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Using gumption to fix vehicles

The kind of work we do requires some serious gumption nearly every day.
Wednesday, September 1, 2010 - 00:00

The kind of work we do requires some serious gumption nearly every day.

During five of my 25 years as a professional mechanic, I did fleet maintenance in a 24/7 oil-related business on the Texas coast, some of it as a working shop foreman. I developed the understanding that every job requires gumption and not everybody has it. Gumption gets the job done; the lack of it leaves that job undone.

First there were the machines. Removing and rebuilding a transmission in a Clark Y60D forklift is different from putting clutches and seals in a 727 TorqueFlite or a C6. Greasing a 150-ton American crane in full operation is a far cry from doing a lube job on a 1977 Chevy pickup. Remanufactured clutches only lasted 30 days when our dock workers were doing the driving.

The operators and drivers needed gumption, too. I had to learn to fix forklifts, vehicles and pipe loaders and proof them against others that either didn't know how to operate them or would do anything to create an excuse to ride the clock and not work.

That was the shop environment where I lived every day. When you're 20 in a shop with guys who are anywhere from five to 35 years older than you, you have to prove yourself just about every day for months before you earn their respect. And nothing short of hard work and miracle repairs will garner that kind of capital among the seasoned.

While that fleet maintenance job tended to be a meat grinder, it put a lot of iron in my soul that gave me a special appreciation for the crisp work and constant training of a dealership service department. But anybody who works with metal, grease, chemicals and on-board computers knows a technician needs to be a special breed. And to paraphrase a well-known book on motorcycle maintenance, if you don't have gumption, you might as well put your wrenches away and find something else to do.

How many of us have done the best job we knew how to do only to find out it somehow wasn't good enough for a finicky customer? What about those times when we're working on commission and every part of the transmission has been cleaned, inspected and reassembled by the book but we find that a porous casting is dumping line pressure and it all has to come back out?

Then there are those annoying intermittents that never seem to show up and won't toss a single code. And who hasn't encountered the 20-year-old under-maintained cars that belong to people who can barely afford to buy gas, and nothing we do short of free everything satisfies the owner? Seems like sometimes the folks we sacrifice the most to help are the ones who complain the loudest.

For nearly 10 years now, I've been teaching students to do what I did to earn a living for 25 years. For those among us who haven't taught youngsters to wrench, it requires some serious gumption, sacrifice and a lot of energy to teach the trade. When you have a shop full of learners, you very quickly find out whom you can depend on and whom you can't.

The Odyssey

This Honda van had an obvious problem between second and third gear, with a slipping run-up and a slamming shift. For those who have been regular wrenchers on an Odyssey, it's a no-brainer. The transmission had to come out, and I gave the job to Lee and Amanda, two of my most persistent and dedicated students. It was a grand adventure. For a pro, the R and R on this van pays just over eight hours. Because we decided to pull this one and send it to a transmission shop to have it rebuilt, there would be a week or 10 days between one R and the next one, which tends to create issues. For a couple of second semester students, this was no easy job.

They tore into the job with great gumption and started disconnecting everything imaginable from the H frame while I burned rods using steel plate and square pipe to custom-manufacture an engine support fixture because the OTC support unit wouldn't work on this van because of inadequate fender ledges. They chipped away at the job disengaging the lower ball joints, the sway bar links, disconnecting the mounts and the rack, not to mention the hard metal lines that snaked through hold down brackets on the frame. With the engine supported and the H frame removed, they went to work on getting the transmission out. But they weren't the only ones with a tough job to do.

The Neon

This 1995 Neon needed a rear wheel alignment, but it had spent many thousands of miles on salty northern roads where cars slowly melt away from the undercarriage up. Our problem was that the four links that collectively serve as the rear lower control arms were secured on each end by foot-long 12mm bolts passing through 10-inch tubular anchor points at the frame and through the spindles.

With time, road salt, rust and oxidation they had practically become one with their respective holes. In attempting to loosen the nut for rear toe adjustment on one side, I had applied enough muscle to twist the end off the bolt. With new links ready, it would take gumption to get the job done.

We all like those nice late model corrosionless cars where the bolts break loose easily and spin out with your fingers. Well, Greg, another student, was about to get a heavy dose of gumption cultivation. He was going to replace those links, and to do that he was going to have to remove those seized 12-inch long 12mm bolts that were passing through those 10-inch rusty passages to secure the ends of the links.

It's not feasible to do this kind of job without an acetylene torch, and stick welding and torch work is one element I teach during my fundamentals sessions. Cutting the old links and removing the spindles, we vised them, torched them red and removed the long bolts from their long bores in both spindles before transferring our torching operation to the car. Greg was able to salvage some of the long bolts, and we replaced the ones that didn't survive with all thread rod, washers and nuts. In the end, we had beautiful new lower links that made it very easy to perform a four-wheel alignment. Before all we could do was adjust the front wheels.

Back to the Van

The transaxle came back from the shop and it was time for the second R of R and R for Lee and Amanda. They got the transmission stabbed and reconnected all the wires. The H frame fought them tooth and nail for a while, but they got it back in there after discovering that the transmission shop had put the small end mount back on upside down and somehow one of the big H frame bolt holes wound up with stretched threads. Some tap work was in order to straighten it out.

The steering rack, sway bar links CV axles and control arms found their way back to where they were supposed to be, and with boots on the ground, the Odyssey got its automatic gearbox refilled with the right transmission fluid. (If you aren't familiar with this transaxle, you'll be dreadfully confused by the engine-oil-sized dipstick and the oddball fill point.)

The first test drive was dreadfully disappointing. The transaxle would take off only in low gear if you selected low gear with the stick; in drive, it took off in something that felt like second or third. There weren't enough shifts, and the ones that happened didn't feel right.

What had gone wrong? Well, the scan tool tossed us a code directed at the solenoids, and we went home for the day hoping we wouldn't have to remove the transaxle again. As it turned out, we didn't. The two discrete solenoids on top of the unit had been reinstalled backwards by the rebuilder, and that turned out to be a problem because the connectors on these solenoids are color-coded.

Because of that color coding, the solenoids had been plugged in backwards. The Torque Converter Clutch Solenoid connector is black and should go in the rear, closest to the bulkhead, and Shift Solenoid B is the one with the brown connector and should go closest to the radiator. The transmission shop had transposed them, and if it hadn't been for Alldata's scanned photo from the Honda shop manual, we would have been in a pickle. With the solenoids properly installed and connected the van drove like a dream.

Loose Ends

Any job requires the final iron-out, and this one was no exception. The transmission can't do anything if the engine won't start, and a bad battery cable can debilitate any vehicle. The band style battery terminals love to stretch and cables can be expensive, so we engineered a fix on the positive battery cable for a job well done.

Richard McCuistian is an ASE-certified Master Auto Technician and was a professional mechanic for more than 25 years. Richard is now an auto mechanics instructor at LBW Community College/MacArthur Campus in Opp, Ala. E-mail Richard at rwm19@mail.com.

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