I Nearly Burned A Garage To The Ground Because Of A Foolish Wrenching Mistake

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Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

I’ve been trying to fix my hopeless 1958 Jeep FC-170 for over a week straight now, but the whole project nearly came to a screeching halt as a result of my own stupidity. Here’s how I nearly burned my host’s enormous garage to the ground in the process of rebuilding my Jeep’s carburetor.

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Tom Mansfield, the kind Jalopnik reader who told me about a Jeep FC for sale near his Washington home and bought the vehicle on my behalf, has been storing it since last July. His good deed was nearly rewarded with a truly unjust punishment.

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Photo: David Tracy

After arriving at Tom’s house, where he’s been letting me wrench, and cleaning up the Jeep somewhat, I removed the carburetor. After all, there was no way the engine was going to run with a carb filled with mouse droppings and who knows what else. Seriously, just look at this thing:

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Photo: David Tracy

Unbolting the carb should have been easy, but it wasn’t. The rare Carter WCD is a two-barrel (meaning it has two throats for air to travel through, and two throttle plates), and I’m fairly sure it was never meant for the Willys FC. It was offered on this engine when found in the Willys Wagon and Willys Pickup, but I don’t know that my 1958 FC-170 would have come with this air and fuel mixer, because getting it out required me to fabricate a new tool.

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Photo: David Tracy
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Well, by “me” and “fabricate,” I mean “Tom” and “cut a wrench in half.” Eventually the disgusting carburetor was off, and I was tearing it apart. In the process, I discovered some nasty, and some pleasant, surprises.

The pleasant surprise was the incredible way this carburetor is set up. It’s awesome. The float bowl actually surrounds the two barrels rather than being off to one side. The float itself is really two floats in one, shaped like a big “U.”

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Photo: David Tracy

Here’s a look at the fuel bowl where that float fits:

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Photo: David Tracy
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I’ll also say that I was happy with how clean things were inside the float bowl. Yes, there was quite a bit of fine rust at the bottom, but that’s pretty normal. I was expecting to find a lot more gunk or sludge, but nope. Things looked as if they’d clean up nicely, even with all the mouse crap on the outside and in the carb throat.

So I inserted the disassembled parts into a bucket of Chem-Dip carb cleaner, and let it all sit overnight. The following day I removed the parts and began cleaning them with many spray cans of carburetor cleaner. The carb cleaner, primarily made up of the three colorless and highly flammable liquids — toluene, acetone and methanol — does a great job of removing any remaining grease. The fact that it comes pressurized in a can meant I could use the cleaner to chase dirt out of fine passages.

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So that’s what I did for an hour or so. Over top of a small plastic catch-bowl, I sprayed my Chem-Dip-soaked carburetor parts with carb cleaner and wiped away grime with shop towels.

In the process, I discovered a broken throttle-plate screw. This was something I’d dealt with before, though in that instance, I’d broken screws myself by forgetting that the screws are secured in the throttle shaft by peening on the end opposite the head. (They’re basically squished on the back side so they won’t back out of the shaft and fall into the engine.)

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Photo: David Tracy

In that case, I used a left-hand drill bit, extracted the broken screws and installed new ones. Never in a million years would I have said, “Oh, a broken throttle screw? That’s fine. We can just run it with one screw per throttle plate.”

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Whoever rebuilt my Willys FC’s carb, probably decades ago, apparently thought differently, because they broke one screw and just ran with it.

This wasn’t acceptable, so I decided I had to get the screw out. My method was quick and dirty: I just drilled a hole in the throttle shaft, shoved a screw through it and spun a nut on the back side along with some threadlocker and a lock washer. This isn’t elegant, and will affect airflow into the manifold, but I’m hoping it’s not a huge deal.

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Photo: David Tracy

Another problem I faced was the fact that one of my brass carburetor jets was seized inside the cast aluminum carburetor. This happens all the time with carburetors, since the jets tend to be both a different metal from the carb body (the jets are brass, the carb generally is an aluminum alloy), and they tend to sit at the bottom of the bowl where debris collects and gunks up threads.

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It’s not uncommon to strip the flathead slot provided for removal on the top of a jet. (I began doing just that.) To avoid that fate, I grabbed a small torch to add heat, hoping the heat would break the bond between the jet and the carb, allowing the jet’s removal. As someone who has worked on plenty of rustbuckets, I’ve learned that if a bolt or screw is seized, heat is your friend.

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Photo: David Tracy
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But do you know when heat is not your friend? When the part you’re heating, along with your hands, the table below, the paper towels on the table and the plastic bowl next to those towels are all covered in an extremely flammable liquid.

I spun the top of the mini-torch I was using to open up the gas valve, clicked the ignitor and watched as the butane flame pressed against the base of my carburetor, heating the material around my stuck brass jet. Within moments, a solitary stray drop of carb cleaner ignited, and the ball of fire dropped onto the carb cleaner-soaked table.

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That’s when someone seemingly clicked my life’s fast-forward button, because things started happening quickly.

A small pool of carb cleaner caught fire, and just as I waved my hand at it to kill the flame, the fire had spread to my small mountain of paper towels soaked in carb cleaner. The whole thing erupted in a fireball. Still calm and collected, I looked around for a fire extinguisher. I couldn’t find one.

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So I ran outside to my car, and grabbed a gallon of distilled water I’d planned to pour into my radiator. I hurried back into the garage, and showered water onto the flame now standing tall on the steel table on which I’d been rebuilding my carb.

This was a mistake.

The water splashed on the table, agitating the fire, spreading flaming paper towels to areas of the table that were not yet on fire. A box of rubber gloves ignited. Then the fire reached the plastic bowl that was the receptacle for the carb cleaner I’d been spraying on my parts, and I saw a huge flash. The flame from that bowl shot up three feet, toward the garage ceiling.

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I stood back and assessed the situation. A metal table was on fire. It was a big fire, and it threatened to continue spreading. I had no fire extinguisher, and my water would be no match for this chemical fire.

I was frantic, but perhaps not as terrified as I should have been. That’s because even when the fire first ignited I knew I had a last resort that could prevent Tom’s amazing garage from going up in flames. Since I had no means of extinguishing the fire, this seemed like the time to execute this last resort.

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I opened the garage door, ran to the table and carefully grabbed it by the bottom side of its flat deck. I walked quickly out of the garage, dragging a flaming table behind me. If anyone saw that moment — me yanking a big steel immolated table out of that garage — to them I say: I am sorry you had to witness such an absurd example of human idiocy, an event you can never unsee.

I called Tom. He told me where the fire extinguisher was, I ran to it, ran back to the table, and pointed the nozzle at the flame. “Pop” went a tiny shot of white powder. But that was it. The extinguisher, apparently one of the recalled units from a few years ago, still registered Full on the gauge, but it wasn’t producing anything from its business end.

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So I just stood there next to the flaming table and waited for Tom to come out of his house. He was calm and relaxed. He grabbed a nearby towel, threw it on the fire, and I doused the towel with water. That smothered the flame.

I apologized profusely.

“Dude, don’t worry about it,” Tom said. “I’ve done stuff like that so many times. I was once welding while standing on a carpet, and you should have seen that thing light up underneath me!”

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I assessed the damage. I’d burned part of my cellphone. I’d melted Tom’s drill case and part of one of his pliers. I’d melted the plastic bin I’d used to capture carburetor cleaner. The box of gloves was toast. Luckily, nothing of real value was lost. My phone still seems to work, and the carburetor itself looks largely unscathed.

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Photo: David Tracy
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This could have been so much worse. Had I been working on Tom’s big wooden workbench — one that would not only catch fire, but is also so large I couldn’t have dragged it out of the garage — the whole building would have ignited.

It would have been bad.

Here’s a look at the carburetor, a roll of paper towels, the bowl I was using to capture carburetor cleaner, and a box of orange nitrile gloves:

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Photo: David Tracy
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Some other angles that show the gloves, Tom’s black fabric drill case and the packaging for those Harbor Freight left-hand drill bits:

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Photo: David Tracy
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Illustration for article titled I Nearly Burned A Garage To The Ground Because Of A Foolish Wrenching Mistake
Photo: David Tracy

I think in some ways that being a wrencher with years of experience can be more dangerous than being a wrencher with no experience (or with decades of it). Newbies tend to watch their every move; old-timers have seen too much shit to make a mistake like I did. But someone in-between like me? Sometimes, like the more experienced mechanics, we wrench on autopilot.

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I’ve rebuilt what feels like 100 carburetors in my day, and I’ve extracted tons of bolts. I know how to do both tasks with precision, so I just did everything on autopilot without assessing every action like a young wrencher would and without a long-timer’s intuition to avoid bringing a flame anywhere near a carb undergoing a rebuild.

It was a mental lapse, though quick thinking and luck got me, Tom’s garage and my carburetor out of the situation without damage. Even my ego remains unbruised, because I don’t have one. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing about how much of a dummy I am.

Sr. Tech Editor, Jalopnik. Owner of far too many Jeeps (Including a Jeep Comanche). Follow my instagram (@davidntracy). Always interested in hearing from engineers—email me.

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