Will I ever learn?

A few months ago a friend was having car trouble.  She was broken down on the side of the road, and her husband was at work in town and couldn’t get there to rescue her any time soon.  She called Liz who went to pick her up.  That’s where I got involved.

Her husband is mechanically inclined and experienced with minor repairs and routine maintenance, but he hasn’t done a lot of troubleshooting of major failures.  He had spent two days doing what he could, trying to figure out what was wrong and get their car back on the road.  In the mean time, she was borrowing our car when we weren’t using it to run to her late-night shift.   In an effort to help them, I offered to go take a look.

Based on the description I got of the way the car was acting when it quit, it sounded bad.    It sounded like a major over-heat.  When I got there, it was obvious there were serious problems…  Just the sound of the engine cranking made it clear there wasn’t much compression.  A quick compression check confirmed that in dramatic fashion.   We were looking at a blown head at least, maybe worse.

A sane person at this point might call a tow-truck, a mechanic, or junkyard and car dealership, but I guess I’m not all that sane.  “Sure,” I say, “we can tear down the top-end, look at the head and cylinder walls, and decide from there how bad it is.”  We towed it to my house and spent several hours stripping the head off of the block, cursing the engineers who designed it every few seconds as we struggled to fit tools and sausage fingers into spaces too small for children’s hands.   At the end of our hard work, it was clear the head was significantly warped, which would account for the crummy compression and fit with the diagnosis of a substantial overheat.  The cylinder walls looked clean, so we took the bet the block was OK and sent the head off to the machine shop.

Along the way, I missed some things that should have tipped me off to what was in store…  When we drained the oil, it looked like no oil I’d ever seen.  It was milk-chocolate brown and smelled funny.    Then, when the machinist went to work on the head, it was so warped that they had to heat it up, press it flat, let it anneal, then machine it.  That was something completely new to me.  Then, the service manual was wrong on several points, and the overall accessibility and serviceability of the car made even simple things incredibly difficult.  The oil and warped head should have clued me in to the fact that the motor got hotter than any I’d worked on before, and the rest should have convinced me that I ought to stop there.  I didn’t.

We got the rebuilt head back and installed it after a few runs to the dealer to get a specialized timing tool, bolts that had sheared off, and random other things I didn’t have in my kit.  After much pain and many skinned knuckles we excitedly turned over the engine.  Such disappointment…  It started, but wouldn’t run without feathering the throttle, and it had no power.  There were no engine trouble codes in the computer, but something was wrong.  In desperation we returned to the compression check (after several hours of head-scratching, troubleshooting, and just plain being stumped).  All four cylinders were about 60% of the rated compression.  While the cylinder walls looked fine, the rings were blown, and the bearings were probably not much better.

$700 in, and it was for nothing.  Now we had to take the block out and get it rebuilt as well.  The first call to the machine shop  stopped that idea in it’s tracks.  They wanted as much as a completely rebuilt long-block just to rebuild the lower-half.   The only logical solution at this point was to order a re-manufactured crate motor and flush the $700, busted knuckles, and hours of work we had already put in.

That was three months ago.  The owners were tapped out with the work we had already done, and Banny (my friend and the car’s owner) decided he had to take a second job and save for a while before they could seriously entertain the possibility.  In the interim, they acquired a cheap junker so they wouldn’t have to keep borrowing cars to get to and from work (30 miles away in the city). That turned out to be one of the smartest moves possible in this sad situation.

They dutifully worked and saved while their car collected dust in my garage.  Last week (two days before Christmas) the new motor arrived.  Thinking it would make a nice, if slightly late, Christmas present to have their car back, we spent that afternoon and a few hours on Christmas eve pulling the old motor. Things went as I SHOULD have expected… as opposed to how I THOUGHT they would.

We decided to pull the whole engine/trans-axle  assembly as one unit based on advice harvested from on-line forums.   That meant disconnecting the axles from the transmission.  No problem.  I’ve pulled several trannies, re-built many CV-joints, and have always been able to get the axle halves out of the steering knuckle (usually the hardest part for me) by hook or crook.   It didn’t matter what we tried, we couldn’t get them to separate from the hub.  Heat, wheel puller w/ high-torque impact driver, vibration, shock, sledge hammer, combinations of the above, you name it… we tried it.  I’ve NEVER had an axle that was so hard to remove.  In the end we opted to dismantle the entire front-end suspension and never did succeed in doing it the “right” way.  Ugly,  but it worked.

After getting the axles free and disconnecting everything, we hooked up the hoist and pulled the mounts.  I didn’t expect major problems.  I expected to simply crank the assembly up and out.  But then again, I hadn’t expected much of what we had encountered.  We had to remove lots of stuff while the motor was hanging by a chain supported by only a hydraulic ram (not a comfortable position for me).   Even then, we were barely able to get it out by radically tipping, rotating, nudging, shoving, prying, and coaxing it out.  At that point, it was time to clean up for the Christmas eve party with extended family, so we lowered the motor onto a pallet and called it a night, happy that we had gotten that far and confident that one more day would see the car pulling out of the garage under it’s own power.

Plans to use Christmas day to  finish the job were kiboshed by Liz as being too Grinchy…  She’s right, but I would have done it had she not told me no.   The next few days were taken up by work for both myself and Banny, so we didn’t get back to it until Tuesday when we mated the engine and transmission, and transfered parts from the old motor to the new one.  The real fun started yesterday (New Year’s Eve).  Beginning at about 2:00 in the afternoon, we worked until 2:00 in the morning, ringing in the new year with an engine mounted to the transmission and installed in the car. There was still some work to do, but we expected a few hours of connecting wires and hoses, timing the motor, and other minor work would have us on the road again.  The last thing we decided to do before we called it a night was to check the cam-shaft timing.

We pulled out the trusty specialized tool, and went to rotate the motor to the right position (Top-Dead-Center on cylinder 1).  The crank was frozen solid.  Something was bound up HARD.  I knew it wasn’t the motor because we had rotated the crank several times in the process of marrying it up with the transmission.  My heart sank.  It looked like the transmission was the culprit.  Did we really just spend a cumulative $2900 on an engine and a now worthless head rebuild only to have to replace the transmission?  It was time to call it a night. I went to bed angry and frustrated.

A few hours sleep later, and we decided to pull the transmission to get a better idea about how bad it was and to make sure it wasn’t the new motor that had seized.  If you’re keeping track, this would make THREE major removals back-to-back.  Getting up the energy to tackle one of them when you’re a shade-tree mechanic like myself is hard enough.  Doing it over and over again on a car that seems to always have one more trick up it’s sleeves is really hard.

After dropping the transmission out the bottom, both it and the motor turned freely.  We pulled the pan to look for chunks of metal that would indicate a major failure and explain the absolute unwillingness to budge, nothing but the normal fine metal filings on the pan magnet you would expect to see in a transmission with 100K+ miles on it.  We decided to take a leap of faith, hope the bind had been caused by a misalignment, replaced the transmission filter, axle seals, and pan gasket, and put the transmission back in place.

Once again, we figured we were on the home-stretch.  All we needed to do was bolt up the transmission, hook everything back up, fill up the fluids, time the engine, and we’d be done.  The crank and camshafts were factory timed (and verified by us), so all we had to do was time the crank position sensor.    The belt pulley on the front of the motor has a set of “teeth” on it that encode the crank position for the computer to use for setting timing and other purposes.  The pulley isn’t keyed, so it has to be installed with specialized tools to make sure it lines up properly with the sensor.  The factory had supposedly already done that, but when we went to align the sensor, things didn’t match up.  The pulley was off by a few degrees, enough to prevent the encoder tooth from aligning properly with the sensor. To complicate matters, the shop manual was completely and undeniably wrong, so we had to rely on a combination of internet research (a process that devoured several needed hours) and intuition.

The right way to fix the situation would be to remove the bolt that holds the pulley on the crankshaft, re-position the pulley, and tighten it down.  However, as with the axle-halves, there was no budging this bolt.  The shop manual calls for a specialized too that looks like a bent pickle-fork that holds the pulley in place while you unscrew the bolt.  We didn’t have the time or money to go back to the dealer and get a tool that we would only use once, so I went to the scrap pile and cut, welded, and blacksmithed my own version.  Too bad it didn’t work.  Even with extra bracing and reinforcement,  we couldn’t get enough leverage on the bolt to break it free.  You know it’s tight when two full-grown men can’t break it free by putting their full weight on breaker-bars that are over two-feet long.

I decided to try a backup approach I’d used before on a few other cars, and even on the other motor we had just pulled.  I hung a breaker bar on the bolt we needed to remove, jammed it against a part of the frame, and bumped the starter.  It’s ghetto, and kinda risky because the breaker bar can pop loose, strip the bolt, fly off, or hit other important things like break lines.  I’ve NEVER had this fail to break loose a tight crank bolt until now.  We gave up trying to adjust the pulley.  I’ll never understand why they couldn’t key the pulley like every other engine I’ve ever worked on.

The solution ended up being to modify the position sensor by reaming out the already oblong mounting holes to allow for a broader range of adjustment.  Too bad we didn’t do that sooner.  It would have saved me a few hours, lots of frustration, and some scrap metal for other projects.  That hurdle overcome, we assembled and connected everything else.  After a short break to let the gremlins out, we turned the key.

It started, but ran worse than the blown motor did after we finished the top-end rebuild.  Desperation and frustration were angrily knocking at the door.  However, unlike the first attempt after the re-built head, there were engine codes.  A quick trip to the local parts store to rent a code reader, and we were on the hunt.  After another few hours with a volt-ohm-meter and the wiring diagram (which was only mostly correct) and we found a broken wire hidden inside factory shrink-tubing connecting the coolant temperature sensor to the engine control module.  Turns out that if you feed a motor fuel at 60 degrees F they way it would at -40, it doesn’t run well.  Snip-snip, crimp-crimp, and FINALLY, it started and ran smooth.    It drove home early this evening.

I can almost hear the heavenly hosts breaking out into Handel’s Messiah, which would have been more appropriate had we finished on Christmas day like I wanted to…

Too bad my truck needed work.  Even after all that unexpected time bent over the hood of a car or crawling underneath it, I still had to spend several hours in the garage taking care of overdue maintenance on my own vehicle and cleaning up the mess we made over the last several months.  I’m sore in places I don’t remember using, and my skin is raw from abrasions; bruises; harsh automotive solvents, fuels, grease, and road grime; and the constant scrubbing and washing required to deal with the former.

When will I ever learn…  I should have walked away from this one from the start.  However, I never will.  I enjoy helping people too much.  As much as it can be frustrating, expensive, time consuming and painful, I like fixing cars for other people when they need the help.  Along the way, I got lots of time with a friend in the garage doing “man stuff” as Liz calls it, taught him a few things and tricks I’ve had to learn along the way, and helped put someone back on the road for less than it would have cost to pay someone else to do it (even with the sunk costs put into the original head rebuild).


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