Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Pale Imitation of Home

At this point in our story, our hero (that would be me; I'm the hero) finds himself in Denver for six weeks, performing a geophysical survey for his former employer to detect unexploded ordnance on an old bombing range. Why? Because his (note the continued thinly veiled use of the third person here; our hero is, after all, a professional writer, and knows all the tricks) writing job became unstable, and, knowing that the ax was going to fall, he preemptively sought out this survey.

But that, as they say, is another story.

First, it's actually not a solid six weeks. I'll (our hero has found the use of the thinly veiled third person tiresome and has dropped it like his writing job dropped him) be flying back to Boston twice, first for the November 6th Michael Troy tribute show at The Narrows (, and then again over Thanksgiving. But still, it's a longer stint on the road than I've done since The Dry Prong Chronicles four years ago, and is all the more surprising considering that I had left my goddamned geophysics job to become a professional goddamned automotive writer!

(Sorry. Our hero appears to be having a meltdown, probably spurred by the absence of his lovely wife and his garage. He has regained his composure and is attempting to continue. He may need to buy a Z3 while he's out here in order to get the Xanax effect of top-down driving. Hey, it's Colorado. There's legal reefer. Our hero is certain he can find some new-age leech dispenser to dash him off a script for something topless.)

The work involves using a survey system that has a small side-by-site utility vehicle that tows a carbon fiber platform equipped with very accurate GPS and two kinds of metal detectors. To answer the question that constantly comes up, yes it's very safe because a) the site has already been swept of any surface unexploded ordnance (UXO), b) any UXO that's in the ground is only there because it's a dud that didn't blow up when it smacked in, which was probably nearly 70 years ago that this point, and c) ordnance items aren't land mines -- they're not sensitively fused, they're not designed to blow up if you step on them. It is very interesting work, and there is emotional and professional satisfaction using this equipment that was largely my baby and that I thought was going to be scrapped after it was mothballed for four years.

When traveling on a government contract, in addition to your salary and hotel room, you are paid a per diem for meals and incidentals. Here in Denver, that's $69/day. That sounds like a lot, and it is if you treat it carefully. Nearly every hotel you stay at has a buffet breakfast of some sort, so there's no out-of-pocket cost for breakfast. And you're in the field all day so you're not eating lunch out; typically you either take an English muffin and a banana from the breakfast buffet, or buy a loaf of bread and peanut butter and jelly and make sandwiches, but either way, lunch, like breakfast is at low to no cost. So it all comes down to what you spend on dinner.

Many of the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) guys who are in the field for much longer than I am regard the per diem as pay and try to bank as much of it as possible. However, when I used to do a lot of field work with a tightly-knit crew, we enjoyed going out to nice restaurants every night either to celebrate our success or drown our sorrows, and when you do that -- eat well and drink -- it's actually pretty easy to burn through most or all of the per diem.

On this trip, since I'm basically out here by myself (I'm working with two other people from another company, and I like them, but we're not best buddies sharing meals, at least not yet), and since my employment has had an, ahem, interruption, it seemed an easy decision to try and bank as much of the per diem as possible. Plus, the extended stay hotel at which we're staying not only has a little kitchenette in each room, but also has a "social" in the lobby Mondays through Wednesdays, at which there is hot food that is passable as dinner. There is also, incredibly, free beer at the "social," but I have data processing to do in the evenings, and follow as strict a no alcohol on weeknights policy as I can. And I never have alcohol in my room. That way lies madness. The line in my song "The Extended Stay Motel" ( about the vodka bottle being empty? Pure fiction. (The rest of the song? Absolutely true. That was an odd occurrence at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville NC that my field partner Ric Macneil and I could not figure out.)

That having been said, I did splurge Friday night at a sushi place with an all you can eat special that I washed down with two bottles of hot sake, and on Saturday night at a bar watching the Cubs clinch the pennant and drinking too much Left Hand Brewing's Nitro Milk Stout on tap. I'm not a freaking monk.

Once things were proceeding sufficiently smoothly in the field, the next order of business seemed to be dealing with the phone. I'd been using an antiquated iPhone 4S for years, and a combination of factors (the slow 3G speed, the diminished battery life, some cable and connector issues, and horrible performance since I made the fatal mistake of updating the operating system) was driving me crazy. I am an inveterate bargain hunter, and nearly bought a used iPhone SE on Swappa, but I hemmed and hawed long enough that the one I was looking at got sold, and I had enough questions about guarantees and SIM cards and transferring contacts that I simply went into a local Costco out here in Aurora. When I found that $20/month got me a new SE 64gig phone, plus an external lithium battery pack, plus a $50 Costco rebate card, plus they'd transfer my contacts then and there (I didn't have a laptop with me with iTunes on it), I caved. The new phone is making life a bit less frustrating.

(As an aside, the guy at the Verizon booth at Costco literally laughed when he pulled up my plan. "Five iPhone 4Ss? I haven't seen that on a plan in a couple of years!" And he didn't have the cable to hook the phone; I had to hand him the one I had in my backpack.)

While at Costco, I attempted to stock up on food for the hotel room, but the big box nature of Costco makes that a bit difficult. I don't need 30 lbs of ground beef, a case of apples, or an entire cooked ham. Even the packages of tortellini were large enough to feed the Celtics. In the end, I opted for a big package of floutas and a box of 20 individual servings of guacamole, each costing about $8.50, and fled the premises.

The next few evenings, on the way home from the survey site, I tried using my new iPhone to have Siri direct me to the nearest grocery store or supermarket, but for some reason it didn't seem to understand the concept and kept sending me to industrial produce supply houses. Finally, by chance, I drove by a Sprouts, which appears to be the Western equivalent of Whole Foods. I overpaid for a nice selection of what I often eat at home (tortillas, tomatoes, salsa, cheese, sliced turkey, canned tuna fish, and rolls), and called the hotel room stocked, at least for now.

As per my Facebook post, I use any travel an an excuse to search for vintage BMWs (the logistics of driving one home for Thanksgiving notwithstanding). I am here with a trailer that transports our survey equipment, and while I couldn't fit a whole car in it, things like spare Getrag 245 5-speed transmissions, Recaro seats, and original 2002 FPS alloys would be a slam dunk (and such things have ridden home in the trailer from prior trips). I haven't found any automotive treasures yet, but I did find an ad for an astonishingly well-priced Westerly-built Guild D25M guitar. I drove down to Colorado Springs yesterday and bought it on the spot. I had packed a cheap travel guitar in the trailer, but this one is much nicer and I'm much more likely to play it and actually write something on the trip. Plus, it made me happy.

And yes, the fact that I have now spent the "saved" per diem money twice -- first on the phone, and then on the guitar -- is not lost on me.

The actual survey site is pretty remote, about 30 minutes in by pickup truck on rutted paths, but once there it's very peaceful. We arrive before sunrise, and sometimes it's spectacular. Once the sun is up, there's a lightness and subtlety to the coloration that is very soothing on the nerves, like Van Gogh on one of his better days. The smell of sage is intoxicating. The cows find the geophysical equipment interesting. The Rockies are visible off to the west. So far the weather has been absolutely spectacular. This is not hardship.

But even with these attempts to normalize my surroundings with familiar food and musical instruments, it's all still a pale imitation of home.

But hey, give me Maire Anne, a round tail light 2002, and a place to work on it, and I'd bed right in.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The One Where the Car Fell On Me

[The Hack Mechanic / September 2016, BMW CCA Roundel Magazine, all rights reserved]

It is said you’re not a real musician until you’ve had an instrument stolen, a real software engineer until you’ve lost three days of code, or a real mechanic until you’ve bled on machinery. 

I know. I’m the one who said it. And I’m all three.

Getting hurt while working on cars seems to be the price of admission to the ride. Cuts and scraped knuckles are annoying, but the real risk is working underneath cars.

Readers of my first book know the stories of a) the physics professor (I repeat: physics professor!) I had in college who died when a car fell on him in his driveway, and b) the time I had a car topple off a floor jack when the jack sank into soft asphalt on a hot day. Because of these events, I am assiduously careful when I jack up a car. I always “double-jack” it (jack it up, set it on jack stands, then leave the floor jack in place as backup). And, after the asphalt incident, I never play the dangerous “I’m just changing a wheel I’m not actually under the car so I don’t need the jack stands” game.

In my garage, I have a mid-rise scissors lift. A stand-mounted electric pump drives fluid into two large pistons that force the lift upward. You push a button to energize the pump. The lift has four mechanical lock-stops at one foot intervals. When you hear the lift click past the stop you want, you flip a small lever to engage the lock, then push a large lever on the pump to release the fluid pressure and set the lift down on the stop. I’ve always regarded it as very safe. And it is. If you don’t have a brain fart.

So here’s what happened. I’d just installed braided stainless lines on Otto, the ’74 2002tii, and was bleeding the brakes. The car was up on the lift with all four wheels off. No fluid came out the left rear bleed valve, so I began to scooch under the car’s left rear corner to undo the line I’d just installed and see if fluid came out. I had my entire upper body under there when I heard the hydraulics release pressure and saw the lift slowly drop. I scrambled to get out from underneath but wasn’t fast enough. 

My life did not flash before my eyes. I didn’t think “this way? I go this way?” I didn’t think, as I’ve often joked, “if I die under a car, Maire Anne will kill me.” Oddly, what ran through my mind in the roughly two seconds it took for the car to drop was whether my rib cage would get punctured, or whether, as was the case with a local garage proprietor I know, my head would get pinned (he survived).

And then the car stopped. It came to a gentle rest on the hubs and discs. And, incredibly, I was fine, because my body was behind the rear hub, and there’s about 10” between the bottom of the hub and the underside of the rear fender. My sole injury appeared to be a scratch about an inch and a half long on my left shoulder blade. The next morning, the scratch blossomed into more of a contusion because the car actually hit me before it stopped.

How did it happen? I’d taken the left rear wheel off and leaned it against the wall of the garage, but before I crawled under the back of the car, I’d carelessly moved the wheel, and it was leaning directly against the release lever on the pump. When I scooched under the car, I apparently nudged the wheel with my leg, which depressed the pump’s release lever.

But that shouldn’t have mattered if the lift was sitting on a lock-stop. Why in God’s name wasn’t it? The scary part is that I have no explanation for this. I never put the lift up without locking it. There’s no reason to. It takes just a few seconds. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps I’d moved it up for just a moment to grab a dropped wrench, then was interrupted, and when I came back, I just assumed the lift was sitting on a lock-stop.

After the event, my brain said “finish the repair; you’ll process all this later.” So I did. I raised the lift back up, made certain it was locked, and finished bleeding the brakes.

In the ensuing days, I thought a lot about what happened. Some injuries result from dancing in risk’s cross-hairs for too long, but I don’t think this was one of them. I think it was just a rogue event. I wondered whether the car’s controlled descent (it floated down on depressurizing hydraulics; it didn’t topple off a stand) would’ve crushed me or merely pinned me. Throw in a pig carcass and it would’ve made a good episode of Mythbusters. I opted for “pinned,” as the other possibility was unfathomable. My main concern was that I’d dream about being crushed by a car, but I haven’t yet. I’ve instituted a new three-part procedure: 1) Make sure the lift is on a lock-stop. 2) Make sure nothing is near the release lever. 3) If you’re going to actually work under the lift, roll two wheels beneath it as fail-safe blockades. “Brain fart” makes it sound funny. It wasn’t. This can not happen again.

They say that, when people have near-death experiences, their life often comes into clearer focus. They tell their family they love them more often, quit their jobs, do bucket list stuff, take the big trip they’ve always wanted, buy the XKE, that sort of thing. I am already very happy with my life, am pretty gratuitous with spreading the love, and have more cool cars than I know what to do with. And I’d already begun re-prioritizing things to bring my singer-songwriter self back into the fold several months ago, gigging again and recording my 3rd album. And, really, I’m just not a bucket list guy. I’m shaken, but not stirred.

Oh all right. An M1 and a trip to Fiji with Maire Anne. And maybe another guitar. I did actually have one stolen. Because I may be a hack mechanic, but I am a real musician.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Crusty Goes West by the Late Great Dan Erwin

Crusty Goes West

Any trip can be challenging, but when you start with a 2002 that should never leave home, survival becomes your destination.

By the late great Dan Ewrin
Roundel Magazine, October 2002, All Rights Reserved

“Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. It will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” -Ernest Hemingway

Papa was right: It is a universal truth that, whether you're flying high on a dozen Tequila Fanny jaBangers or riding the crest of passion for a Great Idea, opening your big mouth will surely lead to fear, loathing, trepidation, remorse, and grievous physical injury—maybe simultaneously. Substitute manic enthusiasm for the elevating qualities of single malt in that quotation, and you have the story of a life—but I have yet to learn to keep my damn mouth shut. So when the editor says, "You're going to drive an 02 to Oktoberfest, eh? Good! Give us a mad-trip story!", the fateful phrase "No problem!" pops out before I properly analyze my chances of getting to Keystone, Colorado, in my only running 02. A quick trip out to the garage, wherein resides Crusty, the nastiest 2002 this side of a hydraulic car crusher, provides the answer: None. Zero, zip, nada. Not a chance in hell.

Or maybe—well, Crusty is a car I had dragged out of the weeds in a fit of misguided redemption, a neglected, rusty orphan. True, I did have big plans for this car... so why not just drive this wreck to Colorado? I mean, July was months away. Surely I'd have time to get this sucker jam up by then.


You know how much hard work transpired by July. Lots, actually–but not on old Crusty. No, he just squatted in the garage, hunkered down on one side with a couple of incipient flats, growling at me whenever I passed. It was sort of a mutual admiration society: I was afraid of him, he was afraid of me. But finally, a month from Zero Hour, I drew myself up to full height, took a deep breath, and dived into the garage. Crusty got a rebuilt head, a new water pump, an actual 320i radiator, and a Pinto carburetor. (Don't ask; it was what I had in the basement.)

The next requirement for such a monumental undertaking was a co-driver. You know, someone to share the pain of a driveshaft clattering to the pavement at 3:00 a.m. in Des Moines. The obvious choice is tech editor Mike Miller. "Call Mikey," I thought. "He's young and stupid. He'll do anything."

But apparently the word was out on Crusty. "Gosh, I'd love to," said Miller, "but it's this damn Galloping Leprosy. Just contracted it day before yesterday. Body parts falling off right and left. Painful, too. Horrible, really. And the smell: deadly. Sorry, bud, I'd really love to spend a week in the parking lot of the Salina Cracker Barrel trying to fix your wreck, but I just can't."

Photographer Jon van Woerden was next. After all, he was committed to Oktoberfest; wouldn't he like a ride? "Gee, I've got this airplane ticket, see, and I just couldn't let that go to waste now, could I? Besides, Erwin, your taste in music sucks." That does it: My moderate enthusiasm hardens into bulldog determination. I will make this trip no matter what–and I will have loads of fun. I'll show 'em. Boy, will they be sorry.

So, with me doing my own creative wrenching, Zero Hour comes... and goes. I am still completing the hold-it-in-with-safety- wire installation of Crusty's radiator when I glance at my watch and exclaim, "Oy. No it's a jillion miles of driving we gotta do." By my calculations, Keystone, Colorado, scene of the Big Party, is roughly sixteen hundred miles away. At this point I do not know if Crusty will run sixteen consecutive miles–at sea level, much less at 14,000 feet. But he does crank over, fire up, and run, after a fashion, so I throw the contents of my basement in the trunk, pitch all my moderately clean underwear in a duffel, and I'm out the door and down the street. I like this kind of planning. It suits my need for chaos.

Actually, I do have a few checkpoints in mind. If Crusty makes it to Chattanooga, I'll be good to go on the next leg to Nashville, and so on. I find that if you break a long journey down into manageable segments, it–well, actually, it prolongs the agony, making a long trip seem a hell of a lot longer. The real key to a long distance journey in an 02 is to straight-line the old encephalogram as much as possible, allow your eyes to glaze over, get into the proper Zone of Zombience, and let the miles slide by. Ignore, if you can, the fact that the hot, noisy, rough mode of transport currently beating you to death is better suited for tooling around the home burg than for transcontinental epics.

But by Chattanooga, Crusty is still humming along quite nicely, and I begin to have good thoughts about the Grand Adventure. "Crusty's a good ol' hoss," I mutter in a sort of stupefied cross-country karaoke. "Crusty's a sturdy ol' skate. Yessir, good ol' Crusty's... on fire. What? Fire! Crusty's on fire! All hands on deck! Abandon ship!"

Fortunately, I have an extensive background in dealing with disaster, so with smoke billowing from the dash pod and conditions quickly going south my first thought is, "We're doing 70 miles an hour in heavy traffic on I75... do not do anything to surprise your fellow travelers." This translates to not cramming the brake pedal through the floor, instead steering gently onto the shoulder–and then cramming the brake pedal through the floor. After that, it's simply a matter of ripping the instrument pod out of the dash, pitching it into the rear seat, and locating the offending hot wire in the wiring harness. There it is: The smoking, bubbling insulation gives it away immediately. I yank it off the ground it has welded itself to and rip it out of the harness. A similar action in the engine bay stops the conflagration. Then I have time to sit, let my pulse rate come down from 200, and think about the whole venture.

"Idiot," I say to myself. "What made you think you could nurse this piece of... of automotive history all the way to Colorado? Idiot!" But then the rational lobe–or the tiny remaining rational corner of a lobe takes over: "Well, nothing major has fallen off, and the motor still runs, so let's do a damage assessment." When I determine that the only electrical casualty seems to be the tach–which didn't work anyway– I decide to continue. Idiot.

Call me stubborn (or other things), but one motivating factor at this point is the vision of my self-righteous Roundel colleagues nodding their heads at the news that I'd bombed out less than a hundred miles from home. "I knew it," they'd say. “Lucky for us we bailed on that lunatic." Well, no way: Failure has become an unacceptable option. And Crusty seems filled with new determination as well; on into the early twilight hours, he doesn't miss a beat, and I begin to relax. Calm, cool, collected, that's me–except for the fact that every nerve is on edge, waiting for the next hint of trauma. It takes a while to really relax when you know that hideous, smoking immolation is a mere hot-wire-to-ground away.

North of Nashville I stop for gas. At the next pump is a refrigerated van; painted on its side is a graphic representation of juicy steaks grilling on the barbecue. A character not unlike myself, slightly disheveled and bearing the marks of extended travel, saunters up and says in a low voice, "Hey, buddy, you want to buy some really nice steaks? I got to sell 'em quick or they're gonna go bad." I picture my friend chasing a herd of Mad Cows with his cleaver, in search of product for his van, and I hesitate. And yet, in my present advanced stage of hunger, an exhaust manifold-grilled filet mignon would be heaven—also, given my state of mind and mode of transport, it would be so right. But in the end I decline, as ptomaine would adversely affect my ability to effect roadside repairs on Crusty. Yes, I retain a sneaking suspicion that there might be more patchwork activity involved in this particular road trip, even though I call home and report, "No problems. [I somehow fail to mention the fire.] Nope, trip's going smooth as a double-chocolate gelato so far." To myself I say, "Problems? That's when Crusty's on the roof or in the ditch."

Twilight descends as I soar up I57 into the agricultural environs of Carbondale, Illinois. Good name for a coal-mining town, eh? At this point I've almost relaxed again, and when a couple of local kids in their kitted-up Japanoboxes zoom up, laugh at my 02, and give me a high sign, I do a quick study of their rides; the body kits are not obtrusive, and one has vinyl graphics that aren't way out of line. These guys are having fun running the highway on a Friday night–maintaining the speed limit, in fact–and I find no fault whatsoever in their passion or behavior. But when one smiling shotgun rider circles his index finger in the air, I shake my head and respectfully decline the invitation. Crusty, at 26 flywheel horsepower on a good day, is not yet ready to take on the dual-overhead-cammed sixteen-valved turbocharged denizens of the genre. We ride like this for quite a while, until the boys drop back, suddenly. I wonder why they've reduced speed so radically, since Br'er Valentine, ensconced on my windshield, don't say nothin'.

A bridge transition answers my question. It seems that the Illinois DOT doesn't really do transitions, those gradual ramps onto bridge surfaces. Instead they do steps. Really big steps. As in, "Wham!" and four wheels off the ground. But what would have broken one of the Hondas in half merely rattles Crusty's fillings, and I resume my progress after cutting speed substantially. All appears well, as Crusty seems to be answering the helm nicely, but what's the deal with my temperature gauge? It has begun a series of slow, spastic lurches toward the red end of the dial. It's a VDO aftermarket gauge, and I've verified the accuracy. (See, you thought I was a complete moron, didn't you? Now you can take it all back.) Something is definitely wrong.

I pull into a grungy all-night gas station south of Mount Vernon, Illinois, to survey the situation. As I raise Crusty's bonnet and study the cooling system, I see a thumb-sized gusher of water pouring from the very bottom of the aluminum 320i radiator... and the fan has that chewed-on look. Is it possible that the jolt of that nasty bridge non-transition has flexed my lovely radiator into the fan, or vice-versa? It is, and it has. Damn. And I used really good safety wire when I installed the radiator, too, one of those temporary lash-ups that never got done right because I didn't have the time. Well, I have time now. Weeks and weeks of it–months, even–at an all-night gas station south of Mount Vernon, Illinois. Contemplation of my fate leads me to an inescapable conclusion: This place, the whole state of Illinois—nay, the world and its environs, indeed, the Entire Known Universe–just sucks. Anybody contemplating the location, purchase, and installation of a replacement BMW 320i radiator at midnight in rural Illinois may be forgiven for thinking the same.

After a few off-the-negative-scale thoughts about the Illinois DOT, I take a more rational approach to the situation. After all, I am standing outside a Mini- Mart; who knows what manner of powerful healing devices they might have in there? I stroll in, and the bemused teen with a scraggly blond goatee points me toward a rack of various Insta-Weld products. He lives with us refugees nightly, has seen our countless pitiful attempts to patch traumatic failures and get just a few more miles down the road. Like John Steinbeck's Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, we have grit and determination, but little else to ease the pain of our journey. I eye the blister-packed miscellany, and–"Wait a minute!" I cry. "We got Silicone Seal here! Friends and neighbors, salvation is at hand! Hallelujah!"

Popping the radiator out of the car is a snap, since the safety wire formerly holding it in wasn't all that secure in the first place. Now I debrade and clean the wound, which consists of one severed down-tube and one with a nasty reverse-aneurysm, and apply the treatment. For those unfamiliar with silicone seal in its various forms, know that it's a vinegar-smelling, sticky snot-like substance touted as a permanent moisture-excluding caulk for bonding any sort of similar or dissimilar materials. In my experience, however, if you are not bonding surgically-clean pieces of specially-prepared material, silicone seal is worse than useless: It makes a big mess and sticks to nothing. But it's better than actual snot–at least I think so–so although my radiator is something less than operating-table clean, I squeeze half a tube of the stuff into the cut, cross my fingers, and let it set. This involves reclining Crusty's shredded driver's seat, lying back, and taking a nap.

Hey, it's what us Okies do in the middle of the night when we're all broke down.

After twenty minutes of Safe and Restful Sleep, I arise, gently lower the radiator into position, fasten it tenuously with what's left of my safety wire, and borrow a bucket from my goateed friend to demonstrate the non-permanent properties of my ugly patch. I carefully gurgle the first gallon of water into the radiator, holding my breath, averting my eyes to the preordained sight of gouts of water spouting out my jack-leg fix...

And it holds. Gracious Mother of Roadside Repairs, it's holding! It leaks nary a drop. It's time for a gentle twelve-mile dash up the road to Mount Vernon proper, where, my friend alleges, they have such things as motels. There I shall regroup, assess my fate, and rest–and after a partial night's sleep at a Motel 6 in The Coldest Room in the World, I arise to a lovely sight. No, not the sun: I hate the sun, which makes Crusty run hot. The sight I'm talking about is water–or rather the absence of it, on the asphalt beneath Crusty's radiator. It is a beautiful, spirit-buoying sight indeed, especially so since the only auto-parts store in Mount Vernon is some sort of Mr. Auto Parts blister-pack city, not the sort of place to find a BMW 320i radiator, new or used.

The only salvage yard, probably a veritable treasure trove of clapped-out '76 Buick LeSabres, is closed on Saturday, which it is, alas; so no help there. But Walmart we got, so–electing to purchase some insurance– I cruise on over to Sam Walton's Better Idea. I drift to the automotive department; I know what I'm looking for, and I know it's here. It has to be. A friendly blue-vested helper directs me to the proper row of shelving, and there, prominently displayed, is the Ultimate Salvation: JB Weld. If silicone seal is the world of corporate crime, broken promises, and global warming, JB Weld is the space program, John McCain, and the stuff holding together the earth's core–and now we have JB Kwik, which sets in four minutes. Better than a belt, suspenders, and a Prudential policy against the possibility of an inadvertent wedgie. I'm beginning to get my confidence back. I also purchase about a pound of black plastic tie wraps; when the earth's core begins to come apart, we'll use these to tie it back together.

In the parking lot, a Midwesterner roughly my age is attending his hard-bit S-I0 pickup. "How old is it?" he says, gesturing at Crusty. Everyone wants to know how old Crusty is, but, like any hard-workin' cowboy, Crusty's outdoor life belies his age. Crusty looks 130, but he's a mere sylph of a Bimmer at 34. I explain that he's a 1968–the oldest sunroof 02, to my knowledge, imported into the U.S. That bit of information never fails not to impress, but this is a nice guy. "At first I thought it was a Corvair," he says. He sees me tying Crusty's radiator in place with tie wraps. "Need any help?" he offers. I laugh, tell him I'm only going as far as Denver, and politely decline. He looks hard at me and shakes his head. "Denver, huh? Okay... well, good luck," he says. And he means it. I love the Midwest.

Crusty, meanwhile, is ready to hit the rowdy road. He's humming like a good fake Rolex (Taiwanese). I check the water (full!) and launch down the moonscape Illinois DOT on-ramp toward St. Louis. The morning is cool, Crusty is happy, and I just know that this is the beginning of The Easy Part Of The trip as we do a splendid early morning run into St. Louis. I approach a sign that says "Exceeding Speed Limit When Flashing"–and it's blinking like mad at Crusty's approach. Yes! High five! Take that, you local revenue generators; I'm exceeding your stinkin' speed limit! Then I glance nervously at Br' er Valentine. He don't say nothin'. I relax, and cruise through the Gateway to the West.

Are we there yet?

The answer, of course, is no–hell, no. There's Kansas. There's always Kansas. Kansas: Voted state most likely to be given to Canada for free, provided they'll cart the place off. Kansas: the state that makes Illinois seem lush as Maui. Kansas: the state with a motto that says, "Twice as long as Texas, with half the interesting bits." Why am I bashing Kansas, all you Kansasians are asking? It's your sadistic DOT, friends. When you roll into Kansas from the east, there are signs posted at the border, big signs, that say Limon: 555 miles. Limon is at the very border of Kansas and Colorado. And it's half the earth's circumference away, or so I'm told by this malevolent DOT signmaker's idea of a joke. No telling how many people have just turned around at the very thought of 555 more miles of Kansas and driven back to Philadelphia because they couldn't face the pain, or just driven into an abutment because death seemed preferable to the endless monotony of further travel.

Other than that I like your state just fine.

In fact, I'm doing so well in Kansas that, at a gas station outside of Salina, I get just a little cocky and tighten my radiator cap. This puts pressure on the system, makes it a little more resistant to temperature rise, and provides a nice test of the sealing qualities of my nasty little patch. Is this a good thing? I have my answer within 30 miles as the temp gauge needle begins its now familiar tap, dance up the dial. Why do I do these things? Intellectual curiosity, friends, spelled a-b-j-e-c-t s-t-u-p-i-d-i-t-y. So with the gauge telling me that stopping any time in the next 30 seconds might save what's left of Crusty's motor, I wheel off I70, up the ramp, and hang a right into–


For a million miles–or at least thirty in any direction–there's every bit as much vibrant life as one might see on the surface of Mars. I proceed down a nominally-paved, narrow two-lane road until it turns to gravel. This coincides with pained exclamations from the tortured two-liter, so it's time to shut down and consider my situation. I spot a weathered sign in the distance: probably the Bates Motel advertising a nice vacancy, but no, the sign says "Easy Jack's." And it's a salvage yard! I pull Crusty off the beaten path out of the blazing early-afternoon sun and into a small patch of shade. I have my JB Weld, I have my tie wraps, and I'm at a junkyard: Things could be worse. But there's still no sign of life. The dust from my recent arrival hangs in the air like a bad memory. With Crusty shut down, there are no sounds, not even birds singing. It's spooky. Even spookier is the fact that I don't have enough water to fill my radiator once I repair it; I need water to clean, water to test, then water to fill the thing. I have one gallon. It's time to call on Mr. Easy Jack.

As I trudge, gallon containers in hand, toward the outbuildings that pass for storage and repair space at Easy Jack's, I take note of the junked hulks lining Jack's fences, and I'm startled to see that they aren't hulks after all. In fact, they're in damn good shape considering that they date from the '20s to the '60s. It's all American iron, from Model Ts to DeSotos and classic ' 50s Chevies and Fords. Most of them have surface rust, but little else. And they haven't been stripped, cut up, or left to molder away. The windows are closed, the cars are neatly aligned, and they're mostly complete. Where the hell am I, anyway, a museum? At this point I expect Rod Serling to step out from behind a tree and intone, "Yes, a Chevy man's heaven is a Bimmerhead's hell in... The Twilight Zone!" But I still need water, and I don't see Rod anywhere, so I approach the only house in the group of buildings.

People have been shot for trespassing, but I'm a desperate man and I need water. I find that knocking on a door in the middle of nowhere is easy if a horrible, lingering sun-parched death is the alternative. As I knock again, more insistently, I detect faint movement in the bowels of the dwelling. Then a curtain is pushed aside. Finally, footsteps approach the door. I'm hot, tired, and semi-delirious; and now either I'm going to get shot dead or I'm going to get some water. At this point it's a no-lose situation.

A rumpled figure opens the door. He's maybe in his late 50s, wearing a uniform shirt that says "Jack" above the left pocket "Hello, I'll bet you're Jack," I opine, thereby preserving my reputation as a master of Ie bon mot.

He nods, not impressed with my humor. "What can I do for you?" he says.

I gesture up the road toward Crusty and say, "Well, I'm broke down right up your road there... radiator problem... but all I really need is some water... unless you happen to have a BMW 320i radiator lying around." He lets a half-smile slide off his face, shakes his head.

"Man, this is the best salvage y-" I say, cutting myself off before I complete the phrase. "Well, it's more like a museum, isn't it?" I recover. "It's the best collection I've seen in a long time."

"Thanks. I've been at it awhile," he says, this time with a genuine smile. "There's a water spigot over in the side yard," he adds, gesturing to his left, "if that's all you need."

I nod my head and thank Jack for his kindness. If I have to break down once on a 1,600- mile trip, at least I've found the perfect place to do it. I could wander around this yard for a week in complete bliss. But I have miles to go before I sleep... and miles... and miles. When was I due in Keystone? Yesterday? Probably–today at the latest. But what day is it now anyway, Saturday? Hell, I don't know. I fill my gallon jugs and shuffle up the gravel road to Crusty–who, alas, looks worse than anything in Easy Jack's yard.

I've got one shot at the brass ring, so I'd better make sure it's a good grab. I have two tiny tubes of JB Weld components, a roll of paper towels, and a pair of needlenose pliers for yanking the failed silicone seal from between the fins of my precious radiator. I spend maybe 30 minutes pulling and scraping at the silicone seal and cleaning the damaged fins, but finally there comes a point of diminishing returns where the dirt migrates into position at the same rate I'm getting rid of it, so it's time to roll the dice, all or nothing.

JB Kwik has a very limited set-up time, so I have to work fast, and with surgical precision. My glasses are so fogged up and sweaty that I can't even see the car, much less the holes in my radiator. One last swipe at the glasses and it's show time: Squeeze out half the contents of both tubes, mix quickly, and bloop-blop the resulting gray pancake batter into the radiator fins. I use only half the JB Kwik because I'm going to apply two layers of the stuff; the first will take care of the major trauma, and the second should seal the pinholes. In place 30 minutes later, the patch looks good–a hell of a lot better than my silicone seal mess–and I'm good to go, at least in theory. In practice, well, it's me doing this, after all. I ease the radiator into place, double tie-wrap it, gently droozle the water into its dark confines, and offer up a small prayer: Holy Matriarch of Twice-Patched Radiators, please guide your addled son along the torturous path of righteousness to his Ultimate Destination. Amen. Oh, and could you do it without a whole lot more of this crap? Thanks. Amen.

I resume my journey. In a spot of honor on the seat beside me is the damn radiator cap. No way is that Instrument of the Devil going to get near my radiator.

The good news is that I only have half of Kansas left to traverse; of course, that's the bad news, too. The rest of the drive west will be an exercise in eye-foot coordination. I have one eye always on the temperature gauge. If it stays steady, I gently increase pressure on the throttle until it moves up ... just a little. When it stabilizes at half a needle below an indicated 200 degrees, I've discovered just the right throttle position for this gradient, elevation, and outside air temperature. This stasis lasts about ten seconds before I have to repeat the procedure. It's a Zen exercise in the art of controlling every muscle in your body toward a given end with an infinite number of constantly-changing variables. The likely outcome of this sort of exercise is institutionalization in some maximum security hospital for the hopelessly insane not a bad option at this juncture.

Finally, in the darkening evening, the lights of Limon appear on the horizon. Kansas no mo! Free at last! Tears of joy erode clean tracks down my grime-smeared face. I think about gas, but I've got a quarter tank. Enough for 40 miles, at least. However, forty miles later, way west of Limon, there's not a damn thing for... well, another 40 miles. The gas gauge needle bounces into the gutter; I'm about to turn into a pumpkin in a really lonesome place. Panic! But then what seems to be the only Colorado road east of Denver, Deer Trail Road, saves me from running slap out of gas. It's the middle of the night in the middle of Real Nowhere, but an unattended Phillips station, the only one for miles and miles, is a hot spot. As I gas up, two truckloads of early-twenties cowboys in 4WD Fords do the same. Their women are youthful, pretty, and blonde. The first two descriptors aren't likely to last in this outback, I reflect. Then the world's rustiest Datsun 510 creaks in for a fill-up. Crusty, sensing the competition, growls. It is midnight.

Chasing on through Denver, tank full, engine cool, I begin to have celebratory thoughts... between naps. Whoops! No napping! No, not even a cat-nap! At this point, pain is good, the more the better. Where's that ball-peen hammer? But the fresh mountain air soon banishes the flying monkeys, and I find that shifting becomes a constant diversion. As I gain altitude, I lose gears, going from fifth (yeah, you, purists, it's a five-speed) to fourth, and finally to third on some of the steeper grades. I spot the ultra-modem Front Range house that Woody Allen cavorted through in Sleeper and I know that its glowing rounded contours are showing me the way home. I'm going to make it. C'mon, Crusty, one more big effort and we're there!

The Eisenhower Tunnel is our Last Great Obstacle. Crusty climbs the grade easily in the cool air. Hell, this afternoon I was heat-prostrated, and now I'm freezing, thinking about the heater! (Yes, it works, too). We zoom through the brightly-lit confines of the tube, out the other side, and I know that from here on in, I can coast if necessary. There's not much traffic on the final approach to my destination, the Arapahoe Motel; I guess 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is not party time in Keystone. I ghost into the Arapahoe parking lot so as not to disturb the legitimate guests, claim a parking space, and with my last shred of energy, pack-mule it to the front desk, where the manager has left a room key. I stagger up the hall, insert the electronic card, and I'm home at last. I glance in the mirror and the red-rimmed goblin staring back at me flashes a victorious rictus. "We made it, pardner," I tell him. "But no offense intended, you look like pure distilled hell." He laughs back at me as I tum and stumble toward the neo-westem bit of heaven that is my bed, collapsing face down as the world goes black and I hear the fading tinkling pings and snaps out in the parking lot as Crusty, too, settles in for the night. Dreaming, no doubt, of the upcoming Oktoberfest Concours.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

I Passed on a $6000 E39 M5

[The Hack Mechanic / March 2012, BMW CCA Roundel Magazine, all rights reserved]

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes is the one where the Organians prevent a war, then dissolve into energy. The rest of us, however, need to live in the corporeal universe, battered about by our needs and wants, and occasionally screaming at ourselves “what the hell are you doing?” That’s the proper context for the 2002 BMW M5 with 290,000 miles.

The ad, with an eye-poppingly-low asking price of $7000, said that the owner had bought the car at auction with 78,000 miles in 2005, but that it had been well cared-for, with many new parts including a timing chain and VANOS components. As for the high mileage, the ad said, “if you care for these high-performance German race cars as I have, then the miles are not an issue.” Sure, I thought, easy for you to say. You’re selling it. He added “if you want to drive this car, you must bring cash when you see it.”

Despite its “beast” reputation, I had no particular lust for an E39 M5. My E39 528iT sportwagon was, by a country mile, the most troublesome, highest-maintenance BMW I’ve ever owned, and I had no desire to magnify that flamethrower through the M lens. However, there is some degree of academic lure in a 150 mph M car that sold for over 100 grand new.

So I did my due diligence. I had the seller text me the VIN. The CarFax came up clean, and jived with his story of buying the car in 2005. (You never know unless you check. I’ve caught car flippers telling bald-faced lies.) A web search for the VIN unearthed a post on from someone who had seen the car and reported that, actually, it wasn’t all that bad. I submitted the VIN to a decoder site, and it showed that the car was loaded with everything from parking assist to a suede anthracite headliner (if anything has ever so not impressed Maire Anne, it was me saying “but… it’s got a suede anthracite headliner”).

I posted a link to the CL ad for the car on Facebook, with the straw man argument “why not buy it, drive the living snot out of it until something expensive breaks, and then part it out?” The Hack Mechanic faithful sounded like guys egging a frat brother on to chug.

Right about this time, my son Ethan, not knowing any of this, gave me a pair of cufflinks with a six-speed gearshift pattern on them. A sign! Saints be praised! Then the seller texted me and offered me the car for six grand. Curiosity turned into obsession. Maire Anne said “Just go see it. Get it out of your system. It’ll be like that Bavaria in Belchertown you kept going on and on about until you were done with it.” Ah, she knows me too well.

So I made the call. I pulled six grand out of the bank. But if the seller was clear about wanting cash, I was equally adamant about wanting to see the receipts for the engine work.

He met me early one Sunday morning in the parking lot of a nearby hotel, opening the M5’s door and saying “get in.” I did. He then pulled onto Rt 95 and proceeded to weave through light traffic at 100 mph. I asked him to slow down. “Oh, you don’t like to drive fast?” he asked. “Why would you buy a car like this if you don’t like to drive fast?”

Actually, an excellent question.

Even as a passenger, I could feel the car’s bent wheels. Though he drove the car quite fast, he shifted in a very slow and deliberate manner, as if he was babying the transmission. He also said “on a car like this, you don’t use the brakes much, because the engine’s so powerful, it slows the car down really quickly.” This is not a statement that inspires confidence in the seller. Or the brakes.

We returned to the parking lot where I could look at the car. The body seemed intact, save dents in the front fenders the seller said were due to deer collisions. It wasn’t dripping copious volumes of fluid. There was a snotty metallic rattle almost certainly due to an idler pulley on the serpentine belt – trivial to fix. But… what’s that low pumping/knocking sound alternating from both sides of the V8? I asked to see the receipts for the engine work.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, “I forgot those.”

That was enough. What the hell am I doing? I’m losing access to the storage in the warehouse where I’ve worked for years. I need fewer cars, not more. The four-mile-each-way commute I’ve had since 1984 is about to increase to 20. I need something dependable and fuel-efficient, not a four hundred horsepower beast with nearly 300,000 miles on it that sucks gas like two Suburbans. Other than the bragging rights of buying an E39 M5 for six grand, other than having limitless material for endless Hack Mechanic columns, what would I buy this car for, really? I don’t want to find the pain threshold where I part it out when it breaks. When I bought my 1999 Z3 M Coupe, my lust was so strong that my left brain had to gag my right brain with a sock. This was the opposite. I admit it. I had no lust for this car. I thought, I should spend the time and money putting my tii back together. I’d get more enjoyment out of it than this car. Hell, I’d get more enjoyment out of a ’63 Ramber Classic than this car.

We’re done here.

“Do you want to drive it?” he asked. “No thanks,” I smiled. “I’m good.”

“I don’t think this car is for you,” he said. Amazingly, I agreed.

But, as Klingon Commander Kor said to Kirk after the Organians stopped the war, “it would’ve been glorious.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Vintage -- Part IV

Last week, while working on Brian Ach’s ’73 2002tii that died on the way to The Vintage, I stumbled into Rust Central. I found rust in the car’s fuel pump, gas tank, and fuel lines. I cleaned it all out and installed a new fuel pump, yet the problem persisted. I chased it into that chamber of nightmares that is the fuel injection system itself, following the troubleshooting procedure detailed in BMW’s 2002tii Fuel Injection manual. The symptoms— seeing what appeared to be bubbles of fuel and air through the translucent plastic fuel line on #4 only, having virtually no fuel come out #4 when I cracked open that line, the car not running much rougher with #4 line disconnected, and the problem not switching cylinders when I swapped delivery and suction valves—seemed to point to the problem being in the Kugelfischer injection pump itself.
Now, everyone, myself included, says to suspect the injection pump last. And that was certainly the case here, particularly since this pump had just been rebuilt by one of the five people in the country who specialize in such work. But diagnosis is diagnosis. And, with all that rust, sediment, and scale found in the fuel lines, the fuel tank, and the fuel pump, how could it not have contaminated the injection? Plus, there was the mystery of the ripped screen at the inlet of the injection pump. Had those shreds of brass gotten into the pump and bollixed it up?
As I said last week, the injection pump is a fabulous mechanical contrivance. There’s a good explanation of its functionality in the official manual for the 2002tii fuel injection system (, but the basic approach is “no user serviceable parts inside.” Was it even possible for rusty gas to contaminate the injection pump and cause the symptoms I was seeing? If so, could I understand the mechanism by which that could happen and fix it?
I searched on and found a very informative thread about how a stuck piston in the injection pump could cause some of the symptoms I was seeing. The thread also said that you could unstick pistons by removing the suction valves (which exposes the tops of the pistons) and simply pressing down on them with a non-marring rod like a pencil eraser. I didn’t understand. I mean, if it’s a piston, how can you unstick it just by pressing down on it? Isn’t it rigidly attached by something like a connecting rod? But the thread also said, basically, “don’t be afraid of pulling the head off the injection pump to expose the pistons. It’s really not that big of a deal.” One of the contributors to the thread was Bill Williams, a very knowledgeable tii guy not prone to telling folks to jump off a cliff.
Symptoms fit? Source good? Procedure not a fool’s errand? Right. I’m going in.
For reams of detail on my trip in Kugelfischerpumpland, check out the technical article I wrote about it and posted on 2002faq:
Long story short (or shorter), you read about how the Kugelfisher pump is like a little piston motor that squirts fuel into the injector lines (it even uses that description in the official manual), but that’s more than a little misleading. The pump does have a camshaft with lobes, and pushrods, and little bores, and little “pistons” that run in those bores, and a head that sits on the top of the pump, making you think the rest of the pump is like a block. But it’s not. The little cylinder bores are actually in the head, not in the block. And the things that run up and down in them are referred to in the manual not as pistons, but as spring-loaded plungers. This is why you can push down on them to unstick them; they’re not rigidly attached.
(The little numbs in the pic below of the bottom end of the KFish pump are the pushrods.)

(This is the underside of the pump head showing the cylinder bores.)

(Here’s the underside of the head, upside down, with the four spring-loaded plungers in their bores.)

But, to get to the immediate point, no one tells you that the spring-loaded plungers go into the little bores from the underside of the head, so when you lift the head off the pump, the plungers and their little springs and clips simply fall out. This is, you know, kind of important. If you’re lucky, all four plungers, springs, and clips stay together and drop down inside the bottom end of the pump, which is scary but not that big of a deal as long as the springs and clips stay on the plungers (ie, big pieces of metal falling inside a Swiss watch is sort of okay because you can easily pick them out, but small pieces of metal would be really bad).
Of course if you’re unlucky like me, one of them doesn’t drop into the pump. You see something silver out of the corner of your eye, hear it go clank, and then… only silence, darkness, and pain.
Plunger overboard!
Yup, to my horror, one of them did not drop straight down into the pump. It went over the side, somewhere between the pump and the battery. Straight into darkness, as Tom Petty said. I spent hours looking in the engine compartment and on the garage floor. I jacked up the car. I felt everywhere around the top of the front subframe. I even used a borescope to look in the crevice at the back of the left frame rail (the place that swallows whole wrenches) and in the gap between the left engine mount and the steering box. I even took the alternator and its bracket completely off to be certain the plunger hadn’t fallen into the recesses behind it. Nothing.
I had decapitated someone else’s KFish pump and dropped and lost a plunger.
I was mortified.
Now, I have two old Kugelfischer pumps in unknown condition kicking around the garage. One was removed from an engine I pulled out of a rusty tii 30 years ago, cam’d and Weber’d it, and installed it into Bertha (which my friend Alex still owns). The other is from another friend’s car; he replaced it with a rebuilt KFish pump. I thought I could just yank a plunger out of one of them and rescue myself from my own idiocy. But on both pumps, some of the bolts holding on the pump head were seized. After drilling out the stuck bolts on one of the heads, I cleaned one of the plungers, and tried to put it into a bore in the head from Brian’s pump.
It didn’t fit.
What the…?
I looked on 2002faq and learned that, in fact, there are very rare racing pumps with oversized bores and plungers, but I measured the plungers I’d just removed, and this wasn’t one of them. Its plungers were very close in size to the ones in Brian’s pump, just ever so slightly larger enough that fitting them felt like forcing them.
I posted this debacle on Facebook, and in the kind of supportive action that makes you glad to be part of a tightly-knit enthusiast community, CCA member Karel Jennings responded “I have a Kugelfischer setup that came with an engine I bought years ago and installed Megasquirt onto. Want me to send you the pump head and four plungers? I have injectors as well; I’d be glad to send those too.” With a grateful response on my end, the spare pump head and plungers were on the way.
I then called Ben Thongsai (he who heals cars with his mind, and who said I should’ve convinced Brian to have his car towed to The Vintage, that we could’ve fixed it there) and picked his brain about the problem in general and the non-fitting plungers in particular. Ben said he thought it was likely that, when the KFish pumps were built, sets of plungers were probably hand-selected and hand-fitted to bores, so it was conceivable that plunger sets from one pump head might be slightly too tight or too loose for another pump head. Ben also confirmed that heads and plunger sets should swap freely between pumps—that, if I never found the fourth plunger to Brian’s original pump head, there should be no issue with swapping over the entire head and plunger set from another pump. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Ben also offered that, with hindsight, there were two things I could’ve tried before pulling the pump head off. The first was to remove all four suction valves, remove the KFish pump belt, and turn the pulley by hand and verify you can see all four plungers going up and down. If a plunger didn’t move, the second thing to try was, as I read in 2002faq, to push a small non-marring dowel onto the top of the plunger to free it. Hearing that, I began to think that, the rusty gas notwithstanding, perhaps Ben might have been able to work his magic had he been the one in the parking lot instead of me (pull the suction valve, press down on the plunger, problem gone, shucks, no big deal, see you at The Vintage—just the kind of thing he’d do). Unfortunately, I’d used the big hammer of yanking the pump head, so there was no way to know what I might have seen had I tried these measures (though my left brain said “crikey, all four plungers simply fell out; how could any of them have been stuck?”).
Ben and I talked about this, and he, in fact, was highly doubtful of the stuck plunger theory. He said that that stuck plungers were far more likely to be found in cars that had sat for years, and thought it unlikely that a running pump would suddenly stick a plunger while the car was going down the road.
Lastly was the mystery of the #4 fuel line. Ben couldn’t explain why I was seeing bubbles of air and fuel in the #4 injection line, but agreed that it was damned strange.
Since I could not for the life of me find the AWOL plunger, and since the head and plungers Karel sent hadn’t arrived yet, I took the head and plungers I’d pulled off one of my old pumps and prepared to swap them onto Brian’s pump. I cleaned the head, blowing out the passageways first with carb cleaner, then with compressed air. I did this for both my spare head as well as the original head from Brian’s pump, just in case his errant plunger showed its face. This was a hugely valuable exercise in several ways.
First, I learned that the head itself is dumb, really consists of nothing but passageways.
Second, in cleaning all those passageways out, I could reassure myself I was creating a clean fuel delivery environment.
Third, in cleaning Brian’s head, I did not, in fact, encounter any passageways clogged with rust and scale (e.g., no rust maggots were driven out by the cleaning).
Fourth, I saw firsthand that there’s really no way for even the most disgusting rusty mung-laden fuel to somehow contaminate the bottom end of the pump (e.g., “what happens in the head stays in the head”).
Lastly, by disassembling the pump, I could see why you can just stick a non-marring rod down the bore to move the plunger. You can look at the manual, but it makes much more sense when you actually take the head off and look at it. My losing a plunger notwithstanding, the 2002faq thread I read was right: Pulling the head off really isn’t a big deal. Next time, I’d just wrap my fingers around the back side of the head to hold the plungers when removing or reinstalling. In addition, Ben recommended a dab of Vaseline in the bores to keep the plungers in place (Vaseline dissolves in gas).
I installed the cleaned-up spare head and plungers, put in all four suction valves and the #4 delivery valve from my own tii, put everything back together, checked for leaks, and drove the car. I mentally prepared to pop the Champagne.
No difference. The car stumbled just as badly as before.
This. Is. Not. Happening.
There were three things I could do. The first was ritual suicide with a tii warmup regulator piston tool. It’s pointy and nasty. If you’re going to sever entrails and bring on slow infected death, this is the baby you want.

The second was to suck it up, take a deep breath, yank the Kugelfischer pump out of my own tii, and install it in Brian’s car. Because I was running out of things it could be.The third, of course, was to consider that my troubleshooting had been flawed. Even though it pointed to the pump, not the injectors, the fact that the #4 fuel line exhibited those weird bubbles was still unexplained. And pulling an injector is so much easier than pulling the pump. What have I got to lose?
I pulled the #4 intake plenum, removed #4 injector, unscrewed the two halves of its housing, and found… this. Although there was obvious evidence of mechanical failure, with a loose small rod and what looked like a piece of a retaining clip of some sort, at first I didn’t understand what I was seeing.

The 2002tii injection manual has the following cross section of an injector. In it, you can clearly see the lower and upper housing, the injector core, and the spring inside the core, but I couldn’t see the little rod I’d found.

I never cease to be amazed by how much I learn by taking something apart and simply looking at it. Below is the disassembled broken injector. The upper housing is on the left, then the loose rod and spring fragment, then the injector core, then the spacer and washer, and finally the lower housing.

Below is a close-up of the injector core.

Finally, below is a closeup of the core with the seat and spring pulled out of it.

For comparison, this is a view from the top of a good injector core showing the little rod in place, going through the loop at the top of the spring.

Finally, I understood. That little rod holds the top end of the spring in place. This wasn’t a broken “retaining clip.” This was the spring that the high-pressure fuel pushes against.
It was official: #4 injector had a broken spring. There was nothing holding the injector closed.
And, finally, I had a window into both the mystery of fuel and air bubbles in the #4 injection line as well as why the car was running so badly but seemed to pick up at higher rpm. The injection pump is supposed to be pushing against a closed injector, with the injector only opening when there’s 500 psi pushing on it. Instead, the injector was just flopping around. At higher engine load and rpm, the injection pump may have pushed enough fuel that some of the spurt from the pump made it through the line, past the floppy injector, into the cylinder. Just a theory. A better theory is “let’s replace this broken piece of garbage with something functional and see what it does.”
I thought… this has got to be it. How can this not be it? Can I say “eureka” now? Oh we’re close. We’re very close. I felt like I was in the Hack Mechanic equivalent of one of Sting’s year-long tantric orgasms.
More than anything, I wanted to yank one injector from my tii, swap it into Brian’s car, drive it, and see the problem solved. I thought “I could do this in 15 minutes and KNOW.” But… no. “I chased this thing down the rabbit hole,” I thought, “and the rabbit hole just branched into four. I am going to check all four branches.”
So I pulled the other three injectors.
They all were rusty.

Eur… no. Don’t say it. It ain’t over ‘till the fat lady squirts fuel.
Clearly Brian needed an injector to replace the broken one, and the others needed to be cleaned and tested. We talked about what to do. I remembered seeing a used tii motor for sale recently on Craigslist in CT for $500. Brian remembered seeing four injectors for sale on 2002faq. We agreed to follow up on both. I talked with the guy who had the motor, learned that he’d pulled it out of a car 10 years ago to install an M20 motor, and confirmed that the injection system was complete, including injectors. “What do you need to get for it?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “someone offered me $400 for it, so just beat that and it’s yours.” I PayPal’d him $420 while we were on the phone. I drove down to CT the next day and picked it up. Turned out he was a ‘CCA member back in the day, and was thrilled it was going to me.

I immediately pulled the four injectors from the spare motor. I also yanked all four from my own tii, as I wanted to get those cleaned and tested as well.
In parallel, Brian wound up buying the four injectors he’d seen on 2002faq. It took a while for him to receive them. Although they’d supposedly been cleaned and tested, with everything that had happened in fixing this car, I didn’t want to trust the testing of anything where I didn’t know the provenance firsthand.
Although it seemed like it was raining fuel injectors, I wanted belts and suspenders. I e-mailed Karel Jennings and said “you know that offer you made me to send me those old injectors? Well, funny story…”
Now, there are two schools of thought regarding having injectors cleaned and tested. One is that you need to send them to one of the five people who rebuilt Kugelfischer pumps. The other is that you can take them to any local shop that has experience with mechanical diesel or gas injectors, but you need to understand the dividing line between cleaning and testing versus rebuilding—that, if after cleaning, the injectors fail the test because they won’t open, or won’t close, or the spray pattern is bad, rebuilding them, if they’re rebuildable at all, is a specialized skill over and above cleaning and testing. I’d previously sent mine for testing to one of “the holy five,” but in truth I had no idea what had been done.
I decided to try the local diesel shop route. I found a shop in Boston who advertised that they cleaned and tested mechanical injectors. I spoke with the owner, but he said he only had the equipment to do diesel injectors. However, he said, his son had a shop in southern NH that worked with gas. I spoke with his son (Erik at Diesel’s Fuel Injection in Bow, NH) on the phone, described what I needed, and he understood completely. I sent him the three non-broken injectors from Brian’s car (labeled “known rusty”), the four from my tii (labeled “assumed good”), and the four from the spare motor (labeled “sitting for ten years, condition unknown”). Initially I thought I’d wait for Karel’s injectors to arrive and send all 15 together, but then decided, no, let’s get these 11 on their way. Plus, I thought that all Brian needed was one more good injector, and I’d just gotten four with the spare engine. What were the odds I’d need more than that, really?
In the meantime, I was doing nightly posts to Facebook and 2002faq about the status of the car. Brian posted “We’re taking it on tour! It’s the most famous poorly running tii in the country!” I retorted “Experience the full ride! For $20, hang with Rob and Brian in the parking lot of the Waffle House where it all began!”
In a week, I had the 11 injectors back. The cost for cleaning and testing all eleven was $150, which I thought was quite reasonable. The results were illuminating.

--My four were fine, which was reassuring.
--Of Brian’s three (I didn’t send the broken one), two were good, but the spray pattern on the third was bad. That meant he needed not one more, but two.
--Unfortunately, of the four from the spare engine, only one was good. The other three kept dripping. (Remember, this was cleaning and testing, with no attempts at rebuilding.)
Brian hadn’t received the four injectors he’d bought. So, incredibly, we were still short an injector. I got this news while I was at work. I immediately called Maire Anne and asked her to take the three injectors from Karel, which had arrived and were sitting in an envelope on the front porch, and send them to the injection shop. In the short term, I decided to loan Brian’s car one of my injectors. I was glad I’d just had mine cleaned and tested so we knew I wasn’t introducing another problem.
When I got home that evening, before installing the injectors, I made one more attempt to find Brian’s AWOL plunger. The battery in his car has several direct connections to it for a power amp and driving and fog lights (along with fuses and relays) that made me afraid to remove the battery for fear of yanking something out of the wiring. For this reason, I’d only searched on top of the front of the frame rail by feel for the plunger. 6th time was the charm, though; I crawled under the car, reached up there, and laid my hands right on the spring. I found the plunger and clip a moment later. I inspected and cleaned the plunger, removed my spare head and its four plungers, and reunited Brian’s head and plungers, all shiny and clean, with their original pump.

I installed Brian’s three injectors and my loaner into his car. I bolted the intake plenums back up, checked the fuel connections, then tried to start the car. It took quite a while to start, and then ran rough, presumably because of the Vaseline in the plunger bores. But then seemed to settle down into a nice even idle. I was tempted to drive it and consummate my long-delayed eureka, but it was getting late, and rather than rush through it, I decided to wait until morning when I could be fresh and step through things carefully. In order to deal with the rusty gas issue, I had replaced every rubber fuel line in the car, and I still needed to trim some of the lines to the correct length.

The next morning, I trimmed and methodically double-checked the fuel connections. When the hour was polite enough to begin cranking a car, I fired it up. Again, it started hard, but then settled down. I got in, took a deep breath, backed it out of the driveway, and drove it down the street. I fed gas in second gear at about 2000 rpm, which was the repeatable zone for experiencing the problem.
No difference. The problem remained. The car seemed to exhibit the same, or similar, lack of power until it came alive at higher rpm.
I think I turned white. I felt like someone had gut-punched me. I was clammy and sweating. My breath became short.
I pulled the car back into the garage, tried to breathe, and went upstairs for a cup of coffee. Either that or heroin. Maybe, I thought, addicts are misunderstood. Maybe they’re everyday people whose Kugelfischer systems have simply pushed them too far.
I tried to think. It kept coming back to one thing: It couldn’t be the Kugelfischer pump. I’d cleaned the head, didn’t find that it was obviously rust-contaminated, and convinced myself there was no way rusty fuel could get into the bottom end. And yet, from a diagnostic tree standpoint, it seemed that couldn’t be anything but the Kugelfischer pump.
I mentally prepared to swap injection pumps with my own tii.
No. Stop. People, myself included, have seen too many Sherlock Holmes episodes. You know, that whole “once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth” thing. There’s another much simpler possibility: You got something wrong. Or you did something wrong. Both are far more likely than the bottom end of a KFish pump, much less a freshly rebuit KFish pump, being foobar’d.
I went back in the garage and re-engaged the car.
Only now it wouldn’t start.
Oh, right, I’d forgotten that I’d pulled the connector off the cold start valve (I’ll often do this on a tii I’m troubleshooting once it starts, just to prevent it from running too rich).
With the cold start valve hooked back up, the car started, but died a few seconds later. I tried again, and again it died.
Good! I thought. This is different!
I verified that it had spark. It would start and run when fuel was spraying through the cold start valve, but then die. Clearly this was a fuel delivery problem. So calm down, forget all the recent history, and troubleshoot it like any other tii. Either fuel isn’t getting into the injection pump, or it is but the injection pump isn’t turning, or it is but something in the pump is massively mucked. Or it’s something stupid.
Let’s start with the second one. For the third time, I pulled the cover off the injection belt and verified it hadn’t slipped or snapped. It was fine.
So… fuel pressure. I hooked the pressure gauge back up, cracked the key to fire up the fuel pump, and found that wasn’t 29 psi like it should be, but was back down to 24. Must be the fuel pump or pressure valve.
I swapped the pressure valve with the KFish pump on my car. No difference.
Okay, let’s nail this. I crawled under the car and listened to the new E28 fuel pump. It sounded a little funny, like occasionally there was a bee inside it. I yanked the pump and its bypassed expansion tank (if you recall, repeated blow-outs of the expansion tank kept generating a faint haze of fine rust, indicating it was likely rusty inside, so I bypassed it). I reinstalled the pump and non-bypassed expansion tank from my own car (which I’d had the good fortune not to put back into my car yet). The fuel pressure went up to 29 psi where it was supposed to be, but the car still wouldn’t stay running.
So what was I missing?
I looked at injection pump carefully. It was behaving as if it wasn’t pumping any fuel into the injectors. I began to pull out all four suction valves to verify I’d installed the original head correctly by checking that the plungers were going up and down. When I went to loosen the Allen key cap over the first suction valve, I found that the caps weren’t tight. Apparently I hadn’t snugged them down when I reinstalled them. So I did now.
I also noticed a very small amount of fuel was weeping out of the threads of the delivery valve of #4 injection line. I tightened it.
The car immediately started and stayed running. I let it idle in the garage for 10 minutes until it was fully warmed up.
It then did the warm idle hunting (oscillating engine rpm) that tiis often do. I opened up the tuna can at the top of the intake manifold and backed out the tiny mixture screw 1/16 of a turn to richen the mixture. The idle hunting went away.
I got into the car, backed it out of the driveway, drove it down the street, punched the throttle in second gear at 2000 rpm, and held my breath.
The problem appeared to be gone.
I grinned.
I continued around the corner onto a larger street, and, ahem, drove it like I stole it. It revved joyously up toward red line.
A huge Cheshire cat smile broke over my face. I’d say “a shit-eating grin,” but, really, I’ve never understood that analogy.
I came back home, checked for leaks, found none, then took it up onto the highway. Even dropping it into 3rd at 65, running it up to five grand, and driving 80, it just purred. (These runs can be seen at
The problem really was gone.
I sent Brian a text with a single word, pregnant with meaning: Eureka!
Now I just needed to untangle the cluster of fixes I’d rapidly tried. I removed my pressure valve and put back Brian’s. Fuel pressure was still at 29, so his pressure valve was okay.
I took out my fuel pump and expansion tank and was about to reinstall Brian’s fuel pump with the expansion tank bypassed, but then I remembered the buzzing noise I’d heard. I tapped his fuel pump on a paper towel. I was surprised and less than thrilled to see some particulate matter come out. It wasn’t anywhere close to the rust mounds from the original fuel pump, but there shouldn’t have been anything. I theorized that the only part of the fuel system I hadn’t blown out with compressed air (simply because I forgot) was the fuel pickup tube itself, the part that sits inside the gas tank. Perhaps some sediment from there had gotten into the fuel pump before I’d installed the additional fuel filter between the tank and the pump, and the buzzing was the pump impeller hitting the sediment. I put the pump back in. It seemed quieter than before; I wasn’t hearing the buzzing.
Unfortunately, with Brian’s new E28 pump back in and his expansion tank still bypassed, the fuel pressure was back down to 24 psi, but despite the low fuel pressure, the car drove perfectly fine. Was it his pump or the presence of the expansion tank?  I then unbypassed the expansion tank. The fuel pressure rose from 24 to 26 psi. Still not at 29, but better. And, still, the car continued to run fine.
That evening, while it was all still fresh in my mind, I wrote Brian a lengthy e-mail reminding him that both his long metal fuel line and his expansion tank appeared to be shedding a small amount of powdery rust that should be caught by the fuel filters, but if he wanted it gone beyond the shadow of a doubt, he’d need to replace these components or pay someone to do so. And, to quote Samuel Clemens in the Star Trek Next Generation “Time’s Arrow” episode, “this increasingly hypothetical someone… would not be me.”
And then I stopped. Sometimes you need to take a step back in order to realize that you’ve completed something. I’d fixed the problem. I didn’t need to fix every problem that a 42 year old car might have.
The car had died taking Brian and his wife Michelle to The Vintage. I’d tried to fix it in a parking lot in Northern Virginia, and not only couldn’t, I couldn’t even isolate the problem. I’d failed. But that failure kicked off an extraordinary series of events. What started as an offhand comment to Brian in the parking lot (“You’ll write about this, right?” “Well, I would, but it’s the wrong ending to the story.”) morphed into an obsession. I had the power to change the ending. I just needed to do something absolutely insane and ridiculously time-consuming. Fortunately, I have long stretches where my mental state may legitimately be questioned, and time appears to still be on my side.
I had rewritten the ending to the story.
So… the mysteries:
·        Was the fuel tank ever cleaned? I think so.
·        Did the rust contamination originate with crud that was left in the gas tank, or did the car get a tank of contaminated gas? Don’t know.
·        How could the rust contamination get past the main fuel filter? Was it ripped? Don’t know.
·        Is the “black stuff” that Brian said came out of the original fuel filter the same as the “rubbery black stuff” I found in the gas tank? And where did it come from? Don’t know.
·        Did the same thing that got past the main fuel filter (assuming something did) actually rip a gash in the screen in the injection pump, or did the pump rebuilder install a gashed screen? I think the latter possibility is more likely.
·        Did the brass shards of the ripped screen muck anything up? I didn’t filter the gas and separate the crud into different sized particles. There was so much rust, scale, and particulate matter in the system that any thin brass screen fragments were almost certainly in the noise. I’d give this one a probably not.
·        Was the rust found in the injectors actually from the rusty gas, or was it unrelated? Don’t know. There are many posts on 2002faq about tii injectors getting rusty from gas just sitting in them for long periods of time. I think it’s highly likely this is what caused three of the four injectors in the spare engine to go bad.
·        Did rust and moisture cause #4 injector to break, or was that completely unrelated? Don’t know.
·        Did the Kugelfischer expert actually rebuild the injection pump? I think so.
·        Did the Kugelfischer expert actually test the injectors? Don’t know.
·        Did the Kugelfischer expert actually clean the injectors? Could all that rust have gotten in there after he cleaned and tested them? Don’t know.
·        Which of the things at the end were the cause of the car’s not running? Was it the loose suction valve caps or the small amount of weeping fuel? Don’t know. I could smell the finish line. I didn’t try to recreate the last failure to tease this one out.
·        Why did the fuel pressure never come all the way up to 29 psi? Is the new E28 fuel pump not up to snuff? Don’t know. I’ve left this one to Brian. If he wants to return the pump, I have the receipt. The car runs fine with the pump putting out 26 psi and the expansion tank in the circuit.
Man, that’s a lot I don’t know.
Alfred Hitchcock has a wonderful term: The MacGuffin. It’s the plot device that sets a chain of events in motion. Often, it’s a mysterious object. The Maltese Falcon (the bird statue in the movie of the same name) is the classic MacGuffin. The thing is, by the end of the film, the MacGuffin evaporates. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, George R.R. Martin is a master of this. Who killed John Aryn? Who tried to have Bran murdered? Who offed Joffrey? Those were all big things that set events—even wars—into motion, yet some of them were never resolved, or if they were, by that time, it hardly mattered.
Why am I on about this? Because questions like the cause of the rust in the gas of Brian’s car and how much work was or was not performed by certain shops were MacGuffen-like. And, in the end, answering the questions mattered far less than simple thorough cleaning. In other words, “what” mattered far more than “why.”
Folks have asked me how much time it took. Initially I kept a log, then stopped, since… what was the point? I can estimate, though. Counting driving down to CT to buy the spare tii motor (which produced only one spare injector, but whose usefulness to me will hopefully play out in time), it was three full weekends and two weeks of evenings. Let’s say 3x16 + 10x3 = 48 + 30 = 78 hours. If you take 75% of that as actual on-car time, that probably puts it in the ball park.
And now, the big question: Why did I do it?
There is an entire chapter in my book devoted to the wiles of wrenching, the sensation of holding tools, the joy of being completely engaged with the repair process, the exercise of my right brain, the giving of one’s undivided attention to one problem at a time. In a world where I can’t slow global warming, fix the Greek debt crisis, or get Donald Trump to shut up, I can replace a water pump and fix a problem from start to finish, for good.
But, you know what? Despite my efforts to pare down, I still own eleven cars, and all but one need constant work. So I don’t have a shortage of wellsprings for Hack Mechanic Zen. I certainly didn’t take on Brian’s project just to have something to do.
Of course, there’s the diagnostic angle. Brian’s car was a puzzle. The puzzle was fun. The puzzle completely occupied me for three weeks. But is that why I did it?
Would I have done it had I known how much work it was going to be?
Probably not. 

But if I knew that, I would’ve known what the problem was. Sorry. If you’re going to play “what if,” you can only alter one reality at a time.
Look. We are complex entities. We do all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. In the end, this was not unlike my replacing the engine in my friend Alex’s piece of crap Passat wagon. It was what needed to be done to help out another human being. Alex is, in many ways, my closest male friend, and he was flat broke at the time. In contrast, I’ve only had three hours of face time with Brian in a hot parking lot. But we connect with the people we connect with. I liked Brian. I liked his wife. I liked the way they treated each other. I felt for him and the personal inescapable Kugelfischer-related hell he felt he was in trapped in, never being able to fully solve the problem with the car. I was in a position to help him. So why not help him? Did it really need to be more complicated than that?
In the end, really, I have no better answer than this one. I only wish I looked as good in a white muscle shirt, suspenders, and a brown fedora.

(Next week: The Hack Mechanic finds something more productive to do with his time. Maybe installing that spare tii engine in the Lotus Europa. Too bad it needs fuel injectors.) –Rob Siegel

(Epilogue: The fuel injection shop just called me with the news about the three injectors Karel sent me. They’re empty. They’re upper and lower housings that have no injector cores in them. Karel and I had a good laugh. “I’ve had them in a box in the basement for ten years thinking they were worth something,” he said. So, in finding usable injectors, I’m one for seven. Brian is Fedexing me the four he bought. Hopefully his success rate will be better.)

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