by Perrin French
Originally published in the Austin-Healey Magazine, January 1981
(Being the True Account of Attempts by a Mechanical Novice to Restore a 1962 Austin-Healey 3000 Mark II BT7)
I always thought you had to be a jock to work on cars. In the neighborhood where I grew up, the big kids hurling hard balls back and forth across the street smackingly into each others bare hands were the ones, a couple of years later, who were out in their driveways making mysterious adjustments under the raised hoods of automobiles. Mechanical ability, I assumed, required development along cerebella rather than cerebral lines. I tended to view coordination and academic abilities as mutually exclusive endowments; and so, as an honor student, unable to handle footballs, basketballs, or baseballs in any capacity other than some team’s assistant manager, I viewed the domain of grease monkeys as forever forbidden to me by a territorial imperative. I never saw the underside of an automobile hood.
Thus things remained until last year, when, at thirty-six years of age, I acquired for the first time in my sedentary life a sports car. I was given a 1962 Austin-Healey 3000 Mark II (BT7) by my graduate student wife. The purchase, as best I can deduce, was an act of philanthropy on her part. She was helping one of her professors dispose of his beloved beast before it could become a rubber tired coffin for his eldest son, who was approaching legal driving age at an alarming rate. Needless to say, I felt flattered at the respect for my driving abilities implicit in her choice of me as the next owner for such a car, and remain convinced that her sudden display of interest at just around that time in the exact nature of my life insurance policy, with its double payments for accidental death, was intended entirely as a joke.
Having a reliable car already to take care of my transportation needs (a ‘76 Toyota Corona station wagon, the repairs for which over a four year period had consisted of replacing one fuse), and having learned through ownership of a 1972 Audi 100 LS the lethally high costs of having Gucci-shod European mechanics in white laboratory coats perform the weekly repairs required by a European auto, the stage was set for my encroachment into the territory of the greasers. I would do any repairs required by the Austin-Healey myself, thereby saving money and simultaneously learning a skill which might come in handy should I feel like surviving further after the bombs fall.
As with many great events (World War 1, the unraveling of Watergate, etc.,) things began trivially enough. I noticed the gas gauge readings bore a random relationship to the actual gas content of the tank. Despite the previous owner’s air of in-credulousness and injured pride when I mentioned this to him and his convincing assurances that the gauge was a completely reliable instrument, if properly read while motoring at a steady speed in a straight line, I had run out of gas twice with the gauge’s needle still cheerily bouncing back and forth between one quarter and three quarters full.
Ah ha! My first opportunity to engage in repair work!
Armed with the owner’s workshop manual, I removed the fuel tank sending unit, discovering in the process that it resembled a toilet tank shut off float and seemed to be in perfect order. I instantly deduced that the difficulty must lie in the fuel gauge itself. Through some editorial inadvertence, the description of the dismantling and reassemble of the fuel gauge had been omitted from the workshop manual. No matter. After a moment’s reflection I realized that the directions regarding the instruments dismantling must have been omitted because of the self-explanatory simplicity of the maneuver. Imagine how surprised I was when I pried open the gauge and saw, under the prodding of my blunt screwdriver, its several delicate parts go “sproing,” like the workings of a Swiss watch, scattered forever to the winds of entropy. Lesson one: Some parts of a car you replace rather than repair.
When the local parts store couldn’t come up with a fuel gauge of the right vintage and make (Smith), I placed what was to prove the first in a succession of orders for obsolete car parts with a company a car-buff friend had recommended, located in the small California town of Goleta. Ah, the thrill of the packages arriving in the mail from Goleta, California! Goleta! The strange newname itself became as exciting as “Battle Creek, Michigan” had been when I was nine years old, waiting for my Buck Rogers space ring (with a secret compartment) to arrive in exchange for twenty-five cents and a Wheaties box top.
The same supportive friend who had steered me to Goleta in my search for a gas gauge pointed out, in one of my calls to him for education and moral support, that it was a straight shot from the gas cap to the bottom of the tank, and thus an adequate alternative for a fuel gauge could be had in the form of a straight stick. Could be right? He was right. A bamboo stick used by my wife to sober up potted plants did the trick. Four and a half inches of wet stick indicated a full tank, with shorter lengths of wetness representing proportionately lesser amounts of fuel.
With no further immediate need for a fuel gauge, I was free to continue to “tour about,” right? I could just leave those itty bitty wires dangling where the gauge had been. I mean, how much electricity could such little wires contain? Not very much, I would bet on that. Six blocks down the road I began, like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof smelling “an oduh of mendacitih,” to smell an odor of doubt regarding my bet. Another two blocks and the message that I had lost the bet was being semaphored to me from under the dash board by smoke signals. This irritated and somewhat frightened me and I decided if the car was going to behave that
way I would take it straight home. I’d learned a thing or two about the management of difficult, temperamental behavior at my daughter’s co-op child care center. I realized the value of some “time out” if the car was going to get so upset over my leaving those little wires out. The car would have to go straight back home with no drive today. A block from my house, the intermittent sparks and glowing wires ignited into frank flames and I thought it best to pull over to the side of the road. There I attempted to break off and pull out the offending wires from under the dash with my bare hands, before they could, for all I knew, detonate the rest of the car. Despite the wires’ incandescence, the only thing that was breaking off and coming away was the skin on my hands. Turning off the ignition had failed to placate the machine’s fiery outburst, and my final effort towards conciliation was to go around the back and turn off the battery. Beyond that, I was ready to wash my hands of it and leave it up to the authorities to deal with the car’s bad behavior.
The neighbors, victims of repeated home burglaries, first answered the doorbell out the second story window, but then, after I identified myself, let me in to call the fire department on their phone. By the time the big red truck with its helmeted authorities arrived the fire was out, my final gesture of conciliation having apparently sufficed to extinguish the car’s fire.
“If this was the good old days,” the frustrated foreman of the local repair shop informed me, “I'd tell a mechanic, ‘You work on that car or you don’t get paid today.’ But today, they tell me what they’ll do and what they won’t do, and there isn’t a one of them that will rewire your Austin-Healey.” The job generated by my laissez-flare attitude towards the loose wires consisted of replacing the entire “main wiring harness,” the car’s plastic-coated copper nervous system, a significant hunk of which had been fused together into a mass resembling spaghetti added to boiling water without stirring. When I finally found a couple of men able and willing to do the job, one wanted $600 and the other, Ken Walsh, recommended by the President of the A-H Club (which I had learned of through an ad in a friend’s Road & Track Magazine), $300. Both men suggested I could do the job myself—simply send away for a reproduction of the original wiring harness and install it in my spare time. They made it sound so simple. Why hadn’t the men at the local repair shop snapped up the job? Just my luck to have poked into one of those rotten spots spreading across the soft underbelly of American culture today: a nest of indolent, parasitic mechanics, acrawl with fear of honest work.
The package from Goleta was a large, padded manila envelope, stapled shut —the sort used for mailing books. With the old Battle Creek reverence for That-Which-Has-Come-in-the-Mail I carefully extracted the contents: two coiled, black electrical tape-wound snakes with many heads, tails and side pieces of colored wire. No instructions, no diagrams. The message was clear: You’re on your own, kid.
There was a diagram in the workshop manual that pretended to represent my 3000 Mark II BT7’s electrical system. Actually, I was to learn later, for some reason it did not. A diagram purporting to pertain to the 100-6 turned out to be the one corresponding to the system in my car. But at the time I started work, both diagrams might, as easily have been letters from Mr. Spock to his Vulcan grandmother for all the sense they made to me in terms of the wires I could see in the car. What I needed, If I was ever to fit all the heads, tails and side pieces of the wiring harnesses into place without having the windshield wipers go on when I stepped on the brakes, were drawings of the wires as they really looked throughout the car. And by the time I’d finished making the necessary 7 drawings (see two of them in the accompanying illustrations), starting with a brake pedal’s eye view of the dash, I had begun to develop (a) a pain in my left shoulder which to this day prevents me from sleeping on that side, (b) an incipient case of claustrophobia, and (c) an appreciation of the mechanics at the local repair shop as honest citizens, motivated by nothing more insidious than their constitutional right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. Do not fear, gentle reader, that I shall subject you to a blow by blow account of my Laocoonian wrestling into place of the main and rear wiring snakes. Suffice it to say that it took many times the ten hours estimated for his own performance of it by Ken Walsh, and was a “valuable learning experience,” both in the true sense of the phrase and in the sense of the phrase as it is used by Senior House Office to coerce medical interns into performing rectal exams on their patients. Among the things I learned were: the names and locations of all the internal organs supplied, controlled or monitored via the wiring harnesses; how to jack the car up onto jack stands and remove the wheels; the various angles to which fingers, wrists and arms may be contorted short of outright fracture; how to screw tiny screws with multiple washers into inaccessible apertures while upside down without blowing your lunch; what a socket wrench set is good for and what you need a set of little individual regular wrenches for instead; how to remove and get resoldered your oversized radiator after learning how easy it is to accidentally poke holes in it; how to clean ½ inch thick layers of grease and dirt off of various parts and panels with toothbrushes, butter knives and rubber spatula; and, yes, how to read a wiring diagram (and learn which switches and wires a previous owner had improvised himself in order to run interior lights, an ooga horn and a radio, as well as to monitor oil temperature and amperage — all of which I tore out from a recently acquired wire-phobia and a conviction that I would be lucky if the basic wiring worked when I got it finished without tempting the wrath of Chevy, god of Car Repair, with unorthodox additions).
My final lesson was how to charge up a battery with a battery charger. After learning how easy and effective the procedure was, I grew sick at the thought of all the new batteries I’d bought through the years instead of simply recharging the ones I’d absent-mindedly bled into states of shocklessness through left-on headlights. At any event, the moment of truth had arrived. Would the windshield wipers start up when I turned on the light switch? Would nothing at all happen? Would one or more fires gaily break out in celebration of the return of electricity? Having decided against assembling a formal gathering of my friends and neighbors, I was alone when I turned the battery switch to the “on” position — and heard the fuel pump start chugging without benefit of the ignition key! Oh well, at least something
had happened, and without any accompanying flames.
Examination of the wiring diagram with my newly trained eyes enabled me to guess at where the trouble might be: at the fuses, where the ignition system and the main wiring system which fed the fuel pump were closest together. There had been a broken fuse in its own little plastic container wired diagonally across the car’s standard two fuses. In the-course of rewiring the car I had replaced this broken fuse with an intact one, imagining myself to be doing the car a favor. According to the wiring diagram, this fuse didn’t exist. With the fuse removed, an appropriate lack of activity accompanied the turning on of the battery switch, while the fuel pump started up on the turning of the ignition key, the engine started up on the pressing of the starter button, and the lights and wipers went on upon the turning on of their proper switches. Hallelujah! I had done it. I had tricked Chevy into believing I was a legitimate member of the athlete-greasers priesthood and had had my imposturous ministrations accepted and rewarded the same as if I had been one of the elect and had truly known what I was doing.
Inflamed with hubris, I have subsequently challenged the gods in further matters, many attended by minor nemeses. There was the matter of setting the valve clearances, wherein I learned that to turn the engine over slowly one pushes the car in third gear rather than frying to get a wrench in anywhere to turn it over by hand. There was the changing of the oil and oil filter, wherein I learned that subsequent oil leakage is due to failure to tighten the casing down hard enough on the gasket. There was the replacing of the starter motor with a rebuilt, wherein I learned that I should not chicken out and have others be paid to do jobs that turn out to be easy. Then there was the re-gasketing of the fuel level sending unit, wherein I learned the use of gasket-in-a-tube, after learning that the source of gas fumes filling ones trunk (where the battery is) is most likely a by-product of ones own handiwork if one has been tampering with the tank. There was the matter of freeing the carburetor float chamber needles and cleaning out the gunk from the chambers, wherein I learned that stuck valve needles can be one cause of gasoline pouring out over one’s engine. In that matter I also learned that one should not hesitate to make one’s own gaskets from a gasket kit rather than trying to buy them ready-made, since there are as many different shaped carburetor types used in such cars as there are different float chamber needles, and the chances of getting the wrong ones vastly outweigh the odds of bringing home the correct ones, even when you think you’ve got all the part numbers down. And then there was the matter of replacing the radiator and fuel line hoses, wherein I learned that fatigued fuel hoses can be another cause of gasoline pouring out over one’s hot engine. Finally, there were a couple of less essential tasks, having to do with my developing notions of what the car should look like and how it should sound.
One crisp winter day while driving (in my Toyota station wagon) up on a small road in the coastal range to cut a Christmas free, I came upon an apparition around a turn near the summit — stuck awkwardly crosswise in this back road, as unexpected as an Arabian race horse with a foot caught in some farmer’s cattle guard, was a long, low beautiful, white vintage Jaguar convertible with two elegantly dressed young women in its cockpit. I waited, of necessity, fascinated, drinking in the delightful scene like a seven-year-old consuming an ice cream soda, while the ladies completed the backing and filling required to reverse their direction. The next moment the car was gone, as suddenly as I had come upon it, leaving in its wake two questions, a regret, and an impression. Who were the ladies? What was their relationship to the car? Wouldn’t it have been a finer, more fitting encounter if I had had my Healey under by butt instead of on top of jack stands? That car had certainly looked noble! And as I reviewed the car’s image in my mind’s eye I realized that a feature I had perceived as one of the ultimate manifestations of the car’s nobility was perhaps obtainable for my Austin-Healey: the glinting coverings over its semi-detached head lamps — some sort of polished silver battle grid of diamond shaped mesh, vaguely evocative of chain mail in the days of knights on crusade. “Stone shields,” Later learned, was the Britishese description of the item and, yes, I could and did get some for the Healey. While not as noble seeming to me on the engendered Healey lamps as they had looked on semi-detached ones, they combined nicely with the extra set of halogen road lights to establish an esthetic balance with the chrome accessories on the rear of the car (license plate frame and luggage rack).
Equally inessential to the running of the car, but as arresting in its way as the car’s physical appearance, was the matter of its sound. Austin-Healeys are notoriously beloved for their throaty rumble. The voice of my Healey had progressed, during my brief period of ownership, from a hoarse rasp to a continual shout, by discreet jumps in volume which I accurately guessed corresponded to successive losses of wall matter in the exhaust system. The exhaust system, I learned, consists of three parts: a set of down pipes, a muffler, and a set of tail pipes. While the hole, big enough to admit a baby’s fist (should one be crawling, God forbid, under the car toward the front on the left side), was located in the down pipes, I decided to replace all three parts together. I did so at the advice of a friend who had attempted to replace his car’s exhaust system piecemeal only to find himself suicidal frustrated by the parts’ adherence to one another.
Though disinclined towards suicide through a naturally cheerful disposition, the frustrations of jimmying a new “stock” Healey exhaust system into place under my particular car (which the previous owner, in a fit of candor, acknowledged) had been in at least three significant accidents)did drive me a bit nuts. Under the stress of being squeezed in, upside down, working over my head with dirt falling in my face, struggling with bolts and flanges and nuts of wrong sizes in wrong places, I found my mind cracking in the direction of Eros rather than Thanatos: a state of perverse, masochistic arousal. “Americans are always accused of being in love with the automobile,” my delirious musings began. “Suppose someone took that love one step further? No longer platonic. Went beyond giving the shiny beauty an occasional pat or kiss on the fender. Went, in a word, ‘all the way’? Is that so totally out of the question? Why shouldn’t automobiles have the necessary capacity?” My mind blithered on, auto-erotic in the true sense of the word. “They have the other systems and properties pertinent to living beings: ingestion (fuel tank), digestion (fuel system, cylinders), respiration (carburetors), excretion (exhaust system), locomotion (drive shaft, wheels),even sensation (fuel level and water temperature sending units and gauges, etc.) — why not reproduction? If they had had reproductive systems, “I reasoned, recklessly prying and tugging, spitting out dirt and beginning to laugh out loud in a demented chuckle, “the Austin-Healey species might not have become extinct in 1968 .... And if there could be some sort of consummated union between a Homo sapiens and an Austin-Healey,” I wondered, “what would the offspring be like? Intelligent automobiles? Human beings with overdrive? At the very least, they’d be fast and cute…“ Even after completing the installation, it took the fear from smelling burning point while on the test drive and the subsequent reassurance of realizing the smell “went with the territory” when one broke in a new exhaust system to finally purge my mind of its miscellaneous meandering.
My most recent task has been to strip off and polish up all the chrome (save for the beading on the fenders, some bolts of which I found inaccessible despite assurances to the contrary from the Austin-Healey Club’s otherwise extremely helpful Parts Manager, Dave Leeling), while having the car repainted a fresher tone of It’s original bright red. But the job just prior to this is the job with whose mention I wish to conclude this saga. It is the one of which I am the proudest, and which may be of the most interest to any athlete-mechanics out there reading this, bored to tears or laughter by my presumptuous enumeration of elemental mechanical acts.
This job, the most beautiful act of “restoration” of my vehicle to date, was largely done by John Lush, a young neighbor who had just won a prize in industrial art at his high school. This young man and I replaced the rather mundane original vinyl-covered aluminum dash with a board truly worthy of the Marque: a chunk of solid burl walnut, purchased in Oregon and fashioned by John into a polished sheet with the contours of the original dash, a half inch thick in the oval around the steering column and stock dials, routed down to a quarter inch thickness over the rest of its length. Other drivers, whiling away their sentences at stoplights, may tune in their radios or fondle their loved ones. For my part, whenever I am detained while behind the wheel of my Healey, I shall always have an escape available in front of me. Absent radio or companion, I can experience rhythm and beauty by simply resting my eyes on the infinitely rich and varied swirling of the polished walnut (see photos).
Someday soon I will be content with the appearance of the car and I will have a breathing spell between crisis interventions demanded by malfunctioning. And do you know what I am going to do then? I am going to learn how to do what those jocks on the block were probably really doing under the hoods of their cars when I was a kid. I am going to learn how to give the car a tune-up.
[Perrin French is a Palo Alto psychiatrist with a part-time private practice limited to adult owners of Austin-Healeys. He was the first to describe an acute form of claustrophobia suffered only by Healey owners and to point out the connection between this condition and the inaccessibility of the Healey parts. He has pioneered the movement to include automobiles in family therapy sessions, being dedicated to the premise that any truly comprehensive look at “the whole patient” should include an assessment of his or her automobile if that patient is an American.]
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