by Dan Smith
The complicated design of the modern automobile has eliminated most of us as do-it-yourself mechanics. The proliferation of computers and other intricate electronics keeps the average person from attempting to repair our own cars.
Gone are the days when most men were able to do enough work to keep the family buggy running. My own father was a pretty fair mechanic and he learned it from necessity.
In his day, cars were not so reliable, but whenever one did break, the repair often could be done by the owner.
My dad always carried what he needed to keep the car going. Back in the day any journey of 40 or 50 miles often included a flat tire. Pop could tear down a tire and patch an inner tube in just a few minutes and if the tire needed a "boot" he could do that, too.
Many times I watched him use the emery of a matchbox striker to file the ignition points. After that he would use a business card to reset the points to the proper gap. He taught me how to do it and that knowledge served me well in my younger days.
Recently I was reminded of the value of being a shade tree mechanic.
The City of Ormond Beach had torn up Granada Boulevard in order to install new neutral grounds and the street was left rough and uneven for a long period. As I drove across the clackity-clack of the bad road the exhaust pipe on my aging Ford Explorer could take it no more and broke just past the catalytic converter. By the way, the cars I grew up with had no part resembling a catalytic converter. That was a good thing for my grandfather for he would never have gotten his tongue around that. The old man called the Impala a Paladin Chevrolet until he died.
Anyway, when my exhaust broke at the weld, my six-cylinder Ford took on the sound of a big rig. It was so loud people began to stare. When I got back to my garage, I remembered I had once repaired the exhaust on my '54 Studebaker by putting an STP can over the broken pipe and securing it with a couple of hose clamps. Now as I looked around the garage, I could find no cans made of steel. Most were papery aluminum that would never withstand the heat.
Finally, I came across an ancient container of car wax that was in a sturdy steel can. It was so old it had probably come with the house when we bought it 16 years ago. After dumping out the contents I took a hacksaw and sawed off both ends. The remaining cylinder was strong and fit nicely over the broken pipe. In a few minutes, I had made a pretty good repair. The proof was in the purr of the engine upon start up. Now understand, that repair is not a permanent one, but will hold until I can get the proper job done. That was a good example of an old time emergency fix.
I remember once when my dad and I were driving over to the next town, he suddenly pulled onto the shoulder of the road. He was a man of infinite patience and after taking a few tools from the trunk and spreading a cloth on the ground he began to take apart the carburetor. I was amazed to see all of the little springs and needles he removed. Soon he found the culprit in a dirty jet and then put the thing back together. It took a while, but when we resumed our trip the old Plymouth was happily humming along. In those days everyone carried spare spark plugs. That was a quick and easy repair, and always produced great results.
Now, when you look under the modern hood, you can't find the spark plugs. In most cases, you would need to put the car on a lift to remove them.
I can remember the last set of brushes I installed in a generator. Modern alternators have no parts that can be replaced by the consumer and must be junked when they quit. The old generators seldom wore out. An inexpensive set of carbon brushes was all you needed to get you back on the road. Fuel pumps were easy to replace when they were mechanical and even the modern electrical ones can be exchanged by the more adventurous. Fan belts are gone having been replaced by one big serpentine belt.
When I was a kid, the loss of one belt did not always stop you and sometimes a lady's nylon could be pressed into service to get you home.
I tried to teach my own son a few of those tricks but I don't think he picked up much. It really doesn't matter. His new car is just not made to be repaired by a shade-tree-mechanic.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned." Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.