I Wasted 12 Hours Because Of These Idiotic Mistakes. What Was Your Biggest Car Repair Error?

Illustration for article titled I Wasted 12 Hours Because Of These Idiotic Mistakes. What Was Your Biggest Car Repair Error?
Photo: David Tracy

When fixing my 1958 Jeep FC-170, I made critical errors that cost me over an entire day of wrenching. My Jeep was already in dire straits, with a rusted engine which had a probability of ever running at 0.000000001 percent. I didn’t need these setbacks.

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Today’s question of the day is “What was your biggest wrenching error?” It’s a topic that allows me to tell the story of how I squandered at least 12 hours because of sheer stupidity and bad luck.

This happened last month during my road trip from Michigan to Washington to fix up a Willys FC-170 — an arguably pointless endeavor given that the vehicle is to act as the foundation for a future EV conversion (and therefore, its engine will be yanked out anyway, so why fix it? Because I am a fool, that’s why).

I was living in a Lexus LX470 that I had purchased sight unseen for the trip, and spending every waking moment of my time mending the FC, whose engine seemed so pitted that chances of success were verging on zero. With such slim odds, and such a suboptimal lodging situation, I didn’t have time to waste, which is why these errors were so demoralizing.

Breaking A Bolt Into The Cylinder Head

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Photo: David Tracy

To see why my 226 cubic-inch Continental flathead-six engine was making no compression, I had to have a look inside, meaning I had to yank off the cylinder head. To make that process easier, I took off the outlet port that bolts to the head and that houses the thermostat. Unfortunately, the fasteners holding the thermostat housing to the head are long, and they thread into the cooling jacket, which you can see in the image above contains quite a bit of rust.

I, foolishly, didn’t use penetrating lubricant or heat, so I broke one of the bolts flush into the head. The solution was for me to attempt to weld a nut to the broken bolt, fail a bunch of times and allow Tom Mansfield — the owner of the garage in which I was working — to show me how it’s done. He was able to get a nut welded on and, with a socket, he unthreaded what was left of that bolt.

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This was a waste of an hour.

Dropping The Valve Keeper Into The Engine

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Photo: David Tracy
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Once we got the head off, Tom and I saw some deeply rusted exhaust and intake valves. To remove those valves required use of a valve spring compressor, shown above. The tool basically squishes the springs up against the engine block, relieving the tension pulling the valves down against the valve seats at the top deck of the engine. Relieving that tension allows for the removal of a two-part conical “keeper,” which holds the valve to the valve spring.

Unfortunately, when removing cylinder one’s intake keeper, I wasn’t using a magnet like I am in the image above. The keeper fell into an oil hole inside the valve housing, and down into the oil pan. I tried using magnets and a borescope to fish the ferrous keeper out, but to no avail. I had to drop the oil pan. It was a gigantic pain in the butt that cost me at least two hours.

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Knocking Over The Freshly-Lapped Valves

I spent a lot of time lapping the engine’s valves, since they were so pitted. Lapping basically involves using a special abrasive paste between the valve and the valve seat, and spinning the valve so that it “cuts” new seats to allow for a nice seal. Each valve and valve seat is a pair, since at this point, they’ve all worn/corroded differently. Putting one valve onto a random seat is likely going to lead to a leak.

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That’s why, when Tom accidentally ran into the box I was using to organize the valves and knocked them all over, it was a big setback. I now lost track of which valve went with which seat. I had to do it all over. Luckily, I had cut through most of the pitting on the valve and seat, so re-lapping all 12 valves didn’t take as long as it did the first time, but still. That was at least three hours lost.

Searching For A Special Tool

I knew that old Willys Jeeps require a special hub removal tool to get the rear brake drums off, but I figured I could rig something up if I had to. Turns out, you really do need that special tool. I ran around for at least half a day trying to find such a tool, before finally calling up a classic car repair shop that mostly specializes in old VWs and Subarus. They actually had the tool in stock. Just watch the video above to see how awesome that tool is; it shoots the drum right off, violently!

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Using A Brake Flaring Tool Wrong

This one cost me multiple hours, because I didn’t realize that I was using the brake flaring tool incorrectly. There’s a tiny metal insert that goes into the brake line; I kept using one size too small, causing the flare to be offset. This would never seal, and I’d have a leaky brake fitting.

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Figuring the issue was the tool and not the operator, I ran out to the store and got another tool. Then I tried and failed again. Jay, whom you see in the video above (and who owns that VW Cabrio “Death Cab” that I wrote about a few weeks ago), saved the day with his level head. “Hey, use this bigger insert,” he told me. It fit much tighter, and the resulting flare was beautiful. He ended up doing every flare himself; they were absolutely perfect, because Jay is a boss.

Between dropping the keeper deep into the engine, braking a thermostat housing bolt into the cylinder head, screwing up the brake flaring operation, knocking over the valves, and not thinking to bring a hub removal tool, I lost at least an entire day of wrenching. All of it could have been avoided, but I am simply an error-prone wrencher.

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That leads me to ask you: What are the biggest wrenching mistakes you’ve ever made?

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.

DISCUSSION

eugan-blizzard
VaBubba

Did you know you should never reuse cotter pins? Especially when it secures the castle nut that holds the brake drum, wheel, and tire on a Beetle rear axle?

Did you know that once the drum and wheel removes itself from the car all of the brake fluid from the single-cylinder master goes to that particular brake cylinder, leaving no pressure for the remaining brake cylinders?

For want of a nail...