Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Ultimate Misuse of Time

I guess you’ve figured it out by now (is it that obvious?), but if I can find something else to do that will keep me from real, actual work, then I tend to lean toward that activity because it usually means that it’ll be more fun, I’ll get something personal done on my list of projects to do and… yes, I’ll avoid the dull drudgery of what I call “paycheck work,” that is the profitable freelance writing that I do day in and day out (which there is always a lot to do in that arena of my life—and who wants to hear about that? Right, nobody). Me screwing around when I should be working is much more fun. Granted the abstract activities I employ for this definitive procrastination usually don’t have a dollar sign attached to them, they always end up being much more rewarding. Of course, the results of my endeavors yesterday sadly don’t fall into this category, and in hindsight, I should have chucked out the $150 bucks to pay someone to do this rather than spend the seven hours to tackle it myself. The things we learn by experience, and waking up to a dozen or so bruises and aching muscles wasn’t much fun either. Here’s what happened:

I got it in my head that it would take no time to pull an old engine out of my 1967 Beetle and replace it with a much larger, better working (and looking) engine. How hard could it be? Four bolts, three wires and an accelerator cable, the old engine simply falls out of the bottom of the car and you’re half way there. I can do that! I mean, we can do that, as Dad provided the extra pair of hands and some of the crucial decision making during the process.

It isn’t like we were going into this blind, so our confidence level was high (which should have been our first clue to proceed with extreme caution). I was the editor of a 50,000- circulation national magazine about old Volkswagens, so I know my way around the little cars. On top of which, we’ve done it before. A few days before Halloween in 1990, on a date with a “semi-girlfriend” (it’s a long story), my beloved 1971 Super Beetle decided it wanted to stop working in a heroic display, complete with plumbs of smoke, rattling of unknown parts and drastically decreased speeds. Did I mention I was on a date… oh, and did I mention that on that fateful evening I decided to end our “semi-dating” relationship. It took three hours to drive what would have been a half-hour drive, with a girl who hated me more than anything in the world sitting next to me. How fun. It also involved the back seat of a cop car… but that again is a long story best left for another time (it’s not as bad as you think). The point is that the Super Beetle needed a new engine that worked right, and I needed a new girlfriend that wasn’t a complete psycho.

Anyways, we’ve replaced an engine in a Volkswagen before… and before that my dad’s experience involved a Porsche engine, and if you don’t know anything about the relationship between VWs and Porsches, the engines of the early cars are identical, as Volkswagens are the predecessors to the Porsche. So, we’ve got that going for us, but that’s really where it ended; the rest could be classified under educated guessing: “Do you think that’s how it’s supposed to go?” “I guess so.”

For some reason, the hard part of the last engine removal we did on the Super Beetle was the easiest part of this one, and we had it out in about a half hour. Before I continue, let me point out that the world record for removing an aircooled engine from a Volkswagen and replacing it with another one is less than two minutes…that’s right, less than two minutes. It took us two minutes just to find the 13mm socket to fit on the wrench, so we’re working with a severe handicap from the starting gate. But then again, that handicap has been a running theme throughout most of my projects, and if I don’t go to Home Depot at least twice during anything I tackle (once to replace what I’m fixing and the second time to replace what I fixed), I consider it a success.

With most engines in most cars, you get a hoist and drop the engine in through the top of the car, but with VWs, you raise the car and lower it over the engine from the bottom. It’s not so tricky, but it involves a lot of jack stands and careful balance and anyone who says they can do it by themselves is someone telling tales. But then again, we don’t have the proper tools, and I grew up not using the proper tools so I’m not sure what the right tools for any job actually are… but that doesn’t stop me. There’s a term for it: “Mickey Mouse,” which means, “doing something with the incorrect tools but ending up with the desired results.” I don’t know how that term ended up in the family vernacular but it goes along with “a Donald Ducker” which means a temper tantrum, which usually happens well into a “Mickey Moused” job.

With any removal and replace project, the end of the removal part is only half of the battle, and stuffing a larger engine back into a hole where a smaller engine once was is a big part of the second half. Like I said, dropping out the old engine was surprisingly easy, and with most projects I undertake, if the first part is surprisingly easy, you’ll pay for it with the spectacular mind-blowing difficulty of the second part. True to form, lifting the new engine into the car was indeed difficult and it took about three hours to do…so much for breaking the record.

We had to remove the dual carburetors (40 IDFs) and manifolds off of the new engine because it didn’t fit up through the bottom of the car, and that caused us to have to remove (and mix up) the spark plug wires. Since the valve covers and bails stuck out too far, we took them off and subsequently drained out about a quart of oil…onto the driveway (a cardinal sin when I was a kid, and we dumped more oil yesterday than all of the earlier times put together)… and this was after dumping about a half-gallon of gas from an unchecked gas line, to which I complained about when I pulled up, wondering why my folks’ backyard smelled like gas, when it was my car that was leaking it (probably the entire 35-mile trip from my house to theirs). Then, the engine slipped off of the jack on our fifth attempt, and to avoid having to type this without using the keys C, D, and E, I pulled my hand out of the way and the engine crashed down on the distributor cap, smashing it. Nice. Then, as it were, the replacement distributor cap off of the old engine wouldn’t accept the spark plug wires from the new engine so we had to use the old spark plug wires…further mixing them up.

So we stopped for lunch…another thing I almost screwed up. Mom, don’t read this part: Just before leaving for a meeting, my Mother told me to turn off the oven containing a platter of lasagna, promptly at 11:00, otherwise it will burn. Well, I remembered to turn it off when she pulled back in the driveway, and while I said my hellos, Dad slipped away and switched it off…at 11:04. Dodged a bullet, and had some good lasagna.

Back to the engine: Needless to say, once it was into position, finally, the engine wouldn’t fit properly, as if the transmission spline didn’t want to slide into the clutch plate and the flywheel wasn’t meshing with the starter motor’s cogs. It was strange, but funny when you and your dad insert as many “that’s what she said” jokes into the process. For example, I can’t find the hole… You need to jack it up higher… The thing won’t fit…etc., tasteless for sure, but you get the idea, and when you’re laughing, only the way men working on cars or standing around in a locker room laugh at crass humor, it takes away some of the frustration of not being able to fix the problem. Then, with no help from us, inexplicably, the engine slid on just like that and it was in. I’m not sure why it suddenly did but I wasn’t going to throw it back (“That’s what she said…” Yes, some aren’t funny).

We added the exhaust, the manifolds, the carburetors (and I didn’t drop any tiny little part into the engine as I expected I would), hooked up most of the wires—there were some that just didn’t go anywhere, we plugged in the spark plug wires in the way we felt logical (which we discovered after a backfire was slightly incorrect), and attached the fuel lines to the pump, again with an educated guess. Standing back to admire our efforts, we were ready, but I wasn’t shy about sharing my doubts throughout the day, as I didn’t expect anything to happen when I turned the key. Soon, everything seemed to check out and we were ready to see if it would roar to life.

I got into the car, key in hand, and with severe pessimism, I stuck it into the ignition and turned the key two clicks to the right… it wanted to start, it tried to start, it tried really hard to start, but it just didn’t want to turn over. It cranked, which is a good sign, and when we primed the carbs with some gasoline and ether, it ran for a few seconds, albeit rough like shoes in a dryer, but it showed potential.

At that point, no “that’s what she said” joke was going to save the day; it was quite clear that it wasn’t going to start. The engine was in, the underlying goal of the day, but the sun was getting tired, the day long and my hands were starting to give up. I could tell Dad was looking forward to “checking his eyelids for cracks” on the couch, so I decided to throw in the towel. I didn’t want to push it. Everyone still had their fingers, nothing was blackened and wet fresh from an ensuing fire and nothing was permanently broken beyond repair.

Later, a phone call to my favorite Volkswagen mechanic, who fit me early next week, will fix whatever Mickey Mouse assembly we started. I guess it will cost me money in the long run, which is contrary to the end result of trying to do something yourself. I think it best that I stick to writing; And that’s what I get for taking off from work to do something I could have easily paid someone else to do… but the temptation to get oily in the hot sun with your dad over an engine was too great to pass up. And if you were paying attention, a “that’s what she said” would fit nicely right here, don’t you think? See, sometimes it is funny.

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