By on January 26, 2017

Honda Accord on fire, Image: By Shah rukh khan (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’d like to think I was hurrying because I had a date, but an honest reassessment of my frantic reassembly of my first car was likely spurred by a need to get to work. I’m sure that after my misadventure, my fuel-soaked clothing and fouled undershorts conspired to keep me from working at the donut shop for a day or so.

Those of us not privileged enough to afford a mechanic have all done it: the cheap, likely unsafe repair meant only to get a car back on the road until time and/or funds allow a proper fix. Some call it a kludge, others redneck or ghetto engineering — depending on which stereotype you find more distasteful — but it’s all part of owning a car on a budget.

Back to my stories, I’ve done plenty of stupid things, like driving on a temporary spare for six months, wiring a muffler back on with a coat hanger, or getting knocked over by something heavy in my garage and onto a five gallon pail of waste oil, which ruined both my clothes and my driveway. Still, the big one could have been much worse.

Chris with his 1985 Nissan Maxima, Image: © Chris Tonn

It was my first car, a gloriously brown 1985 Nissan Maxima, and my dad and I were trying to keep ahead of the various electronic funkiness that came with its early digital dashboard. The fuel gauge never worked properly, leading to the occasional long walk with a red can. I was tired of it. We decided to replace the fuel gauge sending unit, which — naturally — is inside the fuel tank.

Dad was an enthusiastic mechanic — if never a professional one. We always had some sort of project in the garage, typically a British car of some sort or a vintage Datsun, and most weekends throughout my childhood included some garage time. He and I tackled the Maxima with some enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, access to the fuel tank in the Max was below the rear seat, which for whatever reason was unusually difficult to remove. We managed to raise the lower cushion, but the seatback could only be pried out of the way under significant tension. I held the seat up, straining against some hidden bolts, while dad put his hands down into the full tank of fuel to switch out the sending unit.

I also held the old-style “safety” shop lamp so we could see our progress.

Unfortunately, the effort required in holding the seat was too much, or dad moved and dislodged the seat. Either way, the seat moved, knocking the lamp out of my hand, which crashed and broke right next to the open fuel tank aperture.

How the gasoline fumes didn’t ignite is a question I’ll never be able to answer, but that was one seriously terrifying moment.

For inspiration and laughs, head over to Reddit, specifically r/JustRolledIntoTheShop and r/ThereIFixedIt, which are a wonderland of shoddy work and misplaced ingenuity. However, I want to hear your stories. What stupidity have you wrought upon a helpless auto?

[Images: Accord, By Shah rukh khan (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Maxima, © Chris Tonn]

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71 Comments on “QOTD: What’s The Worst Home Mechanic Mishap You’ve Ever Seen?...”

  • avatar

    I know what mine was… December 2014 when I was trying to run 4GA power wire for my amps in the Altima, I found a grommet behind the clutch and drilled through it. Well said grommet was the feed through for the car’s main wiring harness.

    Car was D.E.A.D.

    The dealership would have replaced the entire primary wiring run. The cost of parts and labor would have been almost the value of the car itself. Ouch.

    My mechanic repaired all the wires, out in the freezing cold, and only charged me $300. I put an extra 20% on top of that. I would have gladly paid 500 if he had asked.

    Note to self: next time just pay Best Buy to run the wire from the battery to the trunk.

    • 0 avatar

      When I worked for Acura we had a guy tow in his ’02 TL. He was installing an amp and decided to drill a hole in the firewall to fit his power wire through. He drilled from the cabin towards the engine bay, not realizing that he wasn’t drilling into free space, he was drilling into his brake booster. Vacuum brake boosters are far less effective when they’ve got a hole in them.

  • avatar

    Trying to pop out a wheel bearing on a Dodge Ram without removing the knuckle, with no bearing puller, 20 miles from town with no backup vehicle and a limited idea of what I was doing.

    I’d removed & replaced lots of bearings on farm machinery with a hammer, punch and a wooden block, so this should be easy!

    That was an embarrassing tow truck ride to the shop.

  • avatar

    “The fuel gauge never worked properly, leading to the occasional long walk with a red can.”

    Assuming the odometer worked, couldn’t you get a pretty good idea of how much fuel was remaining from the number of miles driven?

  • avatar

    I had an amazingly awesome dream car- the Datsun 280zx.

    I still lived with my parents at the time because I was, you know, 18 and back then people moved out shortly after they turned 18.

    I can’t even tell you what happened. I put the car on jackstands without setting the ebrake. I was unbolting a wheel nut and somehow I knocked the thing off the jackstands.

    Thing is, my parents’ house was up a very very steep hill.

    The car knocked off the jackstands, and started rolling. It hit a 2 foot tall rock, and instead of coming to a nice abrupt stop, it instead launched it into the air, obliterating my father’s “designer” Japanese maple trees before crushing flowers and rolling down through the woods into the road where it slammed into a brand new Cadillac that my parent’s neighbors had just bought.

    It was literally the point in my life where all my dreams and goals, wrapped into that sporty, sweet looking 280z came crashing down, and I wasn’t even in the drivers seat.

    I crashed my prized car, and I wasn’t even driving it. I wrecked my father’s trees and flowers that he worked so hard on. I ruined my neighbors shiny new ride.

    When your 18… I don’t know if anything worse than that could happen… and getting paid minimum wage, do you know how long it took me to pay for all those repairs?

    • 0 avatar

      This story makes me so sad. However it also makes me feel better because a few weeks ago I backed my 350Z into the garage at the track and messed up my rear bumper. I felt like such an idiot – I can race around at over 100 MPH but can’t go 2 MPH in reverse without a building? DUH! Truth is with a helmet on the rear quarter panel blind spot pretty much doubles in size. So this weekend the backup camera goes in… hopefully with no issues.

      Unrelated I’ve also learned if the brake caliper pistons do not retract easily something is wrong. I actually BENT an expensive caliper tool trying to force them back in. Sometimes the best course of action is paying the core charge and swap the brakes completely.

      Another stupid mistake: my transmission ate 3rd gear (common issue with early model 350Zs) so I got a junkyard replacement from a newer model that has the improved synchros. A buddy helped and after nearly 6 hours of work under the car the darn thing squealed like a stuck pig. So we had to do it all over again… just because of a $20 part.

    • 0 avatar

      Wow arach, sounds like a Farmers Insurance ad.

  • avatar

    My first car was a ’66 chevy with electrical issues. I walked into a gas station one day and asked for a jump start. Have you ever asked for help and instantly regretted it because someone was too eager? Well, the owner of the station was super excited and started barking orders to his staff of mechanics to move cars around the tiny lot so they could get to their wrecker. Everyone looked sort of terrified of the boss and rushed around moving cars until one guy hurriedly backed a customers new Cadillac into traffic without looking and got T-boned. The caddy just about folded in half. The mechanic was OK, but the car was clearly totaled. Everyone started yelling and I was so embarrassed that I just backed away. I ended up getting a jump start from a gas station on the next corner.

  • avatar

    70 VW Beetle in mid-80s. Fuse blow? No problem, just grab the Wrigley’s gum in the glovebox and use the wrapper to go around the fuse, pop it back in.

  • avatar

    I din’t experience this myself but a friend took his volvo to the dealer for some sort of routine service that inclued a tire rotation.

    About a mile from the dealership two of his wheels fell off.

    • 0 avatar

      That happened to my wife when she brought the Clubman into service. She left the bay, began driving through the parking lot and heard a clunk-clunk-clunk.

      Luckily she returned to the service area before going out on the road. They swore up and down that they hadn’t touched the wheels.

      Turns out they had removed the left front wheel but never snugged the bolts back down. Geniuses.

      And that’s the last time we ever went there – that and their outrageous costs.

      • 0 avatar

        That reminds me of the Toyota stealership that did a brake job on my parents’ car which entailed removing the old pads . . . and not installing new ones. The effect on the rotors and calipers was, as you might expect, deleterious. Better yet, the service manager had the gall to quote an estimate to my father, because obviously my parents were to bear the cost of the service tech’s f_ck-up.

        It was kind of funny to witness the manager’s misread of my father. Not all kindly, doddering senior citizens who drive 15-year-old subcompacts are sheep to be fleeced. Some of them, as it turns out, are sharp-as-a-tack Harvard Law alumni who enjoy browbeating dealers and putting a financial hurt on them.

  • avatar

    Three of us were working on a race car in a borrowed shop. We were having a little trouble getting it started, so we decided to pull the spark plugs and spin it over with them removed. I went to the other side of the shop with a battery mount that needed to have another hole drilled in it, and started to drill the hole, when I heard what sounded like the engine staring briefly. I walked back over to the car to see if it was going to start again, and the other two guys were standing next to the car, and both of them looked like they’d just seen their own funerals. Well, they did pull the plugs out, but didn’t disconnect the ignition, so when they spun the engine over with the plugs out, a nice spray of 108 octane racing gas shot out of the spark plug holes, and just as that happened, that lovely high energy ignition system produced a nice fat spark, with predictable results.

    Fortunately, nothing was damaged, we put the plugs back in and it fired up right away. That must have been a sight to see, I almost wished I hadn’t missed it. Almost.

  • avatar

    This didn’t happen to me, but a friend in high school. He was skipping school and for some reason decided that he needed to check the coolant level in his ’86 Mercury Cougar. He was also 70 miles from home after driving on the interstate for the last hour or so. Wrapping a T-shirt around his hand so as not to touch the hot radiator cap, he opened the thing up and a geyser of scalding coolant sprayed all over his arms, neck and chest. The next time I saw him, he was bandaged up like a mummy to keep his second and third degree burns from getting infected. Pretty sure his parents ruined his ass after the whole ordeal too.

    I also worked as a lube tech at our local Cadillac dealership as a summer job in college. We had one guy, a lot porter who was a retired NY police officer, always banging up customer cars by backing into things. He had already had two or three incidents and then one day while fetching a customer’s new Deville, hit the gas pedal in reverse instead of the brake and went backwards through a wooden fence, across a street that ran behind the dealership, then across the parking lot for our body shop, and hit another customer’s car. That was his last day at Crest Cadillac.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    Worst home mechanic mishap looked a lot like the picture above. A guy decided to replace the old, dry rotted fuel lines on his E30 BMW with regular rubber tubing from Autozone. Worked fine for a day or two before the fuel ate through the hose and set the car on fire and burned it to the ground.

    And believe it or not, he did the SAME exact thing again when he purchased another E30 to replace the one he burned up. At that point I wondered if he was just pulling insurance jobs.

  • avatar

    Failed to prime the new timing chain tensioner on a 2.4 Twin Cam. Then cranked it.

    Ive had other mishaps in the progress, this is the only time I couldn’t recover the car to at leaat original condition. Sold it for parts.

    • 0 avatar

      I found this interesting as I’ve NEVER primed a timing tensioner on any make. I’ve never experienced a failure at start-up either. Did you forget to “release” the tensioner?

      How would you even prime one? I would imagine toss it in a bath of motor oil like say a lifter?

    • 0 avatar

      I’d like to hear more about this one.

      When I changed the water pump on my mother’s ’99 Sunfire GT with the 2.4, I pulled off the tensioner and was playing with it to see how it worked. It operates on oil pressure but felt springy even while disconnected and empty. I squeezed it harder and it sunk right down and lost the springiness. I examined it but couldn’t figure out what had changed because it seemed entirely simple; nothing more than a piston in a cylinder. I figured some air had been trapped somewhere. I couldn’t find anything to explain it in the Haynes manual – most of the detail was focused on resetting a mechanical spring tensioner design that must have been used on other model years – so I reassembled everything and the timing chain has rattled on start-up ever since. It goes away the moment you drive away or rev it a bit.

      I figure it can’t be too serious because that was almost 200k km ago! Close to 400k on it now.

      I recall that I also broke the leading edge tab on the plastic chain guide attached to the tensioner. The plastic was surprisingly brittle despite the guides being in excellent condition. I figured it wouldn’t go anywhere with the chain pressed against it though. So that could also be the source of the rattle.

      • 0 avatar

        It was a 2002 Sunfire GT with the 2.4L. It made a ton of weird rattly sounds. The car was in good shape aesthetically, made good power and mileage, but it sounded off and smoked black.

        Tried to replace the timing chain tensioner, and yeah, it had no real travel that I recall when installing it, I figured it wouldnt move until under oil pressure. Apparently you have to release them first. Cranked but never ran again for obvious reasons.

        It needed to go anyways, so luckily is wasn’t a car I really cared for, but it still cost me bit of money.

        • 0 avatar

          The piston in the one I dealt with moved freely, but I stressed over the fact that it no longer felt springy after I pressed it down all the way. It appears yours used the same part. Not much to it.

          I was quite nervous when I fired it up again for the first time.

          • 0 avatar

            I found a TSB on the subject: 00-06-01-010A.


            “Note: If the timing chain tensioner plunger is not released from the installation position, engine damage will occur when the engine is started.”

            “Important: If the timing chain tensioner plunger cannot be depressed, the plunger is not properly reset and the procedure for resetting the timing chain tensioner should be repeated.”

            I guess I got lucky, or you were unlucky. I never followed any procedure. This TSB was posted six years after my Haynes manual was printed.

          • 0 avatar

            Most tensioners I’ve seen have an internal spring / one-way racheting mechanism that must be released before engine cranking. In fact, I won’t even turn the crank by hand,(to confirm timing marks are aligned), until that tensioner is released. The spring is designed to take up chain slack until oil pressure can assist.

            I prefer timing belts but people look at me like I’m crazy. Each link in a chain represents a moving part that can fail. Chains constantly shear and are hard on engine oil. They tend to make more noise than belts do. Tensioners fail frequently and chains stretch. Guides tend to become brittle after enough cycles.

            I would prefer a timing belt job every 80k miles and not deal with the aforementioned.

          • 0 avatar

            That’s the sort of design my Haynes manual focused on. It was used on the 2.4L in 1995 and 1996.

            I don’t mind timing belts. There’s certainly no purpose to a timing chain if you’re going to run a buried water pump off it anyway. My only complaint about timing belts is that most manufacturers don’t provide an inspection cover. I’ve only seen that on Subarus. I prefer to change belts on visual inspection, and it’s also nice to be able to easily confirm the age/condition of one when looking at used cars.

            Oh well, most can be viewed without too much difficulty by popping off the valve cover once a year.

  • avatar

    Working on my ’86 Monte Carlo SS – original engine was replaced along with the carb. I put one of those cool-looking triangular Edelbrock foam air filters on top. Yeah, they are pretty crappy in actuality, but with no cowl hood it was the only way I could close the hood because of the raised intake manifold.

    By the way, that air filter foam is flammable. One day the car wouldn’t start. I’m messing around, pumping the gas pedal as I turn the key. I get a big backfire – which starts the air filter foam on fire. I had the hood open so I rush around, unsnap the bar that holds the top of the filter in place and – without thinking! – grab the flaming foam with my right hand. It sticks like napalm!

    I ended up having to rebuild that carb – it never ran right after burning foam dripped into the primaries.

    • 0 avatar

      Whenever I see one of those firestarters on Bring a Trailer I never pass up the opportunity to trash it in the comments.

      I can’t believe that POS has been in production for forty years.

  • avatar

    A family member of my sister in law was working on the fuel system in a closed garage. I’m not sure the details of how it happened, but it ignited and literally blew up the house. The frame on all the walls of the ranch bowed out. Everything inside the house was destroyed including the several thousand dollar wheelchair for another family member that the home mechanic’s mother was caring for. The house was torn down and they had to move. It took several months of fighting with insurance to get a new wheelchair, too. Somehow no one was hurt in the explosion as only the home mechanic was there at the time.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Had a rusty 10+ year old Oldsmobile as a ‘beater’ for a while when at college. The frame was so suspect that we did not want to put it up on a lift. So drove one side up over an extra large curb. Crawled underneath. Wrapped aluminium tape around the hole in the muffler and used cut hanger wire to re-attach the muffler. Got through the rest of the year with that fix.

    Not a do it yourself but still a mishap. Working at at dealership doing oil changes, prep work, jockeying cars, etc. Backed a manual vehicle into a bay. Left it in gear, as I was taught to do. Left the keys in the ignition as was the practice in the service bays. The Service Manager later walked over reached into the car and started it while leaning in through the driver’s window. It of course jumped forward and ran over his foot, breaking it.

    He was a great guy and accepted the blame himself for not following our safety rules.

  • avatar

    My best friends dad had a reputation for accidently burning cars. A VW Beetle, a Chevy Citation.

    I thought, oh, well, carb, no wonder, they’re a firehazard anyway. Having caught the air filter of a 454 on fire in the same manner described by another poster above, that seemed logical.

    Then I got a call at work. Fire at the house (I lived with them at the time). I jumped into the 1993 Tempo I was driving that day (I owned several cars at the time and was actively trying to sell that one), I hit the hazards and drive home as fast as I could.

    In the driveway sat their 2002 Explorer 4×4 in flames. The fire department had it mostly contained. I ask what happened. “Reese was messing with it, I don’t know.” was the best I got.

    The burnt Explorer blocked the driveway for a week or more. That 1993 Tempo became all of our only source of transportation until the insurance company finally came and got the Explorer. (All other vehicles were blocked in by the burnt truck.)

    They used the insurance money to buy a new 2005 Ford Five Hundred, that my buddy still drives to this day.

    Reese was not allowed under the hood of any car again. He passed away a few years back, takin the secret of how he managed to set the Explorer on fire with him.

    • 0 avatar

      I once knew a volunteer firefighter who was going through training on dealing with vehicle fires. The instructor teaching the class told him that 95% of car fires are arson unless it’s a Ford. This was in the 97-2000 time frame during which my father’s 1995 Contour received multiple recall notices dealing with electrical system and fuel filler issues, plus other high-profile recall notices with potential fire risks and my buddy’s 1985 F150 burnt to the ground outside while he slept. I had no reason to doubt the trainer’s experience.

      • 0 avatar

        Right, it must have burned on its own.

        Yep, looking outside, my Taurus is on fire right now.

        Its a good thing no other manufacturers have ever had a fire-related recall.

        • 0 avatar

          Ford is subject to a recall where the failure mode is “parked car catches on fire”.

          To my knowledge, this remains the largest automotive recall in history.

          I’m generally a Ford fan, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they have a greater tendency to burn down than the average car.

          You seem to stand up for Ford a lot. Why are you so motivated to defend a multinational manufacturing conglomerate that surely doesn’t care about any of us?

          • 0 avatar

            I work for the competition and will defend John-95. If you honestly believe anyone in the auto industry does not care about “any of you”, I feel sorry for you. Without getting into details, the head of NAFTA manufacturing was at our plant once and inquired about a warranty in a very small number of engines coming out of our place. Everyone inside of the plant knows every single warranty issue pertaining to us and so do people in the executive level.

            The very first question when an issue comes up is “How are we protecting the customer”. This typically involves quarantines, stock purge, yard holds, and so on.

            A plant manager was fired a few years back for answering “We’ll catch it in warranty” when presented with an issue – FIRED that afternoon!

            So to answer your question, all auto manufactures think about you all day long 24/7, from design to manufacturing, and during assembly.

        • 0 avatar

          I never said that all Fords catch fire. Car fires are pretty rare; they do happen but nowhere near the rate of other ruinous incidents.

          My implication was merely that Fords catch fire unintentionally at a higher rate than other cars. I do not know of or have access to data that may refute or reinforce the anecdotes but as I said I see no reason to doubt the claim. Admittedly this claim was also made 16+ years ago and Ford has had nothing short of a renaissance since then.

  • avatar

    I witnessed a neighbour parking his car on the street with the 2 passenger tires up on the curb so he could work under the car. I was curious since this guy had a driveway. Why was he doing mechanic work on the street instead of his driveway?? I watched from a distance and realized he was changing his oil. He had parked his car directly over the storm sewer and was draining the oil right into the sewer! WTF? I called the city bylaw and they promptly arrived, catching him in the act. I week or so later, I happened to cross my neighbour and me mentioned getting a fine (over $1000 if I remember). On top of that, for the few years, he had to bring his oil change receipts to the city to prove he was no longer dumping oil. Good on him!

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah. I once saw my cousin take the drain plug out of the engine of a Mitsubishi Fuso, and just let the old oil spill on the ground. I was like WTF are you doing! I grabbed a bucket and caught the majority of it. Pi§§ed me off.

    • 0 avatar

      Many many years ago there was an article in one of the Car Craft or Hot Rod type Magazines on how to create your own back yard oil disposal. Dig a hole and fill it part way with gravel. Then take a coffee can and cut out the other end. Place that on the gravel and finish filling the hole back up with dirt so that the can sticks up ever so slightly from the ground. Now just remove the lid of the can and dump away.

      Several years later after I had moved out my much younger step brother who was coming of age dug out those old magazines and found that article. He wrote a letter to the editor and in a few months they actually posted his letter and said yeah that was a bad idea and don’t do it anymore.

    • 0 avatar

      In northern climes, everybody knows you should take that used oil and pour it into various body panel crevices to combat the salt. Knew at least one guy who did this. Redneck Ziebarting.

  • avatar

    “Those of us not privileged enough to afford a mechanic have all done it: the cheap, likely unsafe repair meant only to get a car back on the road until time and/or funds allow a proper fix”

    I totally disagree. I consider that I do better job than mechanic. Because I do it for myself, I do it slower and more careful, I use better parts and proper technique with no shortcuts.

    As far as biggest failure I seen – this was from some guy I know. I came to his place when he was about to change oil. He said, “let me drain while we go”, he went under the car and in one awkward move, he punctured radiator with his wrench.

    My personal fail came when I wanted to flush the coolant in Nissan 240sx. Nissans had these plastic plugs in radiators. When I started to turn mine it broke at the end. when I touched it with drill bit, it went in. I said, “hell”, flushed and went on with it. 3 days later my car wouldn’t warm up. I am taking off thermostat housing and what do I see? – this piece of plastic stuck in it and wouldn’t let it close. Fail!

    And almost forgot – while replacing CVBoot on Villager, accidentally hit join in the wrong spot and broke it. That was a lesson to go in from another end of axle even if this is more work. Thankfully, Advanced AP had them axles for $50, only $30 more but less work.

    • 0 avatar

      Ha. I dropped the cap from a bottle of oil down the oil fill on my Mercury Zephyr (3.3L I-6). I called my mechanic buddy freaking out that it would damage the valvetrain. He said don’t worry about it.

      3-4 months later, I finally had the time to replace the leaky valve cover gasket. When I got the valve cover off, there it was, laying to the side, just out of view with the v/c on (as in you couldn’t see it when you looked down in the oil fill hole).

      • 0 avatar

        A friend of mine’s father lost the oil cap to his daughter’s Fiat Spyder, and stuffed a rag in the oil filler instead. The cams were close enough to grab the rag and pull it into the engine, turning it into fine red fluff. Once enough of it got into the valve cover, it stopped the engine from running, fortunately for them, as no real damage was done. It did require a complete teardown, but from a parts standpoint all it took was a gasket set.

        The most completely destroyed engine I’ve ever seen was brought in by a customer who changed his own timing belt, also on a Fiat Spyder. He got the valve timing off enough where one set of valves was hitting the pistons. One of the valve heads finally broke off while he was driving it to our dealership.n I’ve never seen an engine more destroyed, there were chunks of metal embedded in all four pistons and the cylinder head. The only part of the engine between the manifolds that was still usable was the oil pan.

    • 0 avatar
      01 Deville

      “I totally disagree. I consider that I do better job than mechanic. Because I do it for myself, I do it slower and more careful, I use better parts and proper technique with no shortcuts.”

      I have to go with you on this.

      My brother has intermittent no start on his 95 fleetwood and after spending over 2G at dealership, he finally went to Cadillacforums (excellent resource BTW) and figure out a $20 part (can’t remember what) that fixed the issue.

      I myself had access to a very good ex dealership Cadillac mechanic in CT for my Deville, once I moved back to WI found a good mechanic as well, until he forgot to tighten lug bolts after doing a timing belt job on my V70! The car had some suspension issues that I was aware of and planning to fix so ignored the wobble until it got pretty bad. When I finally inspected the wheels, yup the right front wheel was holding on with one lug! Needless to say that was the last job he did on my cars.

  • avatar

    I have a neighbor up the street that has a pair of hydraulic lifts in his garage, where he stored a Triumph TR6 and a Porsche 944. Last summer he somehow ignited parts cleaner and burned down half his house.

    My worst mishap came when I tried to save $100 by using a lift kit instead of replacing the sagging coil springs on my ’68 Cutlass. The rusty shock mounts snapped while I was driving and the back end of my car started twerking like Miley Cyrus.

  • avatar

    The worst (or funniest) mishap I ever pulled off was while working on my C101 Jeep Commando in the driveway one day in summer, 1975. My parent’s house had a drive-in basement garage, and I wanted to move the car a few feet for some reason. I had the car in 1st gear and just hit the key a bit to move the car a foot or two before the engine caught.

    Well, this ONE time, the motor caught immediately, and while I was sprawled across the front seat, the Jeep proceeded to run right into the garage door before I could turn off the engine!

    Our garage door was an accordion type with one section a regular outside entry door, and the only damage was to the accordion section which broke free from the bar that held the door to the floor on the end.

    Dad was sitting on the steps hanging out with me as I made a colossal fool of myself and just got a hearty laugh out of it!

    I got my buddy down to the house right away and we had the door repaired in about an hour. No damage to anything, fortunately!

    The worst mishap I ever saw was over at a guy’s house who was about to fire up his rebuilt 327 on his 1956 Chevy. The motor started perfectly, and when one of the friends drove it up his street, we saw a sea of oil appear under the car. Engine was immediately switched off and the oil level checked.

    Problem was, the guy who checked the oil didn’t know the dipstick wasn’t the correct one for that motor, and said it read about a quart low.

    OK – start the car, rev it up… suddenly it stopped. Dead. No crankin’, no nuthin’. Dead.

    Rolled it back to the guy’s garage. Couldn’t budge the engine by any means. Found out the guy who checked the oil didn’t know about the “full” mark the owner scribed on the incorrect dipstick, thus the engine, out of oil, locked up tight!

    Expensive lesson hopefully learned, and glad it wasn’t me!

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, I once over filled the oil on a borrowed 1988 Continental. Guy didn’t tell me he didn’t reattach the dipstick when putting it back together after (you guessed it!) replacing the head gaskets. Wasn’t the end of the world, I only drove it a few blocks to the dealer I worked for and they discovered the problem.

      I heard of this guy who started out as a lube tech at a Ford dealer. He made it clear he was much more capable than just oil changes. They told him he would move up later. “I been working on cars since I was 8 years old!”
      note: handing your dad tools isn’t “working on the car”.

      First oil change, 1989ish Ford Bronco II. This idiot filled the engine with oil. I don’t mean filled it to the correct level, I mean FILLED IT UP COMPLETELY. Up to the valve train. He walked around and was about to try to crank it when another tech who had evidently seen what happened stopped him.

      Needless to say, he didn’t move up in the dealership. He moved out (fired).

  • avatar
    01 Deville

    1. EBCM went on my Deville, dealership would replace and reprogram for $800. Found a guy to repair the unit on Ebay for $50. The trouble was to get that thing out of left front wheel well. Didn’t put the car on jackstand, just stuck the wheel underneath it and went to town on that Northstar access wonder of the brake computer. The car came crashing down on the wheel, fortunately I wasn’t underneath. Went straight to Walmart and brought jack stands. Use them everytime.

    Overtorqued and broke an axle nut while change the hub assembly on my V70, ended up replacing the axle.
    Broke the set screw in the lower control arm for my W220 airmatic strut(frigging loc tite-didn’t realize at that time, Also broke the bolt extractor within which is harderned steel and drilling for hours didn’t help). Had to replace the lower control arm with it, ended up doing both sides ($400 each). Still cheaper than dealer $2000 for every single strut.

  • avatar

    Wired a four-way flasher switch into a ’66 VW Bug myself. How hard can it be? Result: a signal fire under the dash instead of hazard-warning flashes from the turnblinkers.

    Having gotten the same ’66 Bug running after some engine work, completely forgetting about the brakes being drained and smashing into the open garage during the “test drive” on my driveway. More precisely, into the stash of parts piled up the garage’s back wall, which avalanched down onto the Bug’s nose and buried it to the top of the windshield.

    Sometime later, with still that same ’66 Bug now road legal, still a brakes issue that meant you had to pump the brake pedal twice so that the brakes would engage. No problem as long as I drove it, but it became a very very close shave indeed the one time a pal of mine did.

    Some years later, in a ’77 VW Polo, the months-long neglect of an oil leak resulted in a happy little flame burning on top of the exhaust manifold during a trip on a country lane. Pulled up at a bus stop in a village I happened to be passing through, popped hood, admired flame (which by then was approx. fist-sized), opened trunk, got out two bottles of beer, considered relative values of beer vs. car, doused flame with beer, on reflection got another bottle of beer from trunk, drank same, closed trunk, closed hood, got in, started car and was on my merry way — all to the steadily mounting amazement of three elderly people who stood at bus stop waiting.

    Lastly, a botched fuel line fix that resulted on the burning of my Citroen BX GTi automatic bought just three weeks previously, on our way to both my and the car’s first Citroen campout just to add insult to injury.

    Guess I was lucky no-one got hurt in all those antics.

  • avatar

    Luckily never had any fires. But I made a lot of bone head mistakes.
    Overfilled the auto transmission and ended up stranded a couple hundred miles from school when the Torque converter shaft snapped. Rotated spark plug wires on a distributer cap by one position. After a week an Uncle figured it out. Snapped the distributer tang of my best friends car. Luckily found a junk yard replacement.
    Collapsed the hydraulic lifters on a 67 Corvair when I reassembled it after getting the heads worked on. Wore out the cam shaft.
    Then I started buying Toyotas and stopped doing repairs on my or anyone else’s car.

  • avatar

    I have a friend that was really into fish tanks, I think he has OCD. For a time back in the mid 1980s all he could talk about was the utility of fish tank line. It was useful for just about everything.

    Fast forward a few months later when my other friends Buick regal needed a tune up, ofl and fuel filter. You guessed it, he replaced fuel line with fish line. Causing an engine fire and totaling the car. Insurance settled.

    You can’t fix stupid.

  • avatar

    I helped a friend replace the fuel filter on his car. After finishing we took it on a quick drive to make sure everything was working. We assumed the raw gas smell was just the stuff that splashed on us. (Pro tip. That step of disconnecting the battery, don’t skip it.) About 5 blocks away the engine compartment lit up. The gods of idiot home mechanics were smiling on us. We were in front of a house with a sprinkler on. Only had to replace belts and one hose. We also learned there is a reason you are supposed to tape the threads before reinstalling any connection.

  • avatar

    I’ver had an assortment of fowl ups myself:

    1975 VW Bug: Knee on the rear seat over the battery,
    started a car fire we were able to contain quickly.

    1992 Volvo 240: Sick of trying to unplug a faulty aftermarket radio I just cut the wires to the plug in the car (the PIN plug, pita to reach due to it being buried in the dash), after that I think I kinda severed that car of ever having another radio (this was my stupidest misshap imo).

    1990 volvo 240DL: While attempting to install the much boasted turbo sway bars I learned the factory brackets wont fit them (of course the message boards never tell you this!), re installed them incorrectly then just threw on the old bar correctly with newer bushings. Refreshing the bushings did more than the stupid sway bar.

    1991 Volvo 740: Installed some interior bits incorrectly, little crap. Broke a few sparkplugs due to the original owner over tightening them (no anti seize either).

    1991 Volvo 240: While attempting to replace the heat trap I broke a fuel line that goes to the cold start injector, naturally this line had been attached through heat rather than clamps, naturally it was a frail plasticy material and a stupid offbeat size. Replaced it and made a better back-up hose and sold the car as I had simply grown old of Volvos at this point.This misshap kept the car off the roads for about a week (thus maybe my biggest).

    1994 Honda Accord: Noticing the coolant overflow bottle was empty I added maybe a bit too much in, causing it to leak some out (this was Honda dealer coolant btw), otherwise even if I’m not a Honda guy, I’ll admit their engine bays are better organized than my Volvos ever were, not always easier to work on but just more logical.

  • avatar

    “How the gasoline fumes didn’t ignite is a question I’ll never be able to answer, but that was one seriously terrifying moment.”

    There were probably too many fumes, and not enough oxygen. I’ve seen that happen before.

    • 0 avatar

      An open spark also helps.

      I once fled in terror after spilling gasoline all over a hot two-stroke exhaust manifold, only to watch it sizzle and evaporate without incident. The only damage done was to my underwear.

      • 0 avatar
        Pete Zaitcev

        Happened to me too. I have a little airplane with so-called “lap tank”. It’s a gas tank that sits in pilot’s lap. I found that it was very easy to overflow, and if one did that, the gas flowed over the sides of engine cowl right onto the hot exhaust below. I can’t believe we won WWII flying contraptions like these.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, I had a 2 year old Fiat 128 that I once parked, walked away from for a few minutes and returned to. Smelled a little gas (?), tried to start it anyway (!?), and couldn’t.

        Removed the air cleaner cover and found on top of the intake manifold a pool of gasoline from a rotted-away fuel line to the carb. Unaccountably, escaped having a fire.

        I’m not sure that was really the best outcome, though: an auto-BBQ would have been prophylaxis for the next couple of (subsequent repair filled) years. On the other hand, the car taught me a great number of valuable DIYs.

  • avatar

    As a bored Nissan salesman I found myself chatting with a service customer whose ’91 Pathfinder was in for a minor recall one Saturday morning. When the work was complete he said goodbye and drove off, only to reappear 40 minutes later… on foot, covered in dirt and sweat, rolling a complete wheel/axle assembly.

    The guy actually managed to laugh as he told the service advisor where they could find his Pathfinder, perched neatly on three wheels.

  • avatar
    Pete Zaitcev

    I never set anything on fire or injured anyone, but I ruined one car by using water in the cooling system and managed to get a radiator and engine block scaled up. Also, I stripped an auto tranny’s pan screw (at the time I thought that maybe dealership did, but at least it didn’t leak after them). A helicoil was no help, it never stopped leaking for another 80k miles until I got rid of the car.

    • 0 avatar

      One time my 240SX developed a hole between block cover and water pump via timing chain brushing against it. It was 16 years old and I just didn’t want to fix it myself or pay $500 to mechanic. I drove it few days while adding plain water. Then I sold it on ebay and the guy took some gallons of water, drove it nearly 5 hours with stops to add water. He got there, he told me – ok.

  • avatar

    My Father-in-Law is one who always waits until the last minute to do any sort of car maintenance. Years ago he and my MIL were preparing to drive to Florida on vacation. He came in from work and decided he needed to to a brake job on the car before leaving for Florida the next morning. I went over to help him with the work. It was late in the day with only an hour or so of daylight left. We were doing this work in the driveway. We got busy with jacking the car, pulling wheels, taking off brake shoes (a 65 LTD with 4-wheel drum brakes), packing wheel bearings, new shoes on, wheels on, tighten lugs, install wheelcovers. My FIL said lets gather up the old shoes to take back to the auto parts store for the core charge. We found 3 pair of old shoes and one pair of new shoes. Wow! Which wheel did we forget to change shoes on? Had to start over taking off wheels till we found it. I think it was the next to last one we took off.

  • avatar

    Never really screwed much stuff up myself as I’ve watched and learned from my father making all the mistakes:

    1. Installed a radio in our 77 Impala. Somehow wired it wrong, went to use the lighter and fried some wiring under the dash.

    2. Back in the 70’s he cross threaded a fuel line causing my grandmas 69 Buick to burn to the ground.

    Shop mishaps:

    1. Had dealer change the water pump on my Intrepid 3.5 (common issue) as it was under warranty. Went to pick the car up and the porter had this strange look on his face when he gave the car back: check engine light was flashing and car was jumping all over the place. The timing jumped and it was misfiring sending raw gas into the exhaust. They ended up putting an entire new belt kit on, tuneup, and had to replace the catalytic converter as it burned up in the process. The service adviser went to bat against the service manager who attempted to say that the destroyed catalytic converter was nothing more than a fluke and wasn’t caused by the misfire. Never had the cars serviced there again.

    2. Tire shop replaced all 4 tires and upon inspection when washing the car the next day 2 of the 4 directional tires wrong.

  • avatar

    I will be brief as I am typing this onehanded. I used force rather than finesse removing AC lines from my 1990 Supra this past weekend and now am scheduled for surgery on Monday to fix a badly broken ring finger. Don’t be as foolish as me.

  • avatar

    Remembered another one: ’70 VW Bug convertible with engine failure. Replaced engine with one I had sitting in the barn, only to discover after installation that it had a huge hole in the block, presumably from being dropped while being moved in storage.

  • avatar

    I changed the front brakes on my wife’s SUV. I didn’t properly tighten down one bolt, which the caliper started lightly banging. So she stopped by the dealer and they charged her $100 to tighten it. So much for saving money… :(

    Just last summer, I took my Jeep in to replace an ABS sensor on one wheel. They actually forgot to tighten the lug nuts and I was driving away from the dealer and knew exactly what it was! The shop manager told me in the 20 years he’s been there, that had never happened. Lucky me!

  • avatar

    As a starving college student, I change the oil on my ’85 Jetta and didn’t notice that the oil filter seal did not come off with the filter. So of course it blew out upon startup and dumped 4qts of Mobil1 all over my folks driveway.

    In more recent years I have had my share of bonehead moves when DIY’ing, happens to us all, even the pros.

  • avatar

    The poor Third Gen Honda Accord!!

    Though, as the owner of an ’89 2.0SI, I find the engine fire very plausible indeed. They all leak from the fuel injectors, even if you get them rebuilt. Only fix is to replace them with a set from a later model.

  • avatar

    My first car back in the ’80s was a ’76 AMC Pacer. It had a persistent oil leak that I decided to diagnose one day. I jacked up the car, looked under it, and could see the oil pan had several fine cracks in it that were leaking. Not only that, but it was resting directly on the crossmember (which, presumably, was why it was cracked.) Not being familiar with the existence of motor mounts (which in this case were broken) I decided I would jack up the engine, seal the cracks with silicone, and place a piece of wood between the oil pan and the crossmember. I raised the engine by placing another jack on the oil pan. After I was finished sealing the cracks and cushioning the engine on a handy piece of scrap lumber, I started the car up and heard the sound of rotating metal lightly impacting… something. Was it the fan hitting the radiator?

    Further investigation revealed that I had collapsed the oil pan by placing the jack on it, and the crankshaft was now hitting the bottom of the oil pan as the engine turned.

    Undaunted, I got out my dad’s drill and drilled about 20 holes in the bottom of the oil pain, using screws to pull out the dent, and then slathered the whole bottom with silicone. Problem solved! I, and then my dad, actually drove the car that way for another 3-4 years, though he did eventually replace the motor mounts.

    A few years later, I burned up my sister’s newly-acquired ’82 Honda Accord in much the manner shown in the picture at the beginning of this post. After its purchase, I raised the hood to find a tin can suspended by wire from the “snout” of the air cleaner. It had a little oil in the bottom of it. I had never seen an “oil catcher” like this. Surely, it didn’t belong there, so I removed it. The next day, she drove it to work at Olive Garden. After she’d been there for half an hour, another employee came in and told her that her car was on fire. Thinking it was a joke, she went on about her duties until the sirens of fire trucks filled the air. It was indeed her car, the engine compartment fully consumed by that time. Now I know what the tin can was for.

  • avatar

    In my late teens I bought a 1963 Chevy II four door sedan, the DPO was the original owner and God alone knows why he’d plugged the PCV valve with a bit of wood .

    Resulting in oil leaking out of every joint so I drove it to the local coin-op spray wash , jacked it up with a scissors jack using the cross member and washed it Hospital clean .

    Got back in and drove off the jack who’s now extended 3/8″ screw punched a nice round hole in the oil pan .

    Removed this and puttered it two blocks home and removed the oil pan, got the welder @ work to fix it the next day .

    I love reading these stories, almost everyone has at least one .

    I too don’t trust other Mechanics because at the very least they’re working against the clock, a thing I refuse to do .


  • avatar

    Repaired several engines that the owners overhauled/rebuilt themselves. They did not know that crankshaft bearings come in different sizes, both inside and outside dimensions.
    Had some car owners want me to correct wiring that they had disconnected. For free. Apparently because I knew how to do it and had the workshop manual. Could not get them to understand that this is a pay for service business.
    Similar to other tales, a car audio shop managed to drill a hole through the ECM on a,then rare, Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi was willing to sell a new ECM for about $3000 in today’s money (this was 20 years ago). The audio shop was relieved when a used one was found for $1000

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