One Lousy Bolt. Auto Mechanics Gone Wrong


5 March 2009







This remembrance, story, has several elements to it, so hang with me. Oh, this an auto mechanics story so it you not into mechanics, forget reading any further.



Element 1: my father-in-law. My father-in-law, now deceased, was a used car salesman. Well, not really, as what he did was go to insurance auctions and buy low mileage wrecked or stolen and then found, cars, repair body damage and then sell them. He was very good at what he did and made a decent living for himself. He was not however, an auto mechanic. If one of the cars he bought had an engine problem, he would just buy another auction car and swap engines.


Element 2: my Dad. Now my dad knew about a lot of things but auto mechanics was not one of them. Yes, he changed oil in cars but did little beyond that. Not sure he ever even swapped out a spark plug. Now from time to time, he would ask my father-in-law to keep his eye open for a good used car that my Dad might like and over the years, think either me or my brother or my Dad bought one or more cars from my father-in-law. One such car was a Fiat, 4 door, piece of crap with like 100 miles on it. Now in those days, mid 1970’s or so, Fiat was not a household name outside of some major East coast cities and my father-in-law could buy a Fiat cheap. He once bought a Fiat Spyder, which was a 2 seat, sporty, convertible, for $900. Brand new with 10 miles on it but front bumper damage getting car off car carrier. So for $900, father-in-law bought a $5000 - $7000 car. Of course took him 3 months to get replacement bumper but hey, he made good money on that car. Ok, so my Dad buys this Fiat 4 door from my father-in-law and this is where the third element comes in: me.


Element 3: me. Now since my Dad did not do auto mechanics, I did not learn from him growing up but after college and marriage and children and a lot I will not get into, I became the proud owner of a VW bus. An infamous now, VW bus, (well at the time it seemed just the thing as it haul a lot of people and the one I had was actually a camper and thus served as a mini-RV as well and Chrysler had not introduced their minivan yet.). Anyway, a VW bus was like owning a horse. It required constant maintenance and a decent amount of auto mechanics knowledge to keep it running. So slowly but surely I began to learn all sorts of skills: adjusting valve lash, setting distributor timing, replacing spark plugs and setting gap, rebuilding carburetors, swapping out distributor rotor button, replacing points and setting them, replacing head gaskets, etc. etc. Even tore an engine completely down and put it back together. And the point to all this is that after while, I had a lot of confidence in my auto mechanic skills and often volunteered my services to others when they had an engine problem of one kind or another. Ok, so now back to the Fiat my Dad bought from my father-in-law.


Element 4: Fiat. Go to visit my parents one weekend after my Dad has taken possession of Fiat piece of crap and is taking about it to me. Says it idles fine but when you try to drive it, no real power when under load like going up a hill. Ok. “Bet you I know”, I say to him, “Probably points are not set right.” So we head to the garage, I pull distributor cap off, we turn the key and I watch the distributor rotate and sure enough, points not opening at all. So go get feeler gauge, look up points setting in manual with car, replace all and start up car. Runs fine but when we put on load, still some lack of power (beyond the fact that it had something like a 1200CC engine in it!!!!!). Ok, check timing with timing light. Sure enough, not set correctly. So using socket, take out (2) bolts holding distributor from turning and with engine running, set distributor in correct location, shut down engine and replace bolt 1, no problem but bolt number 2 will not go into hole and eventually drops down into engine compartment darkness. Look under engine on the floor. Rock car body back than forth. Bang around engine trying to get bolt to drop down onto floor but no go. SO, I check distributor mount and appears that single bolt going to be enough to hold it in place. All fixed.


Element 5: one lousy bolt.  So this one bolt falls down into the engine compartment some where and I can not find it and can not get it to drop out on the floor. Ok, how much harm could it do anyway? So we start up engine and for 30 seconds it is fine and then there is the terrible screeching sound and the engine dies completely. Deep sigh. Gulp! Dad looks at me, I look at him. What? Try to start engine again but no go. I check distributor and all ok there and still engine will not start. I feel terrible. Dad trusted me to tinker with his new car. Although it was not right before I started, at least the engine ran and the car would move. Now nothing. Fell terrible but what to do? Nothing. And so I leave and go home. Later, Dad has car towed to real auto mechanic and turns out that, that one lousy bolt feel down onto the exposed timing belt and got caught in a pulley and put all the valve timing out of whack to the point that all valve stems got bent when they got hit by piston! What? So head had to come off and all valves replaced. Ugh. Have to thank my Dad again, even though he now long since passed away, for not reminding me of my great auto mechanic skills over and over like he could have. Of course never touched one of his cars again and have been always very careful when working on an engine to not drop bolts or screws and if I did, finding them one way or the other. Exposed timing belt. What was those Fiat people thinking anyway????