Letters

 

Dear MCC,

I have a little story I'd like to share with your readers.  I can tell just by looking around MCC, that some really serious car guys come to your site.  This is a little story about what an idiot I am around cars, and I think it will thoroughly amuse the real car guys out there.  See, I never had any really neat "car guy" cars as a teenager.  My dad was a Volvo man, so that was what I learned to drive on.  He was a really decent mechanic when you came right down to it-- I watched in amazement one time while he spent an afternoon replacing a cam shaft in our Volvo 144.  To his credit, he tried to teach me about cars, but I never listened.  What teenager really does listen to his or her parents anyway.  I had the idea that I wanted to learn about muscle cars, not Volvos.  He tried to explain to me that I could apply what I learned on a Volvo to almost anything, but I of course, never listened.  Anyway, this is the story of my first muscle car, a 1984 Trans Am, which I acquired at the age of 33.  Man, I wish I had listened to my dad more.

So I've got this 1984 Trans Am sitting in my driveway that I bought six months ago with the intention of "restoring". However, the closest I have come to restoring it is washing it repeatedly to keep the dust off. Truth is, I'm not quite sure how to start restoring it, but I'm pretty sure that getting it running is the first step. And getting it running would entail-- I am sure of this-- opening the hood and staring at, possibly poking and prodding at that largish chunk of metal in there. If I can figure out how to open the hood, that is.

As you can tell, I am not at all mechanically inclined, but I bought this car in hopes of becoming so. I'd say my chances of training this car to fetch a stick would be much better than my chances of getting it running. But hey… it looks cool in the driveway, and I can proudly say that I am officially a TRANS AM OWNER. I even bought a key fob with the Trans Am emblem… and put the key to my Honda Passport on it.

Okay, now here's the dilemma-- I've got to move out of my rental house in less than a month, which means that I have no choice but to get the TA running or call a flatbed wrecker to take it to the new house, which is eleven miles away. I'm not even considering this option because flatbed wrecker drivers charge $48 an hour just to spit in your driveway. So, it's time for me to draw on thousands of years of inbred male mechanical knowledge and take control of the situation. Time to take the car by the horn… time to claim my rightful place in the halls of male-dom… time to find someone who knows something about cars. But… using the same genetic trait that makes men refuse to ask for directions or admit to being in pain, I decided to change the oil and install a new battery, then just crank 'er right up, drive 'er over to the other house. Easy!

Naturally, I wait until the weekend before I'm supposed to be out of the house to run down to Wal-Mart and pick up a new battery, oil, filter and a set of tools. I also bought one of those Little Tree air fresheners for the inside of the car, which smells like elderly farts and wet cigarettes. By the end of the day, I found myself wishing I had bought a case of beer and a box of shotgun shells as well.

So I get home and drop the new battery under the hood. Like I said, easy! Until my wife reminded me that I also have to attach those little wires to the new battery. I found, much to my dismay, that the clamps on the end of the wires had actually shrunk since I took the old battery out. Which meant that after an hour, the only thing I had succeeded in doing was making a few sparks. After another hour, I had both cables on the battery using a delicate mixture of ugly words and manly-sounding grunts. This is always the way it is when I attempt an embarrassingly simple mechanical task… the object being operated on always turns on me, suddenly growing extra parts or super-tightening it’s bolts when it sees me approaching with some sort of tool.

I decided the first thing I'd do after getting the new battery in was to try the radio. Really, that's what I did. And it didn't work. So, drawing again on those thousands of years of inbred guy knowledge, I decided to forgo the oil change and remove the radio to see if I could fix it. Oil? Who needs oil? I thought. If I have a radio, I can turn it up real loud so I won't be able to hear the engine screaming in pain. After using my new tool set to remove the radio, I made the following conclusions:

Oh well, I guess I'll just have to hum real loud. Seeing that I wasn't going to get the radio going, I decided to go ahead and change the oil anyway.

Changing the oil is supposedly the simplest form of routine automotive maintenance aside from installing bumper stickers. But, oh no… not for me. It seemed that in all of my preparation for this task, I had forgotten one thing… something to stick under the car to catch the old oil. Not to be thwarted, I rounded up a 5 gallon laundry detergent bucket, which of course, would not fit under the car. I then came up with three coffee cans and two children who were willing to help their father because A: both the computer and the TV had already been moved to the new house, and B: they knew they might hear some really neat new words while I was working on the car.

They didn't have to wait long, because the drain plug had apparently been last installed by Goonga, the Neanderthal Mechanic, who had over-torqued the plug and applied a generous helping of Loc Tite to the threads. After much grunting, swearing, and giggling from the kids, the plug came free. I loosened it the rest of the way with my fingers while the first drops of oil came seeping out. Just before the drain plug came all the way free, I realized that my coffee cans were still six feet away. At that moment, my oil-coated fingers betrayed me and slipped away from the plug, which fell out and onto the pavement. A gout of rancid motor oil exited the pan and splashed the ground, my arms, face and most of my upper body. I stuck my finger in the hole, but oil was still escaping. I yelled for the kids, but they had wandered off to see what the dog was eating. I could hear their far-off voices.

 

Virginia: Ewwww! Gross! You nasty dog, you're not ever lickin' me ever again. Ewww! That stinks! Oh no, Sirrius, don't roll in it! Oh yuck!!!

Isaac: Look! Is that an eyeball?

Me: Dammit! Get over here, now!!!!

Virginia: What's Daddy yellin' about?

Isaac: I don't know… he's sayin' bad words, though.

Virginia: (loud sigh) We better go see what he wants, then.

 

When they finally re-joined me at the car, I repeated my instructions again which were: When I hand them a coffee can, they dump it into the five gallon bucket as quickly as possible, then wait for the next can, repeating the process until every last drop of oil was drained. Simple enough, right?

After they shoved the three cans under the car, I used my left hand, which was not covered with oil, to drag the first can under the engine. The can filled up really fast. I shoved the first one out from under the car, and stuck the next one under the oil pan. By the time my daughter realized that she was supposed to be paying attention, the second can was nearly full. When I heard her say "oh no!", I realized that she had missed the laundry bucket entirely, emptying the entire contents of the coffee can onto the carport. The old oil had been in the car for at least three years, was very thin, and stank of gasoline. The spilled oil washed back under the car, soaking my back and the seat of my pants. Meanwhile, the second can was overflowing. In the end, about half of the old oil went in the bucket, and the other half on the carport. Then the dog came and rolled in it.

Well, at least the oil filter would be easier, I thought. I didn't occur to me that if Goonga put the oil plug in last time, he obvoiusly installed the oil filter as well. I worked feverishly to remove the old filter, which slipped through my oil-grimed hand on every try. As an added bonus, the filter was in a place where only one hand would fit, and only four fingers of that one hand could be on it at a time. Then I took this handy little device known as an oil filter wrench to it. This nifty little device was completely adjustable to every possible position except the position I needed. After another thirty minutes or so, the filter finally came loose, probably from being directly over the string of profanities I hurled at it. I installed the new one, then carefully let the car off the jack stands.

That's when I saw the damn drain plug behind one of the front tires.

Not having any new four letter words to use, or any new combinations to use them in, I just sighed and started jacking the car up again.

An hour later it was time to put the new oil in the crankcase. Nothing could go wrong here, not a thing could go… wait a minute. Did anyone bring a funnel? Of course not. The kitchen was already packed and over at the other house, so I had to think of something else. I had bought a five quart bucket of oil and one quart bottle as a spare. There was no way I could get the five quart to the crankcase without spilling half of it, so here's what I did: I poured the quart in, then re-filled the quart bottle from the five quart jug, then poured the quart again. I spilled a little out of the five quart every time I filled a quart, so by the time I finished, there was no oil left-- I had spilled the extra quart on the carport. Then the dog came and rolled in it, too.

With the new battery installed and the oil changed, the moment of truth was at hand. I slid behind the wheel into the interior of the car, which, thanks to the new air freshener, now smelled like elderly farts and wet cigarettes in a tropical garden. To further put off the inevitable, I tried those nifty pop-up headlights… they worked. Then, since I knew the radio was dead, I tried the horn. Now, keep in mind, I'm used to driving a Honda, with it's sissy little "hmeep, hmeep" horn, so I was in no way prepared for the sound that issued from the TA, which sounded something like this:

"HHHHHWWWWWOOOONNNNNK!!!!"

Stunned birds fell from the sky, car alarms went off, dogs as far away as the next time zone started barking, sleeping neighbors wet the bed, and my wife and children, who were standing directly in front of the car, were blown clear across the yard. Okay, enough farkling around, time to turn the key and fire this puppy up.

The engine turned over a few times, then the motor caught and roared triumphantly to life, the dual exhausts burbling gaily in the October afternoon air.

No.

That's what you'd expect to happen… that's what would have happened if someone besides me had just gone through all that hell. What did happen, was the engine went "thunk", and nothing else. I tried again… "thunk." Nothing. I looked through my Chilton's manual in the troubleshooting guide, looking for an entry that read "what to do when engine goes 'thunk'." Finding nothing, I decided it was time to enlist the help of someone who actually knows something about cars.

I didn't have to look far. I remembered this guy that I work with… Eric is his name, and he claims to know everything there is to know about cars. I've often heard him brag about shoe-horning massive big block engines into small cars and pickups, rebuilding engines in a single afternoon, and hot-rodding Camaros and Firebirds into 10 second cars. I didn't really believe him, but I figured he knew more that I did.

A week later, Eric and I, along with my son Isaac, went over to work on the slumbering, perhaps catatonic TA. After two hours of prodding around and frowning thoughtfully at the engine, Eric was ready to try starting the engine. It seemed to turn over forever, then I noticed small puffs of smoke and heard exhaust poots issuing from the tailpipes. Then, emitting a cloud of smoke large enough to engulf the entire town, the Trans Am awoke, running smooth enough to almost be purring. We let it idle for ten minutes or so, then decided it was time to drive it over to the new house.

As soon as I sat down in the car, it began to miss, almost as if it could sense me wanting to do something with it. I'll bet if I had let Eric drive, it would have run perfectly. My son got in the other side, and we began the laborious task of backing out of the driveway. Backing out was easy enough, although slow because of the miss and my unfamiliarity with the car. When I got it pointed forward and started letting off the clutch more, the miss became more pronounced. So pronounced, in fact, that I had to rev the engine a lot higher than I would have liked just to keep it moving. A casual observer might have thought the TA was steam powered from the sound it was making.

As little as I know about cars, I was still able to tell what was wrong. The spark plug wires were shot after having set up for so long. The chugging engine note confirmed this. This was going to be a seat pleater of a drive, because not only was the car running badly, I had no tag and no insurance. I knew that Eric was behind me in a running vehicle, so I took a little reassurance from that.

I had been fantasizing for months about my first drive in the TA, but I had no idea it was going to be like this. The TA stalled four times, one of them on a hill. I couldn't get it much above 35, although I tried to romp on it and feel the thrill of V8 acceleration… no such luck. I was pleased however, at the way the car felt… smooth and steady through the turns (although I was never going faster than 30 MPH around the turns) and confident riding atop the WS6 suspension package. Downshifting was the only way to smooth the engine out a little, which I did quite often to help build a charge on the battery, and sometimes, just to keep the engine running. However, with each downshift, I was rewarded with a really cool-sounding thrum from the exhaust pipes. My son, who was all-to-aware that we were tooling around in a car with no tag, pointed out every police car we passed (four of them) and, just to be on the safe side, every Crown Vic and Caprice we passed, about 40 of them in an 11 mile stretch.

About a mile off from the new house, the engine starting getting worse. By the time I reached my driveway, I was traveling at less than 20 MPH, and the car was chugging and pooting, like a nursing home denizen during an especially active shuffleboard game. Just as I got pulled into the spot where I intended to keep the TA, the engine died again. Even though we had accomplished our mission, I tried to restart it, but to no avail. The TA was asleep again and has been ever since.

That was five months ago. I keep telling myself that it's time to get it running again, but I just can't seem to shake the thought that I'll do more harm than good. Thing is, I don't think I can really do anything. I've bought new plug wires, distributor cap and rotor and a new air freshener. I'm ready to get started, but there's one small problem:

I forgot how to get the hood open again.

After hearing this, a lot of you may ask me just how I can tell such a horrible story and still maintain my dignity and masculinity.  The answer is, I can't... I don't have a shred of it left.  But hey, the story was fun to tell, and you've definitely had a laugh or two at my expense, haven't you?

Steve Wingate

Jasper, AL

 

The Car Guy of Benchfield:  Photos, News, Commentary, Humor, NASCAR, and lots of general nonsense.  http://www.members.tripod.com/stevejen0

Back