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I Narrowly Avoided Doing Something Really Stupid While Doing A Minor Fix To My Car

Illustration for article titled I Narrowly Avoided Doing Something Really Stupid While Doing A Minor Fix To My Car
Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t sure I should even write this post because it shows a thought process so remarkably, irredeemably stupid and lazy that, in hindsight, it’s painful to admit I considered it. But I suppose if my near-act of dumbassery may help one other person avoid the same fate, then I guess it’s worth it. It has to do with a minor repair on my Nissan Pao and my consideration of a shortcut that would have bitten me on the ass.

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The repair is no big deal, and the consequences aren’t even really that dire, but the thought process here is one that’s easy to slip into — and could apply to other situations with more significant consequences. In my case, it was replacing the alternator belt.

The belt has been squeaking occasionally when there’s some demand on the alternator, like when the lights are on, so I checked out the belt and found it to be frayed and raggedy-looking, like a newish zombie’s clothes. It needed replacing.

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Now, the replacement job isn’t anything exotic; it’s pretty much the same as on most cars: You loosen bolts on the alternator bracket and slide the alternator to free the belt. The one complication is that the other end of the belt goes around a pulley on the air-conditioning compressor, and it’s behind the compressor belt, so you have to remove the compressor belt first.

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Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

Again, this isn’t strange or unheard of — it’s entirely normal shit. Looking at the compressor, it appeared to be on a similar sort of adjustable bracket as the alternator uses, so I figured I could likely loosen its bolts and adjust it enough to get the belt off, then remove the old alternator belt, put on the new one, put the compressor belt back on, tension and tighten everyone back to normal, and we’re done!

But then I encountered literally the most common source of difficulty in any car repair: it’s hard to jam your hands in places.

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Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

Yes, not shockingly, the engine bay of a Nissan Pao is cramped and tight, and the a/c compressor mounting bolts were not playing ball. After finally struggling and whacking knuckles and pinching fingers between sharp brackets and socket wrench handles, I got out what seemed to be the necessary bolts, but nothing was budging.

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I was losing sunlight, frustrated from the difficulty of what should be a simple task, irritated from the pain in my hands and just kind of not in the mood to make this simple belt swap a Whole Thing.

That’s when I started thinking clever, like an idiot.

I started thinking that, hey, that’s the a/c compressor belt, and I hate using the a/c on this car! On my little 52 horsepower engine, turning on the air is like releasing a drogue chute, and I hate thinking about how much more it’s taxing everything. And it’s about to be winter, at least technically! So why am I going through all this for stupid air-conditioning I never use?

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Plus, with that much less parasitic drag on the engine, I’ll probably get a huge power boost, like to 52.6 HP or something insane like that!

My mind kept going, delighted by the simplicity and benefits of the idea. I’ll just cut that belt! I’ll pick up a new belt when summer’s here, I guess, but for now, I’ll cut the belt, pop on the new alternator belt and zoom off into the distance, free from the decadent drag of air-conditioning!

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So, my genius solution would have been this:

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Graphic: Jason Torchinsky
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I’m guessing most of you now see the flaw in my brilliant scheme.

I mean, I even checked to be sure that idler pulley below wasn’t connected to anything important, so what could go wrong?

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Of course, you know exactly what would have gone wrong. In my lazy, frustrated haste to get the new alternator belt on, I would have removed any ability the engine had to turn the belt, since the a/c compressor is spun by the crank pulley and then in turn spins the alternator. If I lose the a/c belt, the alternator will just sit there, an immobile monument to dumb, lazy, frustration thinking.

I’m embarrassed how far along in the thought process I got before I realized the huge, obvious flaw. And I’m haunted by the idea that, if my belt broke and I was doing this repair on the side of the road, cutting the a/c belt is a solution I might have actually tried.

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Thankfully, I hesitated. Thankfully, it got dark before I could whip out the knife, and I set the repair aside for a few days. Thankfully I actually thought it through for a moment before I did something dumb.

Now I realize I need to loosen that idler pulley instead of the compressor mounts. I’ll do that tomorrow and take care of this, and I hope, remember the lesson of taking a moment when you’re not frustrated and irritated to think shit through.

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Even on simple stuff like this. Sometimes, your brain is phoning it in, and when you’re working on your car, this isn’t a bad lesson to remember.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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DISCUSSION

if my belt broke and I was doing this repair on the side of the road, cutting the a/c belt is a solution I might have actually tried.

Depending on how far from home you are and the time of day, if the alternator belt brakes, just drive it home. The battery will take you a long way as long as it is not running the headlights.