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Wrath of the Grapevine

Autos: Summertime heat on the brutal uphill climb can mean sudden death for cars and inconvenience for drivers.

July 22, 2000|LEE CONDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tiffany Morrison was trying to be a fun mom.

The Lake Isabella resident had agreed to take her two daughters and their three friends to Magic Mountain's Hurricane Harbor in Valencia.

Unfortunately, the Grapevine killed her station wagon.

"This isn't fun. It's the middle of July, there's five kids with me and the car stops running," Morrison said as the girls tried in vain to convince her that their amusement park adventure could be salvaged. At Golden State Towing in Castaic on Thursday, mechanics finally said the three words Morrison feared most: "blown head gasket."

Morrison is just one of hundreds of motorists whose cars will die this summer on the Grapevine, a 40-mile stretch of the Golden State Freeway that runs through Castaic, Gorman, Fort Tejon and Frazier Park, over the mountains north of Los Angeles. Tow truck drivers and CHP officers say the most treacherous part for overheating radiators is the uphill northbound climb that starts in Castaic. The hill rises at a 5% grade and runs without a break for five miles, from Lake Hughes Road to Templin Highway. "It's steep and it's long," said tow truck driver Jim Watkinson. "If there is something wrong with your car, it will show up on that hill."

Last week Kurt Ludwig, 37, of Hollywood said his final goodbye to his 1985 Honda Accord. "That hill is a killer," Ludwig said. "It's infamous."

The salesman was tackling the hill on his way to visit his parents in San Francisco when his car overheated. Ludwig blames himself.

"The temperature gauge was reading high. I don't know where my mind was. I just kept driving until it blew up," Ludwig said. "I'm disgusted with myself."

A week later, Ludwig traveled back to Golden State Towing to retrieve possessions from the car. He has decided to cut his losses and abandon it. Now without a car, he stuffed his belongings into a shopping cart.

"I'm bringing it all home on the bus," Ludwig said.

On a cross-country trip that started in Michigan, 32-year-old Steve Williams broke down in the late afternoon heat last Wednesday. He almost made it.

"The radiator blew at the top of the hill," said Williams, who was heading home to Seattle.

His Grapevine ordeal lasted longer than most. He got towed down but didn't get to the repair shop until mechanics had left for the night. Williams ended up sleeping in his car, waiting for the mechanics to tell him their prognosis in the morning.

It's not just older cars that don't make it through the Grapevine. Some motorists ignore the signs warning them to turn off the air conditioning as the they climb the hill.

"I had a 2000 Cadillac in here yesterday with 400 miles on it. It overheated," said Carl Tarello, a manager at Golden State Towing.

The volume of calls for tow service rises dramatically in the summer months, said Tom Azbill, a contract station supervisor for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Weekends are the busiest time. Golden State Towing dispatcher Janie Jones said when the temperature nears triple digits, her phone doesn't stop ringing. The busiest day she can recall, with 60 tows, was during the 1999 Memorial Day weekend. On Wednesday, when the high was 107 degrees, Jones said she handled 35 calls from the southern stretch of the Grapevine that her towing service shares with two other shops.

The calls from the Grapevine are typically made from call boxes. The California Highway Patrol takes the calls and routes them, depending on the problem, to either patrol officers or towing services.

"During the summer, the calls from the Grapevine go up dramatically," said Elizabeth Gomes, a communications supervisor for the CHP. "The cars just can't handle the Grapevine."

It's the length of this particular incline that makes it so difficult.

Margie Tiritilli, a spokeswoman for Caltrans, said the Grapevine is not the steepest roadway in the California highway system. But the five-mile northbound climb seems to claim more than its share of casualties.

A few miles down the road, Dale Gunderson was also stuck. He was trying to get to Sacramento in a luxury bus to pick up clients for a tour of Northern California and Oregon. He stopped the bus at a turnout when his temperature gauge started shooting up.

"You never let the engine overheat in a bus," said Gunderson, 65.

But after the engine cooled, Gunderson said he couldn't get started again.

"It's not going to move," Gunderson said, not looking forward to the prospect of a long tow.

This was his first breakdown on the Grapevine, but Gunderson said he wasn't surprised.

He travels up and down the coast all the time. The only comparable hill is in Ashland, Ore. But it's the Grapevine climb that he dreads the most.

"This is the longest grade we travel," Gunderson said. "The Grapevine is notorious."

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