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Sat Here Going Nowhere - The Trials Of An Amateur Mechanic.

Sat Here Going Nowhere - The Trials Of An Amateur Mechanic.

It's Saturday afternoon, October 29th 2022. I should be in the midst of flurried activity in readiness for tomorrow's KYRLE TRIAL, and event held within a few miles of home in the Forest Of Dean. But I'm not. My daughter Georgie is not making her famous cheese scones for me to take along, I'm not pressure washing the car or filling it with fuel. Instead, it's parked outside and like its driver, sat here going nowhere!

This event last ran in 2019, I competed, didn't do any good at all but still really enjoyed it . I have been itching to have another go at it ever since - Covid19 having gotten in the way as it has with everything else in the past few years. It was all looking good to go when on October 8th the car cried enough on its way back from another event. When we got it apart, we found the head-gasket had blown. Cue two weeks of solid work to repair it. 

I'm not a mechanic, like my dad and my brother, the gene passed me by, but needs must. I gave it a go.  I don't have a garage, so it was an open-air job and weather (and daylight) dependent.  To be fair the weather hasn't intruded too much but it's parked under a tree so sweeping fallen leaves off the bonnet has been the first job each day. And the ground it sits on is…well was grass. Now it's more like a mud-bath. 

Luckily I have had the advice of my brother Ashley who's a bit of a genius with mechanical things. The problem is he lives over two hours away on the coast of West Wales so it's been mostly advice by phone and Whattsap message. Thank goodness for modern technology! That has enabled endless photos from me to illustrate where I am at and what I need to know in ways that mere words can never convey. 

Ashley did also turn up in person one weekend and helped me get the top off the engine, which is no small job, the inlet manifold on a Suzuki X90 is a nightmare of small pipes, tubes, nuts bolts and spring clips that all have to come apart piece by piece before you can reach the bits you really want to reach. And the cam shaft obscures half the head bolts so also needs removing.  For me, a very amateur mechanic, it was daunting. I have a fear of tightening some bolt that should be loosened and snapping it off so each move it a matter of giving it a lot of thought before doing anything that might prove to be really stupid. 

It took almost a week to get everything to where it needed to be. To get the head off also means first removing the distributor housing. To access the cam belt requires taking out the radiator, taking off the cooling fan and its pully, the alternator and power steering belts, then undoing the main bolt of the crankshaft before undoing the dozen or so 10mm bolts on the plastic cover.  It takes ages. Well, it took ME ages, at least for the first time.

At this point it was obvious the head bolts had stretched and needed replacing so a set was ordered along with a new radiator (the original had sprung a leak, setting off the whole chain of events in the first place) and of course the new gaskets. While it was apart it made sense to change the cam belt too, along with the alternator belt and the oil filter. Naturally these components all contrived to arrive in the reverse order that they were needed. The very last thing actually required was here the next day. The bolts, which I needed straight away, took over a week.  While waiting I had the tedious task of cleaning up to faces of the block and the head, gunked up as they were with the residue of some ineffective but very stubborn sealant.

 Much careful rubbing with ‘wet and dry’ paper on a broad flat edge, and squirts of WD40 eventually produced results. 

But by this time the next event I had hoped to run in, the MECHANIC'S TRIAL near Stroud was looming. My regular navigator/passenger is my 16-year-old daughter Charlotte, but she's landed herself a job waiting tables in a local pub and is no longer available for motor sport events on Sundays…which is when most of them are run. For this first event of this new-era I had lined up a stand-in navigator in the guise of fellow trader Stuart King, who many people will recognise as the tall chap selling union-jack themed apparel at venues like Prescott, Bicester and Shelsley Walsh .  Sadly, the head bolts had still not arrived two days before the event and there was just no time to finish the job… the entry was pulled. Sorry Stuart!

So that gave me another week to do the job in a more relaxed and considered fashion. If only!  The bolts arrived, the head went back on, then the camshaft. A minor panic at that point when I found a ‘pin’ from one of the cam bearings was missing… luckily it turned up safe and sound in one of the many biscuit tins I used to store all the bits that came off the engine… After that drama, all sixteen old-fashioned tappets were all adjusted with an equally old-fashioned feeler gauge, and the new cam belt squeezed onto the pulleys. 

With 48 hours to go, and no small degree of trepidation, I fired the engine up before fitting the nice new aluminium radiator - and it ran!  But when I fitted the radiator and filled it up, water poured out underneath. It took me an hour to locate where this was coming from and then several more to find out where the hidden but still unattached water pipe should actually be connected. It was a nasty little union a long way from where the pip actually rested - and where I was actually looking. Live and learn…

 With that issue sorted, I filled the radiator back up and it stayed filled. I fired the engine once again, the oil pressure warning light went out almost immediately and for half an hour it sat there running happily as I checked for leaks and drips, listened for rattles and generally fussed like an anxious parent over a new-born child. Finally, it was time for a test drive up the road and the first problem appeared. It had no ‘pull’, would not rev with load on it and just about chugged far enough uphill for me to turn it round in a driveway and coast back home. A rapid phone-round of X90 owners and trusted mechanics for advice followed and it was generally considered likely that the cam-belt was a tooth out of alignment. So off came the newly fitted radiator, the pulleys, the belts, the cover and …yes! According to what I could see on a Youtube tutorial it was indeed a tooth out of alignment, which I quickly addressed and refitted everything. By this point it was Friday evening and getting dark.  I tried to refire the engine but the battery was flat so rather than panic I put that on charge and waited till the morning for another try. Except the battery wasn't flat it was actually dead and no amount of fiddling would get it to hold charge. So I had to go and buy a replacement which, by some miracle, was actually on the shelves at the local motor factors, unlike almost everything else I had needed to that point. They even gave me a bit of an “at last…”  discount to celebrate!

So now it was mid-morning on Saturday with the event staring at 8.30 on Sunday morning. The engine fired, it revved, it held temperature and after a few adjustments wasn't leaking any fluid. So I once again drove up the road.  Now it felt like I'd fitted a ‘race’ cam . There was no power below 3000rpm then it took off like a rocket at 3001 !  Not what you want at all when attempting to climb muddy 1-in-4 hills in the rain. But worse. I got back, switched off and wondered what the bubbling sound was. Steam began to seep from the closed edges of the bonnet… Underneath the expansion bottle for the radiator was boiling away like a forgotten kettle.

When it had all cooled down, and after I had burned my thumb on the hot engine, I took the radiator cap off and the contents resembled milk.  Something was clearly far from right. At that point I rang Ashley for advice - which then led me to email the event organisers with the news that I'd be, reluctantly, a non-starter the following day. I also emailed my stand-in navigator; journalist and all-round petrol-head Richy Barnett who had been on the very same event with me when it last ran in 2019 (Below) the only previous trial on which I have driven that Charlotte has not been the navigator.  Sorry Richy!

So that's that. The trials of an amateur mechanic have reached the low limit of my ability (just for the moment anyway). I have not  even had chance to test if the brakes will work properly (see previous blog for the reasons why they were a concern). Here I am, looking like Wurzel Gummage in soaked and muddy clothes with a blister on my burning thumb and a cup of tea in my oily hands, accepting defeat. 

But only for now. Give me a few days and I will be back on the case. Has the head gasket failed again? Has the head itself cracked? Is this just an almighty airlock in the system after refitting the radiator? Why is the oil still completely clean? Are any of the spark plugs showing signs of being washed by invasive water in the bores? Has the Gas Monkey actually died on me or can he be revived?…  

Stay tuned!