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Shade Tree Mechanic, Really?

Updated on November 7, 2011

Every Few Years I Need Some Dirty Fingernails

I just drove my wife's car from Gainesville, Georgia to Chicago and back in 3 days. I did it for a good reason. That is, the reason I went to Chicago had a good and decent purpose. The reason I drove her car was also a good reason; my truck's check engine light had come on. Motivation for me to get my fingers dirty.

I had my first car 38 years ago. It was a Datsun 510 and came to me with a new starter solenoid needing to be replaced on it. I did that, replaced the clutch and throw-out bearing (using a whittled broom-stick for an alignment tool). That was when it was pretty simple to do repairs on your own car. Just about anyone could do the basics. Change out the plugs, the wires, distributor cap, and rotor - even set the timing. All could be accomplished by a pimple-faced 16 year old with a small amount of money and some greasy elbows.

The first car I remember actually doing anything to - and actually it was not that I did anything but more that my best friend and his father did a ton, I just watched, was a WWII Willy's jeep. I was with them the night he bought the jeep for about $200. Bringing it back to his garage, we helped disassemble some of the major parts groups looking for rust and where repairs might be made. Randy's dad did all the technical repairs pulling the carburetor cleaning it out, changing the spark plugs, that kind of thing. Eventually, Randy and I got to take it on for a ride in the woods near South Lake. Very exciting!

Over the years, my vehicles have gotten more and more complicated although the basic repairs could mostly still be done - if I chose to do them. As most people have done over the past quarter century, I've migrated away from stocking my tool box with the latest computer enhanced mechanical applications. Today, I had to go buy a 7mm socket just to pull the coil-on-plug retention bolt on the #8 plug of my 5.4L V8. The #8 is located on the very back of the block, up under the dadgum firewall with hoses that go to something blocking any chance of finding an easy route to the bolt head.

I finally got out the bolt, literally 3 hours later. The coil unplugged and slipped right out of the recess leading down to the over-priced, fixed gap spark plug that was welded into position. Checking online, I found out I could buy a spark plug pulling tool for my Ford for only $79 if I found it online somewhere. I had just bought a new 9/16" plug socket and a 3/8" knuckle to wind around into the hole to reach this plug, so I wasn't going to give up that easy.

I had replaced 3 other plugs on this same truck. With all of them, I was able to pull this stinking little coil retention bolt with a 9/16" socket. Turns out, I was off by a few thousandths of an inch...or make that millimeters. I had to find a 7mm socket to do this job! I hate metric to begin with, not having a 7mm (found my 6 and 8, but not the 7 of course). The right tools do make a job go faster.

So now I have the 1, 2, 3, and 7 and 8 replaced. The truck is running great. You might ask why I haven't replaced the 4, 5 and 6. The #4 is directly opposite #8. The #8 was almost impossible to reach, but the #4 has the air conditioner drier, the computer, and half a dozen other gizmos blocking the possible approaches to get to the beggar. The 5 and 6 are just waiting on the $30 to buy the two plugs. Keeping in mind if the coil-over-plug is bad, that's another $45 each. So what used to cost me about $30 to do a full tune-up with the best possible parts, isn't enough to pay for one cylinder using bargain parts in my new car....and my new car is a 5 year old truck (with 152,000 miles on it).

So after getting the plugs in that I did have, I took it back to the local AutoZone and ask the technician to put it back on the computer to see why I still had an engine light on. Same answer as I had before I started half a day ago - #3, #8 misfire. I told him, "That is what got me started today replacing plugs." He told me to drive it on further - it may take the computer a while to realize the change. I didn't know computers took time off.

I suppose the next step is going to be going back to each of those coil over plugs and replacing the coils - one at a time. I did figure I could undo my battery and then put it back on - supposed to reset that computer that way. I don't know that it does that, but it is what I have heard. That is the kind of training I have on repairing my vehicles. I never did take auto-mechanics in school. I have worked on cars all my life, when I had to.

I've pulled engines, replaced transmissions, clutches, brakes, drive shafts, rotors, rear-ends, axles and electrical systems. I've modified radiators to fit, replaced hoses and air conditioning systems. And I have literally cut cars up with acetylene torches to throw the junk into the river - before such things were banned by the EPA.

But now, I only piddle a little every now and then on a few items I think I can get away with and make myself believe I am somehow saving some money. Really, I'm just getting my finger nails dirty for fun, and to remember how to use those words reserved for such occasions as knuckle-busting in tight places. I still think it is fun and find a sense of accomplishment when it is over.

The Inventurist.

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