In This Article:
A discussion of the many reasons why it takes so long to start working on that car with the blown engine.
Way Too Long
Bruce W. Maki, Editor
It was April 2009. Good Friday, to be exact. My stepdaughter needed a ride downstate so she could meet her father and spend Easter weekend with his family. My wife needed to work, and the round trip took a good part of a day, so I stepped in to be the chauffeur.
We were less than an hour from our destination, and my stepdaughter, who was 10 at the time, asked "what's it like to go a hundred miles an hour?". We were in a section of freeway with 4 or 5 lanes in each direction, and there wasn't much traffic, so I replied "let's find out".
I accelerated gently from the speed limit of 70 miles per hour. In about a minute the speedometer topped out at 96. Probably regulated by the powertrain control module (i.e. "the computer"). With my wife's daughter satisfied with almost going a hundred miles an hour, I let the car slow down to a more reasonable speed a bit under 80.
About 15 miles from our stop, I began to hear a "clicking" sound. When I pulled off the freeway to meet her Dad, I opened the window to get a listen. The noise sounded like a constant velocity joint, which can make a "ratcheting" or heavy clicking sound, mostly when turning.
But when I finally stopped, the noise kept going, so I knew the problem was in the engine. It was a more of knocking sound, or maybe just a heavy tapping sound. The engine sounded like there was a big marble banging around inside. I knew what sticky valve lifters sounded like, but this sound was louder and deeper. I knew about "rod knock", but I had never heard an example of it.
Hoping that the problem was just a sticky lifter, I got back on the highway and headed for home. The noise began to bother me. I took the first exit and found the nearest auto parts store, where I bought a can of Seafoam. When added to the crankcase, Seafoam will dissolve some of the sludge and residue inside the engine. My reasoning was this: If the noise was a rod knock, the car was going nowhere. If the noise was a lifter, then pouring some sludge-cleaning solvents into the crankcase should fix or reduce the sound, and I could continue driving home.
After I poured a pint of Seafoam in the crankcase and started the engine, the knocking sound was WORSE, and there was also a strange "squeak" that followed each knock.
I saw a small mechanic's shop nearby, so I drove the car over and asked the shop owner if the sound was a rod knock. "Yep" he replied, "and that squeakin' sound is your spun bearing". I asked if the car might make the 180 miles back home. "No" he insisted, "you might get 5 miles, maybe 25 miles, but your engine will throw a rod".
So I called my wife and explained how her car had died, and that she needed to leave work early to come and get me. She was unhappy. Not about leaving work and making a 6-hour round trip. She was upset about her car... our best car... being out-of-order. She was worried... far more worried than I was. My response was "What are you worried about... I'm the one who has to fix it!". Besides, we had 3 more vehicles.
A couple of days later, we returned with some basic tools, a borrowed 3/4 ton pickup truck, and a tow dolly. The dolly cost me $40 for one day's rental. The Jimmy still ran, so I drove it forwards onto the tow dolly and then disconnected the rear driveshaft so the automatic transmission wouldn't be damaged.
Getting a dead vehicle back home can pose some challenges. The obvious choice, a tow truck, is too expensive for great distances. And your AAA membership will only get your car towed to the nearest garage, where you will be told that your car needs a new engine and the cost will be four thousand dollars. Or five thousand or six thousand. Then what? Pull out your credit card, because... because... because the repair needs to be done, and we need the car, and we might as well fix it?
A tow dolly (which holds just one axle off the road) is the sensible do-it-yourself choice to haul any vehicle that is able to roll on two wheels... if you have a tow vehicle capable of towing the weight of your dead car.
When I got the Jimmy back home, I parked it outside my garage, where it sat for a while. I had a lot of higher-priority projects around the house with a non-negotiable deadline: My wife was pregnant with our first child, and the due date was early October.
So I busted ass around the house to finish my second-floor office remodeling project. Occasionally I would start the Jimmy and let it run for a few minutes, just to keep the engine oil spread around.
That was 2009, the summer of "Cash For Clunkers", and I seriously considered trading in the Jimmy, or my old 1993 Dodge Dakota. But there were so few new cars on dealership lots, and dealers were not... dealing. We live in Northern Michigan, and we really needed an all-wheel-drive vehicle. Dealers were asking for (and getting) the full sticker price for most small cars, and the small crossover-type vehicles were priced way too high for us.
So in late August, I ended up trading in my 4-cylinder 1996 Dodge Dakota (yeah, I used to own a pair of these trucks) for an '06 Chevy Equinox and a 5-year car loan. And then I handed the keys to my wife, seven and a half months pregnant at that time.
That old Jimmy suddenly went from being our newest (and most valuable) car, to... well... to second place. That is, second-place if it ran properly. Old Jimmy sat out behind the garage, gathering dust and bird poop, practically forgotten.
On Labor Day, my wife had some pregnancy complications, and we went to the hospital Emergency Room. The doctor said to my wife "you're having a baby today". It was still a month before her due date. She ended up needing an emergency C-section, and our little guy, while tiny at four and half pounds, was just fine.
So suddenly we had a new baby, and I still had some unfinished minor projects around the house. She was off work for 8 weeks, and I work at home, so we had a lot of time with the new baby. Heck, when he was 3 weeks old I decided to repaint the outside of the house, because it really needed it, and we had a good stretch of warm dry fall weather.
Now please understand that I'm telling you this long story for a reason: So you'll understand how easily that old dead car will become forgotten. How all the really important and really fun things that happen in your life will take center stage, and how that old non-running car or truck will sit in your yard for months. And months will turn into years. It happened to me, and I was never the type of person who would let a defunct car sit on my yard.
In December 2009, 8 months after the rod knock appeared, I finally got around to working on the old Jimmy. With the help of my friend Jim Wilk, a body mechanic and my co-conspirator on BodyShopZone.com, we managed to remove the engine from the car and mount it on an engine stand. We pushed the car outside where it sat in the rain and snow. All winter.
I should've started working on the engine right away after the New Year. We had the baby in day care 3 days a week so I had some time to myself. Sure, I had a few minor home improvement projects to work on, and lots of work to do on my three websites. I guess the biggest reason I didn't jump right into rebuilding the engine was... it gets cold in my garage. Sure, I've insulated the ceiling, which helps a lot, but it can take an hour to warm up the garage on really cold days. And running a kerosene heater gets expensive. So I decided to wait until spring to start on the engine. Then I could work with the overhead door open. Yeah, springtime... fresh air, chirping birds.
So all winter long, whenever I was shoveling snow, I would look at the Jimmy parked behind the garage, and think about how weird it looked with no grill or bumper... just a big gaping hole where the engine belonged.
When spring came, I had a few other minor projects to work on, and the Jimmy engine rebuild got put off a little further. Then I got called to help with some remodeling work on a friend's house. That took all summer. I could've spent my evenings and weekends working on the engine, but we had a baby to attend to. I would be done with the remodeling by early fall and then I would jump right into rebuilding the engine. Well, the construction project took until early November. And then I needed to do some things on my main website, HammerZone.com. Major site redesign issues. So the Jimmy entered it's second winter with the engine sitting on a stand.
In December of 2010, almost exactly a year after removing the engine, my friend Jim Wilk suddenly died of a heart attack at the not-very-old age of 60. I figured I could re-assemble the car by myself, but he had a lot of knowledge that I wouldn't be able to tap into.
In early 2011, Google revised their search algorithm and my main website saw a huge drop in traffic, which cut my income almost in half. I spent a lot of time working on web page redesigns, and researching search engine optimization techniques. Important business stuff.
More than ever, I needed to fix the Jimmy, because it was our second-newest vehicle, and my 96 Yukon was having transmission troubles. There was no way I could afford to just take the Jimmy to the junkyard and buy a newer vehicle.
When you have a dead car hanging around the yard, junking the vehicle or selling it as a "mechanic's special" is always an option you (should) keep in mind. A salvage yard won't pay much, maybe a couple of hundred bucks. I had a few people ask if I wanted to sell the Jimmy as-is. I might have gotten $500 for a car that could be worth maybe $3,000 once it was repaired. But I'm supposed to be that kind of guy who can take a dead car and make it run, so I just couldn't part with it.
Build A Basic Workbench (From HammerZone.com)
In late spring I spent some time building a fence around our backyard, to keep our little boy contained, and I also worked for a few weeks on the house of another friend. In late July, when I was done with those jobs, I pulled the engine out of the corner of the garage and started working on it. I couldn't work on it full-time, and I had to take pictures and write some notes about the project, but over a period of 6 weeks I managed to rebuild the engine and put it back in the car. A week after Labor Day, just after my son's second birthday, I turned the key and started the engine, and it ran great. It took me another couple of weeks to fix the big oil leak (I made a mistake when installing the oil pan), to re-assemble the front part of the body, and to get the brakes working properly again. By late September the car was back on the road.
Rebuilding an engine and putting it back in the car shouldn't take 6 weeks. A good mechanic could do the job within a week, I'm sure. I'll admit that I sometimes work pretty slow, especially on unfamiliar repairs, but I also have lots of other things going on. There's nothing wrong with slow progress, as long as there's some progress, and you don't put the project aside for long periods of time.
Having the car sit unused for two and a half years is not something I'm proud of. But it's something that happened. If I had to do it again, I would certainly procrastinate less.
Over the years I've known a few people who owned a decent car or truck that wouldn't run because it needed some major repair, such as a new transmission or an engine rebuild. People who let that vehicle sit in their yard or driveway for years. Cars go bad when they sit too long.
If you have vehicle that won't run because of a serious engine problem, I hope you learn from my experience and AVOID PROCRASTINATION. A lot of things can happen in a year or two. Wives get pregnant. Babies are born. People die. What if you had a friend or relative who had the skill to help you fix your car, who was willing to help, and they suddenly passed away before you could complete the task. That would be a shame, and you would have a lot of regrets.
The best advice comes from Larry The Cable Guy: "Git 'er done!".
For the average person who has a full-time job and a family, rebuilding an engine might seem like a daunting task, just from the time-availability perspective. But if you have some evenings and weekends available, and the discipline to keep working on the project, taking out an engine and rebuilding it is something you can probably do, if you have the tools, a decent level of mechanical ability, and the willingness to learn. When you get the engine back in the car, and you turn the key and the engine starts up, you'll get an awesome feeling of pride, a sense of accomplishment, a boost to your ego, and something that nobody can ever take away from you. Something that cannot be foreclosed upon or repossessed, no matter how bad the economy gets: the knowledge that you can fix one of the most serious automotive breakdowns that ever happens. From that point forward you will have a new degree of confidence in solving car problems.
Have you seen the movie "The Bucket List"? A bucket list is just a list of things you want to do before you die. The goal is to scratch those things off your list. Lots of people keep these lists in their minds, or maybe even written down. Lots of people want to travel the world, or pursue crazy adventure things like jumping out of airplanes. That's not me, but my I just scratched two things off my own HandyManly Bucket List: removing and installing an engine, and rebuilding an engine. For years I've wanted to do those things, and I've kinda envied guys who have done them. And now I have. It's a damn good feeling.