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Tuesday, April 18, 2006


The most dangerous thing in the garage

Gearheads have a way of buying dangerous toys. It's not just cars that can be dangerous, but tools. My garage is full of things that could, if used wrongly, get me squashed, cut, or burned. I would not want to have a two year old play in it. Still, utility knives and welding torches are not what seems to really get me in trouble. The most dangerous gearhead plaything in the house has got to be the pile of enthusiast magazines.

I don't mean the hazard of having it drop off the shelf and fall on my head, although that's happened, too. It's the way magazines can make you think that things a typical person would consider nuts are not only something that Joe Average can do, but that such a thing is a perfectly rational and desirable undertaking. Remember that story about the kid who burned down a house after watching Beavis and Butthead play with matches on TV? Mike Judge has nothing on magazines.

It's not really the publisher's fault. I've written a few articles myself for CarReview, and have a couple of article submissions winding their way through the publishing process at a couple print magazines. A story in a magazine needs to fit a certain word count. If they're giving a write-up of installing a part, they might say, "We unscrewed the bolts that attached this control arm." If I were writing an article about a suspension upgrade, I couldn't afford to write things like "This bolt was absolutely rusted solid. I busted a cheap Chinese ratchet wrench trying to get the thing off. After a good long soak in penetrating oil and buying a good quality set of Craftsman sockets, it yielded to my breaker bar," every time I had a problem. I'd just say that I removed the bolt. Consequently, a magazine article leaves out a lot of the little frustrations, emergency parts store runs, and other things that can turn "an easy bolt-on" into a nightmare.

Another reason you don't see those cheap tools from Communist China mentioned in magazine articles is that the work you see in those articles is often done at a pro's shop where the owner probably paid more for his tools and equipment than I've paid for all my cars put together. They aren't likely to have issues with poor quality tools, or not being able to afford the best quality tool for the job. Sure, you can substitute a set of jackstands for a lift, or hand tools for air tools. You can even substitute a hundred dollar Sawzall for a CNC laser that costs half a million dollars if you just want to make one or two parts. It just takes more time and sweat.

Magazines have gotten me into all sorts of trouble. One time when I was in college, all the articles I'd read on suspension mods had me thinking I could install some nice front disc brakes on my Dart. Oh, and while I was at it, I'd replace all the bushings with polyurethane, swap out any remaining wear items for new Moog parts, and upgrade my wimpy torsion bars to some thicker ones. Seemed like an easy job, especially with the exact same manuals that the dealership mechanics used to guide me. I'd have no problem getting it done over Christmas vacation.

Well, when I got started, I found that the parts were stuck together as only parts that have sat for thirty years in road grime and never touched can be. Sometimes the manual presumed I had resources that are not normally available to a home mechanic. Want to pull out the torsion bars? No problem! Just attach Tool C-3728 to the bar and pound away! Obviously, I did not happen to have a handy C-3728 in my toolbox. When I asked the parts clerk at Year One for a torsion bar removal tool, he sincerely apologized and told me that if I ever found one to let him know, because he needed one too. Even the Dodge dealership had no idea where I could get one of those. I went so far as to try to build something that looked like the tool in the manual out of wood, only to have it break. Needless to say, I went back to college with the project unfinished. The Dart sat in my parents' garage for the next semester with the front suspension half apart. I'm very lucky to have understanding parents.

(If you're wondering how I finally got the torsion bar out, I wrapped a cable clamp from Ace Hardware around it, braced a bottle jack against the crossmember, and gave the clamp a good push. Works like a charm.)

Lesson learned? Not hardly. Grassroots Motorsports rolled out their series of Challenges for building ultra-low-buck race cars. Reading their coverage made me think, "Hey, that sounds like fun!" So I thought it would be a good idea to buy a $500 Ford Probe GT with a shot clutch and a serious missfire, throw $600 worth of race tires in the trunk, and drive it 700 miles to Florida to mercilessly flog it on a go-kart track with no plans for what to do if it broke other than a toolbox in the trunk and a AAA card in my pocket. It seemed like a good idea at the time. In retrospect, it was a really, really dumb idea.

The Probe placed something like fifty-seventh, out of about seventy-five cars entered. Sure, I made it back without getting stranded, but I lost. If I'd had a bit more forsight and a bit more time, and maybe some buddies helping me, I would have fixed the defects and got it running a lot faster.

And it seems I still haven't learned. Just yesterday, I bought a copy of a magazine called Motorcycle Classics. Some of their articles suggest that it is entirely reasonable, even practical, to buy an old Japanese bike from the '70s for pocket change, fix it up a little, and ride it to work every day. Hey, that sounds like I could do that! Uh-oh...

A little magazine is a dangerous thing.

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