Fender benders are an unpleasant reality of motor vehicle operation. Sometimes, when the damage goes deep enough, it can render your car unusable. But even though some crash damage can't be fixed without major repairs — or at all — some can be fixed using a bit of good old fashioned ingenuity.
(WARNING: Working on anything that might affect your car's steering or braking is a dangerous business, so if you're not confident that the car will be safe to operate when you've finished your repair, DON'T TRY IT! Likewise, if you've tried, and failed, to fix a car safely, DON'T DRIVE IT! This story is meant to be instructive of the spirit of the Parking Lot Mechanic, not a real How-To.)
I thought about this the other day when my dad was telling me about how, sometime back in the 80s, he had crashed his Pinto into a tree on an icy day. I asked him if that was what had finally done the car in. Nope. Sure didn't. He didn't have enough money to get a new car at the time, so he had someone cobble the car — which never drove the same again — back together.
His story, in turn, reminded me of a frame repair I'd had to do while working as a research assistant for the Barbados Sea Turtle Project one summer. The team of scientific gofers I was part of had been given a beat up '84 Daihatsu Charade so that we could drive to various beaches around the island to monitor, measure, and geolocate nesting Hawksbill sea turtles. We weren't supposed to use it for surfing trips, but managed to sneak it out to Bathsheba once in a while before the boss woke up.
The roads in Barbados are a serpentine tangle of potholed misery, and because they're constructed with really shitty asphalt, they turn into the roadway version of a Slip 'n' Slide every time it rains (the prevalence of oil leaking beaters on the roads doesn't help). It wasn't a matter of if, but when as far as getting into fender benders went (and there are plenty of battered cars on the island to attest to this). So no one was all that surprised when a trio of my colleagues returned from an errand in Bridgetown one day on foot. They'd crashed the car head on into a light pole.
As far as the project went, losing the use of a vehicle put a big damper on the work we were doing, so the boss man was beside himself. Cars, even shitty ones, are expensive as hell on a small island like Barbados, and buying another one wasn't within the project's annual budget by a long shot. So I stepped in, full of Parking Lot Mechanic bravado, and said, "Never fear, my bearded Aussie friend. I can fix it."
The Charade's frame was bent, its radiator punctured, and its hood crumpled into an about-to-be-chucked-paper-plate shape. I looked at it, scratched my head, and came up with a plan. We got started by taking the radiator to a repair shop to have the holes soldered. That part cost $15.
To fix the frame, I tied a thick rope in a big loop around the kink in the frame (it was bent inward about 8 inches) and a huge tree in the front yard, making sure I padded the rope on the tree side so that I didn't kill the tree by destroying its bark. Then, I backed up the car really fast a bunch of times until the frame popped roughly to where it had been before the wreck.
The hood looked donezo, but I beat on it with a huge piece of firewood I found laying around in the yard until it was more or less flat again and tied it shut with a piece of the rope. Those last two steps in the repair didn't cost a dime.
To finish, I checked to make sure all of the suspension parts were still attached and tried it out. The steering was never quite right after that, but you could still drive the car safely enough. There are no real freeways in Barbados, but I drove the battered Charade faster than 60 mph hour on the twisties on several occasions without killing myself or my passengers.
It was, for many reasons, terrible. Still for $15, we had a functional vehicle, and the boss never again gave us shit about taking it to beaches on the other side of the island to go surfing.
That's a pretty specific example of how you can make something work when you don't have a lot of other options. If you attempt these repairs (and really, you probably shouldn't) they won't last forever, and you almost certainly won't pass a safety inspection if your state requires them, but at least you've prolonged the life of your precious beater.
And for god's sake, stay off the damed freeway if you can!