Chapter Five – Lady Gets a Heart Transplant

By fall I’d begun my descent into the Land Rover underworld.  Online bulletin boards, newsletters, stacks of Land Rover parts company catalogs sluicing in the mail slot, and always the hope of seeing another classic rover on the road.  I figure I saw maybe one every month or two, and always got a wave and flash of the lights.  You don’t see them until you’re looking, but there are surprising amount of old Land Rovers still out there.  Maybe it’s because they’re built like tanks, or they have aluminum bodies which never rust, or owners become attached to them, but there are a surprising number around, and whenever I saw that unmistakable round-eyed face and gaping grill my heart would quicken as if I were abroad in a confusing foreign country and heard English being spoken.  But still I hadn’t gone to a meeting of the local Land Rover club and frankly was a bit apprehensive.  Out on the road I could be Expedition Pete but at a club meeting they’d find out I was a phony, no more a car mechanic than Strawberry Shortcake is a policy analyst.  It was time to face the music.

I’d been talking with Bill, a rover guy who lived ten minutes away from me, about the engine trouble I was having.  The truck had very little power, ran loud, and generally complained any time I asked it to go over twenty.  I thought this was normal but Bill suggested that I stop at his house and we’d take a look at things.  He also happened to be the unofficial leader of an unofficial Land Rover club for people in the Washington, DC area, so I figured a one-on-one meeting was the perfect way to ease into the club scene.

As I pulled into his driveway, he stepped out his front door with his hands over his ears.  “What the hell is that racket?”  Bill shook my hand and told me that well-running Rovers weren’t supposed to sound like that.  Of course, his Rover, a long-wheelbase diesel, drove like a battleship and was even louder, but it was like comparing apples and oranges, so he said.  We opened up the bonnet and poked around for a while.  This is a good thing to do with an old Land Rover: open the bonnet, peer in, and see what horrible jury-rigs the owner has made to keep the thing running.  Bill was a cheerful and worryingly calm individual with thinning red hair and a manner that suggested either copious marijuana intake or heavy sedation.  I imagine if I told Bill his shirt was on fire he’d take a sip of coffee, glance at his smoldering garment, and sigh.  But he seemed to know exactly what the problem was, and suggested I call this other guy further out in Maryland, Quentin.  “He’ll be able to tell you over the phone if it’s a burnt valve or not.”

So goes the Land Rover network.  Like pulses of energy leaping through neural pathways, mechanical questions crackle out into the Land Rover community where an answer can be found almost immediately.  Without this network you’d be scratching your head and reading a 1960s-era repair manual written by someone with either excellent writing skills or mechanical ability but never both.  I called Quentin, who, after a five-second description of the issue, told me I should buy a new unleaded head.  I sat silent with the phone up against my ear, imagining a trashcan fire that I was trying to extinguish with hundred-dollar bills.

“Um, a new cylinder head?  That’s basically the top half of the engine, right.  How…how much’ll that run?” I asked with trepidation.

I thanked Bill and drove home in my noisy truck.  I did some research and learned that Land Rovers have been built the same for so long that the older engines were built for leaded gas, and unleaded would burn out the valves.  J.F. the Quebecois had probably installed leaded valves in his leaded engine then sold it to me whereupon I’d filled it with unleaded gas, driven six hundred miles on the highway, then raced around Washington, DC and burned out the valve.  Nothing to do but buy an entirely new cylinder head.  Onto the trashcan fire I tossed seven hundred-dollar bills and the flames showed no sign of abating.

A week later I got this huge lump of iron in the mail.  I felt bad for the Fedex guy, as there’s no graceful way to wrap an engine in cardboard and deliver it without it looking as if it’s been around the world in the bilge of a cargo ship.  I called Bill again, dumbfounded.  “Bill, this looks complicated.”  He told me to bring it over the next week.  The rover club was having a crab feast at his house, and they would help me out with it.  In for a penny, in for a pound.  I told him I’d be there.

My heart leapt as I approached his house and saw half a dozen old Rovers parked out front, transforming this suburban Maryland house into the parking lot outside the Botswana Safari Park.  I parked mine proudly in line with the others and walked around to the back yard.  Two guys were working away with cordless drills, constructing picnic tables out of two-by-fours, plywood, and an old door.  Jesus, these guys don’t mess around.

Dave and Pete were there, and we went back to look at my truck.  Then began the overt ogling that all Series Land Rover owners go through.  If you happen to see another old Rover in a parking lot, you’ll amble over, trying to look nonchalant, peer in the windows, try to casually get on all fours to look underneath, then stand back and stroke your chin.  It’s normal to walk to your truck in the grocery store parking lot and find someone lying underneath it or kicking the tires.  I’ve found hand-written notes on my truck and gotten invitations to dinner from strangers.  If the owner is around, the bonnet will come up and there will be more inspection.  It reminded me of dogs sniffing each other and sizing the other up.  Dave and Pete hummed with approval at the good things, like the custom rear bumper, and custom dual tank fillers on each side of the truck, then pointed out rust spots on the frame, and wiring mistakes.  It was all about honesty, requested or not.  If you own a series Land Rover, you are given tacit permission to openly admire and openly criticize another series truck you come across.  Soon, a couple more club members wandered over and the sniffing continued.  “Look at those knobbies [tires].  Cross-plies.  Hmmm,” one would say.  “You can tell it’s an early Series three because it doesn’t have the covered metal section in front of the bulkhead vents.  Yep, yep.”  I sweat through my t-shirt, and it wasn’t just the DC humidity.

We were all called to dinner and proceeded to tear into a pile of red spicy crabs sitting on the newspaper, a Maryland tradition that must look horrific to outsiders.  Actually it looks horrific to natives of Maryland but once you get a taste of fresh crab with Old Bay seasoning, all crustacean brutality is forgotten.  Beer was gulped, jokes made, chips devoured.  Looking at the guests, I saw reserved suburbanites, roughneck looking mechanic-types, a gay man, and a friendly couple that had the squeaky-clean look of Mormons, a surprising cross-section of society.

As the meal started to wind down, somebody said, “Well, let’s take a look at Peter’s cylinder head.”  A couple people sighed and wandered over, potato chip crumbs raining from their shirts.  Dave looked at my new $700 cylinder head and announced, “It’s got a crack in it.  It’s a rebuild with a crack that they welded up and then ground down.  Take a look.”

Sure enough, you could see the repair, a vein of bright silver across the battleship grey of the iron cylinder head.  My heart dropped into my bowels.  I began to ask, “Well, is it workable?  Maybe I can return it…” and a couple people grumbled, and one or two cursed the company I bought it from.  But the fault was considered minor by the Rover expert jury, so tools appeared and then the magic began.

I was expecting to do the work solo, with the sages giving me advice from the periphery.  Not so.  Pete sat on the roof with his legs hanging over the windscreen, laughing with his teeth clamped shut like the Cheshire Cat.  In a minute, they had the bonnet off and the innards of the truck revealed to the open summer air.  This was to auto mechanics what battlefield medicine is to an operating theater.  Dave and Bill were disconnecting hoses left and right laughing the whole time.  For a moment I wondered if it were some kind of initiation ritual and I’d be expected to reassemble it all while they cursed me and threw trash.  I stood like a dunce, unable to participate.  I tried to ask questions and keep track of what was going on, but these guys were on a roll.  In less than fifteen minutes, the engine was exposed cleanly, and Bill started explaining things, in the manner of master to apprentice that has happened since man first wielded a stone ax and an older one told him he was doing it wrong.

“Here’s the valve cover.  You’ve got these three acorn nuts which come right off, and the cylinder head is below that.”

In a flash, the metal cover was off and sitting in the grass.  The engine looked as if someone had buried a grenade into the heart of it and metal parts and rubber hoses had blown outward in a shower of oily viscera.  Springs and valves glittered in the late afternoon sunlight. I thought that, conservatively, it would be two days getting it back together, and began formulating plans to take the bus to work.

Then Pete climbed down from the truck and got in there with his wrench.  By God, if he didn’t have that thing pulled apart in minutes.  Like a surgeon extracting an excised piece of flesh, Pete pulled long oily rods out of the engine, slender and delicate things I’d never expect to see from such a rugged piece of equipment.

“Now we’ve got to keep track of these, so we’ll push them into the cardboard in the order we take them out so things don’t get screwed up,” he said in a soft voice to the gathered crowd.  I gulped and nodded.

Someone took the parts from his hands, sourced a scrap of cardboard, and made it so.  I was going to ask if we should keep them clean, like surgical instruments, in a tray of oil or something, but once I saw the other parts of my engine laying in recently cut grass and leaves and the inside of the engine compartment coated with caked mud and decades of oil, I kept quiet.  Guys hemmed and hawed around the edge of the truck, but Pete was in the zone.  A few more bolts slid out, and Pete positioned his legs into various depths of the engine compartment and stood over the heart of the truck like a human crane.  He lifted while I tried to assist, and with a couple more greasy hands, we pulled the top half of the engine out and thumped it into the grass.  I was tempted to say, “Nurse, can I get a clamp and some ten-w-thirty in here stat?”  but I kept quiet and let the masters continue.

It was getting dark and cicadas wee chirring in the moist summer air.  Bill sprang into his house and brought out some work lights and clamped them around the front of the truck.  It was starting to look like a construction site.  Amazingly, most of the people were still there, watching or assisting with this operation.  Thinking like a capitalist, I couldn’t get over the fact that they were doing it for free.  I listened as one of the Rover sages pointed out burnt valves and valve recession in the old cylinder head, as if they were interns pointing out clogged arteries and sclerosis while the patient lay on the table.  “Hmmm.” I said.

Bill slapped a paint scraper into my hand.  “See that black crap on the top of those cylinders?  Scrape it off, but be careful of the edges of the cylinder and don’t gouge the cylinder heads too much.”

Then as I looked into my engine, I experienced a glorious moment of clarity.  I had a four cylinder engine.  With the top half of the engine gone, four black soup-can sized things stuck straight up at various heights: the cylinders.  In all my life, I’d heard of V-8s, and six-cylinder cars.  Here, in front of me, were the actual cylinders.  It was like being able to see your own pancreas and understanding what it did.

I scraped away while the guys had a couple of beers.  A thought briefly flitted across my mind, “Shouldn’t I be using a special tool?”  I looked at the pieces of my engine scattered in the grass like carcass wreckage after a vulture feast, then looked at the enormous lump of new metal that was waiting to be installed, then looked at the Land Rover itself, a utilitarian tractor that had no aesthetic about it.  It would be just fine.  These trucks were meant to be repaired in the field with a hammer, a crescent wrench, and a few well-selected cuss words.  I scraped away and the cylinder heads revealed their silver skin.  I stepped back and looked at the mess that was once a fully functional truck.  My conservative estimate was way off.  This thing wouldn’t be back on the road for weeks.  Half the engine was being replaced!  Surely there were delicate adjustments to be made, oils and lubricants applied just so, run-in periods and testing.  In for a penny, I thought, scraping away and smiling in the dusk.

With a little guidance, grunting, and sweating, the new cylinder head slid snug into place between hoses stretched taut and other immovable components.  Someone slapped into my palm a long wrench with a dial gauge on the end.  “Tighten those nuts down to 15 pounds.”  The school of practical knowledge was in session and I learned how to use a torque wrench.

Dave was reinstalling a temperature gauge which activated a cold start light on the dash.  This little gauge was the size of an acorn and it screwed right into the new cylinder head.  “Uh, we’ve got a problem here, ” Dave mumbled, “these threads seem like they’re slipping.”  I took a turn with the wrench.  It felt vague, but pretty tight.  Bill clicked and cocked his head.  “Hmm…don’t know if that’ll hold.”  We moved on to other things.

The valves were adjusted with this little dohickey that looked like a Swiss Army knife except that every blade was a flat strip of metal.  It was a feeler gauge, another vocabulary word that had been as foreign to me as ancient Greek.  So I watched and learned and we reattached hoses, something akin to bolting together Frankenstein’s monster and hoping it would come to life.  Bill also noticed that the exhaust manifold was loose, causing backfiring and lots of extra noise.  We tightened that up too.  This would’ve been days in a regular auto shop and thousands of dollars.

Bats were out in the darkening sky, swerving through the humid air to catch fat moths.  All the parts were reattached, a healthy sip of oil poured into the new engine, and a semicircle of shadetree mechanics with greasy hands gathered around the open bonnet admiring the work. I was given the word and I jumped into the front seat, put the key in the ignition and turned it.  It seemed too easy, too quick.  The engine lugged, coughed, then fired up and hummed like a beauty.  A cheer went up among the group and oil-soaked rags flew up in the air.  People hung over the engine as it ran, tightening this or that, fiddling with various screws.

All of a sudden a geyser of bright green sprayed up into the air, pattering onto people’s uncovered heads and onto the front wings of the car like toxic rain.  Someone rushed to cut off the engine amid confused shouts and tangled legs.  The threads on the temperature gauge had obviously not held and we’d just emptied about a quart of coolant onto Bill’s driveway.  No problem, they said, wiping the antifreeze from their faces and walking back to the truck.  The mantra of the shadetree mechanic:  failures happen so don’t get worked up.

Bill went back into his house and emerged with a small triangle of sheet metal.  He placed it over the hole the gauge was supposed to fit in, tightened down the bolts, and restarted the engine.  This time, no leaking, no Old Faithful eruption of antifreeze.  That jury-rig on the engine block, had it failed, would have rendered the engine inoperable after it chewed itself to red-hot pieces in a matter of minutes.  It never failed as long as I owned the truck.

On the drive home, I laughed and smiled to myself, amazed at the improbability of it all:  unlicensed mechanics, limited tools, a wide range of experience and personalities, yet together we’d rebuilt the top half of an engine after dinner and I could drive home before bedtime.  The engine sounded like a quiet sewing machine, and was orderly, quiet, and had loads of power.  The truck practically leapt up hills, and I had to actually lift off the throttle to prevent us from launching into the night sky.  The replacement of the cylinder head was really the lesser triumph, though.  I’d learned that Land Rover people were an odd breed, but true and good people.  I also learned that you could do any job on your own truck.  No more mechanics.    The operation and ownership of my truck was entirely my responsibility.  I was liberated.

  1. mud4fun said:

    That was a fantastic read, so funny yet so accurate. I’ve been rebuilding Land Rovers for decades but my wife only recently got her first Series truck and last year when I rebuilt her cylinder head, my wife was there to assist and went through the exact same experiences and thoughts as you. We rebuilt ours on our driveway exposed to the british weather, often requiring my wife to hold an umbrella over the engine bay while I worked. 🙂

    Where do I find the book? I would really like to buy it.

    • Hi mud4fun, thanks for the comment. What’s amazing is that this work can be done by relative amateurs outside int he weather with no complicated tools. Try doing that with any modern car! Watch the main blog for news about the book release.

      • mud4fun said:

        I look forward to it. My wife and I both read the piece and both smiled and enjoyed it very much. I hope the book will be available here in the UK?

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