6:25 AM Outgoing SMS: “Hey David, call when you get a chance.”
I was in Potter, Nebraska, a hundred miles from any major town, and the rust-free Holy Grail 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee I was delivering across the country to decrepit-Jeep collector and shaman David Tracy had decided it wanted to die. It had opened one of its veins and was letting itself of vital fluids. It wasn’t just a small leak, it was a massive wound, at idle streaming out of the side of the engine in a pulsing, throbbing gush.
Just 15 minutes earlier I’d left my hotel for the morning, filled the Jeep’s tank with regular unleaded, and plowed onto the highway ready for a long day of driving ahead. It didn’t take long to notice something was amiss. I noticed the smell of hot oil first, then a glance in the rearview showed me wisps of white smoke dancing on the highway behind me. “Shit, this is going to be a long day,” I admitted to myself.
This isn’t something cars usually do, even old ones, and I will admit that I was initially baffled. I pulled up onto a curb to give myself more room to work with underneath the Jeep, just in case. It was difficult to see from below, as hot oil kept pouring out onto my face. It was difficult to see from above, as the sun was still low in the sky, and everything was shadows. But somewhere around the oil filter the waves of oil just kept coming.
The prior day, Saturday, I’d gone just over 1000 miles in flawless fashion. An initial triage had me remove and re-install the oil filter. I’d recently changed the oil for the trip, and wanted to double check to make sure the seal from the old filter hadn’t stuck around. It hadn’t. From underneath, it looked like the oil was maybe coming out of the oil pan gasket, but that shouldn’t be a steady stream, it should be much more of a seeping. Just then the phone rang.
I told David what was going on. It was his Jeep, after all, and there’s hardly anyone in the world more well versed in repairing dying Jeeps, so I was glad to hear his voice. We talked through the symptoms: No it wasn’t smoking out of the tailpipe. Yes it was coming out much faster than it should be. No it wasn’t overheating or losing power. Initially we talked about crankcase ventilation, but that was quickly dismissed. Then he told me it could be an o-ring in the oil filter stand-off, which wouldn’t be an easy fix.
I topped up the Jeep with the last of my just-in-case oil jug reserves and headed back to the highway to get to the WalMart twenty miles away to stock up on what we hoped would fix it. The oil filter standoff needed a T-60 Torx bit to come off so I could check the o-rings, which naturally WalMart didn’t have. WalMart did, however, have five gallons of the correct oil for the Jeep, so I bought them out. The nearest Home Depot was 45 miles south, and I figured I could get there if I just kept filling the oil every 15 miles or so. “That’s the move,” David texted back.
I headed south, venturing into Colorado, seeking somewhere I could fix this white smoke crop duster. On my second stop to re-fill the oil reserves, I noticed something I hadn’t before. Below the distributor, a long tube-shaped black electrical connector hung loose. The Jeep’s oil pressure gauge had never worked, and suddenly I knew why. Firing up the four-liter again to test my theory, the oil gushed more and then less when I wiggled the connector back and forth. Then it broke off in my hand, and the oil became much more visible and free flowing. It was a real good news/bad news situation.
The bad news was that I still had 15 miles to go to get to the hardware store. The good news was that I no longer needed a T-60 torx bit and an o-ring. I’d definitively found the culprit, a shot oil pressure sending unit. And even better, if I couldn’t find a replacement part on a Sunday, it could be plugged for cheap and I could get back on track. Huzzah, as they say.
With the broken part removed, I went to the plumbing department to seek a small 1/8th inch screw-in plug. Unfortunately, they were all gone. OK, what about a 1/8th inch nipple with an 1/8th inch cap on the end? Also gone. Fine, let’s go with a 1/8th inch nipple, an 1/8th to 1/4th adapter and a 1/4th inch cap. It’s not pretty, but it’ll work.
And work it did. Another 1100 miles that day got me to Michigan where I can easily drop the Jeep off to my Jeep-loving co-worker.
There is something wonderful about being able to repair a simple problem on the side of the road with a cheap hardware store kludge. It’s not permanent, but it made the rest of the journey without leaking a drop. It also made me like the Jeep just a little bit more. Like we’d been through something together. It’s endearing. Or maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome.
I’m guessing the rust-free Nevada Jeep heard it was coming to Michigan and decided it needed a rustproof undercoating. So it gave itself one.