Thursday, October 1, 2009

Adventures in Car Repair

I’ve always had a powerful desire to work with my hands even though I’ve never been properly trained in any particular trade. I love to tinker with things, build things, make things, take things apart…occasionally put them back together properly.

My mother loves to tell a story about when I was 3 years old. I had one of those little red fire engine pedal cars; and, apparently, I was under the impression that it needed to be “repaired”. Frequently. My “repairs” allegedly took the form of the wheels and steering wheel being removed and put back on. This is the point in the story where Mom starts laughing uncontrollably as she tries to tell people of how I would be pedaling madly down the sidewalk only to have all fours wheels fall off simultaneously leaving me holding a steering wheel no longer connected to anything but my very inept hands.

Since then, I have worked on every car I’ve ever owned to one degree or another. Some of my efforts have been more extensive than others. Some of my efforts have been more successful than others.

For the last several days, the latest victim of my mechanical talents has been our 2002 Ford Windstar. The AC compressor on the Windstar chose August in Texas to take an eternal dirt nap. I’ve never attempted an AC repair before; but, after the shop said they wanted $1300 in parts and labor to fix, I figured I should give it a whirl.

After tinkering with cars for most of my life, I’ve noticed a couple of things that others might find amusing.

First, automotive engineers are a sadistic lot. There’s an old joke about the difference between a masochist and a sadist: The masochist says “Hurt me. Hurt me.” While the sadist says “No.” I’m convinced that car company engineers spend millions of dollars and hundreds of man hours thinking up devious and perverse ways to thwart countless masochistic shade tree mechanics such as myself. It’s their way of saying “No”.

Second, I am convinced that the folks who write car repair manuals have never, in fact, seen a car much less attempted to repair one.

For instance, the manual on the Windstar says that you should be able to remove the AC compressor from the engine compartment after removing the four mounting bolts. That might be possible in a pig’s left nostril. Maybe. Not, however, on a Windstar.

The bright eyed sadists at Ford buried the AC compressor on the front left side of the engine. Hiding out below the compressor is a frame rail, a radiator hose and part of the exhaust manifold leaving absolutely not nearly enough room to remove the large, heavy rectangular peg from the much smaller triangular hole. The top side is not much better. To the left is a huge chunk of engine compartment wall. To the right is more radiator plumbing and the battery. Above the compressor, Ford found a great place for the alternator and its mounting bracket creating another peg/hole combination from Hell.

Now, I’m enough of an arm chair engineer to grudgingly admit that you have to make compromises which sometimes sacrifice ease of repair. That, however, does not relieve repair manual writers from their obligation to accurately report the steps necessary to successfully undertake a particular procedure. Is it too much ask the manual companies to have some junior grade tech writer actually present when the repair is done? I mean, you might actually pick up little time saving hints like you need to remove the alternator and its mounting bracket to get the compressor out of its little hiding spot.

I spent the better part of several hours alone in the workshop trying to noodle that one out. The rats living in the shop’s insulation were no help. Ungrateful freeloading squatters. I give them free room and all the junk they could ever hope to hide in. The least they could do is give a guy a constructive suggestion once in a while.

All’s well that end’s well, though. I succeeded in getting the old compressor out and the new one in without having parts left over. It even started on the first try with no sparks, smoke or flames. A system flush and some R-134a later, the Windstar has cold AC again.

I can hear the Ford engineers back at their CAD programs cursing under their breath. Go on you turkeys. Take your best shot. Hurt me if you can.


  1. Wow -- I'm impressed that you managed to do this! If my husband or I attempted automotive repairs, we'd end up shelling out even more than we already do on our car. Those pesky car manufacturers have gotten away with murder as far as I'm concerned.

  2. Uh oh: I left a comment, but it disappeared. I'll come back later and try again...

  3. Mary, no need to try again. I moderate comments on this blog. I'm still new to this, and I thought I'd air on the side of caution until I got a better hang on this.

  4. I only use the car repair books to identify what the part looks like and where in the heck it's located on the engine. Then I just start tearing it apart, layer by layer,until I get to where I need to go. Mostly, I can get everything back together again without left over parts. And, always, use lots of "word of power" - that's what my Grandpa always called it when he swore at his car.

    And...I know you're a 1911 purist, but I love my Para and it's the only one I've shot that fit my hand *perfectly*. Since that's the gun I know (along with the Glock 23) intimately, that's the one in the story. The Les Bear, hmmm, still way out of my price range. :)

  5. GunDiva, I have come to the same place you are with respect to car repair manuals; however, even at that level, the manuals are only useful about half the time. The manual I bought for the Windstar which allegedly covers my year doesn't cover the particular 3.8L V6 in my vehicle. As a result, photos were more or less useless.

    I'll post my comments about you and your Para on Lyon's Roar.


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