The Right Tool: My Father’s Jaguar Part 4
I once effectively restored an entire car in a driveway with tools that neatly fit into a handheld red toolbox less than a foot long. It was a little harder, of course, but hope and youth are the crescent wrench and breaker bar of life.
Now that I have a house and a garage, last night I was up wondering whether a compressor that flows 4.2 cfm at 90psi will be enough for a free-standing sandblasting cabinet or whether I should just get a tabletop. All my life I have wanted a sandblasting cabinet to strip and clean small parts with technology rather than by burning my own calories with elbow grease and sandpaper.
It feels like progress, like TV dinners and credit cards are progress.
In general, I have always been in awe of those beautiful, complete, organized, expensive shops that some guys have. “Oh, you need to pull that downpipe out of the manifold? Here, use my Snap-On Concentric Downpipe-Pulling Slide-Hammer Set.” Damn you, custom slide-hammer set owner. But I’ll take it, thanks.
The ultimate example of the right tool is what my friends and I call the Hundred-Dollar Hammer. No kidding, Snap-On sells a shot-peen-filled hammer at over $100 that is fricking awesome. It uses money combined with magic to multiply the force of your blow about a thousand times, so that manifold you’ve been hitting for the last two days with a sledgehammer just sees this hammer and vomits the downpipe right off. And it’s not the most sophisticated tool in a guy’s box. It’s a hammer.
Sadly, my own hundred-dollar hammer grew legs from my mobile toolbox and now is causing someone else’s downpipes to fall off. Such as it is with the Great Circle of Tools. I have a Snap-On prybar in my box and I swear I have no idea how it got there, but it scares lots of parts into submission so I reckon the cosmic tool account is about even.
And so we arrive back at my father’s Jaguar. Last time, I told you about the history and acquisition of this E-Type my father bought new but that’s been sitting for 25 years. Now I’m elbow deep in it, and I’ve figured out why it sat for so long. Or, put another way, where my own father, who’s neither here to help me nor tell me what happened, failed.
Putting a big engine in a little car always seems like a genius idea, until your Sunbeam Tiger twists its rear axle off, or you find you need an engine hoist to change the spark plugs in a Chevy Monza V8. But the V12 E-Type presents its own whole bundle of packaging problems, which includes removing about everything on the right flank of the car in order to birth the starter.
My father, it appears, thought the starter had failed. Indeed, if you hook up a good battery and go to start it, you get nothing. Now, the sages in the audience will note that there are actually a lot of reasons that this might be the case, and only one of them is a failed starter. The demon could be in the wiring, could even be in the key barrel. Worst – and still my suspicion – could be the whole damn motor is stuck and the starter is just beating its head against the brick wall of the ring gear.
So, did my father – a surgeon, but by most accounts not much of a mechanic – already do the wiring diagnosis? Did the car, before it was sitting for 25 years, still push-start so he knew the problem wasn’t the engine? Can I rely on these presumptions and not waste my own time?
I decided that the best course of action was just to continue the 25 year-old course of action initiated by Dad, and extract the starter.
And then I saw it.
The car didn’t have anything in it in the way of papers, or history, or other little Easter eggs I had hoped for in the examination. But it did offer up why my father abandoned the project.
He was missing a tool.
You see, in order to get the top starter bolt off, you need to remove the clutch hydraulic hose. This kind of thing doesn’t happen with your typical MGB or Camaro, but wedge a V12 in a sports car with a space frame in the front and it’s normal business.
My father had opened the bottom junction of the hose connection – my first aha! moment and explaining why the clutch reservoir was empty – but hadn’t been able to get a wrench to the top junction that has no room for a normal wrench nor can be captured by a socket. A normal toolbox would be stumped.
Now, a man who hadn’t seen a lot of abnormal tools would also be stumped. I’ll probably never know whether my father knew what a crowfoot wrench was, which is a bit of an irony since besides being a surgeon (who sees a lot of queer tools), he was also the long-time mayor of the Crowsnest Pass. Regardless, whether or not he knew what it was, he didn’t have one, and that parked a 1972 Jaguar E-Type in his garage for a quarter century.
I didn’t have a set of crowfoot wrenches, but I do know what they are, I know they are what was needed, and I know that I have Amazon Prime. So the next day, two sets of crowfoot wrenches – one standard, one metric – appeared on my doorstep. I believe in learning from my ancestor’s mistakes, and although I don’t know when I’ll have a car that needs a metric crowfoot wrench, I know it won’t sit in my garage for 25 years waiting for one. So I’m well on my way to a set of concentric downpipe-pulling slide-hammers.
Anyway, with that, it was only a few minutes before the clutch hose was off, and only another few before the starter was out. Literally six minutes after getting the right tool, the job my father started 25 years ago was done. I can’t blame him, in a way. I mean, I don’t think Amazon delivered specialized tools to the Crowsnest Pass in 1990.
Maybe they still don’t.
And, sure enough, the starter is dead. The solenoid will fire, but the starter motor won’t turn. So at least following my late father’s logic is proving sound so far. Would he be proud of me for figuring all this out? For getting the right tool? For getting the car further than he managed to? Or would he, like some fathers, dismiss the accomplishment as self-evident and hide any embarrassment with bravado and excuses, like not having Amazon Prime?
I’ll never know. But I do know that it’s strangely satisfying to pick up this beautiful, challenging, abandoned project that also happened to be the best car that my estranged father ever owned, and get it a step closer to resurrection.
Because while I’ll never get to know him better in person, I do have his car. And these cool crowfoot wrenches.
Those Who Have Gone Before
There’s a saying in hiking (for those not familiar with hiking, it’s like four-wheeling, but using your feet): “Take only memories. Leave only footprints.” It’s a charming idea and good words to live by in the field. Ditto the doctor’s guiding principle of “first, do no harm.” Seems like a smart place to start.
If only mechanics would do the same. Every used car I’ve ever worked on carries evidence of someone else’s previous murderous techniques. Welded-together bolts, duct-taped-together vacuum systems, mixes of interesting international thread pitches, silicone used as a fastener … I’ve seen it all.
Working on these cars is a kind of Heinrich Schliemann archeological excavation of the lost city of Troy, where you’re digging past all these previous layers of buildings upon buildings to get to the things you really want to get to, which in our story isn’t the Mask of Agamemnon but the oil level pressure sender on the left flank of a V12 engine. All along the way you get to marvel at all the layers built on top of the base layer, and stand incredulous at the evils committed before you. Or at least wonder how the manifold hasn’t blown itself clean off already given that it is held on by only two remaining studs.
Occasionally, however, there are wonderful exceptions. And those are the cars we all look for. A “completely original” “unrestored” “barn find” “time warp” car, when actually what it claims to be, is wonderful to work on. Its condition reflects only the way that it was engineered from the factory plus the effects of wear and time. It’s a car that hasn’t had any mechanic boyfriends before you to mess it up and cause it not to trust you.
And so to the real reason I’m writing: I’m recommissioning my father’s Jaguar.
By early 1972 I was less than a year old, and my parents were already divorced. They had been married for ten years but at age 30 it seems my father wasn’t really prepared for the responsibilities of family life. So my mother took me and a Dodge pickup with a camper and left the rest behind. Sounds like a country and western song, but I’ve seen pictures and it was a badass pickup. I would’ve taken it too.
My father then took the robin’s egg blue Series 1 XJ6 to the Jaguar dealer and traded it on a brand new red-on-black V12 E-Type roadster with a manual transmission. A very good car for a newly-single doctor in a small town and, ironically, my mother’s deam car.
I never had any contact with my father until I drove my own $500 1966 MGB down to meet him in 1992 when I was 21, then again briefly when I was 23, and then we fell out of touch again forever. We shared a love of cars – that much I knew – but beyond that I knew very little of him. And by the time I first met him, unbeknownst to me, the E-Type was recently laid up in his garage on axle stands with some problem. The last registration tag was for 1990.
In 2011 he died unexpectedly, without a will. This meant that his estate was governed by laws that meant I received a share. I’d never received anything from him before, but this posthumous gift was certainly helpful.
In the workout of the estate, the executor asked if I would like the Jag. Apparently my father had told his last wife that “If anything ever happens to me, Andrew should get this car.” Of course normally I would jump at a one-owner E-Type, but the combination of preferring cash at that point and the emotional shoal of taking possession of the car that my father had bought immediately after divorcing my beloved mother meant that I regretfully passed. My five half-brothers, whom I also barely knew, sorted out the Jag amongst the many cars (mostly charming semi-derelict 1970s American monsters) between them, and I took the cash.
Fast forward to earlier this year and two of the brothers had taken the Jag and cleaned it up, but were stumped at going any further with it. Whether a function of not having the time, expertise, or finances to get it up and running, they asked if I wanted to buy it. After much teeth-gnashing and spousal support, I did, and this is where the archeology begins.
I didn’t really know my father at all, but when I first went to see the car in his widow’s garage, my heart sank, and I felt an immediate connection to him. Because parked outside of the bay that held the E-Type was a rusted-out late-70s XJ12 sedan with a destroyed interior. Now, no car guy buys that car for the car itself. He buys it for what it can contribute to the project car. And the only thing that XJ12 could contribute was the engine. If I had an E-Type with a serious engine problem I would try to buy a cheap sedan with the same motor to offer up vital organs. I presumed that’s what my father – a man who surely understood both organ donations and project cars – had done. And it meant I was in for a world of hurt, where “hurt” includes dropping actual V12 engines on your toes.
Nevertheless, I bought it, picked it up, and then began getting my hands dirty on a car that, it appears, has never been worked on by anyone but my late estranged father, and me. In fact, with 49,000 miles on the clock, fully worn brake pads, filthy air filters, original green brake fluid, and lead plugs in the dashpot screws, it looks to me like it’s never been worked on by anyone at all.
Except it has. The right flank of the engine compartment has been taken apart. The clutch master cylinder is empty. And while a new battery brings all the electrics to life, it won’t turn over on the key. What I like to call forensic mechanic work now commences. Think of it like CSI, but the crime scene is an old car. And the perp was my dad.
Somewhere in my head, those car commercials play. You know the ones: a father and his son look lovingly at their project car while, in the foreground, and artfully-displayed oil filter box sits, reflecting all the bonding and machisimo and happiness that cross-generational mechanical work implies.
But I’m doing this one solo. And, worryingly, I don’t have an XJ12 donor car in the driveway.
Guys Named Nigel
In my time, I’ve beat up and restored lots of cars. American, Japanese, German, Swedish, English, and even French. Well, the French restorations were really just attempts to keep them running, but that’s because France has so many other distractions that prevent full restorations. Like wine. And literature. And cafes with dusky women smoking Gitanes…
In any case, in working on these cars I’ve met suppliers of parts from every region of the world and almost every cultural background. Certain patterns emerge.
American cars are delightful to work on. You can walk into a Pep Boys in any part of the country and walk out with a carburetor that works on essentially any V8 engine made between when the automobile was invented and 1986. Then you can spend between three and five minutes bolting that to the top of the engine and – hey presto – you’re back on the road. Ten out of ten to America.
German cars are a little darker. Need a fuel accumulator for your 1978 Porsche 911SC? They’re backordered from Porsche and Bosch, the OEM supplier, can’t deliver one either, for complicated Teutonic reasons. Fortunately some dude at a used Porsche wrecking yard in San Francisco has removed and catalogued all the remaining good ones. So, seven out of ten to Germany, if you know what you’re doing.
Japanese cars… at the risk of stereotyping, let me stereotype for a moment. You will never hear from an authentic Japanese car source that they do not have, or cannot do, something. There will be additional research, much part number cross-checking, computer system inquiries and, eventually, you may be able to translate from the written Japanese result that the request is impossible to fulfil. Fortunately, Japanese stuff essentially never breaks, so this is rare torture. Six out of ten to Japan.
France. Ah, France. If you need some inboard front brake discs for your Citroen 2CV – and I did – you have to call a guy in the South of France who runs a little 2CV specialist place. Sometimes. When he’s not drinking wine, reading literature, or cavorting with dusky girls smoking Gitanes. Actually, French cars are often the most delightful to work on. They put it all in perspective. Eight out of ten, but the car might not be running at the end. Tant pis.
And, finally, English cars. Look, there’s enough of an enthusiast community that if you have your typical MG, Triumph, Healey, or even Jag, you can pretty much get something in California that will have the car back on the road in a day or two. But…
…If you have something particularly English and special like, say, a Ford Escort Cosworth RS (and I have), you get into another domain. A domain run by guys named Nigel. Now, I’m sure there are some perfectly reasonable and charming guys named Nigel. I’ve just never met them. The Nigels that I’ve met have always been conniving, truth-obscuring, evasive and difficult partners in the quest to keep British cars on the road. Nigel always has a “really lovely” “as new” “complete cylinder head” which, when it shows up, is nothing like any of those things. And the price is always “Oh dear, well, y’know, izz my last one, and I ‘aven’t seen another in donkey’s years…” Yeah, yeah, Nigel. Just send it to me. I’m resigned that it’ll be incomplete, that the valves will need to be re-seated, and that it’ll cost me the equivalent of a reasonably nice Mazda Miata. Damn you, Nigel.
On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t be so mean. Nigel has to drink warm beer in Little Bonking while it rains outside. At least my Citroen supplier is sitting in a café somewhere with a brambly Grenache and a dusky woman with a pack of Gitanes. His car isn’t running, but who cares? Car repair kind of puts it into perspective.
Recommissioning, and other charming English Ideas
Everyone who has ever worked on an English car is familiar with the particular English of those cars’ workshop manuals. “Strike sharply” or “ensure that the gasket sits proud” makes digesting shop manuals almost as elegant as reading Waugh by the fire.
But the workshop manuals always carry dreaded information, sometimes in moments we least expect it. For example, when you’re just hoping to pop off the exhaust heat shield from a Jag, and the manual begins with “Drain the coolant”, you know you’re in for an all-night ride. Turns out that to take off the heat shield, you have to remove the intake manifold. Turns out the intake manifold has a water jacket connection. Turns out you have to take off the carbs first. Turns out it’s going to take you all night and you’re going to need eight gaskets that are only in stock in Little Bonking, England and you start calculating that at midnight, you can call Nigel there.
If you’ve been doing this for a long time – and I’ve been doing it as a hobbyist for 25 years – you learn to anticipate this sort of thing ahead of time. Sometimes you get caught out, of course, but eventually you know you’re going to tackle that tailpipe replacement next week so you start ordering fuel level sender gaskets today.
The best thing to do, of course, is to move to London, England. But then you’d have to live there – a place where it’s effectively pointless to have an English sportscar anyway. Trust me… I tried.
The second best thing to do is move to sunny southern California. This is a legitimately amazing place to have an English sportscar, since you can use it essentially every day all year long, and with some attention to the cooling system, might be able to complete single journeys in single attempts.
But the very best thing about living with an English car in Southern California is that all the other crazies like you are either already here, or are looking to get parts from here. So Los Angeles is the single best supply for English car parts outside of Little Bonking, Somerset-Upon-Maugham, England. If you live here, a friendly American voice can cheerily inform you that the fuel lever sender gaskets have been backordered for sixteen years, but they expect a shipment very soon from Little Bonking.
But if you are going to recommission an English car, you could do worse than to be underneath it, with the tailpipe laying on your chest, in Los Angeles. At least the weather keeps you hopeful.