Thursday, March 24, 2016

Things You Learn by Osmosis

Farmers have to be handy, my Grandfather John was that and very innovative too. Reflecting back on him, I truly believe he could have been a mechanical engineer. His handiness rubbed off on my Dad, he could, in addition to being one hell of a salesman, fly airplanes, wire a house and one day over the noon hour built an airplane for his whiney son out of the front end of a coaster wagon, a plank, a couple of two by fours and an orange crate. It stunned and amazed my friends as we raced down 8th Avenue Hill. My Mom's Dad, a Judge by profession, but he really preferred carpentry. R B and my Dad built our cabin at the lake. His first lesson to me, "measure twice, cut once". The second, "let the hammer do the work."

Some of this stuck with me,not a lot, but enough to get me by. When I raced go karts, I could rebuild the engines and maintain them myself, same with boats and motors. Those skills came in handy when I had to do deck repairs on my sailboat, change the water pump on the diesel and rebuilt the propeller shaft. When we put a family room in our first house, I did the grunt work and hired a carpenter to finish the job.

When I was 19, my Dad had taken a '59 Porsche in trade. It was a Super 90, Convertible D model, a Speedster with a taller windshield and roll up windows. The closest qualified mechanic was 100 miles away, the closest dealer with parts was 225. My old man sold it to me for what he had in the car, $1350. When the car was new, it sold in the US for a tick over $3,000. I got a really good deal. I drove to Fargo to talk to the mechanic, he gave me the address of the Porsche Owners Club of America. I joined for $5.00. My 5 bucks got me 4 newsletters a year. I ordered a Porsche Shop manual for 15 dollars, expensive considering my part time job paid a buck and half an hour.

The first thing that broke on my Porsche was a left front wheel bearing. I had taken a hard right at around 40 miles an hour and heard a crunch and a grinding sound. Being my grandfather's grandson and the fact I needed the car to get to work and school I couldn't wait for parts. I got out my shop manual, pulled off the left front wheel, the brake drum and there was the broken bearing. I borrowed a micrometer, measured it (just to make sure the manual was correct) and headed to the John Deere parts distribution center. The John Deere guys let me rummage around in the bearing department, I measured about 50 bearings and found one that would fit. 90 minutes later I was back on the road. I had noticed the car need new brake linings while I had the hub off, no rush. I ordered the parts and did the job a couple of weeks later.

I drove to Brainerd Minnesota for a regional sports car race. I spent the weekend talking to the Porsche guys, I learned a lot. It paid off when the clutch went out on my car. I drove to the Volkswagen dealer with a slipping clutch. I had them drop the engine. I went into the parts room and bought a VW Transporter clutch and pressure plate and installed it myself. They put the engine back in the car and I was on my way. The Transporter clutch set up was what all the Porsche racers used. If I had ordered the Porsche parts it would have cost me over 200 bucks, the VW parts, stiffer and stronger, cost less than $100. including dropping the engine and putting it back in.

The best "farmer innovation" I ever did on my Porsche happened on my way to the lake, the belt that ran the cooling fan broke. I drove into a farm, got a piece of manila rope from the farmer, soaked it in water, put it on the pulleys wet, The engine heat dried it, it shrank and worked well enough to get me somewhere I could buy a new belt. The wet rope repair was a trick I learned on the farm. After that I always carried a spare.

I'm a lousy mechanic, but I learned enough to keep my car on the road.


  1. When I lived in Mexico the "shade tree mechanics" were masters at innovation. Kind of like the guys who keep all those 50's cars running down in Cuba.

    1. Exactly what I was thinking. We were in Cuba for a couple of weeks recently. The cars are amazing.

    2. My brother in law Larry is in the commodities business and has been to Cuba numerous times. A Cuban meat packer is a friend of his now and the guy drives a old Willys Jeep from the late 40's. Lar says it's been rebuilt so many times, the Jeep has parts from Fords, Chevys and Mopars

  2. PJ O'Rourke visited Russia shortly after they opened up he said, "A Mexican with a screw driver and a timing light, could be a ruble millionaire over night in Moscow." I know a guy out here who off roads in Baja in a highly modified Jeep. He was down and stopped on a sandy trail trying to figure out how to get across a wash. A Mexican family in a ratty old Chevy station wagon pulled up, a couple of kids jumped out of the back, laid some boards over the wash. Pappa put the wagon in gear and they drove away.