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Car Corner
My Early (and bad) Experiences Working on Cars

July 1, 2014
By Scott Lewis

I couple of months ago I put a line at the end of a story...

Maybe someday I can tell you about my early (and bad) experiences working on cars.

When proof reading that story I decided I liked the idea. So here it is... my experience working on cars in the early to mid eighties. This list is as close to chronological order as I can remember... based on when I did the work... not when I owned or drove the cars.

1979 Mercury Cougar - This was my mother's boyfriend's car. I don't remember why, but I think I helped change or rotate the tires. I literally had no idea at this time about cars. I installed the lug nuts backwards... with the flat side facing the wheel. I got a pretty good talking to about how I almost ruined his car.

1976 Pontiac Grand Prix - This was my mother's car. I was driving it in high school while I was reading car magazines. I was anxious to start learning hands on (and not just from reading). So I offered to do a tune-up on this car. Simple enough. I went to Sears (to buy some tools) and some of the parts. Basic stuff... plugs, cap, rotor, fuel filter, air filter, PCV valve. Well, at Sears they had a chart where you can look up the car and get many of those parts (this was 1981). The one thing that got me in trouble was... I bought Motorcraft spark plugs. Do you see what's wrong? Motorcraft is a division of Ford. My mother took the car in to a mechanic for something (I don't recall what), and they told her it had the wrong plugs in it. It needed to have AC plugs (GM's brand). My mother would not let me work on her car after that. She was not very supportive. I was a picked on kid with low self esteem. So it was a big blow that I screwed up. What's worse is that I wish I had a little more knowledge at that time. I could have told my mother the truth. Motorcraft (yes, Ford) makes spark plugs for all cars. Remember... I looked up the car in their chart. There is NOTHING WRONG with putting Motorcraft plugs into a Pontiac. The "mechanic" ripped her off by making her pay extra for something I already did.

1973 Gran Torino - This was my first car. Less than a week after buying it a small rod that runs behind the radiator broke loose and punctured the radiator. So I had to borrow a car to go to the junk yard (Salvage Yard) to buy another radiator. Now, this car was "modified" and I didn't want trouble again... so I got a 4 row radiator (4 rows of tubes in the main body) out of a Ford station wagon. I never had another issue with that. Of course, two months later I totaled the car in an accident.

1972 Buick Skylark Wagon - This is a car my grandmother had her boyfriend give me. Out of pity I suspect as I was still paying for the Gran Torino (my Grandmother helped me get a signature loan for it and I did not have full coverage insurance). The Buick was a complete POS. The starter went out. Wow... this would be my first full on repair, not just goofing off. So I bought a starter and pulled the Buick "up on the curb" so I could get under it. Do not ask me how I was able to do that (I don't remember how it was able to drive on the curb with a bad starter. It might have been on its last leg). Regardless, I very much remember crawling under the car. Fortunately, the starter was on the passengers side, which was the side up on the curb, giving be the most clearance I could get at the time. It was brutal... because that starter must weight 25 pounds (I don't know really), and was a chore it hold in place with one hand while threading the bolts in with the other... lying flat on my back in the street.

1972 Buick Skylark Wagon - Yes... same car. The brakes went out. I had no idea until the pedal went to the floor. My aunt's boyfriend took a look at it and one of the front rotors had gone all the way through one side of the rotor. I had no way of doing this repair myself, and my aunt's boyfriend did the repair... and changed the ball-joints as well. Then I took it in for an alignment and wow... the steering wheel was right-side-up after the alignment. Amazing! What a POS.

1972 Buick Skylark Wagon - Again. The shocks on this car were so bad it would bounce terribly. But this did not stop the car from running. So this was my first chance to change something on the car at a leisurely pace... and make some improvements... like all those articles I had been reading. I had a friend that worked at an Imports Performance shop. I had him order me an Addco front sway bar for the Buick, and then I went to Motion Performance (yes, that Motion Performance, that built the Baldwin-Motion Cars in the late sixties to early seventies). I got a set of adjustable Koni shocks... with a lifetime warrantee. Those shocks were expensive. $250 for the four of them. Ouch! But worth it. With the sway bar and shocks installed (set pretty firm) the car handled so much better than anything I had driven to date. A friend whose parents had a Buick "sport" wagon with a 455 said my car handled light-years ahead of his parent's car. This pretty much solidified my interest in cars... being able to make them better. Eventually this car "threw a rod" and I had to get rid of it... but not before removing my $250 Koni shocks.

1976 Pontiac Grand Prix - The front control arm bushings needed replacing on my mother's Grand Prix. Since I was driving it more then her (in between cars of my own), I was pegged with paying for this. So... I bought the parts and let my friend (the one whose parents had the other Buick wagon) take it to high school shop class and do the repair. Yea! I did not have the skills for this... then.

1973 Plymouth Road Runner GTX - I bought this car off the original owner (a friend's brother). It needed a front brake job. My mother was still being unsupportive after the Buick died. So she made me take it to her mechanic (not the same mechanic that told her the Motorcraft plugs were the wrong plugs for her car). I took it to this shop and they charged me $300 for a front brake job, claiming it needed calipers, rotors and the brake pads. Yikes. I had to do it. I needed the car to get to school and work.

1973 Plymouth Road Runner GTX - Yep... same car. The timing chain went out on the car. I did not have the skill to fix this. So I went to a mechanic of my own choosing. It turns out that the guy that lived across the street from my grandmother opened his own shop. My mother forbid me to go there because they did something wrong to her boyfriend's car when they first opened. Well, I was not going to get ripped off by her mechanic again, so I went to Andy & Terry's (Andy's parents still lived across the street from my grandmother). They fixed the timing chain for $180. I told them about the brake job and they were shocked. They said that if they used all new parts they would have charged me $220. But knowing I was in a bind they would have had me get a couple of rotors from the salvage yard and they would "cut" them and I could have had the brakes done for $150-$160. Later when I got my own mechanic (more below) he told me that he would have done the timing chain for $120. This pretty much started me down the path to learn as much as possible.

1976 Pontiac Grand Prix - It's back. The Road Runner needed an engine rebuild (more below) so I drove my mother's car for 6 months while I saved for the rebuild. During this time the rear brakes on the car went out and had to be replaced. My mother made me take it to her mechanic. Yep, you guessed it... another mechanic. Geez! These guys charged me $200 for a rear brake job... with drum brakes. What a rip off. It was at this time that I decided I would never use a mechanic again. (Not true, as you'll see).

1973 Plymouth Road Runner GTX - Yep... again. The car spun a bearing (my friend whose parents had the other Buick Wagon... heard it knocking when I was at his house). They told me the engine was shot. So... I wanted to rebuild the engine. It was a 440 big block. So... I parked the car and drove my mother's Grand Prix for six months while I saved for the rebuild. I bought a bunch of aftermarket parts and stored them in my closet until the time came for the big job. I did not have the skills (?), or more likely the nerve, to do this myself. My aunt's boyfriend did the rebuild and let me help, so I could learn. It was worth it. That car was so fast after it was done. I even installed Addco front and rear sway bars on that car. I also added some gauges under the dash, and replaced the stereo. A few months after getting this car on the road the wiring nuked on it and I had to junk the car (it was a rust bucket) and I sold the engine.

1976 Pontiac Grand Prix - The Grand Prix needed new springs. Again, beyond my skills... and tools. However... now I had a mechanic of my own. My best friend's mom got remarried to a guy that was a mechanic on the side (he was an engineer by day for AT&T - back when AT&T was the huge ass long distance company). He did the springs on the Grand Prix in exchange for labor from me. Cool!

1976 Pontiac Grand Prix - Now the shocks needed replacing... but I removed the Koni shocks from the Buick Wagon. My friend still worked at the import tuner store. I asked him to look up the part number for shocks for the Buick and the Grand Prix. He said they had the same main number, just different suffix for each one. And he assumed (as I assumed) that they would fit. And they did. In fact... my mechanic loaned me the coolest little tool. It was a socket that fit on top of the shock. You put a box wrench on the nut for the top of the shock, then use this socket on a ratchet to turn the shaft of the shock to remove it. Holy Crap! Really... its that easy! I remember struggling like crazy putting them in and taking them out of the Buick.

1976 Pontiac Grand Prix - The car that never dies... just keeps needing repairs. The front brakes needed to be repaired. I told my mother I was not going to her mechanic. I got this! I probably shouldn't have said that. So... I have the car apart and I am taking the rotors to a gas station that only charges $5 a rotor to cut them. Great. A friend (different friend) that is currently taking auto shop tells me that the discoloration on the bearings mean they need to be replaced. No problem. The car is already apart (yes... in the street, but on jack stands this time). So we go to the parts store to buy new bearings while the rotors are being cut. Get home and try to put it together and the rotor won't go on the spindle. My friend says it must be the wrong part. Back to the parts store... sure enough they gave us the wrong part. Back home... it still won't fit. Now I am scared. I told my mother I could do this... and she was watching... and it was dark now. So I called my mechanic. I told him what I just told you. He came over with two things... and two things only. How he knew I still have no idea. He looks at the car, points to a little bubbling on the spindle and says "that is the problem." It was like a weld mark (from the bad bearings). He handed me a file and said to file it down, then hands me a piece of emery cloth (like sand paper) and tells me to smooth it out and clean it off. Done and done... the bearing & spindle go on perfectly. He goes inside my house while I finish on the other side of the car. After this my mother never gave me any grief about working on cars. I went a long time without know what he said to her. Then he finally told me. My mechanic told my mother that I couldn't make it any worse. The worst case would be that it would have to go to a mechanic anyway, so there was no harm in my trying to fix it fist. It worked... she left me alone after that.

1970 Chevrolet Chevelle - This is a car I bought with money left over after I loaned my brother money to buy a car. My mother asked me to do it and signed over the Grand Prix in exchange. I bought this Chevelle off my step brother with the express intent to rebuild the engine... myself. No help from anyone. I left the car parked in a parking lot a few blocks away until... my mother went on vacation to St Martins. I brought the car home and had the engine out and apart by the time she got back. There was nothing she could do about it. It was going to occupy the garage for a few months. I lost my job at the gas station I was working at (new owners), so I had less funds than expected to rebuild the engine. And I had to cut a few corners on performance parts. Plus it took all winter. But I did rebuild it, and with the exception of getting help from my mechanic to install the engine (he had his own engine hoist), I did it all by myself. It was quite satisfying.

1970 Chevrolet Chevelle - After only a couple of weeks driving the Chevelle... the transmission went out. It was a 2 speed Powerglide, and only first gear worked. Yikes. I I had to get another one. I went to the salvage yard (yes, the same one I got the radiator at, owned by a friend of a friend). He gave me a 3 speed TH350 that would fit in its place. It did. I got about 2 mile away from my house and it complete failed. The car would not move. I called best friend (where my mechanic was) and they towed me home. I went back to the salvage yard and he gave me another transmission. As I am bolting it in place I see a crack in the casing. Crap! Back to the salvage yard... and another transmission. That transmission worked... and lasted for about a year... including getting me to Texas. Pretty good for $75.

1970 Chevrolet Chevelle - This was the craziest thing of all. I started working at a speed shop (S&K Speed on Long Island, in Rockville Centre... oh and I was just up there last month and looked... they are no longer there). I did the taboo thing... I parked my car in the spot in front of the store. And then I found out that the owner of the store does not like that. He wants it to be for customers. OK, lecture over. I am closing up with a coworker. When I go to start the Chevelle and it won't start. It is flooding like crazy. Kenny, the other guy working there, looks with me and we see gas coming up out of the top of the carb. We pop the rear bowl off and Kenny shakes it... there is gas inside the float. It is supposed to be hollow. Great. Kenny was quick... he went back inside and called one of our suppliers and put in an emergency order for the float. Then he bent the tab for the float to close the needle preventing any gas from getting to the rear two barrels of the carb. The car starter fine and dove on just the front two barrels. The next day the float arrives and I swap it out. And the car ran fine and I drove it down to Texas when I joined the Air Force.

Conclusion

There were a few other tid-bits above, but nothing I can remember with enough detail. I pulled the Koni shocks from the Grand Prix and put them in the Chevelle. I drove the Chevelle to Texas. I replaced the cylinder heads and camshaft in the Chevelle with high performance parts (they were supposed to go it originally). Then the tranny went out.. again... and I parked it for more reliable transportation.

Since the time my mother made me pay $200 for that rear brake job... I have never paid anyone to do a brake job... ever. I have always done my own brake jobs. I have helped people do water pumps, clutches, valve cover gaskets, etc. Plus I have done plenty of work on newer cars. I did the alternator and water pump on my wife's Porsche 911. Those were fun (sarcasm).

In a couple of years I hope to get a garage and then I can look for a car that I can tinker on. I don't want a full on project car. I want something running that I can add performance to and do basic repairs. We'll get to that.

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