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September 2008 Dr. Vern

Posted in Features on September 1, 2008
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Contributors: Dr. Vern

Recently, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with the previous owners of my newest Jeep. The meeting wasn't over tea and crumpets at a local coffee shop. No, the reunion took place underneath the Jeep. I don't mean to imply refreshments were served or anything like that. All I mean is while recently working on my newest Jeep, I learned a lot about each of these characters, some recent and some from many years ago.

In case you haven't been keeping notes, a '63 Willys wagon followed me home last month. I was being good, minding my own business, when a large sum of my cash jumped into the seller's hand. This wagon is a beauty, nearly rust-free and well-equipped for off-road adventures. I spoke too soon when I thought it didn't need any work. Of course it did, it just wasn't obvious at the time. And so I found myself writhing around on the garage floor, trying to snake a new fuel line from the engine clear back to the tank.

Fuel lines are in the category of stuff that needs to be in good shape. You can get by for a little while with worn tires, a marginal battery, oil leaks, and so on. Or as in the case of many vehicles I've owned, you can get by pretty much forever with worn tires, a marginal battery, and oil leaks, as long as the radio works. Back to my wagon's fuel line, a pinhole leak was letting the pump starve on occasion. Engines are rather picky about having a dependable supply of fuel, and quite predictably, this one refused to run if everything wasn't perfect. Other than the initial ride home, I hadn't even had my new wagon out on the open road when it decided to immobilize itself in my driveway.

This is a good point to mention how lucky I've been about the timing and location of my breakdowns. (I'm talking about vehicles I've owned, not necessarily me on a personal level.) I've rarely been stranded anywhere but my own driveway, but even when I wasn't so fortunate, a quick trailside fix was usually all that was needed to make it home again for a permanent repair. Note the key word in the preceding sentence: Permanent, as in a repair that is done right and should last forever.

This is a good point to discuss the essence of a trailside repair. In the boonies, when the buzzards are circling, urgency trumps all other considerations. The repair doesn't need to look pretty, and anything at hand is fair game, no matter how useless it may seem, be it elastic bands, bubble gum, competitors' magazines, and so on. I once accomplished what is possibly the world's most ingenious trailside repair. Back in an earlier life, the radiator drain plug on another Willys wagon decided it liked the mountain scenery and wanted to stay there. Unfortunately, the drain plug departed while on a gravel road, which meant it would never be found.

As the tiny amount of remaining coolant steamed away, I did remember something in my favor: a lifetime of questionable dietary habits. I was able to make an indestructible repair because I was on a camping trip and had packed the perfect raw material: a box of Lucky Charms. I'm not claiming I plugged the leak with pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers. Nah, I had already eaten the good bits and was left with nothing but the boring stuff, so I had no qualms about cutting up the box to make a gasket. I bridged the hole in the radiator with some washers, stray hardware, and this new gasket to seal the leak. I refilled the radiator from a convenient mountain stream, and was patting myself on the back in no time at all. The repair was so good, it hadn't leaked a drop some months later when the water pump violently ceased operation. I won't mention any names, but suffice to say the lubricating properties of antifreeze are very important and only a chucklehead would neglect to properly refill the cooling system at the first opportunity after a trailside repair.

Believe it or not, this brings us back to this month's grand theme: the clues left behind by previous owners of my latest Jeep. For instance, I can tell one of them was an accomplished welder. In your garage, you might keep a welder (as in a machine, as opposed to a person who welds), but this doesn't guarantee you can create an acceptable weld. The bellhousing adapter and custom motor mounts were clearly the work of an accomplished craftsman. I'm worried that something happened to him, because apparently an intern from the Institute of Welding Destruction completed the engine swap. I suspect he was under a lot of stress while fabricating the custom throttle linkage, and took it out on the poor, defenseless metal. This was the only questionable item I found on the whole vehicle.

I also met another guy who was a top-notch woodworker. He built some spiffy shelves in the back, just perfect for toting rifles and fishing rods on camping trips. The custom roof rack was obviously built by an A-list machinist. Somebody else had an affinity for bailing wire, but as strange as this may seem, those repairs were tidy and well done. Another owner thought sheetmetal screws were appropriate to fix anything, but even his workmanship was above reproach. Other than the calling card left by the welding vandal, this old Jeep seems to have had nothing but the best care all its days. Of course I'm only guessing about these guys, as I've never met any of them in person. The only guy I do know is the seller, and I've nothing but good things to say about him. He's such a nice guy, I won't embarrass him by mentioning the radio presets he left programmed for frequencies such as that easy listening All-Tesh/All-the-Time station. Nope, his secret is safe with me.

-Dr. Vern

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