Experience D’Orth


MORE BAD IDEAS:  What’s that noise?


                The several examples of poor judgement written up a couple of months ago were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; there’s no shortage of brain fade when people start fooling around with cars!  So, here’s a few more of my favorites (and more will be revealed whenever I can’t come up with any other idea for an article!)

Back in the ‘70s, I was working at a Volvo dealership and our volume model was called the DL, as opposed to the more upscale GL.  About once a year, one of these cars would be towed in to our service department with the verbatim complaint: “It was running OK, but just after I filled it up it began to get awfully rough and a lot of smoke was coming out; then it just quit and won’t restart.”  Quizzing by the service writer always revealed the exact same scenario—the car had been borrowed, and the unfamiliar driver--wishing to be courteous--filled it up with fuel before returning it. Diesel fuel, of course, because they all assumed that’s what the DL stood for!  (mid-‘70s four-cylinder gasoline Volvos were so noisy and slow, the assumption was actually easy to make) This would unfortunately necessitate a major flushing of the entire fuel system, new filters & plugs and a not insignificant expense for the Good Samaritan.  But, that’s nothing compared to what happens when the wrong metallic objects get fed into an engine!

While I was in high school, there was another student who was a little on the outside of the clique, so to speak.  While many of us tinkered with cars, built hot rods and got into other mechanical foolishness, this guy lived with his divorced mom and had few ‘manly’ influences.  However, she had evidently negotiated a pretty lucrative split, so when he turned 16, she bought him a brand new car.  The Chevrolet 409 4-speed coupe was the baddest thing to have in 1961, so that’s what he asked for.  But being new, it didn’t need any tinkering, so he still wasn’t doing cool things like getting filthy on a Saturday afternoon changing a clutch or stuffing V8s into Austin-Healeys.  So, one day, determined to do something under the hood of his car, he unscrewed the wing nut holding the top on the air cleaner and peered down into 4-barrel carburetor, wondering how it worked.  After posing for a few minutes and not knowing what else to do, he started to put it back together but dropped the wingnut down the throat of the carb! 

He could see it, sitting a few inches down on top of the throttle butterfly, but couldn’t figure out how to reach it.  He knew it shouldn’t get down inside the guts of the engine, but didn’t know how to prevent that happening. Accepting defeat, he went inside and called a friend to see if he had any ideas.  This guy knew just enough to be dangerous, and after listening to the problem told the first kid that he really didn’t have a problem.  He pointed out—correctly—that Chevy V8s have a sheet metal cover that seals off the cavity where the cam and pushrods reside, which was directly below the manifold that the carb was bolted to.  He then suggested—incorrectly--that the kid open the throttle wide so that the nut could fall ‘harmlessly’ down onto this cover.  He could then drive over to the Chevy place and buy a new wingnut.  Somehow, the fact that the intake manifold had a bottom in it escaped this genius.  Relieved, the first kid pushed open the throttle, heard a ‘clink’ and could see the nut with his flashlight, now ‘safely’ sitting down on what his friend said was the valley cover, from where he had been told it would eventually fall off into the street.  Actually, of course, the nut was now inside the intake manifold, ready to be inhaled. He fired up the 409 and headed for the Chevy place, but didn’t get far.  His first big burst of throttle sucked the nut down a port, snapped the head off a valve and made a lot of expensive noise. What a bad idea!

Speaking of sucking things down intake ports makes me recall an unfortunate experience during the life of a 330GT 2+2 (#6425) that I used to own.  The former owner was not particularly mechanically inclined either, and the car had been tinkered with plenty before he acquired it.  330 air cleaners are held on by four small 5mm studs threaded into each carburetor top.  These protrude inside the air cleaner’s body and fasten it down with self-locking nuts.  Repeated air cleaner removals—it’s in the way anytime the engine is worked on—leads to these studs getting loose in the carb tops.  Careful technicians make sure they are solidly in place….but do-it-yourselfers often don’t.  Anyway, this gent and his wife had driven the car from their home in Miami to Atlanta for some reason, and on the way home a clattering noise suddenly developed in the engine.  Coasting over to the side of the Interstate, the fellow mused aloud about what that might be. He opened the hood, looked around and saw that the engine was still in there, the oil was full and no vital fluids were escaping, so he started it back up.  There was a noise at idle like the rattle ball in a spray can, but when he blasted the throttle wide open, the noise went away!

A couple of hours later when a very similar noise developed, he didn’t even pull over, but simply put in the clutch and floored the accelerator for a moment. After a couple of such shots, the noise disappeared again, although this time he noticed the car was not as lively as it had been.  After another of these throat-clearings a hundred miles further along, the car was obviously not running on several cylinders any more, but by now they were nearly home.  A visit to Cressman Ferrari (the predecessor to Shelton) a few days later brought the news that several of the 5mm studs were missing.  Evidently, one by one they wobbled out and bounced around in the air cleaner a while before diving down an intake throat.  They would hammer in the combustion chamber until one of his big throttle openings blew them out the exhaust valve, stopping the noise!  However, chunks of valve heads were getting knocked off and going down the exhaust as well, leaving successive cylinders sans compression.  That bad idea necessitated an engine overhaul, but also brought the crippled car into a price range where I could afford it!

One more!  The beautiful blue 365GT 2+2 that I also used to own (#11461) came to me with the engine in boxes, too.  That previous owner and his brother were a little more confident about engines and had decided to remove the cylinder heads to do a valve job and replace the valve seals.  The disassembly went smoothly enough, and after a shop had reconditioned the heads for them, a Saturday afternoon was allocated to put the engine back together.  Following the directions in their manual,  they finally got it all assembled, hooked up the hoses, put in the coolant and started it up. Although the engine had started easily and seemed to be idling all right, there was a steady tapping sound coming from one side of the V-12.  A recheck of the project yielded no clue as to the source of the noise. There were no leaks or other signs of trouble, but whenever they started it up, there was that tapping sound again. By Sunday, they had removed the cam covers and double-checked the valve clearances and everything still seemed OK.  However, a restart produced the same frustrating, rhythmic tapping.

                Brainstorming the dilemma over another beer brought no further insight until the brother said, “Let’s rev ‘er up and see if it goes away!”  So they did. The first big burst of throttle did get rid of the tapping sound—and replaced it with a horrific clatter and a cloud of smoke from the right-side exhaust!   Whoa! Bad idea!  The autopsy at Algar Ferrari the next week revealed that they had mistimed the right-side camshaft just enough to allow a valve to contact a piston top. While it just ‘tapped’ at idle speed, the full-load impact caused the weakened valve head to snap off and puncture the piston crown, putting a professional engine overhaul on the to-do list.  (The car sat unrepaired for a long time while the brothers argued over who was going to pay for it, and was finally sold—to me--as a basket case.)

                Some uninformed ideas aren’t necessarily bad, just ineffective and can cause more embarrassment than destruction.                I had a good friend in high school who was much more of an academian than he was experienced mechanically.  Art also wanted to be more like the other guys and be able to tinker with his car—a 1950 Buick Roadmaster, given to him by his grandparents.  He decided that changing the oil was a good place to start learning and asked me one day how to go about it.  On Saturday, he jacked the car up, carefully putting it on blocks, and neatly drained the old oil out. “This is easy!”, he thought, putting the car back on its wheels, needing only to put in the fresh oil he had bought.  Some time later I stopped by his house to see what was going on and found him still at the oil job and getting increasingly frustrated at how long it was taking.  He was complaining about how difficult it was to get the new oil into the engine.  Puzzled, I said “All you have to do is open the cap on top of the engine and dump it in!”  “Don’t you bullshit me,” he barked, “I looked in there with a flashlight and there’s all kinds of springs and things. The oil is supposed to be ‘way in the bottom!”

                By now we had walked around to the front of the Buick, and I saw his solution:  He may have been unsure about a lot of mechanical things, but he knew the oil was supposed to be down where the dipstick went and where he had drained the old oil out of.  He had made a LONG thin funnel, no more than a half-inch wide at the mouth, out of waxed paper and was painstakingly dribbling the thick 40-weight oil down the dipstick tube!  It would have taken hours to put in the six quarts that those old in-line eights held!   (Today, by the way, Art is a successful dentist in Florida and I’m still tinkering with cars.)


--  Bill  Orth  --