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Zen and the Art of Car Rental Maintenance

My first experience with an engine was the professional grade lawn-mower my dad had for our modest yard in Arizona. It was powerful for a little guy like me and would drag me when the hand clutch was engaged. In order to shut it down you needed to pull the cable off the spark plug using a screwdriver. I learned very soon that when using a screwdriver to do this, hold the handle not the metal, otherwise you will get a powerful shock.  That was when I first learned about spark plugs.  

My sophomore year at Coronado High school I took basic engine class. We were tasked to find a 1.5 hp non-working Briggs and Stratton engine, take it apart and then rebuild it to working condition. It wasn’t really an intense class and I remember spending more time helping Greg Mattson work on his 1960 something VW Bus, listening to the B-52’s ‘Whammy’ album than actually working on my Briggs and Stratton. I kept breaking the piston rings and, frankly, the idea of “torque” and “torquing” a bolt was lost on me. How does a bolt know how much torque I’ve placed on it, it’s a bolt. I never did get my Briggs and Stratton running and lucky for me (and everyone else in class) our final consisted of sitting out back and watching “Cheech and Chong – Up in Smoke”.  Yes, it was quality education.

When we moved to Minnesota my junior year of high school I bought a 1980 Ford Fiesta for $350 with 385,000 miles on it. “Highway miles” said the old man to the young boy.

I bought it and soon learned how to do simple things like replace an alternator as that was the first thing to go. I went to the junk yard and bought a re-built one for $25 and learned how to replace it. It was fairly easy on this car, as was replacing a few other simple parts. I enjoyed changing the oil. Dad had all the tools. I could replace a radio in 20 minutes with the use of a hack-saw, hammer and electric tape. Finally the tie-rod broke and instead of having it towed, as I was on a city street at the time, a friend of mine showed me how to rig the rod using part of rubber floor mat, an aluminum can and a couple of metal clamps. I would argue more education can be learned on the street than in “book-learn’n”. I managed to drive it to a school for aspiring mechanics and donated it.

Next came my 1980 BWM R65 motorcycle. My dad “bought” it for me when I graduated from high school. I wasn’t allowed to drive until:

1.  I took the Motorcycle safety class

2.  I painted the house (which he credited me $1000 toward the motorcycle) and then get a loan for the balance $1,200.

Dad co-signed the loan, it wasn’t until years later when I figured out that the reason for me getting a loan wasn’t because my dad was cheap, it was to help start building my credit.  

As the BMW sat in the drive-way I would take it apart and put it back together. At first I would just take off the wheels and put them back on, then the cylinder heads, then the alternator.  Everything was metric and reversed – it was interesting. 

Then there was the series of old VW’s: 1970 VW Bug, 1968 VW Karmann Ghia and the 1973 VW Bus.

Quite possibly the easiest things to work on is a VW engine. One cold Minnesota day, I had to get to work but the windows wouldn’t defrost in the Ghia as the only heat produced came from the engine and well, basically there is no heat. So, wearing a snowmobile suit, I drove to a car wash, melted the ice and in the process the acceleration cable froze to the carburetor and I broke it. Knowing the basic workings of a carburetor I found a piece of paper, shoved the paper into the lever that allowed gas flow and drove 4 mph home down Highway 494. It took and hour, but I got there.

But that was then, now I can’t even find an air filter on a car. Before if something didn’t work, I’d pull out a set of Craftsman tools and start tinkering. Now, if there is a problem with the car,  all I know how to  do is wiggle a battery cable, if I can find the battery, and hope for the best.

We rented a car in Argentina, we put over 1000 miles on it in 2 weeks, half the miles where dirt roads and not well maintained ones at that. The fact our little Toyota 5-speed with tiny tires made it was amazing.

All gas stations in Argentina are full service, so when I pulled in to fill up for the second to last time, I told the guy, who at the time didn’t speak English “Completo, Mas economico”  – meaning “fill it up with the cheap stuff.”

The cheap stuff in this case was Diesel. As I stretched my legs, the attendant came running over and, now by some sort of Babylonian miracle could speak English. He proceeded to tell me that he put in diesel.  

Now you may be thinking, that’s impossible the diesel nozzle doesn’t fit in an unleaded tank.  Well here in Argentina it does and now we sat just 200 miles from returning the car but with 5 liters of grade A diesel in the tank.

“Can we syphon?”

“No, impossible.”

So we pushed the car to the side.  

Everyone handles stressful situations differently, I like to create a tranquil environment, I learned my cousin Amy needs to be busy.

“We should fill up the tires while we are here they look low.”

“Amy!  We have diesel in the tank, I think tires are our last concern!”  I snapped back.

“Well, we need to fill the tires and we are here doing nothing.”  she replied.  Then followed with, “Let’s clean the car.”

He called a mechanic while I googled the damage diesel will do to a gas tank for unleaded. It wasn’t good. However, the mechanic said if we fill it up the rest of the way with high end unleaded we should be o.k. So, I believed him and according to Google, it would be o.k. if the percentage wasn’t greater than 10% diesel to unleaded. Doing the math, we were at 14.34%.

We pushed the car back to the pump, not turning on the engine.  Amy picks up a broom (not a brush, or rag a big broom) and starts brushing the dirt off the car.  The attendant, with his new found English language skills, says that he will clean the car.  Amy agreed to put the broom down and retreated to an open space to do squats.

“Let’s add an additive,”  I said. 

With a full tank of ‘mixed’ gas, we drove the 200 miles back to Buenos Aires without incident.

We used half a tank getting back, so we filled it one more time in hopes to dilute the diesel to under 10% and make it back to the rental place. I have never been so eager to return a rental car as I was this day.

I’ll never be an automotive expert, although I’m sure I can change a tire faster than “Old Man Parker”, but I can tell you I am now a full fledge expert on the difference between diesel, unleaded and what both can do if put in the wrong engine.

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