Five Auto Repair Mishaps: True Stories from My Garage

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 02, 2010

All these stories are guaranteed to be true, and confirm why I shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a car with a wrench raised in anger. When I fix 'em, they stay broken, though that hasn't stopped me from embarking on projects. It's kind of ironic that I would end up writing for a website run by a pair of grease monkeys, isn't it?

Volvo 142S: Exhausted by my handiwork. (Flickr photo)Volvo as Victim. The car was a 1969 Volvo 142S, already a unique vehicle owing to the bottle of soy sauce my girlfriend spilled on the cloth seats. It was never a quiet car, due to incompetence adjusting valves, but it was getting louder as the exhaust system started to fail from the headers to the tailpipe. No problem, I went down to the local Pep Boys and ordered a complete set (but was too cheap to go for the stainless option).

The system needed to be heated up at the joints to slip on easily, but nobody told me that and I certainly didn't look it up. Instead, I used brute force to bang it roughly in place. It was still noisy, but quieter. The next time the car was in for something too big for me to handle (brakes), the always dour Volvo mechanic put it on a lift and recoiled when he got a load of the exhaust. "Who put that thing on?" he said with max disgust. "Some kind of animal?"

It's lucky he never saw an earlier exhaust job on my father's old '67 Plymouth Belvedere. Knowing no better, I attached one of the clamps to the nearest flat surface--the lip of the gas tank.

BMW's 2002: You can't see the axle boots, but they're there. (Flickr photo)Broken BMW. The car was also a '69, a BMW 2002 I'd gotten in response to a "BMWs Wanted: $100 Paid" ad I put in the local paper (where I also worked, so it was free). A major technical breakthrough of the 1600/2002 was an innovative independent rear suspension; one reason the car handled better than anything else on the road. My $100 car had more Bondo than metal, but it looked good from 10 feet (which was probably as close as I got when I bought it). The car also had nifty looking rubber axle boots, which on every car I ever saw were dried out and split. Replacement is devilish, involving working a one-inch hole over a two-inch bearing pin. Heat is required, but nobody told me that, etc. The same brute force that "worked" with the Volvo also worked here, except that one of the joints fell apart, spilling needle bearings all over the grass (I was a shade-tree mechanic). Did I clean them surgically before putting them back? Did I carefully line them up and make sure they were all accounted for? Naw. It ran. I sold it soon after, and the new owner (despite my warnings) put it up on a lift, at which point it promptly flexed in half.

My '66 Chevy II Nova did not look like this, but it could have. (Flickr photo)Chevy II Corpse. I didn't have it long enough to get really well acquainted, but I seem to recall a navy blue 1966 Chevy II Nova coupe, exactly the car hot rodders lust after today. But it was a six, had flat paint, rust, and four flat tires. The $50 price was right, though. I bought some bald junkyard tires, tossed some fuel into the carb and got the dead battery going with a jumpstart. It ran! I actually used it a few times with temporary plates, but then got cocky and decided that since there was black sludge in the crankcase I maybe should change the oil. All went well, I thought, even the old filter came loose with a twist of the Sears wrench. The first few miles were fine, but on the big hill coming home I started to hear signs of engine distress. Naturally, I kept driving. Halfway up the hill, the engine seized. Turns out I cross-threaded the oil plug. Luckily, the mechanic the carcass was towed to was not the same one who got a look at my exhaust job.

Dying Dart. I liked $100 cars. Another was a '63 Dodge Dart four-door, much like the convertible I own now (a ringer for Tom Magliozzi's now-deceased example). It came with a broken back window and a trunk full of hay. That car was so bulletproof I actually managed to keep it on the road for years, but I ignored the increasingly urgent message being sent me by the dry rear end. If memory serves, it also seized, and on the same hill as the Chevy II....

Body Blows. Did I mention I was a "body man," too? I never learned to weld, of course, but I was great at smoothing body putty over gaping rust holes. Sanding was tedious, so I never did much of that--just shaped it with a flat-bladed knife, and then the spray can came out. As with that old BMW, it looked good from 10 feet. And usually something other than structural integrity problems sent my cars to early graves. Read more Bondo horror stories here.

Well, there goes any hope I might have had of a career in auto repair. I was actually hired by a Dodge dealership once, but they never let me near the service area. That was me washing the windows in the showroom.

Odds and ends: I once bought a battery that came with add-on acid in plastic bags. I got it all over my hands (darn, that stings) and jeans, which promptly acquired the same kind of designer holes that command premium prices at teen boutiques...I loved junkyards, and marvel today that they let us grab our own parts from the third car in a teetering stack. Didn't they have liability back then?....Do professionals use fraying rope to tow cars?...Cars used to have one-size-fits-all radios, and that was one area in which my expertise was unchallenged. My junkers always had working stereos, some even sporting eight-track tape.

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