Monday 18 May 2015

Zen and the Art of Motor Vehicle Maintenance

I'd passed my driving test at age 17 and at age 18 I took possession of my first car - an old Mini Clubman (not the one shown here) with hydrolastic suspension - a mixture of 49% alcohol, 49% distilled water, and 1% each of two other additives to put people off drinking it! It was admittedly a comfortable but [on an old car] useless system - always letting the ride down on one side. There were a number of quirks to get used to and on one occasion the oil pressure dropped and I was informed of a trick to prevent it happening again by a former rally mechanic. In the 70s rust was still a major issue for most cars in the UK and a South Yorkshire farmer and neighbour suggested I "coat the underside with old Indian oil". On further questioning, I realised he was actually saying, "old engine oil".

Fortunately, I had considerable mechanical aptitude as a child, so approaching automotive problems as a young man didn't faze me. I have always been happy to launch myself into disassembly, with little fear or doubt in my ability to reassemble. Having said this, when it came to cars, it was almost mandatory to acquire a Haynes Manual - just in case... but more on that later.

I could probably describe myself as a "creative improviser" - being able to see solutions beyond what seems apparent. When it comes to vehicles, part one is understanding what needs to happen for something to function. Part two is being able to see the potential in any available objects and resources that might be to hand - no matter what their originally intended use or how they appear. Part three is focus and experimentation to arrive at a viable solution. Most of the time, this is all that is required. However, there are times when solutions seem to be illusive. So part four is "asking the universe for help". Part five is surrendering control and opening up to inspired thought that may offer new ideas. I could probably go on with various "parts" to round things up to some magical number of implied significance, but really its a constant flowing interaction between rational thought and inspired action. Here's one example...

My second car was a black Morris Minor with red interior, a spoked steering wheel, pull start, and a cranking handle! Changing gear was getting progressively more difficult and the clutch pedal was almost to the floor. I jacked up the car and looked underneath. The linkage was visible and I could see that the side connected to the chassis runner had split through the side of its rusty metal location bush.

As I pressed the pedal with my foot, the linkage rod pivoted away instead of moving in a rotary motion. Rationally, I couldn't see how I could easily repair the problem. I didn't know if a new bush could be purchased, or even if I could remove the old one and refit a replacement. I relaxed
my mind and surrendered to the futility that faced me. At that moment, it occurred to me that all I really needed to do, was keep the pivot rod in what remained of the existing bush. Suddenly, a solution presented itself. Get a piece of 2" x 1" wood and wedge it from the bush's broken side to the next available cross member of the chassis. Held in place with coat hanger wire, this improvised solution enabled me to once again change gear and was still working perfectly the day I sold the car.

It was around this time that I started to discover that Haynes Manual's rarely, if ever, had any instructions on how to repair most of the things that went wrong on my cars! It seemed that they were predominantly concerned with major engine and gearbox components - usually only accessed by qualified mechanics - or rarely going wrong in the first place. Instructions on removing the steering wheel horn switch on a Morris Minor, or locating any number of smaller electrical or mechanical components on a range of other cars, seemed to be omitted from Haynes' expertise. In fact, I can state quite categorically, that in my experience I have never found Haynes' Manuals to have the answers to the majority of my vehicle problems. Furthermore, the manuals do not discuss the difficulties likely to be encountered in relation to the removal of components that are covered in dirt or have nuts and screws welded into the body with rust. It appears that all Haynes' work has been done on new vehicles as they came out of the factory - nice and clean with no mileage. It's a shame really, that someone like Donald Shimoda (from Richard Bach's 'Illusions') couldn't have been on their team!

As cars have become ever more complex in their reliance on gadgets and sensors, the new Haynes Manual is the Internet or more precisely, discussion forums and YouTube video clips. I have to say, most of my vehicular issues have been solved through this rich resource. Of course, the Internet is not infallible and there have been several occasions when no one has provided the solution to my enquiry. I suppose I should admit here, that I rarely, if ever, drive cars of the masses - preferring instead what I consider to be either more exciting, interesting, or versatile, purposeful vehicles. These have included four Alfa Romeo sports cars, a Range Rover, and four Jeeps.

In addition to the cars mentioned here, I've probably owned about 30 others over the years - some of them more 'normal'. Cars have always been an interest - perhaps even a hobby. They have also created as much stress in my life as they have enjoyment!

So here I was with Jeep number 4, trying to get the rear wiper's wash jet to work again. Without an assistant to work the controls, it wasn't easy to see or hear if the small pump motor in the engine bay was working properly above the noise from passing traffic on the nearby road. There was plenty of water in the bottle and I had already tried poking a pin into the water jet without any result. I decided I would have to remove the water bottle and also the rear jet assembly, in order to blow down the linking pipe.  I used a little syphon pump I'd previously bought and emptied the screen wash into a bucket to return later. Initially it seemed that I also needed to remove the back door trim panel, but having done this, I quickly realised the water jet wasn't accessible from there! I then did an Internet and YouTube search to see if anyone knew how to get the jet out of the door frame. I guessed that it was probably prized out, but if possible I wanted to check before accidentally breaking something. With so many different model variants of the same vehicles these days, finding a matching example is often a further challenge. Someone mentioned prizing the jet out of another model, but all other posts focused on issues with general blockages or failed pump motors. Anyway, I decided carefully prizing was probably right and soon I had the part removed.

I tried to blow down the pipe from both ends - first from the front of the car and then from the back. The pipe seemed well and truly blocked. I had a garden hose so instead, used gaffer tape to secure the adjustable hose jet attachment in line with the tube now sticking out of the top of the tailgate. Pressured water sprayed everywhere but nothing arrived at the front. It then occurred to me that there might be a one-way valve somewhere, to stop water travelling back down to the water bottle after the jet had been used. This might explain why water pressure sent from the back did nothing. I didn't bother trying it from the front as I didn't want to soak the engine compartment. I decided there was nothing else left that I could try. Perhaps I'd have to put up with no rear washer. If I was a garage, I'd blast it with an air hose.

Suddenly, I remembered one of the accessories that had come with the syphon kit. It was a little tyre valve clip - the sort you have on tyre foot pumps to fix the hose on the valve. It had a small pipe coming off it, but I couldn't see anything else in the kit that could be attached. Still in a semi-surrender mode, I suddenly received an inspired thought. I had the components to make my own air compressor! Perhaps I could get a spare wheel and rest it on the roof and take a short line from the wheel to the washer tube. Then I remembered that a few years previously, I had bought a length of fine tube from a garden centre's aquarium shop, thinking that I would use this on my last Jeep to add some extra winter-proof water jets. In the end I didn't bother, but I'd been looking for something else a few days previously and had come across the tubing in a drawer - so I knew where it was. I also remembered buying some tube-linking connectors and realised that it might be possible to use one of these at the other end to link the thin tubing to the car's screen wash tubing. I didn't need another wheel - the tube I had was long enough to go from any wheel on the car.

With everything set up to blow air from the front to the back, I clipped the pipe to the car's rear tyre valve and sent a strong jet of air through the pipe. The rear end of the tube spluttered and air was definitely getting through. After switching the tube from front to back a few times, I was getting a consistent splutter of air and water exiting the pipe. However, it still seemed that the pipe was blocked and I doubted that the washer jet would work properly again.

I decided to reassemble everything and call it a day. I refilled the water bottle and tried the rear washer from its switch. To my amazement, a good spray of water covered the rear window. Somehow, everything had worked out okay after all.