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Backyard mechanic

My elderly Aunt Virginia died recently. Her husband was a diesel mechanic. When I was 14 we visited them up in Seattle and I was surprised to find that none of my cousins were in the house. My Aunt sent me out to the garage and there they all were,  helping their dad replace the pistons in an engine. I was so impressed at the amount of practical knowledge and skill in that family. They were heroes to my young eyes.

Working on cars seems to have become less popular among the younger generation. Neither of my kids does it. Well, that’s not quite true…my son does his oil, and has replaced an alternator. It’s weird because they grew up watching me do brakes, starters, alternators, radiators, spark plugs, shocks and carburetors. I could frequently be found laboring in the driveway in the rain, keeping an old car running. It’s oddly satisfying and can save a ton of  money. Though there is nothing wrong with paying other people to do the work…you just need to have a good job, which they both have.

Car number one

During the recent snow, Sue parked our newest car a little too close to a snow bank in town. When she drove away, the snow pulled on the plastic bumper and broke two plastic connector tabs that held the bumper shield to the splash guard inside the fender. Cosmetically the damage was a one eighth inch misalignment of the bumper to the steel body panel above it.

She took it to a body shop and they quoted her $1000  because they’d have to replace the entire front bumper. He told her to ignore it, that it wasn’t worth the trouble and wouldn’t cause any problems. That didn’t go over well with me. It looked like the bumper could flap in the wind, and possibly cause more tabs to break. At 70 miles an hour there is a lot of  pressure down there. I never want to be the guy on the side of the road with a broken down car.

Yesterday I pulled 7 screws out of that area to open it up. I could see the windshield washer reservoir, and the true steel bumper but it looked like there was room to get a drill. The tabs that held the two body parts together were broken so I cut some right angle replacement pieces from aluminum and steel. I custom bent them to fit the curving angles of the body parts, then carefully drilled holes to match existing plastic connectors, and drilled two small holes in the fender.

I was working out on the street in my driveway with the car jacked up in the air and I’d pulled the front wheel for better access.  Probably my tools were safe as I went back and forth to my out building where I had a vice, but I wasn’t sure. I still don’t know this neighborhood that well. I’ve had friends get stuff stolen from right in front of their house in this town.  My solution was to keep my tools in the car, and lock the doors. Only problem was that I’d had to disconnect the battery to avoid triggering the air bag as I drilled the bumper.

I had a confusing moment where I was pressing the door lock button in the car and all I heard was silence. It was kind of a “duh” moment. Our other cars are all manual door locks and roll up windows. Chalk it up to the joys of being a backyard mechanic. Our old house was safely concealed down a long driveway surrounded by trees, way out in the country. We like living in the city, and this is an awesome neighborhood…but I do miss the country sometimes.

Anyway, the end result is the car is as good as new. No dents anywhere, and the bumper is tight. The only evidence is two small stainless steel screws on the otherwise flawless white bumper. My friends tease me about how I’m always MacGyvering everything. They’ve even invented a term for it: “You Uncle Marked that thing!”

Car number two

As soon as my 1991 Corolla got back from the mechanic (oil leak repairs)  I drove it for a few days and it died. Sue helped me compression start it (we towed it 100 feet) and then I drove back to my mechanic where he said the battery was on the edge but it might also be the starter. I replaced the battery and drove it for a couple more days and then it died, again.

My son came over and we push started it. It’s a light car and we only had to push it 50 feet. You gotta’ love a manual transmission because it fired right up when I popped it into second. Then I drove it into the driveway, jacked it up with my 3 ton jack, braced it on jack stands and began looking for the starter.  For an early nineties car it has a lot of clutter under the hood. Finally I found the starter buried under the fresh air manifold. It looked impossible to pull. Thank goodness for the community of amateur mechanics who put videos on youtube. They explicitly explain where the bolts are located and I had it out in a couple hours.

Buying the correct starter

If you are new to replacing starters, never trust an auto parts store when they say they have the correct starter in stock! Always pull the starter and take it to the auto parts store. Open the box and compare the new starter with the old one, on all sides.  As starters go it wasn’t the hardest I’ve done. My truck was significantly harder. The trick on this one was for me to hold the new starter from the top. Sue pointed out that she could see it wasn’t aligned when I tried to do it from the bottom. Yupp, I was lying in the mud, under the jacked up car…again. It was easy when I held the starter from the top while she inserted the first bolt. You can see just enough of the important bits by looking through the intake manifold pipes.

As I was reassembling the  air cleaner I noticed the air intake hose had busted open. Darn thing only lasted 30 years. I called around to some pick and pull junk yards but they either didn’t have it, charged too much, or never answered the phone. My mechanic ordered one for me using the VIN number. Bottom line, having a mechanic do this would have been over $500. It cost me $82 for the starter and $100 for the hose.

In other news I tried to replace the rubber on my ping pong paddle. I used permanent contact cement and got a un-fixable bubble. I could have sanded the rubber off…but rubbers are $45 so I decided to buy a new paddle. Big 5 carries junk and there are no table tennis stores in Seattle. Closest store is 2 hours away in Portland but a phone call had a new paddle winging it’s way to me in a couple days. Sue and I played last night and it works awesome. It’s slightly heavier than my old one, but far stickier and seems to have a short learning curve.

And I’m painting the violin again. I’m doing a foreshortened version this time around, bigger than life size. It’s very frustrating. I’m going to do something more forgiving for my next painting. Violins are as hard to paint as the  human figure.

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