Dark Days: Broken Hearts and Blown Gaskets

Thomas Kreutzer
by Thomas Kreutzer
dark days broken hearts and blown gaskets

She done me wrong. I was beside myself with grief, anger and stress. Things had been going so well when, suddenly, a former lover waltzed back into her life and caused her to leave me in the lurch. Part of me wanted to win her back, to show her I was better than him. The other, darker part of me wanted to find that guy and kick his ass. It was a terrible time, and to make matters even worse, by faithful Dodge Shadow wasn’t running right.

By 1993 my little Turbo Shadow, purchased new in 1988, had almost 100.000 miles on the clock. It had traveled the length and breadth of the United States, making nonstop drives from Seattle to Los Angeles twice and a trip from Seattle to Washington DC, the return leg of which was done in just three days, without a single hiccup. It still looked great, not a single scratch marred its brilliant graphic red paint, but under the hood my heavy foot and childish antics had taken their toll and the car was losing water.

If it had been a leaking radiator or a shot hose, I could have easily understood what was happening. The problem was that the water was simply vanishing from the reservoir, I thought about the options and didn’t like where the logic lead me. I checked the tail pipe of course, but found no feather of steam in the exhaust. The radiator showed no sheen of oil and the dipstick showed no sudden increase in level, nor any emulsification either. Still, I reasoned, it must be a head gasket, bad but not yet critical.

It was a bad feeling. Everything in my young life was in turmoil, women troubles compounded by car troubles. My heart was empty and my outlook black, but like so many men in similar situations I struggled on and worked with I knew I could repair. Life would not get better on its own, I knew, and so I must make it better.

I went to the auto parts store and purchased a rebuild manual and a gasket set and rolled the little Dodge into the garage at my parents’ house. With a nonstop soundtrack of the heaviest of heavy metal soothing my wounded soul, I worked like a mad scientist, carefully plotting every movement while evil lurked in my heart. The valve cover came off, then the timing belt, the intake, turbo and finally the head itself.

I looked into the heart of the beast. Four pistons, three scored black but in generally good condition and one that was too clean and fresh. Next to that piston I found the trouble, a small breach in the all important head gasket, just enough to let the tiniest amount of water wick out with every piston stroke and into the chamber where it was burned with the gas and sent out the back.

My outlook brightened as I replaced the gasket and slowly began reassembly process. The head went back on, carefully torque to the specs listed in my rebuild manual. I matched the marks on the crank and camshafts and secured the timing belt. Bit by bit the engine went together and little by little I regained control over my life. At the end of the project I reattached the hoses and topped up the fluids and I was done. The dark clouds in my mind lifted as I swung the garage door open, and the sun shined brightly into my soul as I slipped into the driver’s seat and fired the engine. One crank, then two and suddenly, blessed music as the engine fired and ran.

The little car sat there at idle and spoke to me of all the things we had been through together. We were a team, this little car and I, with good times behind us and the promise of even more ahead. Women would come and go, I realized, but good friends look out for one another. When the car required my help I put aside my own problems and I had saved it. In doing so, I had saved myself. Together we would endure.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He writes for any car website that will have him and enjoys public speaking. According to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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  • Davew833 Davew833 on May 31, 2013

    Your repair story reminds me of the "ghetto" head gasket job I did on my '83 Accord back about 20 years ago. I burned two valves in the head driving from California to Utah where I lived and limped home on two cylinders. As a college student having more time than money, I spent $30 for a head gasket, yanked a head from a "core" engine I had lying around, and swapped the heads in a marathon all-night session. No head surfacing, no magnafluxing, no checking for flatness, I just yanked it apart and slammed it together. but By the time I was finished early the next morning, the battery was dead and I couldn't even test my work! Fortunately, the auto repair gods were smiling on me, and the car ran fine for another year until my dad made a left turn in front of an SUV while driving it and totaled it.

  • Lie2me Lie2me on Jun 01, 2013

    I loved this story! Had a similar relationship with a '76 Pontiac Grand Prix. For six years that car stood by me through thick and thin. Even after an altercation with a Datsun B210 that left the Grand Prix a declared total loss, but totally drivable due to the 2.5 foot "crumple zone" between the tip of it's pointed grille to where the car's mechanics actually began (you should have seen that B210!) the car still kept going (used the insurance money as a down payment on my first house). Toward the end it too suffered from "MVC" (Mysterious Vanishing Coolant) I and several mechanics were baffled by it's lack of any detectable leaks. Finally resolved to the fact that I couldn't drive very far without a couple of gallon jugs of water to maintain the GP's hydro-addiction, I retired the GP and still managed to sell it for enough money to put down on my first brand new car. What can you say about a car that took you where you wanted to go, protected you from kamikaze rice-burners, helped you into your first house and left a new car in it's driveway on the way out... *sigh*

  • 28-Cars-Later Corey - I think I am going to issue a fatwa demanding a cool kids car meetup in July somewhere in the Ohio region.
  • Master Baiter Might as well light 50 $100 bills on fire.
  • Mike1041 At $300K per copy they may secure as much as 2 or 3 deposits of $1,000
  • Sgeffe Why on Earth can’t you just get the torque specs and do it yourself if you’re so-inclined?!
  • Sgeffe As was stated in another comment, the FAA nominee went down in flames. But the NTSB chairwoman certainly didn’t, and she’s certainly not qualified either!Lots of this kind of stuff going on both sides of the aisle—Ben Carson would have arguably made a better Surgeon General than HUD Secretary under Trump, for example.