Day 6 (Underwood, IA to West Liberty, IA): Tire paranoia/brake paranoia/tire paranoia
Tuesday (intended overnight stop: home; actual overnight stop: West Liberty, Iowa)
At the crack of dawn, we recheck tire pressures and knockoffs security, drop off our flat at Joel's employer, Doug's Auto Diesel, then head across the highway for a succulent Prairie breakfast at Shelby, Iowa's Cornstalk Restaurant. Upon returning to Doug's for our repaired tire, we learn that they can't help us: "I won't touch true wire wheels," says the man. "I'm not gonna be liable; if one spoke is messed up, those wheels will be no good."
"Hmm," I say to McPike as we load the still-flat spare back in the trunk. "I hope the broken spoke I found this morning on the left front doesn't mean that wheel's no good ..."
Luckily, fate doesn't make us pay for proceeding across most of Iowa with a busted spoke and no functional spare. In Iowa City, Bud's Tire replaces the tube in our flat, so we seem set for a 450-mile blast to the finish, odd-hour-of-the-morning-arrival be damned.
Not so fast. As soon as we're back on the highway, I smell something peculiar. At the next exit, West Branch, we discover smoke wisping from the right front wheel. Its spokes are so hot that you could grill chicken on them. The brake is hanging up. Empathetic samaritan Tim Arkebauer leads us to Parkside Service, but the guys there can't help and direct us to Noel's Automotive Repair. Postponing his other projects (which include the restoration of a gorgeous 1970 Dodge Charger), owner Keith Noel finds that the right front rotor is seriously warped and the caliper's piston is indeed hanging up. He turns the rotor within a millimeter of its life and frees up the sticky caliper piston.
"Now, these brakes might be OK for just one panic stop, but you should be fine just going down the road," Noel says, stressing the temporary nature of the fix. "Be very, very easy on the service brakes unless absolutely necessary."
The brakes initially seem normal, maybe just a bit more pedal travel than usual, during a ginger test run through West Branch, so we get back on the highway as the sun is setting. Engineer/co-driver McPike suggests that we take the first exit to double-check that the brake lights (which are triggered by a pressure switch) are working properly.
Plus, the more I work the brake pedal, the softer it gets. Soon, it's all I can do to bring the car from 10 mph to a stop in this truck-stop parking lot. There's no way I'd be able to reel in this car from 70 mph for a Chicago-area tollbooth. Somehow air has gotten into the brake lines. Whether the piston has a leak or Noel let air into the system, we're not sure. All that's clear is that the MG isn't safe to drive any farther without some serious work, and there's no telling what parts we'll need, but they're probably not stocked at the nearest NAPA, wherever the heck that is.
While we're debating about what to do next, McPike notices that another tire is audibly leaking air from the valve stem, the proverbial last straw. We're smarter than we are proud, so we throw in the towel before something really serious happens. We've been lucky enough to persevere through snowstorms, ice, an electromechanical failure, freezing temperatures, flat tires, and a mechanical failure; it wouldn't be wise to head toward Chicagoland in this condition. I phone a benevolent family friend in Michigan, and he agrees to pick us up in the morning.
Thankfully, there's a cheap EconoLodge right around the corner, and the truck stop has forty ouncers of MGD and vending-machine sandwiches. Dinner is served.
Miles driven: 242