The Mechanical World and Odd Characters
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Thinking about leaving the car in for service, I thought how things have changed rapidly over the years. Nowadays, car engines are plugged into diagnostic computers, which immediately tell the acne-scarred apprentice exactly what to do.

The old days were better. Then you could open the bonnet/hood and gaze lovingly at the engine and decide perhaps to clean the spark plugs or fiddle with the distributor and various other pieces of equipment. There were characters about then: people who took a fiendish delight in D.I.Y. car servicing and were only too willing to let anyone avail of their services. In fact, they were so keen on their prowess that quite often they took on a difficult job for nothing. One of the outstanding characters in this field was 'Dennis'. His nickname was 'The Menace,í for he would never give up on any mechanical problem, which would arise. Day or night, if your car were in trouble, Dennis would miraculously appear from nowhere, push you aside and lower himself into the engine compartment. Nine times out of ten, he got it right, but sometimes things went a little wrong.

  
 
My father, having taken delivery of a very large saloon, had found it very sluggish. Not knowing a lot about the workings of the internal combustion engine, he relied mainly on advice given to him as he partook of a few light beverages at the local hostelry. Then, fully armed with this wealth of knowledge he arrived home, opened his toolbox and proceeded to attack the engine, as only he knew how. I remember it well; he was the only person I ever knew who could set the valve timing by ear! This he accomplished by slacking the distributor and turning it from side to side until he was convinced by the sound of the engine that the timing was correct.

Next on the list was the carburettor. For those who have only experienced fuel injection, this was the accepted device for getting fuel to the cylinders. The fuel was sprayed through tiny jets, some of which became clogged now and again.

The garage remedy was to clear the jets with compressed air, but there was another way to do it. This method was shown to my father in great secrecy by Dennis, who instructed him on the dismantling of the carburettor, removing of the jets and blowing them through by mouth! Unfortunately my father sometimes sucked instead of blew. The result of which was a mouthful of volatile gas. It is difficult to believe, but he was unconcerned by lighting a cigarette after this operation.

However, having completed all of these procedures, my father took a few of us for a test run to try out the improvements he thought he had made to the car.

Once on the motorway, bearing in mind that there was no speed limit then, he opened the throttle, and the large six-cylinder engine came to life.

After three or four miles, as we passed a large container lorry, the engine began to die slowly. Running now on two cylinders instead of six, the car was achieving approximately 25 miles per hour. Suddenly in my fatherís head, he remembered a vital piece of information from the hostelry. This advice had been implanted in the backward recesses of his brain for years. "To clear the engine while in motion, switch off, pump the throttle and then switch on again." This he did with the following result.

Neat fuel was pumped into a dead engine, and as it was switched on again the other four cylinders immediately lit up with a ferocious roar, propelling the car from twenty-five to seventy-five in a matter of seconds. As a result of this violent acceleration, all occupants of the vehicle received a force of at least 10G on their bodies and sank deep into their seats, unable to move. As a real sense of fear filled my head, I noticed my father's knuckles going white as he gripped the steering wheel firmly and pushed the brake pedal with the remaining strength he had left.

With a tortured squeal and a serious smell of burning rubber, the car was now de-accelerated back to twenty-five miles per hour and quickly reverted to firing on two cylinders again. Ten minutes later we slowly arrived home and parked the car. Deciding on the next best plan of attack was easy for my father, who headed off to the local bar saying, "I know a man who will sort it all out." As I looked at the smouldering wheels and pondered the meaning of mechanics, I was joined by several friends who had been attracted by the pungent odour of melting rubber.

Surrounded by this array of experts, I explained the problem. Soon the engine compartment was attacked with grubby hands tugging at ignition leads, fuel pipes and dismantling anything that could be removed!

It was during this frantic activity that Dennis arrived. Dressed in his one and only suit, he rolled up his sleeves and beat his way through the melee saying, "I think I know what the problem is." The upper part of his body then disappeared into the engine compartment leaving his backside and legs hanging out in a very ungainly manner.

As I stood back and surveyed the scene, a local amateur mechanic by the name of "Jim the chin" removed the fuel pipe, which leaked a few drops of high-octane fuel on to the hot engine block. As if this was not bad enough, he then dropped a large screwdriver, which unfortunately touched both battery terminals. The fully charged heavy-duty battery did not like this at all and immediately reacted by showering a profusion of sparks in all directions. Fuel and sparks have a defined purpose within the engine block, but in a confined space full of bodies, it is much different. The sparks and fuel vapour now combined with a force that Henry Ford would have loved to see.

I suppose not many people have actually seen an electrical flashover but it is an amazing sight. The flash lasted for approximately five milliseconds, and apart from the fireball, made a noise like thunder. Human bodies were propelled in all directions, but I think everyone working on the top section of the engine made it to safety within ten milliseconds, a world record then, I believe.

There were no serious casualties apart from smouldering hair, burnt fingers and possibly shock. All except for Dennis, who for reasons best known to himself had been holding tightly to the starter motor at the bottom of the engine. Fortunately, someone noticed his legs still protruding, and he was hauled out onto the roadside. To this day, I remember the look on his face and the words he said. He was completely covered in a black grimy deposit and the hair and eyebrows he had possessed before the flash were practically non-existent. When asked if he was all right, he did not answer, but stared vacantly. It was only then we realised he had temporarily lost his hearing. Mumbling incoherently for a few minutes, he regained his voice and asked who had short-circuited the battery terminals.

With everyone still in a slight state of shock, someone unfortunately called out, "It was Jimmy!" No one was ready for the next occurrence. With a springing leap that would have put a tiger to shame, Dennis fastened his burnt fingers around Jimmy's throat in a death grip and wrestled him to the ground.

It took at least four strong men to prise the grimy hands free and release the victim, who took to his heels and covered one hundred yards in ten seconds.

At this point, my father returned from the bar suitably refreshed, dismissed the entire amateur workforce and locked the car.

Within two days, having taken more advice from bar room mechanics, the car was towed away, never to be seen again.

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