

I noticed an insane amount of police presence along 59, mostly monitoring northbound motorists. It’s as if someone declared there was an immigration crisis at the border and then instructed DPS to make sure they apprehended enough people to prove it. I made sure to stick to the speed limit.

Just before the turnoff onto 77 I stopped for more gas. I probably had enough to make Corpus, but I didn’t want to risk it.

Taste that sweet premium

After filling up, I turned the key, and I got the dreaded slow crank. This was my biggest fear. I JUST replaced the starter last week.

I popped the hood, jiggled the starter cable, and tried the key again. She started right away. I smiled, put her in gear, and headed on down the road.

I had turned off of 77 onto 136 at dusk, and I was cruising down that little road thinking to myself, you did it. You built a reliable driver. Where should we go after this? Maybe we can tour cross-country the way the Bumfuzzles toured in their vintage Porsche. Maybe I’ll make the drive to the West Coast Classic Cougar open house this year.

Then I attempted to speed up, and there was a lurch and a click. I decided that maybe I shouldn’t speed up, and just stuck with cruising at 65. I was only 25 miles from the hotel, no need to rush.

A few minutes later, there was another click and suddenly I lost all power. I guided the car to the side of the road to assess the situation.

She was still running. Temp was great, no warning lights. I tried to put her back in gear — nothing. Reverse — nothing. Overdrive — nothing. Drive — nothing. I was stuck.

I called my Hagerty roadside assistance number. The operator pinged my location and said a tow truck would be there in about 60 minutes. About ten minutes later my wonderful wife rolled up behind me.

I had tried and tried to talk her into coming with me, so we could make a weekend of the event, but she had insisted she wasn’t coming until Friday. Thankfully her FOMO (fear of missing out) got her moving early, and she had left Houston just a few minutes after I did.

We sat together in the Terrain looking up at the stars and petting the dogs until the tow truck arrived.

Sometimes you need a little help to get there

The car got loaded, and we noticed the left rear axle was sliding out. When troubleshooting car problems, it’s usually good to start with the piece that’s falling off. My guess is the transmission is actually still functioning, but there’s nothing connected to the differential to power the car.

We dropped the car off at Greatstate Transmissions. Who knows if that was the right place to take it, but nothing was open at 11 p.m., and I didn’t really want to pay for another tow from the hotel to a shop the next morning. They open at 7 a.m., so I’ll call them early to find out if the Cougar will be moving in time for her big scene.

We’re definitely coming out upside down on this little venture, but hey, it’s already been interesting.

London Calling: The wrong Carlos

On the evening of February 4, 1983, Wanda Lopez, a gas station attendant in Corpus Christi was stabbed to death. A man named Carlos DeLuna was arrested and convicted of the murder, then executed by lethal injection in 1989. DeLuna always maintained his innocence and claimed the murder was committed by a man named Carlos Hernandez. However, DeLuna was never able to identify Hernandez and prosecutors referred to him as “a phantom” in court.

Carlos DeLuna at left and Carlos Hernandez at right

Years later, an investigative team determined Hernandez was a real person, lived near the site of the murder, and he had a tendency to stab people.

The case of mistaken identity and probable execution of an innocent man has been researched in detail, and a Columbia Law School professor wrote a book on the case.

So how do the Cougar and I fit into all of this?

Well, apparently the first witness on the scene was a man named Kevan Baker, who had stopped to gas up his white 1967 Mercury Cougar.

The white Cougar was a key part of authentically recreating the crime scene.

I made sure the producers were aware that my car was a work in progress and not what could be considered anywhere close to restored, but after sending plenty of pictures, they assured me it would work great for the movie and said the re-enactment scenes would have a soft focus anyway. Plus, the scene is set in 1983, so it’s not like the car would have looked showroom new.

My next challenge was making sure the old girl could take on 250 miles of highway to get to the shoot.

We’ve had to work through a few mechanical issues.

While drivability has gotten better and better over the past year and a half of work, I had kind of taken everything apart to install the air-conditioning and never put it all back together.

I did manage to get the correct console shifter installed and swapped in the refurbished console and radio, but I just didn’t have the time to replace the heater core and tackle the interior portion of the AC install yet. I’ll have to pull everything apart again when I get back to get it finished before the real summer heat starts.

I also finally put the rear emblems on the car. They’re kind of expensive, so I had planned to paint the car first, then put them on, but these people need a Cougar, so it better say Cougar.

The reproduction 1967 quarter panel trim has allegedly been discontinued by Scott Drake.

Then, just to keep me on my toes, the starter decided to go out last week. I replaced that as well. We’re ready to roll — but I brought plenty of tools, just in case.

There were several times in the past few months when I was tempted to just start banging out dents and spraying spots with primer to get the body work started. I had also been talking to a guy in Austin about stripping her down to bare metal and painting her black.

I guess sometimes it does pay off to take things slow.

London Calling: We need your car

Not too long ago, Mary and I were sitting on the couch watching “I am the Night,” that miniseries with Chris Pine about the Black Dahlia Murders set in late 1940s Hollywood. Along with all of the period correct cars in the show, there were several buses and trucks, and I turned to Mary and said, “Who the heck restores old buses? Who even has space for that?”

We pondered over whether it could even be profitable to maintain old buses and work trucks and other specialty vehicles just for use in movies. I also wondered if directors made an effort to work around scenes just so they wouldn’t have to try to find specific vehicles.

A few weeks later one of the officers from the Mercury Cougar Club of America posted in our Facebook group that a woman from London was searching for someone near Corpus Christi that owned a Polar White 1967 Mercury Cougar. I responded that my Cougar matched that description, so he passed on her contact info, and I shot her a message.

Within an hour I was on the phone with a lady named Jenny in London who was booking my car for use in a feature length crime documentary being filmed in Corpus Christi.

And since they needed someone to drive the car in the crime re-enactment scenes, I’m booked as an actor.

My suitcase is in the trunk, and today after work I’m heading south down Highway 59 in this beat-up old car to see what happens next.

Tips & Tricks for Installing a Lokar AOD Transmission TV Cable Kit

The 1967 Mercury Cougar project came with a 1980s Ford AOD transmission. This conversion is a nice upgrade over the original C4 if you plan to do much highway cruising.

OntheRoadAgain

However, the craftmanship of the original conversion left a bit to be desired. The person had used the factory AOD throttle valve (TV) cable, which didn’t really connect correctly to the carburetor. They had also fabricated a cable bracket and spring return that wasn’t holding up too well. I had noticed quite a bit of flex in it, and when I attempted to unbolt it from the intake manifold to investigate, it disintegrated.

TVCableBracketDisaster

The Lokar TV cable kit for AOD conversions came recommended from several different car magazines and forums online, so I decided to give it a shot. I won’t go into detailed instructions for the installation because there are a couple great videos about that already.

However, I will mention a few problems I encountered during the install and my solutions.

The first thing I did was add a Geometry Corrector to the Holley carburetor. While some people said they connected the Lokar cable directly to the carb with no issues, this piece creates an even pull from idle to WOT.

SonnaxGeometryCorrector

Then I tackled the transmission end of the cable. The shift lever went on with no problem, but the cable bracket was a trick. The Lokar kit comes with a longer bolt to replace the original pan bolt. It goes up through the pan and has a nut that goes on the back of it to support the tension.

LokarTVbracket01

On my car there was not enough space between the hole and the wall of the transmission to get the nut threaded onto the end of the bolt. If I had been doing this project with the transmission on a bench, I might have been able to hammer in the housing a little or bend the lip down a little to create enough clearance, but neither of those things were going to happen in the car. Instead I grabbed the dremel and shaved down the back edge of the nut.

ModifiedNut

With the flat side against the transmission case, I was just able to get it to thread. That stupid nut was the hardest part of the project.

Once I had the transmission end put together, I tackled the spring return bracket on the carburetor.

LokarReturnSpringBracket

The Lokar bracket that comes with the kit is really engineered for a throttle cable, so I had to adjust the bracket all the way in towards the carburetor, and it still barely has clearance for the throttle rod. However, the rod has full travel and the bracket isn’t causing any binding, so although I’d like a little more space, it seems ok. In the photo above you can see the Lokar adjuster tool that comes with the kit on the cable between the snap connector and the stop adjuster.

Strange fact, the allen wrench sent in the Lokar cable kit did not actually fit the set screw in the stop adjuster. I had to dig one out of my toolbox. Not sure how Lokar let that issue sneak past QA. Not a big deal, but then again, it’s not much of a confidence builder either.

Once the cable and all the brackets were installed, I screwed the pressure gauge into the TV test port on the passenger side of transmission and started the car up to set the TV cable tension.

With the car in neutral and absolutely no pressure on the cable, I was still getting 40 psi on the gauge. After several google searches and various tests, I finally pressed my finger against the shift lever and found it moved just the slightest bit. The gauge instantly dropped to 0. I let my finger off, and the lever slowly moved back out a few millimeters and the pressure came back up to 30 psi.

I have no idea why the lever wants to move by itself. This was not really discussed anywhere in any of the instructions. However, on some forums people had claimed that the Lokar cable spring wasn’t heavy enough to return their transmission to neutral while others defended it as being great. It definitely wasn’t strong enough for my transmission. I fabricated a little bracket and hung another return spring on the system, and suddenly, all my pressure readings were exactly where they were supposed to be.

LokarTVbracket02

I used vice grips to hold tension on the cable and tighten the set screw with the Lokar spacer in place to 35 psi.

PressureCheck

Then as soon as I pulled the spacer, the cable would snap back and the pressure would drop to 0 psi.

As soon as I removed the pressure gauge I took it for a test drive, and the shifts were much smoother and not as late as before.

One step closer to being on the road.

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