Friday, July 28, 2000

car repairs for dummies

I'd like to take this opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding people might have about me. I'm really not that mechanically inclined. Not at all, actually. In fact, I have what you might call a mechanical disinclination.

My latest display of deficiency in the area of mechanics began with car trouble recently. For some reason, my car -- named Bluebeard, though neither I nor it ever has pursued a career in piracy -- for the last four months has been creating more pollution than the entire New Jersey Turnpike. I finally took it to a mechanic three weeks ago when I found a massive yellow puddle under the engine.

Taking my car to the garage for maintenance isn't my first impulse. While in Haiti, I learned the value of knowing how to perform at least routine maintenance on vehicles. It was there I finally learned which end of a screwdriver is useful for turning screws -- the pointy end -- and which is meant for hitting yourself in the head when you realize you just compounded the problem. (The one without the sharp point. Trust me.)

So when I returned from Haiti and bought a Buick Century from my brother, I quickly became acquainted with a ratchet set and a few other tools, and took to changing the oil in my car and performing minor repairs myself. That lasted about a year, until that car met an untimely end in a head-on collision.

At that point, it was time to upgrade to a maroon Chevrolet that required a little more maintenance. After the accident, all that worked on my Buick was the trunk. By coincidence, it seemed the trunk was all that worked on the Chevrolet when I bought that.

One of the first major systems to go was the exhaust system, and it went in style. In less than a year, I had to replace the muffler twice, and the intermediary pipe, front pipe and catalytic converter once each.

My neighbors became accustomed to seeing me out in the parking lot with my trusty toolbox, rachet set and screwdrivers. They assumed this meant I knew a lot about cars, but that's not quite true. I was getting very familiar with my car, especially with its exhaust system, which I had to reattach at least twice a week because I never seemed to get it on right and it kept falling off.

The same summer the exhaust system went, I also had to replace the car's radiator. This ended up being fortunate, although I didn't realize that when it happened. At the time, I was too annoyed at being stuck somewhere on Route 30 in the middle of rural Pennsylvania at 3 a.m. to appreciate how lucky I was.

Well, I learned to appreciate that mishap less than three weeks ago. The mechanic we take our car to listed nearly $1,000 worth of repairs Bluebeard needed: a new head gasket, repair work to the front axle assembly or something, and a new radiator. At least the trunk still opened and closed.

"Oh, a radiator's easy to replace," remembering that my brother Brian and I had changed the one in Bluebeard in less than 40 minutes back in 1995. "How much will we save if I do that myself?"

My reasoning went like this: Garages mark up the cost of parts, and often charge exorbitant amounts for labor. If I could buy a used radiator and do the work myself, I could save a bundle. My brother Herb repairs his and his wife's car all the time, and saves a small fortune in the process.

(Somehow it escaped my attention that Herb never has any weekends or evenings to himself. They're all spent doing repair work.)

I should mention that my brother Herb is one of those fortunate people who Has A Clue. He's only two years older than me, but when it comes to mechanical inclination, my brother Herb is beyond a shadow of a doubt a more highly evolved life form.

By the time he was 12, he could patch the inner tubes on his bicycle, tighten its chain, adjust the hand brakes and straighten the frame he had bent double by not-quite jumping across Sulfur Creek, all while getting his friends to cut the grass for him.

Compare that to me. Just two weeks ago, I took my bike to a service station because its tires were flat, and stared at the air pump for five minutes before figuring out how to get it to work.

The disparity is pretty severe. Over the past ten years or so, my brother has grown accustomed to getting calls whenever I have a question.

"What's the problem?" he asks in a typical conversation.

"The engine makes loud grinding noises whenever I start the car, and then flames appear unless I put the hood down."

"When's the last time you changed your oil?"


Fortunately, radiators are as easy to change as my memories suggested. And if it gets too confusing, I have a Haynes repair manual that explains in plain language everything I need to know about repairing my car.

At least that's the claim the manual makes on the cover.

Directions actually went something like this: "Be sure to reconstitute the osculatory valve before defenestrating the isolinear filtration matrix under the krammer block. You will need a Hackerman wrench for this. See Figure 3A, conveniently indistinguishable from a dead otter, to locate the osculatory valve."

The first step is to flush the coolant system. In a healthy car, coolant is a mixture of antifreeze and water, and is fatal to drink. What came from Bluebeard's radiator looked like a mixture of dijon mustard and water, and probably would have been fatal to touch. It ran yellow for nearly a minute, and then it was time to begin disconnecting things.

Next step was to disconnect the fan, the air filter and a few other things to have unobstructed access to the hoses and clamps. That was no big deal, but once that was done, another obstacle presented itself.

Twin lines run from the radiator to the transmission, and the components that tap into the radiator often have corroded extensively by the time the car is eight years old. We soaked them with Liquid Wrench to get them loose and still managed to strip one.

A stripped nut doesn't come off with a wrench, which meant one thing: time to get the hacksaw and cut the line in two.

It just went downhill from there. Junkyards in the area that sell used auto parts usually would charge about $20 for a used radiator, but no one I contacted had one for my make of car. A parts store I'll call "Zesty Boys" wanted $170 for a new one. I found the same radiator elsewhere for only $87, but I still saw my potential savings going up in smoke.

That Saturday, a week after I brought Bluebeard home, I took my new radiator home and began installing it. It took a little longer than I had expected, and it didn't save me as much money, but it was done.

Or so I thought. Remember that line I had to cut in two? Well, I didn't, and realized my mistake only after I finished installing the radiator and putting everything back together I had dismantled in what I fervently hoped was the right order.

Getting a new plug -- properly called a "line starter" -- became a living nightmare. A nearby garage specializing in radiators didn't carry them at all. A parts store carried them, but not in the size I needed. And the employees at Zesty Boys didn't even know what I was talking about.

"You mean a radiator hose, right?" one worker said, pointing out the one-inch hoses I didn't need.

"Where's this go on the radiator again?" another worker asked.

"You want to buy a new radiator?" suggested a third.

I was starting to get the picture. "I don't think they even know what a car engine is at Zesty Boys," I told a manager at a different parts store who knew what I was looking for but didn't have them.

My final solution was to take the new radiator back out of the car, put it in the box and drive to a parts store to show them exactly what I needed. Total cost for the part: 95 cents.

Time to complete the job: 15 days.

Total savings: $4.23.

You would think I would learn from experiences like this, but the prognosis is doubtful. Just yesterday, I bought a new vent for our dryer. Think how much money we'll save if I put it in myself ...

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