Mr. Fix-It?

Back in the summer of 2019, my 1966 Ford F-100, Rosa, died along the side of the road between Elk River and home. She was my daily driver to Saint Andrew and back, and it was a sad day when the tow truck operator rolled her off the flat bed to her shady spot beside the garage.

The neighbor boy, watching the action over the fence with the acute interest of a future heavy equipment operator, said: “Best. TV show. Ever.” He didn’t sense my loss.

As of this weekend, Rosa rides again. Yesterday, she joined the parade of tarp-lined pickups and minivans loaded with leaf bags headed to the compost site to remove the leavings of autumn. She stalled once and sputtered twice at stop signs and traffic lights; she also seeped oil from nearly every seal and gasket for the first couple trips, until they swelled and began to hold again.

I told Jodi during our morning prayers yesterday that I knew we had a busy day planned, but I wanted to do at least one thing that I just flat-out enjoyed.

I’m an emotional guy. The first load of leaves choked me up a bit. I had a big, goofy smile all the way home. Rosa’s back!*

* * * * *

I am not naturally adept as a mechanic, but I spent so many hours assisting Dad in his shop that I know enough to be dangerous. It took me months to find time to really dig into what was ailing the old girl, a couple weeks of research and experimentation to narrow the trouble with reasonable certainty to the carburetor, and another several days to figure out why my carb didn’t match any of the diagrams I found online. (It’s a replacement generally used for agricultural applications but often swapped in on old Ford straight sixes.) I ordered a rebuild kit from Mike’s Carburetor Parts, read the instructions that arrived with about 50 little parts and gaskets several days later, and removed the carb from the engine. It took another year or so for me to work up the nerve to actually clean and rebuild it—I worried that it would be a difficult job, that I would screw something up, or worse, that I would do it perfectly and Rosa still wouldn’t run. I took countless photos during the process to “remember” how everything fit together, watched several videos on carb rebuilds (including, again, Mike from Mike’s Carburetor Parts working on the carb in question).

When I finally buckled down and did the work, it went very quickly, and aside from a few finesse moments, wasn’t particularly difficult. I reinstalled the carburetor; removed, emptied, and reinstalled the gas tank; put a few gallons of fresh gas and some Sea-Foam in the tank; charged the battery (which had been sitting now for two years); and Rosa fired right up.

Then I decided to check all the other fluids and discovered that the master cylinder, which holds brake fluid for the hydaulic brakes, was bone-dry and rusty. The seals had failed while she sat. As I researched where to get a new master cylinder, I discovered that the original brake system on Rosa (and many old cars) was considered a seriously safety liability: a leak anywhere in the brake system meant brake failure for all four wheels. So I started looking at upgrades, and decided now was the time for to add power brakes.

The process was much the same: research, discovery, purchasing all the right supplies and tools, then weeks of psyching myself up to actually do the work. Rosa would need custom brake lines for this new master cylinder; a set of custom lines would cost nearly 10 times more than purchasing the materials and tools to make my own lines. More research and discovery: even the handful of classic car guys I know hadn’t bent and flared their own lines.

* * * * *

When the system was all together at last, it took me a couple weeks of tinkering, and the advice of my men’s group, and the help of Gabe and my good friend Jeremy at least twice to bleed the air out of the brake system enough so Rosa would stop. Even then, the pedal felt soft and questionable. Finally I inquired at Berning’s Auto Repair in St. Michael, telling them I could not seem to get all the air out of the lines, so the brakes felt soft. The engine was also idling fast; I knew I could adjust the carburetor, but figured I would let them do for a few bucks more.

Sixty-four dollars later, I learned I had been barking up the wrong tree on the brakes: they were properly bled, but out of mechanical adjustment. (They still feel a little soft, probably because my right leg recalls what it took to stop Rosa without the vacuum boost. She stops quickly now, with little effort on my part.)

I also learned that, while the carburetor needed adjustment, the bigger problem was that the choke cable was stretched too tightly, keeping the engine in a permanent state of partial choke.

I hadn’t thought of that.

* * * * *

I drove Rosa home from Berning’s Thursday afternoon. On Friday, I thought to run a couple errands with her, just to blow the dust out. I jumped in, turned the key, and she fired up…for about three seconds. She stalled, and no matter what I did with choke, throttle, or key, she would not start again.

I ran my errands in the family minivan.

I had not previously replaced Rosa’s fuel pump, only the fuel filter, so I started my investigations there. I removed the air filter to access the carburetor again, and had Trevor crank the engine to check for evidence that gasoline was reaching the carb. Nothing.

I disconnected the fuel line to the carb from the fuel pump, figuring that, if the pump were working, fuel should spurt from the port where the line attaches. Again, nothing. Bad fuel pump.

I was think aloud, sharing my rationale with Trevor as I worked. I was about to go inside and order a fuel pump in hopes that we could still get Rosa on the road this weekend when Trevor asked how I knew gas in even reaching the fuel pump.

He’s right, I though. The problem could be between the gas tank and the pump.

We thought a minute: If the pump was working, it should create a vacuum where the line from the tank connected. I had picked up a vacuum tester at a flea market for $3 this summer, so we disconnected the fuel tank line, connected the tester to the pump, and cranked Rosa over.

The pump was working.

My mind went immediately to worst-case scenarios: a blockage in one of the hard or soft lines between the tank and the pump, or worse, a problem in the tank itself. Trevor, in his calm, practical way, asked, “Are you sure we have gas?”

I scoffed: I put three gallons or so in earlier this summer and had had driven what? Four miles? Besides, what were the chances that I had been within seconds of running out of gas when I pulled into the driveway from Berning’s the day before.

On the other hand, best to eliminate all possibilities before tearing things apart again.

I stuck a hose in the tank and blew into it, listing for a gurgle. Nothing. I pulled the hose out and examined it. Just a little slick of fuel on the bottom.

Out of gas.

I went to the shed to get the lawnmower gas cans, and emptied both into the tank. I pulled the choke, turned the engine for about 10 seconds, and Rosa rumbled to life, then purred contentedly.

Out of gas. Mr. Fix-It, indeed…

A little more online research showed that it’s not uncommon at all for an older vehicle, sitting in the summer heat for a few months, to lose a couple gallons of fuel to evaporation. I was, in fact, lucky to make it home from the garage!

* * * * *

So I’m learning. I’m grateful to have spent the hours I did with my Dad, shivering or sweating, grabbing the wrong tools for him before finding the right ones, hearing him curse when he skinned his knuckles, and learning what I could absorb. His memory isn’t what it used to be: not so many years ago, I could call him to troubleshoot issues like these, but these days, he can’t always remember. He loves that I’m trying, though; he loves to hear my progress, and he’ll love seeing me roll up to the log house in Michigan with Rosa, God willing, next spring.

He is always encouraging, and his advice to me these days is still solid: “Don’t worry, and don’t overthink it. Just pay attention and take your time.”—and his tremulous hands make fine movements like a conductor or a seamstress doing intricate needlework.

And Trevor! He’s so much like me in so many ways, but he has a healthy dose of my dad in his logical brain and practical approach to problems. If priesthood isn’t his calling, he should consider being a mechanic or a machinist. Mr. Fix-It, indeed!

* Dad used to have a big sorrel riding mule named Polly that he loved so dearly, Mom dubbed her “the Other Woman.” Rosa, I fear, is my “Other Woman.”

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