There's a dying aspect to modern automobile ownership. While the 21st century car (or truck, SUV, etc.) has far surpassed its predecessors in terms of reliability, comfort, efficiency and performance, these improvements have come at a cost (and I'm not talking MSRP).
Along with excessive exhaust emissions, single-digit fuel mileage and bias-ply tires, we've managed to leave something else in the automotive history books: do-it-yourself maintenance. The percentage of car owners attempting to perform a basic oil change or air filter replacement has fallen faster than a Middle Eastern regime. And why not? With so many of today's manufacturers offering free maintenance for the first three-plus years of ownership, and with a Jiffy Lube or Grease Monkey in practically every zip code promising "20-minute service," there's little need to even know where your hood latch release is (pop quiz: How many of you out there know this information without looking?).
But don't worry, I'm not about to get all misty-eyed and start singing the praises of days when men were men and oil had to be changed while lying on the freezing cold ground with no shoes on! I have, however, recently discovered the joys of having a proper work area and the proper tools to use in it.
When I first moved to Los Angeles from Denver, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment that had "off-street parking." This consisted of a single space, barely able to contain a 1970 Plymouth GTX, underneath the apartment building. Maneuvering the decades-old muscle car into that tight space was always a challenge, and one not always met when my wife started driving the car -- as numerous scars along the Plymouth's quarter panels now confirm.
After my wife became pregnant, we somehow managed to scrape together a down payment and get approved for the purchase of a West Los Angeles condominium. I was somewhat mortified to be buying a condominium instead of a house, especially at the price we paid, but it included a huge private garage that, depending on vehicle size and my creative parking ability, could accommodate three cars with room to spare. To this day my wife likes to say, "You didn't buy a condo, you just bought a garage that happened to include living quarters." But while the garage had space, it offered minimal light due to its "subterranean" location.
At both the apartment and condo, I performed only as much maintenance on my GTX as was necessary. This meant at least two replaced starters (maybe three, I can't remember exactly, but that car eats them like finger food) and the occasional tuning work. Even I didn't change my own oil because the transport and recycling of said material is such a chore, especially in West L.A. Instead, during that seven-year period I gradually acquired a fairly complete and impressive set of tools. My trips to Sears every Christmas (to buy presents for my older brothers certified grease monkeys) often resulted in something for myself. Over the years, I picked up a Craftsman tool organizer (basically a big toolbox with drawers), a powerful fluorescent light, some trick ratcheting wrenches and even one of those extendable magnets that can pick up lost nuts and bolts from hard to reach locations.
So while my apartment's "off-street parking" and condo's garage went almost completely unused, the amount and quality of tools I had at my disposal grew considerably. And now, eight years after leaving Denver, I finally live in a house again. The house has a spacious garage that is at ground level and equipped with mediocre fluorescent lighting (this is one area I still need to improve). I have my various tools set up exactly as I always pictured during those Sears visits, and I recently embarked on my most aggressive mechanical endeavor since leaving Colorado: replacing the Plymouth's archaic and inadequate Carter AVS carburetor with a brand-new, hand-built Barry Grant Speed Demon unit.
I've heard about these carbs for years, and I could have afforded one awhile back, but the thought of installing it myself kept me from picking up the phone and placing the order. The potential throttle linkage challenges, updating the fuel line from a single feed to a dual feed system, trying to make the factory cold-air induction system work; none of it sounded like fun to me. Finally, after several months of dwindling drivability that had kept even my patient better half from using the GTX, I finally fired up the Visa and ordered the new carb.
The process of installing the carb is now almost complete, and I can confirm three things:
1) The old carb was indeed a P.O.S. that was greatly hindering an otherwise capable engine.
2) All my fears related to installing a modern carb on a 34-year-old car were well-founded.
3) Despite the challenges of installing the carb, I had an absolute blast doing it!
It's amazing what can happen to you after nearly a decade of avoiding your toolbox. When I was younger, I would dive into just about any required mechanical work on the GTX. My motto: If there's a chance for improved performance, I won't even wait to change out of my "good clothes." Pop the hood and let's get busy!
But when I moved to L.A., it suddenly felt "wrong" to be working on my own car. That first apartment I mentioned was just inside the Beverly Hills city limits, and the few times I pulled the GTX onto the street and lifted the hood I would get the strangest looks from passersby. The same was true of my West L.A. condo. And, again, I didn't have the greatest set of tools; many of them were hand-me-downs from my brothers.
But give me a spacious garage with decent light and a healthy array of late-model tools and I'm like a kid again. If there was a downside to having so many tools, it was keeping track of them. For instance, I spent three nights overcoming the various challenges this carb switch presented, and on the first night I had the inevitable "nut falls off intake manifold and down between engine block and firewall." After a few colorful statements, I did what anyone would do and grabbed a flashlight. A few minutes later my wife was kind enough to unplug a floor lamp, remove the shade, carry it into the garage and hold it in the proper location while I fished the nut off the transmission bell housing with my trick "extendable magnet." It felt so cool knowing that a situation had arisen for which I had the perfect tool.
But the next night, when I suggested that maybe I would bring the lamp out again to have better light in the engine compartment my wife responded, "Didn't you buy one of those powerful fluorescent shop lights with a magnet that makes it easy to stick anywhere?"
Total silence as I considered the exact level of stupidity I was feeling.
"Yeah, uh-huh. I think I'll use that instead. Thanks, honey."
It's likely that most of you out there do little, if any, work on your own cars. And unless your personal fleet includes vehicles from before the Carter presidency, you could do more harm than good by digging into the engine compartment.
But I must confess, there's a real feeling of accomplishment when you fix a problem or upgrade an engine's performance without leaning on your local repair shop. And the quality of tools out there is simply amazing.
Not that I'm suggesting you go buy a 30-plus-year-old car just so you can play with the hundreds of cool Craftsman and Snap-On tools now available, but you could do worse with your free time.