Sometimes All You Can Do Is Laugh Part Deux

A lot of times, I think the only thing that has gotten me through this life is a sense of humor.

I have liked to work on cars since I ….well, had a car, a 1967 Chevy Camaro – in 1969. Had a 327 – Corvette high compression heads and an “executive” option of which 6,000 were made.

Wish I still had that car.

When things go right, you have the satisfaction of taking something that wasn’t working or not working well – and seeing it purr.

And knowing it was by your hand.

Not that I haven’t had some rather bad detours along the way. Detours that have come when I have “assumed” things, or didn’t have the right tool and thought I could make do with what I had.

Last year I bought an 18 year old Mercedes-Benz SL. Since the trunk light wasn’t working, and since Daimler has forsaken the printed shop manual (as have, I suspect, most/all of the industry), I put the new latch in and “assumed” it was right.  The trunk light on this car is activated by a rotating switch on the trunk latch.

So I figure “this is a simple job – there are 2 bolts that attach the latch to the body, how difficult can this possibly be?

I install the new latch, keep the bolts a bit loose (that is how you adjust the latch so the hood or trunk won’t be loose and rattle) – slam the trunk, take the key to open it (to tighten the bolts) and…..

Nothing is opening.

I am getting a real sinking feeling.

I had locked myself out of the trunk and there was no way to access the trunk from the passenger compartment. Those German engineers didn’t want unauthorized people to, ya know, break into the trunk.

Meanwhile I am still driving the car on club events (realizing that if I have a flat tire I am SOL) and a shop owner on the drive, hearing of my plight, looks at the situation, shakes his head and sez, “The only way you are going to get into that trunk is to break the right tail light”

I got the feeling that I wasn’t a pioneer in this detour.

In fact, I subsequently learned that those Germans, thorough to be sure, offer a paper template showing the hapless owner where he can drill a hole through the body (a rubber plug is provided I believe) to access the latch, if that be your preference.

No holes for me in the car (that can’t be fixed), thank you very much.

During this detour I thought of taking a hammer to that $400 light and then thought of messes in years past where I had the ability to take a bad situation and make it….worse.

If it can be done I will find a way.

I could envision smashing that light and with the force bending the body work that that forms the base of the light.

So I learned about Dremel tools.  I watched the plastic from that $400 light melt and drip on the floor. But I made some neat cuts. All the while I’m thinking that I have enough parts to buy to bring the car back to her glory without destroying good ones.

Anyway I got the thing fixed, the car, named Gabriella, is happy now with a trunk light that works.

And my screw up?

There is a rod that attached from the key assembly to the latch – hidden behind the trunk lining – and in installing the new latch, I didn’t see the rod so didn’t think of attaching it.

It’s that old saying “Assumption is the mother of all “foul” ups”.

Of course if I had been thinking I would have wondered how the key assembly links to the latch assembly. It had an electrical plug on the latch and I  thought that somehow the latch opened electrically.

Oh well.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had enough successes over the years to keep up this form of masochism. All I know that if I were a pro, dependent on the flat rate manual, I’d starve to death.

If I weren’t fired by the shop foreman first, which would be a real possibility.

I can take a job that a good pro could do in an hour or 2 and stretch it to a week, or a month, or longer.

Like my current project.

It is a Toyota MR2 that is 28 years old. Toyota only made a couple hundred thousand of them world wide in the 5 years of production.

I’m driving the car to the store to get dinner and suddenly the clutch isn’t working. I can’t shift.

So I get it up on jack stands, pull the transaxle (it always seems to be easier taking stuff apart although one of the things I have learned in 45 years of DIY wrenching is to bag and label associated fasteners). In pulling out the transaxle I managed to break a plastic sensor that screwed into the coolant line.

Anyway I notice the transaxle is leaking gear oil (that isn’t right!) so I send it to a good shop that rebuilds manual transmissions.

Part of the reason for the delay, of course, is not having the proper tools (like a lift, for one thing!)  Part of it was waiting for my 28 year old transaxle to get rebuilt.

Then too on some of our days I would get under the car, trying to fit the transaxle to the engine. I’d work for 2 hours with no results, call it a day and have a beer.

A transaxle, by the way, is  a combination transmission and differential used in front wheel drive cars and my mid-engined car.

There is an input shaft on the transaxle that has to be lined up precisely to the engine – so the shaft fits through the pressure plate, clutch and into the flywheel.




Which, lying on your back with the transaxle teetering on my $80 Harbor Freight jack, made for a comedy.

Getting back to the right tools.

If I’d had a proper lift and a proper transmission jack and 1 or 2 others to help guide the thing, it would have probably taken less than an hour.

But as an Army Sgt said years ago, “If a bullfrog had wings, he’d fly”

But I finally got the thing in. Even if I had only spent an hour or so a day (in 20 increments) perseverance will eventually pay off.

Oh, and that plastic sensor? Well, I bought a new one while I was waiting for the transaxle. After I installed the transaxle, I am trying to install the sensor and realized that had I done this with the transaxle out it would have been simple.

But now because of confined space, it is a bear.

So I have placed an order for a stubby (short) 24mm combination wrench.

We’ll see how that works.

I know 2 things about this:

1. I’m not pulling that transaxle out again in the near future. At least now with my memory of this episode. 

2. If there is a fork in the road with 2 choices “Easy” and ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” guess which I chose – consistently.

I have a story about installing motor mounts on my late Mercedes-Benz 300E which became a minor Internet legend. I’ll tell you about that in the next few days.


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2 responses to “Sometimes All You Can Do Is Laugh Part Deux

  1. Your trials and tribulations are PRECISELY why I’m among the world leaders in checkbook mechanics. One can also achieve a great deal of personal satisfaction by writing a check for a job well done, and getting one’s money BACK if the job isn’t done well. Your mileage prolly varies a LOT in this space, Bill.

    • Bill Brandt

      Buck that reminds me of a funny conversation I heard on the Net some years ago. The technical head of our MB club was trying to give a list of things to bring (for our older cars) that would eliminate lengthy stays in small towns in the event of a break down.

      Your 20 year old diesel needs a fuel pump in small town America and you could be in for an overnight or 2 stay waiting for the part…

      Anyway his number of things to take “just in case” got to be so funny we suggested that he haul them in a trailer behind the car.

      Finally one guy opined that he needed only one item to carry – spelled
      V I S A.

      It does make some sense!

      With cars these days the days of DIY (Do It Yourself) are almost gone.

      And among Mercedes (and I am sure the other makes) unless you have a proprietary computer (at $100,000 or so) to plug in and give you some codes, you are hopelessly lost.

      I was surprised – talking with some of the mechanics at the dealer – unlike the old days where they were older – and usually named Werner or Dieter – they are younger men – and women – in their 20s-30s and electronically savvy.

      Up to the early 90s electronics helped the machines – now electronics oversee all aspects of the machines.

      These days computers monitor all of the mechanics – fuel injection, engine management and 100s of sensors monitoring everything from airbag readiness to difference in wheel movement.

      I know at least on the Mercedes computers will, in the event of a crash, analyze which airbags to deploy. These days you can see cars in the yards that the insurance companies total – very little visible damage but all the airbags deployed ($10,000 to replace) – or electronic boards either unavailable or too expensive to replace.

      And of course all of this stuff goes wrong sooner or later. Making all these technological innovations a double-edged sword.

      But DIYers come in 2 varieties I think – some are just trying to save money – some are so cheap as to put silly repairs on parts – like trying to fix seat springs – that would warrant a new spring box.

      Some just get satisfaction out of working with their hands and solving something.

      I think I fall somewhere in between. I have had enough successes to stay at it (but my screw-ups are more fun to tell!!)

      I have learned over the years when I need skills I don’t have or tools I don’t have I take it to a pro.

      Most jobs give me a satisfaction – some – like this MR2 – I got to the point it was 50-50 whether to just have the thing hauled off.

      But this is the kind of job that for most owners – they would have called the scrap yard not wanting to spend $4-$5K to have it professionally repaired. On a car worth maybe $4,000.

      And since there are probably less than 10,000 of these left in the world I get some satisfaction getting it back on the road. But it sure was a challenge.

      If I can just find something to tighten that bolt 🙂

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