If you find that a bumpy road broke off the end of one of your old spark plugs, you should probably call a tow truck. Just don't try to MacGyver your car like I did.

The last time I got my car out of the shop, I drove it upstate and crashed it. Back in the shop it went. On Saturday, the car finally came out again, with a freshly patched frame. Where did I go? The exact same roads as the last time. Yes, I broke the car again.


I took my '73 Baja Bug on one of my favorite dirt roads about an hour north of New York City. The road is bumpy, or at least bumpy enough that it shook the end of my #1 cylinder spark plug right off.

I find this out when I come off of the dirt road and back onto a two-lane highway and notice that the car sounds funny. I pull over onto the side of the road in the fresh spring sunshine and spot that the spark plug wire for the #1 cylinder is flapping in the breeze, no longer attached to the spark plug.

I stick the plug wire back on the plug and start up again, but the engine seems to run worse. It's time to call my coworker Jason Torchinsky, who has a '73 Beetle himself, and has kept that car running since he was 18 years old.


I send him some pictures of the damage and he tells me that my #1 cylinder is dead. It is never coming back to me. There is nothing I can do. In fact, I should pull the spark plug wire off of the neighboring cylinder just so I'll see what a not-broken spark plug/wire relationship looks like.

Well, I pull the wire off of the #2 cylinder and somehow the metal clamp inside the rubber wire housing sticks onto the spark plug and tears itself free from the wire itself. These parts are supposed to be soldered together.

Clearly, my spark plug wires are more than a little old, and unless I can solder the wire back onto the metal clamp with Superman-style heat vision, that cylinder is dead, too. Now three cylinders seem like a luxury compared to driving on the left half of my engine alone.

Then Jason has an idea. It's crazy — crazy enough to work.

All we need is to get electricity from the distributor to the spark plug. Any wire will do, so why don't we run the jumper cables from the spark plug with its extra clamp directly to the spark raw plug wire itself.

Jason asked if I had a knife to strip the wire with. No, in fact this is all that I had to work with.

Which brings me to my first important point:

  • When driving an old car, bring lots of tools.

But my teeth should work fine.

Once I strip the wire (which looks like a Japanese fish cake on the inside but doesn't taste nearly as nice) I just have to clamp on one end of the jumper cable. This is another lesson:

  • When you improvise in car repair, you end up breaking stuff.

Jason asks if I had anything to hold the two together - do I have any rubber bands? Are there any used condoms on the side of the road? Aha! There's electrical tape I thought I threw out, but still have! I lash everything together on that end.

Then I clamp the second end of the jumper cables to the #2 cylinder spark plug with its extendo-end.

Jason advises me to hold the jumper cable close to the #2 spark plug. If sparks jump from one to the other, I'll know it's working. Naturally, I get a sizable electric shock doing this test. This brings me to my third important point.

  • If something sounds like it's going to get you electrocuted, it's going to get you electrocuted.

That checked, all I had to do was secure the rest of the jumper cables to the back bumper. Time for more tape.

Time to stand back and admire my handiwork. Man, is this an ugly hack.

I start the car back up and the Baja is sadly still only on two cylinders. Jason advises me to limp home on half an engine with my flashers blaring. No problem, I tell him. I just have an hour long drive on a highway up and down some mountains. 30 horsepower should be plenty.

Truth be told, I don't really mind the trip on two cylinders, sure the car shakes like a Hawaiian luau girl and I can't go above 45, but it's a lovely spring day and the trees are just leafing in.

About two thirds of the way through the trip I stop for gas, check with the nearby auto parts store for spark plugs to no avail, and then re-position the jumper cable on the spark plug end. The car did not want to start, and barely coughed into life, but once it did it can tell that I'm running on three cylinders.

I just have to make it home to Manhattan with a car that won't idle. If I let it die on me, I am totally finished. Not a problem, I manage to feather the throttle all the way through bumper-to-bumper traffic through the Bronx and into my parking garage in Manhattan.

I've made it!

The next day I go out and buy spark plugs, spark plug wires, a ratchet, and a spark plug socket (but not before buying the wrong size socket twice) and swapped out the bad plugs/wires.

I was pissed that the car broke (that's me flipping off the fixed plugs up top), but I couldn't be happier that I got it fixed. This brings me to my final point.

  • When you repair your own car, you forge a bond with the vehicle and it finally, truly feels like it belongs to you.

Let's review all of these points I learned over the weekend.

  • When driving an old car, bring lots of tools.
  • When you improvise in car repair, you end up breaking stuff.
  • If something sounds like it's going to get you electrocuted, it's going to get you electrocuted.
  • Car repair is just about the most satisfying thing you can do with a vehicle.

This is the first time I've ever managed to fix a car (sort of), and I still can hardly believe it worked.


As always, you should probably take this advice not as a step-by-step guide but as a general introduction to the joy, pain, and process of being a Parking Lot Mechanic. Always consult your manual an do only what you feel safe and capable of doing.

Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove/Jalopnik