Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Distributor demolition

When the detonation happened I was stunned. OMG, WTF, it sounded like someone had fired off a 12 gauge shotgun in the front seat of my truck. I could see a cloud of black smoke billowing up on the right side of my truck. The greyhounds had fled with clots of dirt flinging up behind them. Kate comes tearing out of the house, and the neighbors were fretfully peering out at the scene. Who'da thunk this could happen. I just sat there for a few seconds letting the ringing in my ears stop. This was the mother of all engine backfires.

The truck had lately been cranky and hard to start on occasion. It would always start, but on wet mornings I was glad that it eventually did start. This morning I'm late as usual, and I have to be on Longboat Key in 3o minutes. I cranked and cranked and then the horrific backfire incident occurred, and my decent into truck purgatory began.

I tentatively open the hood half expecting to see massive carnage. A blown apart carburetor, or air filter confetti but everything appears fine. I scratch my head, get into the beast and turn the key. It starts right up, but now it's noisy. I mean noisy like I have a bumper sticker that now says "loud pipes saves lives." My watch says go. Kate says "Are you sure?" I nod and take off. A few minutes later Kate calls and tells me there's a "bunch of stuff on the driveway," and there was.

The muffler had literally exploded, and the debris on the driveway was pieces of catalytic converter, and other sundry bits of automotive related exhaust system components
I'm not a motor head by anyone's measure. I know the theory of how the internal combustion engine works, at a primitive level. Squirt gas into a cylinder with some air, apply spark, explosion occurs, cylinder gets pushed down, and repeat.

I called my mechanic and described what happened. After a brief pause he says "you need a new distributor cap and rotor, go buy them and I'll install them."

The Superbowl weekend is upon me. I'm busy, the truck has been working okay, albeit a new muffler is required. I'm cooking chili for a contest, have two functions to make appearances at, and the purchase doesn't happen. Then the truck won't start again.

For grins I pull the coil wire off the distributor, and a pile of red dust falls out of the connector. Ahah, here's what the problem has been all along. No Mr. Electricity is getting to visit with the gasoline in an explosive way. I clean up the contacts and plug it in. The truck fires right up, problem solved, but it wasn't.

The next morning the damned truck won't start again. No prob, I pull the wire off, and clean it up again, and plug it back in. Oops when I do the entire post just falls off the distributor cap. 

I stare at it with the dawning realization it ain't ever growing back, along with the dawning epiphany that my mechanic's diagnosis was correct in the first place. Had I bought the parts he would have already installed them, and I wouldn't be stranded here scratching my beard in O. Henry styled ironic bemusement.

I take Kate's car and buy the bits, but I'm a little embarrassed I'm in this position in the first place. I stare at the parts, and  call my mechanic. "This seems like a simple job, do you think I could do this my self?" "Sure you can Bill, it's not hard, but here's what to watch out for...."

The pause is because I'm going to wander away for a moment. The parts came with zero directions. They weren't complicated, but the things my mechanic told me, were the things I needed to pay extra attention to. 

These types of details are often overlooked in technical documentation. I'm sure that if you talk to tech support departments, 20 percent of the answers cover 80 percent of the calls. Sometimes the question is barely out of my mouth when I'm gracefully cut off with the correct solution. This is why my DIY pieces tend to be overly detailed and somewhat pedantic. I try to never assume the reader knows everything I do. If you have never done it, these small details can bite you hard.

In my case the nuances were to make sure I used the right socket to remove the two bolts on the distributor cap. If I damaged these bolts, the job would then become very difficult. Number two was to make sure I get the rotor on correctly. Slide it on, and rotate it until you can feel the groove is in the right place. Then pop it down with the palm of your hand to seat it. Lastly number the wires. If you screw up their locations very bad things could happen. Double check the wires after you install them before starting the engine. These were the comments from someone who has done this task many times.

I looked online for directions, and many assumed I knew the basics. None mentioned anything about being careful when removing the bolts, and the consequences if you damaged them. Few said more about the rotor except install it correctly, and one even assumed everybody knows to label the wires. On the flip side there were several, although not exactly applicable to my automotive traumas, that did an excellent job of describing how to do the job. 

It all worked perfectly, and in only thirty minutes the beast runs better than it has for quite a while. I'm not going to install the new muffler myself, ever!


  1. The irony here is that you could've asked any of your customers with an Atomic 4 or a relatively elderly care still running how to do this (or have had it done in trade for your specialty). You nailed it about the niceties, however: there's plenty of ways to screw this up. I find it amusing the the wire colours for the coil appear identical to those in my Atomic 4, the only gas motor I've ever worked on (don't own a car!).

  2. I meant "elderly car" of which I'm sure there are a lot in snow-free Florida.

    Along with elderly care, I suppose.


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