Back in September, when I took Aislynn on the Father/Daughter Campout, I had my car looked at again for various minor issues I was having, the most notable being a cloud of white/bluish smoke that would come out the tailpipe every time I started it up cold. The mechanic diagnosed it as needing a valve replacement and head gasket, with an estimated cost of $1,800. But he also said he didn’t know if it was worth doing to the car since it was still running fine and was likely to still pass smog.
I was deliberating over what to do, and decided to run the scenario past my friend Mike, who’s very savvy with cars. I ran the details past him, and he said everything sounded legit, but he also said that while it’s a long job, it’s a doable do-it-yourself job, and he offered to do the work with me. He enjoys working on cars, and likes helping educate people about their cars. I was thrilled. I would like to know more about my car, and I’d also love to save the money.
So I acquired the parts he told me to, he bought the service manual on my vehicle (1999 Toyota RAV4), and we planned for Thanksgiving weekend to do the work, starting Friday at 9 a.m. We were hopeful it could be done in a day, but had Saturday for overflow just in case.
Friday morning I drove to his house, and we got started. He showed me how to disconnect the fuel line, drain the coolant and the oil, and walked me through removing various pieces from under the hood. This was going to be a beast to put back together, but we were both enjoying it, and I was learning a lot. I’ve seen parts of my car that I never knew existed.
Foolishly, I had committed to play Spades Friday evening, with this ridiculously optimistic idea that we’d be done by then. Around noon or 1 I was starting to clue in, and texted my friend Josh to ask if he could take my place so that we wouldn’t lose momentum working on this. Mike and I had a couple trips out for tools, which was impressive given Mike’s plethora of equipment. Thankfully Mike’s brother Phillip and our friend Seth kept stopping in amidst Black Friday shopping and errands, so I was able to give them money to grab us lunch. Mike and I did a dinner run on one of our errands out.
Heading into the evening, we started to get to the challenging parts of piece removal. We hadn’t even gotten under the cams to the valve springs. One of the pieces anchoring the engine block to the frame was in the way of getting the timing belt off. That piece was wedged in so tightly that we couldn’t get a socket wrench in with enough clearance to loosen the bolt from either over the hood or underneath the wheel well. And there was enough of a lip around it that we couldn’t get a box wrench around it. We finally got it off by buying a smaller socket wrench head that would fit in the small space.
At a later point, we needed Phillip’s brute upper arm strength to break the seal between the timing belt pulley and the engine cams. We were grateful he was around, even though he was pestering us as to when we’d give up to come watch the Grinch with him.
By then it was 10 p.m. and we were then stuck with figuring out how to get the idler pulley off to free the back plate of the timing belt. I came up with the plan to run home (Mike only lives 6 miles from me) to save Mike doing another trip, and then him picking me back up in the morning to start again. Around 11, I received a text from my friend Greg asking me what I was up to, and I asked him for a ride. As much as I could have done the run, this would save me an hour of sleep. So we called it a night at 11:30 and Greg took me home.
This morning, Greg picked me up (he only lives down the street from me thankfully), we did an Uncle Harry’s pick-up and he dropped me back off at Mike’s at 8:30. The morning went slowly as we ran into obstacle after obstacle in continuing to take pieces off. We even had to borrow his dad’s air compressor to create a seal in the engine so the valve seals wouldn’t fall down into the engine once we got all the way in to our work area. By 11 a.m., I was getting to the “what are we gonna do?” concern point. Mike is the Facilities Coordinator at our church, and I’m teaching Sunday School, so we both have to be there, and he often has afternoon commitments.
Then I had the idea of borrowing a car from my parents. I could take Amtrak down tonight, pick up my dad’s extra car, and drive back. That way I’d have continuing transportation through the week for work as needed, and we wouldn’t have to put the car back together unfinished only to tear it apart again later.
Around 3, we ran into a problem of needing a valve spring compressor. Mike has the new “universal” one that’s shaped like a wine bottle opener, but because my springs are recessed, we needed the old c-clamp style. As we soon found out from O’Reilly’s, Autozone, Pep Boys, Harbor Freight and Sebring’s, no one makes or carries that style anymore. It looked like we were sunk. We even started thinking of people at church, but the one name we both came up with now lives at Hume Lake. On a whim, I decided to call my neighbor Haig. By some miracle, he had one. He used it once, back when his sons (my age) were in jr. high.
Before Haig had come through, I had successfully made arrangements with Mom to borrow the car. When we got back to Mike’s house with the valve spring compressor, we sadly learned that this style only works if you take the whole engine apart, and we were trying to get away with taking the top off.
Well, God bless YouTube. Some videos had already helped us this weekend, but this one was the miracle worker. Some kids playing heavy metal music had recorded a video of how to make your own vsc with a 3/4" socket and a pen magnet. We were saved.
But then we realized that this tool is only half a tool. It helps us get the valve springs off, but will likely not work to re-insert them. So I booked a ticket on Amtrak, and found a sub for Kindergarten teaching tomorrow. Mike drove me home to pack and dropped me off at the station. He’ll keep looking at YouTube videos and the manual tonight to figure out our next steps. Right now it looks like we’ll need to order a part online.
I haven’t taken a train/bus down to Orange County in a long time, probably since my college days. The nice part is not having to be attentive to the drive. I dozed off and napped from Fresno to Hanford. And now I can just sit here chronicling this weekend’s adventures. This is kind of nice.