The 24 Hours of LeMons “Retreat from Moscow Rally,” to the outside observer, would appear to be a pleasant, albeit cold, road trip. To the average car guy or girl it would appear to be a way to test your and your machine’s mettle, no pun intended. I can tell you after doing the event, it’s much more than that.
The retreat from Moscow is a very dangerous road rally. Make no mistake, driving sketchy vehicles in wet east coast snow is not smart.
— Regular Car Reviews (@regularcars) January 31, 2017
This is not a journey for the foolhardy or inexperienced in mechanical or driving skill. I knew this was going to be hard. After all, I had the LeMons event host on The Untitled Car Show to talk about how hard it would be. Yet I was not prepared for what I would endure.
Let me start this tale by introducing the main actors – my car, my co-driver, and myself.
Enter the 1991 Volvo 740 station wagon. I have owned this car for a few years after acquiring it in a trade for a newer V70XC that wouldn’t pass emissions. The car appeared derelict due to a willfully shitty paint job and a chalkboard paint hood, along with my attempt-at-weight-saving-interior. Mechanically, however, this car was well looked after, partially due to the fact that it was my daily driver while my 2005 Volvo V70R was blowing up head gaskets.
I loved this 740. I had gone over the brakes, fuel and suspension components, changed out all fluids, re-balanced a tire, and felt confident in the car’s ability to make it through this event. After all, it had been unfailing in the years I had owned it, never suffering a mechanical issue despite driving in blizzards, 100+ degree days, at high speeds, hauling hundreds of pounds of material to the recycling center at a time, driving in heavy congested DC traffic, and more.
It was my old workhorse, dependable and did all I asked it to do.
I had intended to do the trip with three others, but only one ended up actually in the car with me. My buddy Nick is one of the best mechanics I know. He used to drive trucks for a living, so I know he can be trusted with my life up in the mountains. He had the tools and experience I needed to feel confident in case of a breakdown.
And then there’s me. Ike. I have a decent background in working on my own cars, and I figured I knew this Volvo from bumper to bumper. I have done a fair bit of driver training, plus I grew up driving in Chicago winters, so I understand snow.
So now that you’re familiar with the car, and the meaty bits behind the wheel, it was time to go.
We started the trip at 3:45am, leaving my house just south of Baltimore, MD. We arrived in Moscow, PA around 7:00am. We began the process of checking in. We were awarded some points for the shabby appearance of both the car and ourselves. The judge in charge of scoring claimed that mechanically we couldn’t get any points because “it’s impossible to kill a Volvo.” Soon our tolerance for standing around in the cold had died off, and we set off to Pittsburgh via Buffalo, NY.
We made good time along the route. We were passed by a Citroen in the mountains, but the Volvo put out maybe 40hp to the wheels, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise. As we went on, we noticed the chalk board paint used on the hood had clogged the windshield washer jets. So we pulled into the next gas stop and used some “persuasion” on the sheet metal to get the sprayers usable again. We convoyed up until our GPS took us off the route of the other rally drivers, off the highway and onto some back roads to Buffalo. At first this was fantastic. While not powerful, the Volvo handles surprisingly well. The excitement was short lived. The exhaust fell off. Worse, it failed at a weld I’d made, so that was extra embarrassing.
We strapped the exhaust to the roof and pressed on. This is LeMons after all.
We entered the town of Auburn, NY not long after and immediately got bogged down in some city traffic. Well, OK, we got stuck behind one car driving slowly in the fresh snow. The Volvo began to shake and stutter.
And then it died.
I was able to restart it a few times before it wouldn’t go any further.
We got out and checked for spark. There was none. The main culprit ended up being either the ignition controller or the coil. Not wanting to waste the effort, we ordered both from what we thought was the closest Advance Auto Parts. Then we set off to explore the town, eat at a local bar, and ended up hiking much further then we thought – around 5 miles – to get to the store. We got the parts, paid a local to drive us back in his car, and got the 740 up and running!
It had started to get dark and we were nowhere near our target of Pittsburgh. We had gotten word that Roadkill had their car up and running and were behind us. Excited to maybe hang out with them at the bar (I told Mike Finnegan I would get him a case of beer for doing the show), we pressed on.
Spirits were high!
We had to go through Buffalo as it was the fastest route. Word was the snow up ahead was getting bad, so we had little option but to stick to the highway. After a few hours of uneventful driving, we made the turn southbound to Pittsburgh. The snow had picked up, and the already weak headlights on the Volvo were getting iced over. The terrain became more challenging as we started hitting mountains. Forty horsepower and all-season tires were starting to become a real liability.
Then the ball dropped.
The snow picked up on a uphill climb, and we couldn’t see past the hood. By this point we had lost the other LeMons cars. We were sharing the road exclusively with tractor trailers. They did not take kindly to our presence on the road, since they had to keep up their momentum uphill. So did we, but they had a lot more of it, and were blowing by us. This compounded our lack of visibility. I would get blinded as they approached, and as they passed they would spray more ice onto the headlights.
As bad as this was, I knew it had gotten worse when the trucks stopped appearing.
We were alone up in the snow and mountains now. We weren’t able to raise anyone on the CB radio. I had to roll down the windows and guide myself based on the distance to the guard rails. Nick would later tell me this is the most scared he had ever been in a vehicle. He seriously thought we were going to go over the edge.
Mercifully, the mountains relented, the snow slowed, and we were able to get back over 30mph. We were hours behind schedule. We still had a white knuckle ride down the mountains and into Pittsburgh, but the arduous slow slog was done. We pulled into the overnight stop and were greeted by warm smiles, a cookie, and stories from our compatriots of what had happened to the others along the way.
We moved our tools and suitcases into the hotel room and made our way to the bar. A Long Island iced tea later, we were ready for bed. The Roadkill crew arrived, and we couldn’t even muster the energy to go out and greet them. It was now past midnight. We had been up for over 22 hours and had very little sleep.
We went to the room to go sleep, not knowing that tomorrow was going to be even worse.