White-out at 65 miles per hour

Carnett has an automotive setback.
A blue-green 1979 Land rover on a trailer in a driveway with its hood up.
The broken Land Rover.

My primary means of getting around town is a 1979 Land Rover that has been fitted out with a 2005 300 TDI engine. You may have seen me walking this morning with my head down. Yes, I walked 30 minutes for a cup of coffee. I enjoy walking, but it is hard to build a house without a truck.

My Land Rover doesn’t have one temp gauge; it has two. I look at both and compare them and wonder why one is higher. None of the gauges are correct, so it really matters very little. That was till yesterday, when I found myself at 65 mph with my head out the window, the cabin filled with white smoke, and a serious panic on. I managed to find the shoulder, and bailed out, thinking the rig was on fire.

What had happened was that the heater coil failed and the antifreeze got hot and created a semi-toxic steam. I had the heater blower on at the time in an effort to keep the windshield glass clear and the blower was more than happy to help fill up the cabin in seconds and almost cause a major crash.

The engine of a 1979 Land Rover.
The 2005 300 TDI engine. John B. Carnett

I disconnected the heater coil on the side of the road and looped the circuit at the engine. At this point I should have made it home, but this is my life, so it’s never that simple.

I went no faster than 45 mph to a service station, and handed over $30 for some non-gold-plated 50/50 antifreeze. I topped things off and then got back on the road. Well, that lasted all of 2 miles when for no reason the radiator cap exploded off. It was at this point that I knew that something much more was going on with my engine: this was a major sign.

I could have stopped and called for help, but if you’re like me this is never an option. Soldier on is the way. Typically the way to further trouble, but nonetheless it’s always more fun than waiting for a tow truck.

I won’t bother to tell you about the next 30 miles, the temp gauges both dropping, the engine sounding better… no, all that you really care about is how it ends up. I heard a strange sound and then another smaller white cloud appeared. It was at that point that I blew my head gasket, and perhaps much more. I was close enough that I could get a friend with a trailer to come get me. The Rover is in my shop. I just downloaded the engine shop manual and ordered a full gasket set. My friend suggested just closing the door on the Rover and buying a $1,000 pickup truck to get through the house build. No way, folks, I’m going out now and taking it apart. The parts will come tomorrow, and I’ll be rolling by tomorrow night—but just in case I fail, if you see me out walking, it’s not for exercise. Please give me a lift.

John B. Carnett, PopSci‘s staff photographer, is using the latest green technology to build his dream home. Follow along as the project progresses on his Green Dream blog: popsci.com/green-dream.