Back in the day, car engines were much simpler than they are today. For one thing, there were a lot fewer wires and gizmos under the hood. Not including the spark plug wires, you could count the wires with the fingers of both hands; to and from the generator, the coil and the starter switch. There was room around the engine to get to all the components, which made it easier to change out a bad generator or water pump.
This elegant simplicity made working on the family car or if you were lucky enough to have your own car a rite of passage of every teen-aged boy whose raging hormones were mixed with 30 weight oil and axle grease. Most of us were taught by our dads at an early age how to troubleshoot problems with the family car. We were fortunate in that most of our dads had at least a journeyman mechanic’s expertise. If one of our friends’ cars broke down, his father had plenty of “go-fers” and helpers around to make sure the repairs went smoothly and successfully.
In the lean times when there were no broken cars in the neighborhood, warm summer afternoons would find us hanging around the corner gas station helping out the local shade tree mechanic who also doubled as the pump man. That is, if we could find one who would tolerate all the bustling activity and questions. Having the gang of 13 – 15 year old wannabee mechanics had an upside for the helpful mechanic. When a car drove up to the pumps for service, we would often be the first out there to find out what type of gas they wanted and get the pump started while the mechanic checked the water and oil. Pumping the gas was a double perk; not only did we get to do “mechanical stuff” but there was usually a pretty girl in the back seat that needed flirting with through the rear window. This was best when the filler neck for the gas tank was on the opposite side of the car from the driver. That way we could avoid the baleful glare of the father who could only see the oil and grease under our nails as we made eyes at his pretty daughter all decked out in lace and crinoline.
I remember a “day trip” with some high school friends out into the country side the summer between my junior and senior years. We met the best and worst of these shade tree mechanics. We were driving a “German Ford” Taurus that had a positive ground electrical system that was common to European cars but were rarely seen in the US. We were having problems with the car cutting out when we came to stops along the highway. As we pulled into a small town 75 miles west of home, since we had no tools with us, we debated pulling into one of the two service stations that sat across the street from each other at the town’s only stop light. One station was all shiny and bright with a concrete driveway and everyone there wore a snappy uniform and the other had cars sitting all around on cinder blocks and a driveway made of discarded shingles. We chose the “modern one” and to make a long story short, all they did was to charge our battery backwards before declaring that they could not fix our problem.
So, with our tails between our legs, we pushed the car across the street up to the mechanic who stood there in his bib overalls with a big wad of chewing tobacco hidden behind the big grin that split his huge red beard as he chuckled gently at us. “Are you boys having fun now?” he asked. He had been watching the fiasco across the street. After he had his fun, he declared that he thought that we really had a carburetor problem. This was really bad news to us. Do we trust this oak of a man with the most complicated part of our car? We really didn’t have a choice so we agreed that he could have a look at it. Off came the air filter and in a flash he had the carburetor open. “Aha!” he exclaimed; “your do-bobbler don’t do-bobble no more!” When we looked over his shoulder, sure enough the float valve had dislodged and that was flooding the engine. Five minutes later, he had everything reassembled and we push started the car and were on our way with the generator charging the drained battery very nicely, thank you. As long as I live, I will never forget that mechanic waving good bye with his beard flowing in the breeze. He didn’t even charge us. I wish that guy had been working at one of the gas stations in my neighborhood. That would have been so cool.
Yesterday, the check engine light on our car came on. The car had just come back from a service check earlier in the day. Oh NO! There was no way I could work on a car so full of computers and gadgets that you couldn’t even get your hand into the engine compartment without removing something. In desperation, I drove down to the auto parts store and had them read the computer. It came back to three sensors, P0097, P11C2 and P2199. All three of these had something to do with measuring the intake air as it comes out of the filter. As I drove home with the anticipation of having to take the car back to the dealership, it dawned on me that they had to have looked at the air filter during the service check yesterday morning. So when I got home, I opened the hood and saw that there was one plug on the intake manifold that was common to all the sensors. So I unplugged it, re-plugged it and started the engine. Hurray, the light was off. As I test drove the car around the block, I thought of the mechanic standing on that shingled driveway up in the sky with his red beard blowing gently in the celestial breeze, smiling and nodding in approval. Oh MY!