I am mired in the longest wrenching dry spell I can remember. It’s due to a combination of having started winter without an identifiable winter project, and my nagging back issues that make lifting anything or bending over an engine compartment risky. Maybe that makes it understandable, but coming from a history of having pulled heads, rebuilt engines, refreshed suspensions, and retrofitted fuel injection and air conditioning over the winter, the utter lack of activity in the garage is unprecedented. I mean, when I broke my foot ten years ago, I was hobbling around the garage and got the engine in my tii back together in time to drive to MidAmerica 02Fest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a 3,000-mile round trip achieved while I had “das boot” on my left foot, making clutch-mashing a delicate procedure. Shortly after being treated for prostate cancer five years ago, I continued rebuilding the Lotus Europa engine while I had a catheter strapped to my ankle. Now? Bupkis. (Cue the Bluto Blutarsky motivational speech: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”)
Winter-project-wise, I made a miscalculation. I should’ve brought my Lotus Europa home from the warehouse in Monson, Massachusetts where I store five cars, as the Lotus always has an endless punch list, but I left it there too long and it got blocked in by the RVs, trailers, and boats that are the landlord’s rental bread and butter. What’s at the house over the winter are the red E9 3.0CSi, Hampton the 49,000-mile 2002, and the clown shoe, and none of them really need much. I thought that I’d chip away at making Hampton’s engine compartment look nicer—you know, paint the air cleaner housing, the master cylinder, and the brake booster—but I’m just not my detail-oriented friend Paul Wegweiser, and besides, I have nowhere to discharge cans of paint.
In the fall, before the cold weather moved in, there was a fair amount of activity in the garage, but it had more to do with reorganization. I installed more shelving and bought a tool cart, together which succeeded in addressing the problem of the mound of crap that always accumulated in the open garage space that preventing me from easily moving and driving whatever car is parked in the left rear space (see above photo). I wanted to address the related issue that there’s never been a dedicated work surface in the garage, but there’s not an easy solution to that. I thought I’d buy a work bench and put it all the way in the back of the garage (really, I need something big that I can mount a bench vise on, preferably something really big that can also host the little bandsaw and the bench grinder), but then I sold the truck, so I had no easy way to move something big, and the whole thing just ground to a halt.
One of my “Hack Mechanic Tips for Right Living” is to keep a project going by doing one thing a night. This can be removing one bolt, ordering one part… you get the idea. However, I’ve had trouble doing even this, as there’s no obvious project to nibble away at. There’s also the dynamic of the temperature in the garage. It’s very well insulated, and it has the metal exhaust duct from the house’s furnace running through it (it can be seen on the left in one of the photos above) which acts like a radiator, so the temperature in there stays somewhere between the basement and the outside world, but it’s been cold outside recently, making the garage less than hospitable. I do have a 70,000 Hot Dawg natural gas heater hanging from the ceiling (see photo above), but it really only makes sense to fire it up if I’m only going to be in the garage for a while. You can probably understand how this creates a self-reinforcing “nothing to do in there anyway” scenario.
Plus, for the holidays, my two adult children who live with us bought me a LEGO Space Shuttle with the Hubble Telescope that stows inside. Without even thinking, I transferred the “one thing a night” dictum to it. For a few weeks I was in LEGO heaven. I joked with the family that it was even better than working on cars—I could sit upright in a chair, it’s warm at the kitchen table, and everything is much cleaner than my usual work environment. I didn’t want it to end.
So, regarding working on cars in the garage, I was in the doldrums. I don’t know about you, but for me the term triggers something very specific—the movie version of Norton Juster’s classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth. The animated 1968 film was produced by none other than Chuck Jones of Bugs Bunny / Warner Brothers cartoon fame, and the “don’t say there’s nothing to do in the doldrums” scene where Milo meets the Lethargians is burned into my brain. One of the lines in the scene is “The Doldrums, my young friend, are where nothing ever happens, and nothing ever changes.” Boy, if that doesn’t apply to long stretches of my life. And the song (“Don’t say there’s nothing to do in the doldrums… it’s just… not… true” that’s sung as they do, well, nothing) is a five-decade earworm.
However, when I was in the garage a few weeks ago taking some under-hood photographs for a piece I wrote for Hagerty about repair-related injuries (specifically, recreating the incident 36 years ago when I was debugging a non-functional windshield wiper motor in the E9 and it suddenly sprang to life and pinned my wrist against sheet metal), I noticed that the head of one of the bolts holding the wiper motor to its mounting bracket had a red head. I never noticed it before because the wiper linkage obscures this bolt when the wipers are in the parked position.
The larger context of this is that my E9 was originally Polaris (silver), and when the outer body restoration was done in 1988, I had the car color-changed to Signal Red. The guy who painted it did some things very well, other things less so, but the fact that it got done at all the year our first child was born and that it was a glass-out stripped-to-bare-metal job with seven coats of color and seven coats of clear, including the engine compartment, trunk, and interior, with all the exterior panels beautifully wet-sanded, for $4,000, was remarkable. However, one of the reasons why it was a $4,000 paint job and not a $10,000 paint job was that the engine compartment wasn’t completely disassembled, resulting in a fair amount of overspray. This is all the more odd because the fellow who painted the car elected to do some blinging-up of the engine compartment by painting things like the wiper linkage, the heater box shroud, the coolant fill tank, and the radiator cap shiny black. While I don’t regret any this for a moment (I didn’t even have $4,000 in 1988—I literally took out a personal loan to get it done—so I certainly didn’t have ten grand), it’s one of those time-capsule things where you can think about 36-year-old choices and plainly point to their consequences.
In the photo above, you can see not only the red wiper bolt head, but the red overspray on the hood latch cable and the sheathing of the small wiring harness that runs to the wiper motor. And obviously there’s more in other places in the engine compartment. While this stuff has never really bothered me (my lovely E9 is imperfect in oh so many ways, as am I, as is life, though I did finally strip the red off the front strut tower nuts just so Paul Wegweiser would stop doing the Invasion of the Body Snatchers scream about it), it occurred to me that perhaps this was an opportunity to do something—anything!—on a car in the garage over the winter.
So I took a ratchet and a 10-mm socket, pulled out the bolt, and used a light file on the head. However, underneath the red paint was a layer of primer, and it was obvious that if I tried to file it off, I’d certainly make the bolt head look unlike the other two. So I searched through my bolt bucket and found a few other 10-mm bolts the same length, but their patina was more rusty brown and didn’t match the other two bolts. And new bolts wouldn’t do either, as they’d jump out against the worn circular wiper mounting plate. Of course, you can make these rabbit holes as deep as you want (witness the hose clamp incident of 2021). I came to my senses and realized how stupid this was—the goal was simply to get the red off the head of the bolt. I did that, and with the wipers reset back to their parked position, the primer on it wasn’t visible anyway.
So, yeah, I got out to the garage, did my one thing on one night, and it brought me pleasure. I’ve got the red paint on that hood cable and its adjustment bolt in my sights next.
So, don’t say there’s nothing to do in the doldrums. It’s just… not… true…