"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011



A few weeks ago, the water temperature gauge in my car started to rocket into the danger zone. I added some water to what turned out to be a very low radiator, bought a jug of 50-50 pre-mix, and decided to keep an eye on it.  So far, so good.

Then, yesterday, it did a repeat.  I added coolant and swung by the place where I get most of my car maintenance done and scheduled an appointment for today.

Today, they wound up pulling and replacing the radiator, for the amount I used for a title.

 (If you like gory details, clicking on this image will get you a larger one).

To keep things in perspective, that amount equals about 60% of a month's rent of my apartment (versus 100%  of a month's rent that the blown head-gasket emergency mentioned in Adventure of a Lifetime cost me).

In my current part-time job of grocery cashier, I often encounter large shopping carts loaded with over $400.00 in groceries, whereupon I'm apt to reveal my age by noting that the amount would cover both of my first two used cars, with some change left over.

Back in those prehistoric days, I would have handled the problem by pulling it out and replacing it myself.  I've had quite a bit of experience working on, and even rebuilding engines, and eventually got pretty good at it (my first effort left something to be desired, not then having a torque wrench, or even an understanding of how important it was and what a difference it made to a successful overhaul, but after a while I learned).

In 1975, I blew the engine of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle ("blew" sounds more dramatic than it actually was; it was more of a "clunk") resulting in an engine that was suddenly transformed into junk.  It swallowed a valve:  meaning that an exhaust valve crystallized from too much heat, its head broke off and fell into the cylinder to be met by the top of the piston in which it blew a hole the size of a quarter, spraying aluminum shrapnel into the crankcase.

In other words, an unholy mess.

Having no viable alternative to fixing it myself,  I pulled the remains of the engine out, cleaned up everything as much as possible, spread a tarp on the living room floor and moved the mess into my apartment where I could work in air-conditioned comfort.

Fortunately I was well stocked with tools.  Needing a lot more expertise than I possessed at that time, I was lucky enough to come across...
How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures 
for the Compleat Idiot, by John Muir.     -      Photo from daveswhiteboard.com

To this day, possibly the finest do it yourself manual ever printed, first because it is by someone who has been there and done that, and secondly (and most important), instead of beginning a procedure with "Using Volkswagen Special Tool #", he considers that you very likely do not  have such a thing, and then tells you how to get it done with what's at hand.

With that, and a few hundred dollars for which I bartered my soul to Household Finance, I got the necessary parts from a Volkswagen dealership and spent a week putting together a rebuilt, upgraded (from 1500cc to 1600cc) engine and re-installed it in the car.

Of course, it worked.  In 1975 I was only 33, still indestructible and capable of anything.  Never any doubt at all.

A couple of weeks later, I was driving that car to Florida, for my third trip to the Cape (to watch the liftoff of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, mentioned in passing in  The Adventure - Continued  ).

As the rebuilt engine was still in the break-in stage, at my first motel stop I slid under the car, popped the valve covers, and checked the valve clearances. While right on the money when I left Houston, they were now way too tight, a condition that may have contributed to the engine blow-up that started all this in the first place.

This is critical on the exhaust valves.  Intake valves get cooled when they open and cool air laden with gasoline is drawn in.  On the other hand, when exhaust valves are opened, it is to let extremely hot combustion gasses out.  The only cooling they get is when they are closed and heat is conducted away by contact with the valve seat.  Get them too hot, and the metal crystallizes and becomes brittle.

Having puzzled out a mistake I made in installing the rocker-arm assembly that works the valves, I pulled it and put it back they way it was supposed to be.  No further problems after that.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that VW is still running today; but I'll never know, as it was stolen in 1977 and never recovered.

At 33, I thought nothing of diving underneath a car and fixing whatever needed fixing.

Hell, a dozen years earlier, my second car (a 1953 Ford) had some teeth broken off of first gear in its manual transmission.  I and my brother went to see a guy who had a junked Ford in his field, with a good transmission, and we crawled under both cars, pulled the transmissions, and swapped them out right there and drove back home using the replacement.

When you're in your twenties and thirties, nothing is too much trouble to handle.

If I tried crawling under a car now, I'd very likely need help just to get up afterwards.

So, when presented with what needed to be done to my Honda, and how much it would cost, all I could do was give in to the inevitable and say, "Do it!".

That car is just too vital to me in my current circumstances.

On the other hand, it could have been a Hell of a lot worse.

Update - 14 May 2011 - My brother commented, after looking at that invoice, "...you got a pretty good deal".  I agree.  In my second paragraph above,  I refer to the outfit as "the place where I get most of my car maintenance done".  There's a reason for that; they typically cost about 3/4 of what a dealer would charge and they do damned fine work.  So, they are definitely a keeper.

If I'm going to say nice things about them, and recommend them (which I do, highly), I reckon a link to them might be in order.

Okay, then...   http://mymechanichouston.com/

1 comment:

Gary said...

By the prices some of the mechanics around here charge, you got a pretty good deal....which probably explains why I'm still crawling under my cars and doing all my own work.....and I was checking out a '53 Ford last month in a field and thought about that transmission changeout!


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