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Fixing vehicles right requires a sharp wit and grit

Friday, December 1, 2017 - 09:00
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One day I got a very terse call from the vice president of the company where I was responsible for fleet maintenance back in the late ‘70s. It seemed that an almost new (1978) Dodge one-ton we had was pointed at the gate with a gooseneck trailer behind it and that truck and trailer needed to arrive at our offshore diving and salvaging dock within the next 30 minutes – 25 miles away. I had no idea why that trip to that dock was so urgent, but someone had misplaced the key to the Dodge.

“Get that truck started and on the road within the next 10 minutes,” he told me with his gravelly voice, “and I don’t care what it takes. Just make it happen.” 

I must admit that I was in my element under pressure in those days, so I hung up the phone and grabbed a jumper wire with a couple of ‘gator clips on each end out of my toolbox. I opened the hood on the Dodge and made a connection from the positive battery terminal to the ballast resistor to feed current to the ignition coil. Making sure the tranny was in neutral, I “pocket screwdrivered” the starter to fire the engine up. Ninety seconds had expired and the steering wheel was still locked, but I knew I could defeat the pewter collar around that silly spring-loaded steering wheel lock peg, and I slid into the seat and muscled the wheel hard to the right, and broke the lock. Mission accomplished in less than three minutes and the truck was headed out the gate.

Then there was the time at that same job where I had to drive down Highway 87 toward Galveston and take a steamy ride on one marsh buggy through a swarm of mosquitoes and dragonflies to another marsh buggy that had jumped time, stranding a different vice president and his passengers a couple of miles off the road. Putting a timing belt on while standing in snake and alligator-infested water and swatting away mosquitoes wasn’t my idea of a good time, but I was motivated enough that I got that job done in record time, too.

This is my 2007 F150 that was victim of a surgical strike by some toothy critter that was copper-hungry

The point is that every job isn’t interesting, but in our line of work, challenges are the spice of life, and it feels good to be a problem-solver. It feels even better to be appreciated, and usually we are, but that isn’t always the case.


Dogs and squirrels chew wires, as do rats. Rats and squirrels build nests in engine compartments, and cats looking for a warm place to sleep can die under the hood and under the car in very gruesome ways sometimes. I’ve had to kill spiders and roaches, wasps, dirt daubers and all manner of other wildlife in my under-the-hood and under-the-vehicle odysseys. One morning I did a classroom presentation on critter damage, and a day or so later I walked out to where I park my own F-150, slid in behind the wheel, and thought I was going somewhere in my truck, but it wasn’t to be. The battery was good and hot, but I had no starter operation and no scan tool communication. The red theft light was blinking, which can point to a few different problems, but it usually means a module (usually the PCM) isn’t talking. With the key on, I checked for voltage at the EGR assembly and found 9 volts on the gray-red signal return wire – which should have been grounded through the PCM. What that meant to me was that the PCM had lost its own ground reference somehow.

Having Alldata available on the smartphone is pretty handy when you’re under the gun to find out what’s wrong and you’re somewhere else besides the shop

Next it was time to bust out my smart phone and dig into ALLDATA, where I found that PCM G103 is located behind the battery on the bulkhead. With my flashlight, I peered down there and saw that about eight inches of that wire had been removed by some sharp little teeth and my much larger main power feed cable to the inside fuse panel had been just as viciously attacked, but it had survived without being severed. Some chew-happy squirrel must have a nice piece of wire lining its nest and a belly full of copper as I type these words.

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There was another ground wire in that same area that was compromised as well. While removing the battery and doing some solder and heat shrink work was almost enjoyable that Saturday morning, I found myself wondering if I was going to have this problem again. No other wires under the hood had been attacked.  It was almost like the critter had pulled up a wiring schematic and did a surgical strike to prevent my truck from going anywhere. And it worked.

I suppose I should have been thankful that these wires were the only ones the critter chewed – he could have done a lot more damage than he did – fixing this took about thirty minutes.

I prevailed in that fix and placed some rat poison in the general area. We’ll see how that works out.

The 2004 Suburban

In a previous article, I mentioned a 2004 Suburban with a 5.3L that was misfiring on cylinder 4 with low compression and, during the cylinder leakage test air was escaping into the exhaust, but the owner chose to drive it skipping for a while before having it fixed. Finally, the Suburban returned and we hashed out what needed doing.

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