I Almost Died Trying to Race a Beater Oldsmobile Across America

No sleep, faulty engine swaps and, in the end, rescue by Subaru.

Benjamin Preston/TheDrive.com

When Benjamin Preston isn't wrenching on an old Toyota FJ62 for The Build, this is what occupies his free time.

It takes a lot of work to bring a car with no engine, no transmission and no wheels to a point where it could carry you across the United States without stopping.

The car in question was perched on a quartet of grease- and paint-spattered jack stands in Brooklyn, its planned departure date two weeks away. Still, I knew I could get it running. I had to; two other people were depending on my skill as an unskilled mechanic to deliver them from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

So, rather than binge-watching Netflix with my wife, I dedicated nights and weekends to reassembling a Malaise-era automotive puzzle: a 1974 Oldsmobile Omega.

While other intrepid members of The Drive were busy setting cross-country speed records in electric cars and in rickety three-wheelers, a group of decidedly less sexy enthusiasts were eyeing a different kind of record: Who could get from New York to LA quickest in a car costing less than $2,904? That's $2,904 to buy, fix and operate a car across nearly 3,000 miles of interstate. Coast to coast. Fuel and food. Tolls. Tickets. Bail money. Everything. $2,904.

Fittingly, the event is called The 2904, and the name derives also from the mileage of the founders’ original route, which ran between New York and San Francisco. Think of it as a sort of Gumball Rally for the proles. At its root, the 2904 is a celebration of the Cannonball Run—that epic, record-setting New York-to-LA dash undertaken by Brock Yates and his cronies several times during the Seventies. But in practice, the 2904 owes more to the 24 Hours of LeMons: Silly themes and matching costumes among the participants are de rigueur, and the pageantry often spills over onto the cars themselves.

Benjamin Preston/TheDrive.com

This year's lineup included a clapped-out Oldsmobile Silhouette presented as a Star-Trek escape pod, a Yankee version of the General Lee called the General Leah (a retired cop car-cum-retired taxicab Ford Crown Victoria) and a 42-year-old, shag carpet-interiored motorhome. There were even a few actual contenders, such as a 12-owner Mercedes-Benz and a lusterless, Clinton-era Lexus SC400 among them.

For my part, I wanted to snag a respectable elapsed time in a piece of Seventies ineptitude. I had purchased the ‘74 Omega—a Chevrolet Nova clone featuring a different grille and a few splashes of faux wood trim—for $700 a few years ago for a previous edition of the 2904. But the prospect of crapping out in a 40-year-old car on some desolate stretch of desert highway in the middle of the night scared me off. My teammate and I opted at the last minute to take my '86 Subaru station wagon instead. Although I had owned it for many years, the Subie had been purchased for $450 once upon a time, and was wretched enough to fly below the radar where the rules were concerned. Technically, it passed muster.

Think of it as a sort of Gumball Rally for the proles.

But for my second foray, big plans were afoot. A friend donated a practically new engine and transmission to the cause after his father's repeated pleas to remove it from the dusty corner of the parental garage after nearly a decade of interment. This 420-horsepower Chevrolet small-block V-8 and matching high-performance overdrive automatic transmission had once lived in a '72 Buick GS. "Just give it to Ben for God's sake," was his father’s admonition.

Benjamin Preston/TheDrive.com

There's no telling how much it was worth after sitting for so long. New, the whole shebang probably cost about $10,000, putting it well above anything that could have competed in the 2904. But with so nebulous a residual value, combined with the fact that I had gotten it for nothing, I reasoned that the car still met 2904 guidelines.

All I had to do was put in a new set of gaskets and throw it into the Omega. Simple, right? Well, here's where things often get complicated in any gearhead's life. The failure to mark up labor time and cost by at least 30 percent usually leads to gross self-delusion.

Once I had removed the car's original six-cylinder lump, the dirty, slightly rusted engine bay bothered me. So I spent the better part of a week scrubbing it out with a handheld brush and a container of Simple Green and painting it with rattle cans.

The failure to mark up labor time and cost by at least 30 percent usually leads to gross self-delusion.

More complications of my own making: The wheels needed to be painted; I removed the fuel tank to clean and paint it and replace the little screen that fuel passes through on its way out of the tank; I bought an under-deck fuel tank from a boat to increase the car's fuel capacity to more than 50 gallons, and this would need to be installed somehow, and then tested. Every time I went to do one thing, three other tasks presented themselves.

Benjamin Preston/TheDrive.com

The result was the motorless, wheel-less chunk of Olds sitting on a stained patch of blacktop in Brooklyn, two weeks before it was supposed to hit the road. By the light of a pair of Coleman lanterns, and with help from friends who were somehow eager to get themselves dirty and tired trying to fix a car that no one had cared about for 40 years, I got the Omega running the night before departure. Its roar was glorious. Every rev sounded like a passing column of stock cars at Pocono.

My wife and friends and I darted around, checking gauges and moving levers. The exhaust headers gave off a soft glow in the darkness. It was then I noticed that one of the electric fan wires had broken off. A tiny gauge dangling from a wire under the dash showed the engine temperature climbing. A coolant plug in the intake manifold wept a steady stream of green tears. A small cloud of rubbery smoke wafted from the cluster of wires beneath the headers.

A coolant plug in the intake manifold wept a steady stream of green tears.

Looking under the car, I observed a not insignificant pool of red liquid dripping from the back of the transmission. It was then that I recalled the exact moment that this mission was doomed. As a friend and I had driven to a repair shop to have a small crack in the transmission welded, a coiffed dandy on a fixed-gear bicycle swerved into an intersection just as we approached it. My friend slammed on the brakes and the transmission slammed into something hard.

"What the fuck?!" we both screamed out the window as the cyclist zig-zagged lazily across the intersection.

"It's cool, bro," he replied with breathy, opiatic calm.

Benjamin Preston/TheDrive.com

Only it wasn't. Two weeks later, I was seeing the damage in action: a crack in the tailshaft. That the cyclist’s carelessness had been providential was not yet clear. That red liquid was simply the final signal telling me what I had already known for a month: There was no way I was going to drive this car cross-country.

That left only one option. I had sold the $450 Subaru and bought a $2,200 GL of the same vintage, meaning it met 2904 regulations. We realigned. We raced.

How did we fare? My two teammates and I settled into a rhythm of perpetual motion—drive slowly, crawl up mountains, stop for fuel, eat fast food—until we reached California and our finish line. All the while, we had been watching the progress of the 12-owner Mercedes and other, faster cars on social media, feeling twinges of regret that the Oldsmobile hadn’t made the starting grid.

We didn't win. We didn't even come close. But we finished, and the Subaru made it all the way back to New York, too, only suffering an alternator failure. It's difficult to say if this will be the last time a gutless Subaru will bail me out when I'm neck-deep in some impossible dream, but one thing is certain: The American interstate system is too great a temptation to resist. It’s there and open to anyone with the chutzpah and misdirection to get behind the wheel—whether it’s a beater Olds, a Morgan Three-wheeler or a clapped-out Subaru—and hit the road.