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November 2011 Dr. Vern

Posted in Features on November 1, 2011
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Contributors: Dr. Vern

Ignore any problem long enough and it will go away. This simple philosophy has served me well over the years. For example, perhaps your Jeep’s brakes are squealing. Believe it or not, problems like these are quite capable of fixing themselves. Most probably the brakes are glazed from light usage. Oh sure, an overachiever could get all proactive (Bingo!) and replace the linings. While this would take care of the problem, it also involves physical effort and the waste of perfectly good money. This contradicts everything for which I stand. It’s just as easy to take your Jeep for a drive, work the brakes hard, and burn off the glaze. Problem solved.

This minimalist principle of problem solving came to mind as my ’63 Willys wagon sputtered to a stop recently. It was mid-afternoon on a beautiful summer day. My wife and I had pointed the wagon onto the mountain trails near us. In back, we had a picnic basket packed with dinner. As the trail got rougher, I dropped into 4-Lo and the old Toledo iron cruised over the rocks. As I listened through the open window, the only sound was the intoxicating burble of a V-8 with dual exhausts. Then I noticed birds chirping. I also noticed the scenery was now stationary. Using my amazing deductive powers to analyze the clues, both good and bad, I realized something was amiss.

I quickly ran through a mental checklist. Fuel? Most probably the tank wasn’t empty, although I did wish I’d have gotten around to fixing that pesky fuel gauge. Compression? This wasn’t likely to have suddenly failed. Spark? It was working a minute ago, so it wasn’t likely to have just up and died. Then I remembered how this trusty old V-8 would occasionally foul its spark plugs after extensive idling. Problem solved, right? Well, yeah, other than the engine still wouldn’t start. This was probably going to require some of that annoying physical labor on my part—that and a spark plug wrench. Silly me. Without such a wrench, I’m not sure I could ignore this problem away.

Like most Jeepers, I keep a small travel toolbox. Perhaps it’s only human nature, but most trail toolboxes are full of cast-offs. My shiny Snap-Ons are in my tool chest at home, but my Jeep’s toolbox has a few rounded-off screwdrivers and mismatched, no-name wrenches. These tools might come in handy as paperweights, coffee stirrers, or scrap metal, but that’s about it. It’s amazing how quickly a collection of trail tools can change from barely adequate to utterly useless. All that is required for this transformation is the need to use them. It seems you never get around to properly stocking a trail toolkit.

Back to my tool chest at home, I’ve lost track of how many spark plug wrenches I have. I’ve got special sockets with built-in protectors for the porcelain insulator. There are wobble sockets and T-handle spark plug wrenches. Don’t forget the crow’s-foot sockets for clearance around headers. I’ve even got extension sockets for reaching into deep spark plug wells. They were all safely snuggled in my tool chest—at home. Not in my wagon’s toolbox, where I wish at least one had migrated.

Back to my stalled wagon, this is when I made the command decision to ignore the problem. I initially planned to kill the battery by fruitlessly cranking the starter over and over, but decided against that. When the plugs foul, they tend to get soaked with fuel. Let them sit long enough to dry, and they might just be okay. That was my theory, anyway. Since it would take a while for the plugs to dry sans fresh air, my best option was to wait. To resist the temptation to try again too soon, we decided to hike to the end of the trail. Our destination was the site of an old forest lookout tower, and it was only about an hour away on foot.

We made it to the top, no problem. The view was stunning, and our dinner was as tasty as could be. I wish I could say that I enjoyed the whole experience, but I was preoccupied with getting the engine started, promising myself that I’d take care of that pathetic toolkit as soon as I got home. I also worried about spending the night in the woods. At least we had the essentials for survival. We had food, water, shelter, and my iPod with the entire Wayne Newton catalog. (Editor’s note: Normally I’d be glad to help, but I had front-row tickets for Tesh-a-Palooza that weekend.)

The rest of the story is anticlimactic. The engine fired up on the first try. Mark your calendar because I was actually right! I revved the engine a few times to finish clearing the plugs and the resulting smoke took care of any nearby mosquitoes. I pointed the wagon downhill and we were safely home a couple of hours later. All that remained was to take care of that toolkit. I’d get to it now, but I’m kinda busy. Maybe next week....

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