By on May 10, 2012

Yesterday was my day off, and by “day off” I of course mean, “day in which I work my ass off sans remuneration”. No doubt this’ll strike a chord with those of you who also have older houses with plenty of, uh, character.

It was a day no thumbs would die by accidental hammer-blow: there was work to be done on the car, and they don’t call me “Spanner” McAleer just because I’m a bit of idiot. Actually, maybe they do – well anyway, to arms!

Nothing too complicated, you understand, merely a double down-pipe swap. On an automotive scale, compared to Murilee’s Impala Saga, this is about as difficult as putting on a hat.

BC’s emissions testing requirements – which have been just about to get cancelled for going on over a decade now – are a bit strict about not fiddling with your factory exhaust system. One does not simply drive into Mordor in a 300+ hp Subie and hope to renew one’s insurance. So, back to stock, and then back to not-stock.

To be honest, I’m a bit excited, and also slightly nervous. Perhaps you’ve met my co-worker, Mr. Frank Ulrich Bartholomew Arthur Richard Murphy? Whenever I get my toolbox out, he gets his toolbox out too, and sure enough one of the five 14mm bolts holding the bell-housing onto the turbo turns out to be a cast-iron bitch.

Therein lieth the challenge. Doubly so because this is not some project car that I can leave lying open on the operating table. We’re a single car family – hence the Swiss Army Knife of a WRX wagon – and the patient needs to have its intestines shoved back in, be sewn up and be back ready to ferry my wife to work upon the morrow. The clock is ticking, let’s go.

Like all would-be mechanics, I served an apprenticeship in my youth, starting with holding the trouble-light. Remember that? It was probably the first useful thing you could do for Dad, then followed by passing him wrenches and – in my case – any of a selection of hammers and mallets, the largest of which we referred to as Excalibur. As in, “It’s stuck. Hand me Excalibur.”

We did a lot of work together, Dad and I, and before you get too invested in some bucolic scene of father and son labouring side-by-side in near-telepathic harmony, I should point out that these were British cars. If ever there were experts at creating dissent between two Irishmen, it’d be the Brits.

“Will ye for f—‘s sake hold the God-damned humpy hoor steady, ye spastic God-scoursed eejit!” “I am!” “No you’re God-damned not, ye great clatter of bollocks. Quit flapping yer hole and pay some f—ing attention!”

It was, I imagine, a lot like asking two R-rated Captain Haddocks try to co-operate at neurosurgery. Even today I can cram the equivalent of four Roddy Doyle novels of invective into a single sentence.

Under the Subaru, more cursing.

Why is it that even if you protectively shut your eyes while turning a bolt underneath a car, the small shower of rust only falls when you open them? And why must there always be one fastener that can’t be reached unless you lay your bare forearm directly on some sizzling portion of exhaust header? These are not problems that the average crossword enthusiast or jigsaw-puzzlist has to endure.

And yet, it wouldn’t be the same without them. It’s a whole different world underneath a car once you get the skid-plate off; who among us has not marvelled at the complexity while resting your arms after a half-hour struggle with some stubborn bolt? Particularly true if you’ve ever been underneath an ’80s turbocharged car: vacuum lines designed by M.C. Escher, fashioned by Gordias Knot, assembled by Biff Pinhole.

You don’t see much of this in a more modern car. Pop the hood on a Nissan Maxima, and the swathes of plastic cladding might as well be labelled, “Here be dragons. Hands off!”

There was a time when knowing the basics of mechanical repair was just a matter of course. When you could lift the hood and identify all the major components, diagnose, and repair them in your driveway.

That time is fading, near gone. Once, we all did our own oil-changes. Now, half the cars on the road have improperly inflated tires. As in every facet of our lives, we know less and less about more and more.

The complexity of the machines we rely on for transportation approaches Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That which we do not understand, we cannot appreciate. That which we do not appreciate, we do not love.

And so, in the not-too-distant future, perhaps an end for this irrational fascination with what’s essentially an extremely dangerous appliance. To the fella that thinks a manifold is some kind of origami instruction, how do you explain attributing a soul to a three-thousand-pound amalgam of steel, glass and rubber?

For now though, the Subaru is back together, with a little more of myself invested in her – I’m speaking literally here: skinned most of my knuckles. Changed the oil too, while I was at it, and I’d swear she was running better. Happier even?

We’re lucky, you and I. We were born in the late Cretaceous period, but in a time when it’s still okay to love these wheeled leviathans. Even when the metaphorical asteroid hits, we’ll be able to keep a few pet dinosaurs on the road as projects, or classics, or memorabilia.

I come inside and place my ruined, dirty hands on my wife’s belly, and feel my unborn child kick. What will she – or he – know of cars? Will she share her father’s obsession?

One thing’s for sure: we probably won’t tell her mother about the cursing lessons.

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40 Comments on “The Joy of Wrenching...”

  • avatar

    Excellent piece as always, Brendan. Enjoy your wrenching sessions while you still can because that impending bundle of joy and poop will have you reconsidering the way you spend your free time at home once they arrive. I happily pay someone else to wrench on my cars these days since free time between work, family, and honey-do’s is a precious commodity. Then again, my two hour jobs can turn into all day cursefests.

    • 0 avatar

      So true. I’ve always done all the preventive maintenance on our vehicles, but with a nine-month old in our house and a never-ending list of honey-dos and work obligations, I find myself taking both vehicles to the dealer for routine maintenance. I find I’m not spending that much more money on the small stuff (oil changes are typically ~$30, when I would typically spend ~$25 to do them myself at home), but I’m actually saving quite a bit of time. I tend to work quite a bit slower in the driveway, laying on my back in the gravel, than does the Nissan or Ford mechanic with the lift and full garage, apparently. As long as they’re honest with me (and knock on wood, they have been thusfar), not trying to “upsell” me on ridiculous dealer maintenance add-ons, I don’t mind giving them the money.

      The visit to the dealership also gives me a good excuse to ogle some of the new and used cars while I wait the 20 or 30 minutes these services tend to take, which in my “me-time” starved life is welcome. I have no time to pursue hobbies anymore, so any short respite like this, where I’m free to just be a guy who loves cars and lose myself in that love for a few minutes, is welcome.

      • 0 avatar

        What magic planet do you live on where you can get an oil change in less than 30 minutes? Not counting the monkeys at Jiffy Lube, who will never, ever touch one of my cars. Around here, you drop the car at the shop and MAYBE they have it done the same day.

        It would take me more time to get the car to the shop, drop it off, then get back again and pick it up than it takes me to do my own oil changes. Then again, I invested in a lift and a properly equipped shop of my own.

        I will admit though, I recently paid to have the axle seals done in my Jeep Grand Cherokee. I needed it to pass inspection, and I was booked up with work, so I swiped the plastic for it. That was the first time I have paid to have other than tire work done in several years, at least.

      • 0 avatar

        The $5.00 differance is okay with me because now I know what oil and filter is being used in my car. Too many times inferior parts and oil have been used but, advertised as something else.

  • avatar

    Phenomenally written, Brendan. I can connect with this on multiple levels…wrencher, old house that I’m taking a day off from paid work today to just fix $h!+ because with my two young children there is no getting anything done on weekends, and the Irish genes…that was my favorite part, by the way.

  • avatar
    thats one fast cat

    Absolutely fantastic. Many times, laying underneath one of my many “cars with character,” I wonder if my kids will have any interest in repairing things themselves. When my 10 year old daughter told me she wanted to work on the cars too, I couldn’t have been more pleased.
    Maybe there is hope….

  • avatar

    “That which we do not understand, we cannot appreciate. That which we do not appreciate, we do not love.”

    There’s a lot of truth in that.

    Beautiful piece, Brendan. Your writing seems to be getting much cleaner and ‘natural’ than I remember with some of your original pieces. This one flows like a nice, lazy, contemplative stream. Excellent stuff.

    I now stick to woodworking and home reno’s because of this, but I do think it’s possible to still ‘understand’ cars at enough of a level to retain a fascination with them, even if it is of a more ‘magical’ sort.

  • avatar

    “Why is it that even if you protectively shut your eyes while turning a bolt underneath a car, the small shower of rust only falls when you open them?”

    So true, so true. Unfortunately, due to losing vision in my left eye in 2003 – I’m legally blind in that eye, but I do have what they call “navigational vision” – and due to what has been done to that eye to maintain that (long story), I cannot look upwards for any length of time anymore, so that precludes laying under cars, changing oil, painting ceilings and many other activities I used to take for granted.

    Oh well, small price to pay, I suppose, but I do miss doing a lot of my own work, but having cars that need little maintenance, I just take them either to our dealers or to our independent shop for all our servicing needs. I’m getting older, too, and don’t want to be bothered anymore for the most part. If I owned a classic – maybe…

  • avatar

    Ttac = written NPR version?

    Sometimes the simpilist article can touch everyone.

  • avatar

    The big head wind for the D.I.Y. home mechanic is that you are more often than not doing a repair for the first time on a particular vehicle.

    I replaced the timing belt on my Mazda Tribute myself, after taking it to a shop, where the owner said, “Oh, it’s one of those.” It took almost six hours of dissassembly to get the old belt off – but only a couple of hours to install the new belt and put everything back together.

    The other head wind is the repair caused my next door neighbors all kinds of angst, which in their words, “He has completely taken his engine apart in the driveway,” – even after I informed them that I was just changing a belt.

    In a couple of weeks I’ll be installing a 1776cc long block into my 71 VW Westfalia Bus, which currently has a 1584cc engine. The long block was built in my kitchen. Thank heaven that the Bus is smog exempt, because the new camshaft and dual carb set up will not pass muster on an emissions test.

  • avatar

    Ever since I started wrenching on a motorcycle I almost can’t stand to work on my truck or my wife’s car.

    I mean, I’ll still do it, of course, but comparatively it’s just such a pain in the ass. You need to jack the whole friggin’ thing off the ground and squeeze under it and every fastener on the underside is always rusted and there’s no room for your hands ever. And every part is ten times as heavy, and there’s ten times as many and every system is (comparatively) overcomplicated. I’m ruined; I used to really enjoy working on cars!

    • 0 avatar

      Couldn’t agree more, ‘turtle.

      On bikes I’ll do complete brake rebuilds, mount & balance my own tires, change steering head bearings, do suspension work, even tackle a valve adjustment on certain bikes.

      But on a car? Oil changes, and maybe tire rotations. That’s about it. Spark plugs too, I suppose, if access is good. Otherwise, cars are just too complex and too much of a hassle. The idea of doing anything heavy on a car basically just intimidates me.

  • avatar

    I’ll be that guy.

    First, why would you subject your only car, that your wife needs for work to this kind of treatment?

    Second, You know why more people knew how to fix cars years ago? Because cars broke more years ago. There weren’t any long life spark plugs, your carburetors needed cleaning, the alternators broke, engines didn’t last 100-200k+ miles without tons of work.

    Just look at this story, the only reason your wrenching is because you messed with the car

    • 0 avatar

      The only reason he’s wrenching is because his tuner didn’t do a very good job.

      As a fellow resident of BC I know all about AirCare. My highly modified 240sx (300+hp) has gone in for inspection every other year for over a decade and passes every time. A properly tuned engine will have no problems passing emissions testing.

    • 0 avatar

      If they break now they take them in to get checked via computer only to learn that a sensors bad or their software is acting up.

      Old cars break, new ones “glitch”.

  • avatar

    Things still break. But instead of making them so you can take them apart and repair them, manufacturers make it so you have to replace the whole assembly.

    Anyone who’s taken apart an intake manifold to repair a stuck throttle or to trace a niggling vacuum leak should be saddened by the fact that when an electronic throttle breaks nowadays, you’re expected to throw the whole assembly away and buy a new one.

    Of course, the enthusiast CAN follow down the rabbit hole and start learning the electronic aspect of motoring… engine remapping, hacking… rewiring… but it’s still not as satisfying as actually wrenching on a car.

    Indistinguishable from magic? That’s how people manage to get up in a blather about SUA, blaming non-existent ghosts inthe machine for pedal malfunctions… Because they don’t know Jack about what goes on under the hood.

    • 0 avatar

      The assembly stuff is being done because it makes the cars easier and cheaper to build, it also has the side effect of making things expensive to fix.

      Back in the day, people were actually complaining that you couldn’t get assemblies! Personally, I think that you should be able to buy each part or save a little bit of money on an assembly.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Very nice piece, which I can relate to having decided to change every single piece of the cooling system in my BMW a few months ago (because lots of smart people said some critical components could fail in a way that could be catastrophic for the engine.) While this was a 98% “from the top down” job, there is always that 2%, which in my case was a coolant drain plug on the side of the engine block that had to be reached from the bottom up. Aside from my extreme displeasure at getting under a car sitting on jackstands and the “crud in the eye” problem from having to look up, the plug was pretty big leaving inadequate “swing room” on my ratchet handle for more than one “click” of the ratchet. I have shorter handles, but they don’t fit the larger sockets. Of course, I eventually got it open and managed to dodge the Niagra of coolant that came pouring out, successfully directing it into a catch pan.

    And there were several tight hose clamp connections right against the firewall behind the engine block, and the obligatory coolant line connection on the exhaust side of the engine, which I had to do entirely by feel.

    When I was done, I looked like I had been in a fist fight; but everything worked and nothing leaked. And, yeah, I did feel pretty good, not only for having saved myself about a $1000 in labor charges but ’cause I did it. Sadly, my 11 year old BMW is “simple” by modern standards.

    As an old guy who can remember the days when you could open the hood of a car and see large chunks of the pavement it was sitting on between the engine and the wheelwells (at least with an in-line engine), looking into the engine compartment of any modern car, especially one with FWD, is positively frightening, especially for a guy with big hands.

    My house is 112 years old, so you know that part of the story, too.

  • avatar

    The joy of wrenching, indeed. My working apprenticeship began on Honda Civic rear drums, under the employ of my dad and diesel mechanic grandfather.

    Now, as the owner of a bugeye RS who had its clutch assembly changed over a weekend in our tiny one-car garage (with Dad, of course), I also hope my children will have the opportunity to understand and love whatever future mode of transportation exists. No magic, only a mystery to explore.

    A few days ago when a friend couldn’t get her license plate off the car and came over for rescue. The sad part was it was easily removed with a 10mm wrench. My heart sank a little. Normal people should be able to figure SIMPLE mechanical things out, right?! RIGHT?

  • avatar

    You have courage and a way with words. I do a lot of things to my old truck but with cataracts and even older than Zackman, I am willing to let my independent mechanic take some of them. Plain English: I no longer see very well either.

    My wife’s car is another matter. Nissan cube. At 47k it has been as reliable as a claw hammer but it’s to much to ask that to continue forever. My previous Nissan experience tells me it will last a long time without too much effort. Because I am incapable and undesirous of experiences like yours that’s why I bought it and why we have independent mechanics.

    Hope BC does at least modify your smog requirements. At the risk of being pilloried I must say I think govt. knee jerk reactions have made it tough to do anything with a car but pay. There are after market items like exhaust that seem to me to be adequate for the job. You should be able to use them.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Nice writing.

    Reminds me of helping dear old dad out with his 1967 Mustang, I got to pass tools and turn the key on command and learn many colorful words in the process.

    My little air cooled carbureted scooter provides the same “trill” now.

  • avatar
    Ex Radio Operator

    Ah yes, the joys of wrenching. Laying in a couple of inches of ice water on an oyster shell driveway changing the crank bearings on an early ’50’s Chevrolet. It’s Sunday evening, it’s getting dark and the car absolutely has to be running because we live out in the country and it’s the only way to get to work in the morning. No pressure, none at all. Got lots of stories just like this one. Being poor is not condusive to clean fingernails. I can fix all kinds of things because back then you fixed it yourself or did without. Because everyone around us was in the same boat, there was never a lack of hands to pitch in and repair what was needed. There was nearly always someone who had been there and done that. Too bad that attitude is missing in most of America now.

    • 0 avatar

      Ha ha! Many times in winter, of course, at night, of course, in freezing cold, of course, after-dinner wrenching in the carport because something HAD to get fixed so I could get to work in the morning. Water pumps, valve cover gaskets, brakes and a host of other things too numerous to mention back in the 80’s when our monetary resources were much leaner and we couldn’t afford to take the car somewhere to have it fixed.

      Our good car – our ’81 Reliant – was for wifey and I got the bomb – a ’76 Dart Lite. Things wear out, things happen. Nowadays, as I said above, due to my eye issues and having more financial means and having cars that don’t break changed all that. I don’t miss those days, either. I do, however, miss the energy I had…

      Now for the time when my 69-year-old mom helped me install a clutch in our Gremlin in 1980 in the spring – wifey was taking care of our infant son – THAT was fun!

  • avatar

    Brendan, you took the words from my mouth and transposed them beautifully in electrons. Rust just does not like mechanics or their eyes.

    It worries me that our society is moving towards ignorance/ineptitude when considering the mechanical workings of cars…this would just allow the ICE to disappear as less people know it, love it and keep it around. I may never get a chance to own an E39 M5 because once we have our twins, finish the house, buy the next family truckster and save some extra money, petrol power may be outlawed.

    This amongst other things keeps me up at night.

  • avatar

    Maintenance or repair, doing your own work is just more rewarding. Especially when you’re expecting a colossally terrible project and it ends up working out smoothly. I’ve done 2 projects recently, both made me proud when done. I’ll caveat that with the following statement: I have access to lifts and all the tools I can shake a stick at through the auto hobby shop at my local military base.

    The first was a header replacement on my old car, fom long-tube catless back to stock, not dissimilar to brendan’s project. My intial install 4 years ago was an exercise in frustration. Reverting to stock could not have gone smoother, and was a relief if anything.

    On my replacement car at my first opportunity I want to freshen the gril up. I get it on the lift, 30 minutes later with no manual I’ve managed to change the oil, transmission fluid, and rear diff fluid. I never knew I could get it all done that fast, and that was an acomplishment in and of itself.

    Jalopnik had Answers of the Day a few weeks back and I agree with them: Unless it involves taking the transmission or bottom end of the engine apart, it is almost always more rewarding than frustrating to do your own maintenance.

  • avatar

    US WRXs had three catalytic converters, was that the same in Canada? In Chicago emissions are tested with an ODBII connector and no visual inspection so there’s no trouble changing exhausts around unless a cop’s having a bad day, and on those occasions you’re damned no matter what. I do hope there’s at least one cat on the car, normally.

  • avatar

    Articles like these help me to validate keeping my troubled LGT wagon. I know my wrenching limits, thankfully. Shifter bushings and sway bar endlinks? No problem. Transmission rebuild? I’ll be parting with my hard earned cash to have someone talented perform the task (hopefully).

  • avatar

    Great piece, I can relate.

    Needed to change an oxygen sensor on my soon to be sold 99 Ranger on Monday.

    So try to unplug the old one, I had to lay across the top of the motor and reach down behind the block. Probably not unplugged since the truck was manufactured and needed both hands. Then lying under the truck after I managed to finally loosen the bad sensor the socket wrench flew off and cut my lip.

  • avatar

    “That which we do not understand, we cannot appreciate. That which we do not appreciate, we do not love.”

    um-mm, I think this is particularly wrong concerning newborns

  • avatar

    I used to do everything – fluid changes, brakes, even swapped out a motor on a first gen Integra in my driveway.

    I still do some of the harder basic stuff (brakes and struts and a few other tasks) but oil changes now go to Valvoline’s oil change chain.

    I figure that for $30.00 it worth all the extra time it would take me to get get the oil, change the oil, and return the oil for recycling.

    Valvoline earned my respect when I pulled in one day and they did not have the tool for removing the cover of the oil filter cartridge. They could have tried to get it off and on without it, but probably would have damaged it, which leads to a massive fail.

    My daughters are still a little young to help, but the 7 year old has used the battery impact wrench to take lug nuts off when I’ve done snow tire changes. All three girls WILL learn how to do at least the basics.

    • 0 avatar

      Like you, I did much toolin’ and wrenchin’ in my younger years but that was driven by need for lack of money to pay for labor, not want for ‘the joy’ of it.

      I have reached the point in my life where I buy new, keep it for a little less than the duration of the warranty and trade it off for a new whatever…

      IMO, the only way to go, if you can swing it. Leasing is another excellent option if you don’t mind not having any equity.

      Financing is never a good option unless, like me, you always had more month left over at the end of the money and lived from payday to payday. Certainly the worst years of my life were when we were young and poor and had to eat a lot of tuna casserole and spam mac&cheese.

  • avatar

    Just wait a few years and your Subaru will start to self-lubricate… I know mine has! In reality I’m just too lazy to drop the oil pan to re-seal, it’s really not THAT bad, just oozing.

    I remember vividly “working” with my grandfather on his ’82 E450 van, holding flashlights, handing tools, etc. Oh, and actually working with him on his house projects. Now I’ve got the old house with “Character”, the 170k, 12-year old Subaru Legacy GT wagon that I try to keep from falling apart. (why is all my trim falling off? Oh, it’s the house projects and hauling stuff… nevermind)

    I loved your description and can identify on so many levels… but I just wanted to let you know that I laughed quite a bit at the “one less fixie” sticker under your hood… especially since I’ve got the opposite sticker on my fixed gear! It’s been sitting on the porch for over a year and I’ve been putting the miles on the car. It seems that I go through stages of wrenching… House wrenching, bike wrenching, car wrenching, house, bike, car, over and over. Summer’s coming, so it must be time to get the bikes back into working order!

  • avatar

    With the old cars that I’ve had I’m used to tinkering under the hood, yes, using a more simple engine without 20 sensors, TC, and plastic cladding may not get me the most power or do the most for mother nature.

    But, I’d rather spend 5 hours under the hood adjusting my carburetor than 7 hours on a computer trying to find the issue, and $700 for the software.

    Years from now people will give me puzzled faces when I say “Roll-Up windows” and call me crazy for not having 7 airbags.

  • avatar

    Safety glasses, ye great clatter of bollocks.

  • avatar

    Invariably while on my back under a ton and a quarter of rusting Soviet steel, I lay my tools down and just stare at the underbelly of my Alfa in awe. So many parts! What do they do? How to they work? Where do they go? What’s that for?

  • avatar

    Brendan great write up, been there on my back with a must finish now project, that is part of fixing stuff yourself. Started fixing/breaking the family lawn mower (oldest son) and progressed to cars and motorcycles. Still do what I can get at (oil changes, brakes, filters). Major stuff is done by the folks that do it for a living. No more doing clutches laying on the garage floor for hours.

  • avatar

    Indeed, a fantastic write up there Branden.

    I used to do MUCH more wrenching than I do now, part of it is me, part of it is a lack of space, and a safe place to do much since I park on the street in the big city of Seattle…

    Well, the parking on the street thang is a very large part of it.

    It’s not to say I haven’t done a little when it’s been absolutely necessary, like replacing the shifter parts in my old Ranger truck back in 2009 for one thing, and installing new Infinity speakers in said truck the year before.

    Otherwise, I use Mom’s driveway or better yet, my best friend’s place since that’s where I go to do my own oil changes whenever possible.

    When I had my 83 Civic (1992-1998), I did everything from periodic clutch adjustments to oil changes, adjusting (or trying to without success) the parking brake, replace ALL FOUR brakes at different times on that car and even swapped out CV boots for 2 piece units, which sucked as they didn’t stay together and ended up having to pay to have them all done, one side at a time.

    But that was when I still lived at home and had my parent’s garage and driveway. :-)

    Soon, I hope to pop off the valve cover and check the timing belt on my Mazda to see if it’s been done in the past 10K miles or so.

    Fortunately, OBD II scanners aren’t expensive and I will probably snag one before too long for those diagnoses issues when or if they DO come up.

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