Monday, October 25, 2010

Engine Work

Rebuilding an automobile engine is a dirty, tedious and thankless task. I know because I did it. Twice.

The first time I did it, I did it because I wanted to. The second time I had no choice.

Choosing to rebuild an automobile engine by myself was a decision made in no small part due to outright hubris, but I can't rule out foolish ambition nor willful ignorance. This sad state of awareness was tempered only slightly by the musings of John Muir, who not only convinced me that I could do it before I did it, told me how to do it; guiding me through the process first bolt to last as though he were there in person.

Muir, of course, did not advocate rebuilding the same engine twice, but he was there for me the second time round with nary a note of recrimination.

His book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, is considered the precursor to the whole "S&*! for Dummies" phenomenon that swept through the pre-internet publishing world a scant decade or so after Muir's hard-edited typewritten and photocopied manuscript was spiral bound and set upon the Whole Earth catalog for hippies like me.

Muir was prescient that way, knowing that humans needed technology but also realizing that we needed humans to tell us how to fix technology. A couple of years later I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Robert Pirsig explored and expanded on similar themes, so I was primed to work on my car both from a cultural, physcial and intellectual background that led to this desire.

Well, if you ask me, any amount of reading, no matter how much, just isn't enough. Muir's book, fortunately, was less about reading and more about the doing, so when it came time to find this bolt or that nut or just how-in-the-hell-do-I-get-a-screwdriver-on-that?, Muir was my guide. Emphasis is on the word guide, for as much as I concentrated on his instructions, at some point I had to set aside the book and actually assemble things, and that's where it got a bit tricky.

Actually I did pretty well at the tear-down part, but only in terms of speed. My organizational skills were decidedly lacking. For one thing, I didn't label things with anything like the detail that was really required, so even though the result of a week's work looked like I had the damn thing apart and under control, only the former was true. I had the thing apart alright.

Even though it was better than some of the places where I have worked on my bits of metal, including the present spot, my workspace for this engine rebuild was not exactly ideal. I chose to spread the pieces out on several tables under the carport at the the house where we were living. So, even though it couldn't technically rain directly onto my work area, it was exposed to the elements to a degree that made work intermittent and unpredictable even when I did get out there.

One thing that I learned from the experience was about the practical aspects of engineering. When working on a bit of metal as complex as an automobile engine, the consequences of how something has been cast, machined or milled can be serious. The order in which the thing is assembled may not be the way it comes apart, and it certainly is not often the way it is repaired.

Not only did I manage to get the thing apart, I also managed to get it back together.

Though all the details are lost to me already, I know that there were more than a couple of mistakes made along the way. I am pretty sure it took at least two sets of bearings before I learned how to properly 'seat' them in the crankcase, and I know I went through a couple sets of not-so-very-cheap rings before I got them into place. The various seals were not as easy to put in as I'd hoped either, and as a result, there were more leaks from that metal assembly than I have fingers and toes. Thank goodness there is no water system in a VW engine, or that would have leaked good and proper as well.

Suffice it to say that by the time I had the thing back together, I had made every mistake in the book. Plus, I had enough that weren't in the book left over to write a book. That is, if I hadn't already dismissed them all from memory. Muir's warnings notwithstanding, if it took several tries before I broke it, I broke it. To my credit, I did manage to step back from the brink often enough that the various critical systems eventually stopped leaking, grinding and/or scraping long enough for me to declare it finished and put it back in the car.

That, however, was just the beginning.

From the sound of it, the first time I started the engine up might easily have been the last, but for some quick reflexes and plain dumb luck. Instead of bench testing the engine before I put it back in the car, I simply pushed myself hard to get it all back in, wired and hooked up before I settled in and turned the key. Big Mistake.

The sound that came out of the engine with the first three or four revolutions (thankfully it was no more than that) was horrendous, to say the very least. It sounded like I had imprisoned a demon with hammer inside, and it was banging desperately to get out.

I felt sick. After all that work, it just didn't seem possible. What had I done? More likely: What had I missed?

It turns out that what I had missed was a simple little metal washer, about a quarter of an inch in diameter. Somehow--and family 'lore' has it being the innocent act of a small child, but no names will be named--that washer made it's way into the bowels of the engine through an uncovered hole in the block. It had to have happened sometime after the block was back together, but it obviously hadn't made it's way to a critical place before I put the engine back in the car.

I had no idea that a piece of metal that small could sound so loud. The pounding coming from the interior of an engine made me think that the entire guts had just been destroyed. As I stepped out of the car and took a look, the realization hit me. Sadly, the only way to find out what it was would be to tear it all back down.

As I said, rebuilding an automobile engine is hard, thankless work, but never so much as during the time I was tearing my handiwork apart. Two weeks later, through the tears, blood and motor oil filling my eyes and covering my hands, I found the washer, bent double and resting on top of the cylinder head. In spite of all the horrific noise, other than a small semi-circular dent in that head, there was actually no damage to the engine.

The second time, I figured out how to bench test the engine before I put it back in the car, but it was of little comfort to me when it finally passed. By this time I was exhausted and frustrated, which is not the way you want to start off working on the body.

Next: Body work: The bigger hammer

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bits of Metal: Part Two

My first car wasn't even a car. It was a truck. And, not just any truck. It was a used postal truck, with the driver's side on the right. It was called a "Step Van" because it had a step where the passenger seat would have been. It looked like a smaller, weaker, whiter UK version of a UPS truck.

Oh, and of course, it needed a lot of work.

I bought this bit of metal for what was a huge sum for a recent high school graduate with no job. I can't recall the exact figure, but it was over $1000. Ostensibly, I was only paying half of this because my friend Bryan was going to split it with me. We were also going to drive it out to California, after we fixed it up. Well, my friend never paid his half. We never fixed it up, and we sure never drove it out to California.

Well, instead of going to UT Journalism school with the full scholarship I'd been given, I chose to spend the last bit of savings from my two jobs on that truck. The engine needed to be repaired--twice--but I had no clue how to do even the simplest task like changing the spark plugs or the oil. We paid to have it fixed and wasted the rest of our money on the interior. Actually we struggled just to tear out the interior and never found the time or energy to upholster in in that lush 70's style that we imagined when we bought it. It never made it past the dream state, and two months after I bought it, the transmission fell out while I was driving it. I had to pull over and leave it on the side of the road. I tried to sell it, but eventually had to pay someone to tow it away so I wouldn't get a fine from the city.

When I came back from Paris the first time, I went to work at Gianni's and eventually saved up enough money to buy a '61 Ford Falcon convertible. I can't recall what it cost, but I do recall paying cash for it and getting it from a guy who had kept it garaged in a big home over on Balcones drive and called it 'Spooky'--which was the name of a hit song in the late seventies. It had red leather interior and the all the chrome and bling that the car designers of the late fifties and early sixties could hang on it. It was sharp.

The Falcon also had a motorized convertible top which actually worked. I used this car as my daily driver for over a year and sadly I never realized what I had or I'd have taken better care of it. Still knowing nothing about working on cars, I abused this old car way too much. I had it worked on several times until I could not afford to keep it running. Among other things, the radiator was broken, and eventually it was no longer drive-able. With the Falcon in the driveway under a car cover, I went back to my bike--the Raleigh Record I bought in high school--and it sat in my driveway for several months before I sold it to my friend Alex just before going back to live in Paris in 1980.

I didn't sell that bike, that sturdy bit of metal, thankfully, and took it with me to Europe--twice. I rode it many hundreds of miles through the streets of Paris, and once from Paris to Chartres. As a city boy, the Record was my mode of transport, and good one at that. I didn't even dream of owning a car until I came back from Paris for good in 1981. I couldn't have dreamed of owning this, my third car, mostly because owning it was a nightmare.

"Skylab" was a 1964/65 vintage Beetle Bug, painted white with some red trim around the bumpers. It wasn't mine or even a car I thought I'd ever own when I first rode in it. It was named Skylab. It was given that name by it's previous owner and my roommate, Henry whose roommate prior to me had actually owned it before Henry and who had worked on the Skylab project. When Henry moved to Houston (and Valery moved in with me) I bought Skylab from him.

Henry was driving Skylab when I moved in to his house on Duval street on my return from Europe. It was by watching him work on it that I first learned my way around a VW. To say that Skylab was temperamental was to understate the case by an order of magnitude or more. It was actually just barely functional, and that was on a good day. The starter/battery combination failed so often that if it wasn't parked on a hill, we had to push it to get it started. I think it was even on that very first morning, when Henry and I went to breakfast in Skylab that I got my first dose of heavy exercise after a meal. Not something I wanted to repeat, but, sadly, I did just that, way too many times at all time of the day and night.

Years later, I knew it was finally time to give Skylab up when I got a ticket from the UT Campus police for driving it backwards down a street at night in front of the art building. I wasn't actually driving, I explained, I was coasting backwards till I could pop the clutch and start the engine. The cop was sympathetic enough to my plight to allow me to leave the engine running, but reasoned that the situation still warranted the fine. I don't recall how or to whom I sold that bit of history, but I am sure I got more out of it than it got out of me. Well, sort of.

I was 'driving' Skylab when I met Valery. She was driving an old Corrola with a bashed in right front fender onto which she had painted stars. Just before we got married, Valery and I ditched our pieces of well, you-know-what, and got a '82 Renault Fuego from a neighbor of Henry's first wife's parents. The previous--and first--owner had been an astronaut, so he kept the car looking brand new. It wasn't your ordinary car, though. For one thing, it was French. Whi buys a French car? Who works on French cars? One dealer did, in San Marcos! Fortunately it never needed a lot of repairs, but when it did, they were very expensive.

The Fuego was a funny sort of hybrid sports/family car. It was turbocharged and had a retractable soft top--not exactly a convertible but way better than a sunroof. With the top back, you could actually stand up in the front seat--something Valery did for a picture or two while we were in Europe.

Yes, we took this car to Europe for our honeymoon. After we got married, we really wanted to go to Paris and see Europe. We also wanted the freedom of driving around in a car. We looked at our finances and figured that for just a little more than we would have paid for a couple of three-month Eurail passes, we could afford to ship our car over to Europe. So we did. We drove the Fuego down to Houston where it got put on a ship bound for Manchester, then we flew over and claimed it. We drove that car from Manchester to Crete and back to Southhampton, where we put it back on the boat for Houston when it was time to come home.

The only bad things that happened to us and that car were having the license plates stolen in Paris and Lyon on the way out and a minor fender bender in Paris on the way back. We drove it on some narrow mountain roads, the 'Autostrada' in Italy, the streets of London, Paris, Milan, Florence and Athens and many miles in between. It made it back from Europe with everything but those license plates,and we drove it for at least three or four years after we returned. It was the car we brought Pierre home from the hospital in, and it may even have served the same function when Maddie joined us.

When I was in graduate school, with two small children, we traded in the failing Fuego with it's almost non-existent rear seat for a nice, well-kept maroon '71 Beetle. This car appeared to be perfect mechanical shape, with no rust or body damage of any kind. The interior was aging but not destroyed or rotting and the engine seemed to be in great shape, capable of going thousands of miles more. Thinking that the power-train wasn't something to be concerned with, once again I spent my savings on fixing up the interior. I bought new seat covers, carpet and a headliner. I bought all new rubber seals for the body, windows and engine compartment. When I finished, it looked awesome. The car was a real cherry and I really loved it. For about a month.

Then, the engine threw a rod.

At the time, I had no idea what a rod was, how it could be 'thrown' or even what that meant. I really had no clue about how my car worked. Oh, I was clever enough to replace some of the bits and pieces that were attached to the metal, but I had never really worked on the metal itself. And when that engine blew, I knew it was time to try.

Now, part of that decision came from stubborn parsimony; after all I had just fixed up the outside and I would be damned-- a prophetic notion if ever there was one--if I'd just throw it away. I also just could not afford to pay for a new or even a rebuilt engine, and a new engine was going to be the only way to get this car back on the road.

Unless I rebuilt the engine myself.

Now, since I had owned Skylab I had owned a copy of "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive" by John Muir. Millions of VW owners learned how to care for their cars without ever actually knowing much about auto mechanics because of Muir's excellent, well-written book. In this book, Muir didn't have as his goal teaching us--clueless mechanically dis-inclined ex or soon-to-be-ex hippies--how to repair cars in general. He set out to show us how to keep our Volkswagens on the road, even if we had a Bug, a Bus or a Ghia. Thanks to Muir, we didn't have know what that 'thingy' was or why it was there or how it worked. What was important to Muir was showing us how to get it out, how to clean/fix/replace it without much time, knowledge or tools. And, in the process, I came to know something about auto mechanics and grew to love it.

Thanks to Muir, I learned the art of adjusting the tappets, the relationship between the distributor and the engine timing and how to replace the ignition wires without screwing up the coil. In time, I even learned what and where the coil was.

But after all the 'fixing' I did on Skylab and even after redoing the interior of my '71 Bug, I had still had never even contemplated taking apart the engine, let alone putting it back together. But Muir had a chapter on how to do just this and I thought--just as he no doubt intended--'well if he can do it, so can I.'

Next: I did.