I have road-tripped in no fewer than a dozen vintage cars, with varying degrees of triumph. My most recent trip was so close—but oh so far—from success. I was headed for the Concours d’Elegance of America in Plymouth, Michigan, in a 1967 Pontiac GTO when it went kaput. The lesson? Around town miles are not the same as highway miles.
Let’s start at the beginning. This GTO is a fairly recent addition to the Hagerty fleet. Besides its stints in our Employee Driving Experience, it also does ride-and-drives which are open to the public. Much like our senior editor Brandan Gillogly, it exists to spread the love for Pontiac.
The only problem was that this GTO hadn’t yet racked up any highway miles in Hagerty’s ownership, and I was handed the keys with a destination 250 miles away. Just 45 minutes down the road came the reality check: This car had never left the limits of Traverse City.
The driver of the GTO’s road-tripping partner, Hagerty’s 1960 Plymouth Fury, kindly drew my attention to a substantial amount of smoke exiting the GTO’s tailpipes. Then suddenly… the GTO stopped. No change in power. No strange noise. Just quit.
We pulled over to investigate.
I suspected the secondaries. The 400-cubic-inch V-8 under the hood has a Quadrajet on top, which derives its name from the 90-degree angle between the fuel inlet and the carb. The secondaries on Quadrajets are vacuum-operated, so I figured a poorly setup carb might be cracking the secondaries open at steady vacuum—like the vacuum achieved at highway speeds.
Nothing appeared out of place, however. After some fiddling and poking around, and a precautionary tightening of the fuel hardlines, we were back on the road. No smoke. No power loss. Everything was fine.
Then the culprit revealed itself.
There was a mellow rise in the road—a long, steady one. About three-quarters of the way up, the 400 stuttered, then sputtered, and tried its very best to die. I let off the throttle and the engine was happy again.
More than a few of you playing along at home have already diagnosed the problem. May the rest of you learn from my misfortune—this is the symptom of a dying fuel pump. On long grades, the engine may demand more fuel than the pump can deliver. The carb float bowls hide this issue for a short time, acting like itty-bitty gas tanks on top of the engine. If you recognize the pump is struggling and let off the throttle, you lessen the draw of fuel and give the the weak pump a chance to catch up a bit.
Thus, we were left with a choice. Try and replace the fuel pump on the side of the road, or get a tow. There was a third option, though, and it was the one I chose: nurse the car to our destination. If I accelerated gently to 60 mph, the fuel pump seemed to keep up—just not on long hills or under extended throttle input of more than 20 percent or so.
We motored down the road and stopped for lunch. I thought maybe after the car cooled off a bit I would not have to nurse it so carefully... I was wrong.
Though the car fired right up after lunch, it only made it a quarter-mile down the road before stalling—and not restarting. Cold water on the pump did nothing, meaning this was not a vapor-lock issue. There was simply no fuel in the carb. (And before you comment below that the tank was empty, we had over half a tank in reserve.)
No local auto parts stores had the correct fuel pump in stock. Hagerty Drivers Club’s Roadside Service was dispatched and flat-bedded the car the remaining 50 miles of the journey. Only after sunset did we finally have a fuel pump to install.
Fortunately, hotel management didn’t seem to mind a red GTO with the hood open and a few folks laying on the ground in the parking lot.
After the 9/16-inch socket and flathead screwdriver were put away, the car fired up and served its ride-and-drive time all weekend. Did we solve the problem? Honestly, I’m not sure. Hagerty sent down a two-car trailer with two different cars in it, and thanks to some shuffling the GTO took the return trip north strapped inside that trailer.
I look forward to putting that new fuel pump to the test sometime soon. I just need a destination, and a few good stretches of highway.