Monday, July 25, 2011

Let's Go Work on the Cars

“Daddy, let's go work on the cars.” That is on the my top ten list of the best things a car guy can hear his kids say, and those were the words that began every day of the long 4th of July weekend. My 3 year old decided that she really wanted to work on the old cars, and I was happy to oblige.

That weekend, we made quite a lot of progress on the Falcon, cleaning out the inside, rejuvenating the vinyl top, and getting a lot of the body patching and sanding completed. We were a little less successful with the Monterey, but we did get it vacuumed out, and we got the new ignition switch installed and a stray wire grounded, so we could figure out that the ignition switch wasn't the problem after all, leaving us at a complete loss as to why the car won't even try to turn over. After tons of research, replacing several parts, still nothing. No sounds, no attempt at starting, nothing. One of the great things about being a kid and working with your dad (or mom, for some folks) on a car, is that you experience all of the fun and the joy, but none of the frustration. All of the frustration and anger I'm feeling about not getting my Mercury running had started to taint the fun of working on the cars a little; not so for my daughters.

My girls have certainly had a blast. We have spent quite a few weekends over the summer doing car related things--everything from car shows to drag races--and it has clearly gotten into their blood. After the long weekend helping me with the old cars, when I had to get back to business as usual, they wanted to keep doing car stuff. I came home to find they had taken a cardboard box and built what they called “an old Chevy.” It had a Styrofoam bowl for a steering wheel, an old baby booster for the car seat, and a lowrider inspired paint scheme. They were both hard at work on the when I got home and were beaming with pride when they showed it to me. We've kept the “Chevy” intact for almost 3 weeks now.

There is something to be learned from my girls' unfettered enthusiasm. Struggling to get the Mercury to start has frustrated me to no end. It had me questioning my ability to fix anything, and it was getting to the point where I didn't want to mess with the Monterey because I didn't want to be disappointed when it didn't start. At one point I even went so far as to put the car up for sale on Craigslist. I needed a way to regain my confidence.

A confidence building opportunity occurred when a friend's truck started having some problems the following week. It was a late model Ford, and it began running rough, just before the check engine light came on. She took it to a local mechanic, and was told that it would take a couple thousand dollars to fix the problem. One thing I've noticed about mechanics in my neck of the woods is that they tend to be lying bastards. I believe that the ones I've met would cheat their own mothers. Our friend is a divorced woman, and mechanics in the area smell a lack of automotive knowledge like sharks smell blood.

I have an OBD II diagnostic tool, so I suggested she stop buy the house so we could figure out what was wrong before she spent a bunch of money to fix it. The reader indicated a problem with the variable valve timing system, which in Ford's case is called the variable camshaft timing system (VCT). I spent a few minutes doing some research and realized that it was most likely one of two problems: a bad camshaft timing sensor, or a bad VCT solenoid. All of these things together cost about 200 dollars, and they are all easy to replace, so I volunteered to fix her truck for her. After a lot of research over the following week, I realized that the root of the problem was most likely cheap oil. Like a lot of people, she tended to take her car to local shops and get the oil change special, not realizing how important a good motor oil can be. The Ford forums online suggested that the VCT solenoid might not be bad, just gunked up, so I thought running some good oil through the car would help clean out a lot of the gunk and, with the sensor replacement, resolve the problem.

That weekend I took out the sensor that caused the issue, and saw that it was covered with what can only be described as sludge. The sensor on the other side was even worse, and the oil cap was downright nasty. I replaced one sensor and cleaned up the other, and then drained the cheap oil and replaced it with Mobil Super High Mileage.

As an aside, I don't intend for this to be a plug, but I personally always use Mobil 1 in my vehicles, and won't use anything else. Part of my brand loyalty comes from the fact that my father has worked for Mobil (now ExxonMobil) for his entire career, on the lubricants side of things, and so is a great resource when it comes to lubricant knowledge. It was his suggestion that I use Mobil Super High Mileage and not Mobil 1, as we thought a short oil change interval would be best for cleaning out gunk.

At any rate, when I finished filling up my friend's truck with the good stuff, I cleared the trouble code and restarted it. The feeling I had when the truck went from running rough to running smoothly again can only be described as elation. It was a confidence building event if ever there was one. I don't know if I've permanently fixed the problem; time and a few thousand miles will tell, but I do know that I've regained confidence in my ability to troubleshoot problems, and consequently I've rediscovered how much fun cars can be.

And while it may be a bit past Father's Day, that is the best gift my girls could have given me.


  1. Lovely post my friend, so your girls. Very intelligent, hardworking and love their dad so much. Pleased to read your post. Thanks for sharing these lovely moments.

  2. I love doing stuff like this with them. Sharing my hobbies with my kids makes them so much more enjoyable.