"As I Merged Uncontrollably Into Morning Traffic, I Recalled My Last Clutch Explosion"

Illustration for article titled "As I Merged Uncontrollably Into Morning Traffic, I Recalled My Last Clutch Explosion"

Welcome back to Garage of Horror, where we share your worst wheeled experiences. Today's installment is something we hate to see in the Garage: A nice story with happy ending from a guy who knows what he's doing.


Okay, so you can't lose 'em all, whether you're talking your fingers or the game of life. But please, don't any of you Jalops set yourself on fire any more? Doesn't anyone get their hair caught in a prop shaft or run themselves over or at least have wheels fall off? Sure, we tell all the other folks that you guys are steely-eyed, greasy-fingernailed mechanical geniuses, but come on—we're all friends here. We can be honest and open with one another. There's no need for uplifting tales of ace automotive aptitude like this one from young Ron, whose car is shown above and whose pluck and determination are admittedly entertaining. Although perhaps not as much as grievous bodily harm.

Unlike many of the more recent Garage From Hell stories, this one doesn't end with the ultimate demise or sale of my beloved MKII GTI. I hope that's not a requirement to make the cut, because I wouldn't sell this car if my life depended on it.

Yesterday started differently than most days, I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5:30am for a fun filled ride-along day with one of Anheuser-Busch's distributors. I'm an intern in the IT department and jump at any opportunity to not push paper for 8 hours a day. Out the door at 6:30, I hopped into my '86 GTI and belted up. Right now the GTI is my only running car (I'm almost done with an Audi build), it serves as my daily driver as well as my rallycross and all-around-hoonage mobile. I ask quite a lot of it. It shows. Some people question why I daily a car with fiberglass seats, 5-points, and no interior. I wouldn't trade it for the world, I love my car.

I jumped on 270, St. Louis's beltway, traffic was decent this early in the morning, I managed to make it all the way to the left lane. Cars were dense, but we were all able to cruise around 65mph. Traffic surged a bit as I neared Highway 40, as I stepped in it, the engine loaded the drivetrain and I heard quite a loud snap. The engine revved to the sky but couldn't put any power down, I tried for 4th, no use. Sir Isaac Newton had taken over.

As I merged uncontrollably into morning traffic, I recalled my last clutch explosion: how I welded the sprung center to the outer portion of the clutch disk, effectively turning my sprung 4-puck into an un-sprung 4-puck. This was done out of necessity late one night because I had no replacement clutch, not because I am an idiot (though I am.) Mercifully, I made it through 6 lanes of commuters to the shoulder. I promptly checked my pants and called for a tow. While I waited, I called home, my boss, and the distributor I was to visit and informed them that I was stranded. My boss and the distributor were understanding. My mother was not. I was berated for my irresponsible choice in cars among other things, I chose to remain silent, but vowed to prove her wrong.

The tow truck driver dropped the GTI and I off in front of my house, he stopped traffic as I Fred Flinstone'd it into the garage. It was 8:30 by this point, I knew the last time I changed a clutch it took the better part of an evening (maybe 5-6 hours), but I was taking my time and hanging out with fellow kraut-burners. I change out of my white-collars and got to work. I've crewed for countless rally teams, most of which were also MKII Golfs, [Ed: Oh, for the love a' Mike…] so I am at home underneath that car and things came apart quickly. Within an hour I had the transmission removed, I pulled the clutch off to discover that all the splines had been rounded off of the clutch disc itself, thankfully the splined input shaft was in decent shape. At least my welds had held, right?

About a month ago I underwent an appendectomy, I was immediately reminded of this whenever I attempted to lift the transaxle back into place, after a few painful tries, I succeeded and began putting bolts back in. I tried not to get distracted as I heard my phone quack with the responses from my mass text declaration of clutch disaster. I kept my head down and finished quicker than expected! As I drove around the block I checked my phone… 11am? Really? I had completed the swap in two and a half hours! I was immediately elated, I cleaned up and headed in to work. I drove as if my car were made of paper maché. I made it in to the office, greeted with surprise and confusion; I had driven the GTI? Yes. I know I'm awesome.

I left work at 5 and braved another session of rush hour to get home, a few miles before my exit, things slowed and I downshifted to 4th, as I went for a gear change, I was greeted by 3rd rather than 5th. I decided 4th would be better. As I braved traffic at 4k RPM, I deduced that I had forgotten to tighten down one of the linkage bolts and the rod that controls lateral movement was no longer connected. I exited the highway and pulled over on a service road, it began to rain. I assessed my extensive door-pocket spares package and came up with a single wrench and a nut-bolt combo that might just fit. Flashers on and engine off, I braved the storm and got to work.

Thankfully the linkage had come disconnected near the exhaust, my lucky day! I replaced the bolt as quickly as possible, burning my hands/arms in a half-dozen or so places. With the nut as tight as I could manage I hopped back in the car and headed for home. I was forced to shift no less than 4000 times in the 5-or-so-mile trek. Burnt, soaked, and sore; I made it home. I let the car cool, tightened the linkage, and cracked open a beer.

When berated by my mother for trading my sensible and reliable Ford Focus for a 24 year old supercharged mess, I calmly explained to her how a car like that isn't just a car. I respect it for what it has taught me, how I have grown. That car is a series of life experiences both good and bad, I am humbled when others compliment my work. Sure it leaves me stranded from time to time, but I'll be damned if that car doesn't have personality; something a daily beige box just can't touch. I wouldn't trade the VW for anything, regardless of second-degree burns."

So there you have it, folks-A riveting story of being disparaged by one's mother! It's enough to make one wonder if anyone cuts their arm off at the shoulder in an engine swap gone horribly wrong anymore. Well, we guess we salute you, Ron, you and your really cool daily driver and your boring undamaged limbs and your fun-sounding job at a beer company. Would it have killed you to, I dunno, take a blowtorch to some magnesium?

Seriously, though: Everyone please, please be as safe as possible out there. Read manuals, follow instructions, wear safety equipment, and above all be smart.


But if you aren't, and you survive whatever happens next, don't forget to write.

Garage of Horror is a recurring feature where we share your automotive nightmares. Some are mild, some are wild, but all are moments - some funny, some painful, some outlandish - that you'd rather not repeat. Have your own Garage of Horror story? Email it here with the subject line "Garage of Horror."


Jonathan Harper

Hell yeah. You are awesome man.