As 2015 gave way to 2016 in much the same way picturesque Autumn yielded to the nation’s capital going into a frenzied panic over half an inch of Winter snow, I was moved to reflect on the changes that had taken place in my own little bit of real-estate called Life.
Metaphors aside, I looked at all I had done to keep Eddie the Sunfire running since our acquisition in mid-2008.
First to go was a radiator hose, which had rubbed unnecessarily upon a bolt head on the water pump, wearing a hole and spilling red coolant everywhere I drove. Initially, of course, we thought it was just low, so we added more coolant. Then, when we saw the coolant coming out was brown, we thought it was really old coolant. We then figured out that someone had great faith in the car’s longevity and had filled the cooling system with red antifreeze.
Red antifreeze is meant to last much longer than the green stuff everyone knows about. But it turns out that when you don’t know what’s in it, adding green to red produces brown, making the coolant look extra old when it was probably still perfectly viable.
So, with the old hose wrapped around it for added protection, a new coolant line was installed. That process necessitated removing a wheel and four pieces of trim, which, upon later inspection, had initially been two pieces before a head-on collision with something solid.
Oil leaks came next, and with that came new air conditioning and torque strut mounts. Initially, the new mounts were installed because we drew the short straw and got state safety inspector who actually checks his work.
No problem, and thanks, Dad, for helping take care of that. Years later, I had forgotten how much the engine likes to lurch forward.
Then, over time, came brakes, an ABS wire, gaskets for the transmission pan and valve cover, two batteries, a starter and an alternator along with two headlights and a turn signal.
And six months ago, my mechanic friend said to me, “Is that your fuel pump I’m hearing?”
Sure enough, I walk around to the passenger side while the engine’s running and I hear it: The high, sickly whine of a small electric motor struggling in its old age.
So I went to the Internets for info, and found the fuel pump to be a composite unit including a strainer and fuel level sensor. This was fortunate, as I had a fuel gauge that liked to hop around once the tank would get down to half-empty. New pump added to cart, headed for check-out.
Further research found that replacing the fuel pump involves taking the whole tank out of the car. Some cars ask you to dig under the rear passenger seat, thereby exposing the pump for easier access and more readily spilling noxious gasoline onto your upholstery. Such is not the case with Eddie, so (after spending a week buying only $10 worth of gas at a time to keep the tank no more than half-full) once again I drive down to the parents’ house to make use of Dad’s jack stands.
To start off, I am now in the habit of just keeping my car-related tools in the trunk. Sure, it hurts my gas mileage, but that’s a small price to pay for the assurance that, should I break down on the side of the road, I’ll be able to fix it. So this rolling workshop rolls down to Dad’s workshop (which is more of a parking space).
Knowing the tank is a large part of the car, I figure I’ll need ample space to maneuver underneath. Ideally, I’d work with a lift in a garage with a transmission jack, but instead I have a hydraulic floor jack that barely lifts the car enough to reach the first notch on Dad’s jack stands. So I raid his collection of four-by-fours to gain another eight inches. Insert sexual innuendo here: (__________)
Jack stands fully erected (sorry), I crawl under to take my first ever good look at Eddie’s undercarriage (last one, I swear!), and I am frightened.
Rust is deeply entrenched into the sub-frame behind the rear axle at several spots. Two each where it crumpled after a Mercedes bumped him, and two just ahead of the spare tire well, where holes are set in the frame rail as if to attach something without actually attaching anything. It’s now so corroded, nothing could ever be attached to those points and be expected to stay put in the presence of a light breeze.
Easy enough to disconnect was the tank’s electrical connection, which includes power for the pump’s motor and signal wires for the fuel gauge. Then I have the hose that leads to the filler neck, kept in place by a sensible hose clamp which needed extra convincing to come loose. I don’t think it had ever been taken off since it was installed at the factory.
Then there’s three actual fuel-based connections. One goes to the filter and the other two are I don’t know what. Possibly a return line of some kind. One of the odd ones, which goes to a big black box that I mistook for an electronic control unit of some kind, needed mild convincing to come loose. For a moment I feared breaking the flimsy latch that keeps this connection together, because I don’t remember if this is a hose that’s already on the new part or not. After finishing, I still can’t remember if it was, so I’m glad I was careful.
The remaining line not involved with the filter is trickier. A YouTube how-to made mention of a “fuel line disconnect tool” which lifts away the springs in the connection to liberate the lines from one another. Easier watched than done. Despite the tool in place, it still took considerable force to pry them apart. Imagine trying to break a Chinese finger trap by overcoming its tensile strength. Now do it upside down, laying on your back without space for leverage while one end moves every time you pull, and you’re situated off to one side because next to you is an old cake pan ready to catch drips so your face doesn’t have to.
That was finally free, which left the line for the filter.
It’s funny now, but at the time I was rather annoyed that none of the videos I found mentioned disconnecting the fuel pump fuse while the engine runs and allowing internal combustion to cease itself, thereby de-pressurizing the fuel line. As you might guess, I didn’t do that either.
So after finally breaking free the engine-side of the filter, which weirdly involved one metric wrench and one imperial, I continued loosening the nut, which has a nice patina of rust to it. After about five turns, I get a gentle reminder the system is still pressurized.
Well, maybe “gentle” is the wrong word.
Now, in reality, it was probably no more than a quick squirt, but my memory paints a different picture. After all, when flammable liquid approaches your face in a frothy flurry, you don’t think “squirt gun,” you think of that tidal wave that popped up when Krakatoa erupted.
I’m just barely able to shut my eyes and pop the hoses back together before I’m showered, then I wriggle out from under the car, pull off the nitrile gloves I’m wearing and grab blindly for the super-absorbent roll of shop towels I bought a few weeks back. As I dab at my eyes, still not daring to open them and wondering if I could find my way to the garden hose without the benefit of sight, I flash back to the last time dinosaur juice was splashed in my face.
I’m no more than ten years old, vacationing at the family’s lake house. I’ve been enlisted to help Dad put more gas in the boat so further trips around the lake may be taken. Being an excitable little snot with attention deficit disorder, I’m, of course, distracted by a fish jumping nearby. Shifting my weight was enough to rock the boat so the flexible neck on the gas can slips out of the filler port, whiplashing premium unleaded straight up to my face.
It was quite uncomfortable.
Dad puts the gas can down and starts leading little ol’ blinded Me up to the house, step by uneasy step. We make it as far as off the dock onto terra firma, when Dad decides this is taking too long and hoists my whimpering ass onto his shoulder and hustles up to the spigot, liberally applying fresh tap water to my face.
Later that evening, it was debated why he hadn’t simply dipped me into the lake, where fresh water was closer and more plentiful.
Back with Eddie, I’m dabbing my eyes with a second fresh towel as the burning subsides, and I screw up my courage to take a peek at the world around me. The eyes feel a little raw, but vision is unimpaired. A few more blinks and I’m feeling better, no lake required.
So I shimmy back under to try and spot what else could go wrong. Nope, just the possibly-still-pressurized fuel line. I’m now wondering why I hadn’t bought safety glasses when I stopped at Autozone for the filter and fuel line disconnect tool. They certainly would have come in handy while loosening the tank straps.
Before that, I found removing the filter again produced nothing like the extinction-level-event earlier, either because all the pressure had already been relieved in that initial surge, or I hadn’t perfectly re-sealed the line in my blind panic and fossil fuel had dripped into the old cake pan while I was dabbing at my eyes, trying not to whimper like last time. Either way, separating fuel line from filter produced only a small drizzle.
The potential for danger evaporated like the fumes out of the gasoline spilled earlier, I set to breaking free the tank straps, which also probably hadn’t been moved since initial installation.
It took an 11/16” deep-well socket with a eight inch-long extension slotted onto the end of my ratchet’s handle and some good-ole Water Displacement, 40th Formula, to break each bolt loose, shaking free a small cloud of rust which threatened a second assault on my corneas.
I’m uninterested in spending an as-yet undetermined time holding my redneck-style breaker bar together as I work through seventeen years of rust, so I put the 17mm socket onto a universal adapter, slotted them with a 3/8” driver into my 18-volt drill and pulled the trigger, letting electrons do the heavy lifting.
Once I’d gotten the first one loose, bolt in hand, I remembered the local effects of gravity. I took another plank of wood from Dad, this time a 1x4, and used it as a cushion between my floor jack and the fuel tank, minimizing the chance of unnecessary creases or, even worse, a puncture. Jack in place, I rip out the sole remaining tank strap bolt via electric rotational force and let the tank rest upon the hydraulic lift.
This is where the tank’s various connections run afoul of the car’s rear “axle.” I say “axle,” because this is a front-wheel drive car, which hasn’t got a rear axle; merely a beam of angle iron, across which the rear brake lines and ABS cables can be tethered. Just about everything structural in that region comes from the suspension. Nevertheless, it is still an obstacle, and the biggest pain is the hose leading to the filler neck. In those cramped quarters, I had no idea that seventeen-year old rubber could bend like that without crumbling.
Careful release of the floor jack’s hydraulic valve while wriggling the tank’s various connections eventually reached a point of diminishing return, when the tank straps are the main obstacle. On one side, the strap needs to move to one side. On the other, the tank must be lifted in order for the strap to be maneuvered past the rear “axle,” eventually letting the tank fall further.
At last, the right side of the tank is touching tarmac, and I must slide it further to the right so the left side may get past sheet metal that smartly guards the tank from the hot exhaust, but annoyingly also keeps it from moving in a directly downward trajectory. Perhaps this is by design, I don’t know. Bottom line: it meant I had to take off the right-rear tire, since that was the one obstacle out of two that was more easily removed. Now I’m glad I’d adjusted the rear brakes so the handbrake now actually works since replacing the drums, since I’d otherwise have to put the car back on the ground to break the lug nuts free, or enlist a stranger to sit in the car while pressing the brake pedal.
Wheel liberated and set to the side, the tank can now slide to the right and come free. I hadn’t planned on it, but the 5’x10’ scrap of 70’s era carpet I’m lay upon to protect my knees from hard asphalt does an equally stellar job cushioning the tank, letting me easily slide it out into daylight.
When you drive on a road that’s been salted and sanded for snow, but the snow has since melted and all that’s left is the dust, you don’t get a real sense of what this dust is doing as it’s kicked up by your tires, swirled around in the various vortices created by an aerodynamically-imperfect shape hurtling down the road and assaulting the underbody until you get a peek at the crevices into which the dust settles itself. I found seeds from a maple tree on top of the tank. There’s no explaining that without the phrase “Chaos Theory.”
So, because seeds and leaves and grains of sand are unwelcome in a gas tank, I borrow a can of compressed air that my sister uses to scare the cats. Then some carburetor cleaner over the fuel pump to get the stubborn stuff. And more compressed air. Now to remove the circular retaining clip that holds the pump in. There are holes in the clip, into which the business-end of some specialty pliers can be inserted to compress the ring, letting it easily come free. Instead, I make do with a flathead screwdriver and a Leatherman, popping the ring out, one clip at a time, until it’s no longer held in by more than 180 degrees, and the compressed ring pops itself out.
Now, because the pump is probably the original part, it ain’t moving from its comfy spot. First, the springs that put pressure on the top and bottom of the tank to keep the thing in place have gone limp in their advanced age. A new pump assembly would have happily sprung, having been liberated. But this was like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, being offered freedom only to deny it, favoring the comforts of captivity. Also, the rubber gasket that maintains a seal, keeping gas vapors from escaping into the atmosphere, has also gotten comfortable, actually suctioning itself to the two surfaces, and must be peeled loose like that sticky stuff they use to attach your new credit card to the letter which explains in fine print that you still have to pay for what you spend, else they send a team of ninja-trained alligator assassins armed with AK-47s to collect on the debt.
So with that in mind, the pump assembly comes free and lifts out of the tank, angling it halfway through to allow for the strainer (which filters the worst of the particulates) and the float level (which moves up and down according to the fuel level and actuates the resistor which tells the fuel gauge how soon the driver should start looking for a filling station) can be maneuvered out of the hole that is too narrow for the entire assembly to otherwise fit through.
Putting the old pump next to the new one, I see some differences. Since the problem with the old one was a noise issue, I splurged slightly on the one that advertised quieter operation, and the manufacturer seems to have decided that, instead of letting the product’s performance be the differing factor, their product must have a differing appearance. Yes, the plastic has that “brand new white” appearance, contrasting with the old one’s yellow that reminds me of when I had athlete’s foot as a kid and would peel off the dead skin habitually. And the hoses are nice and robust, not having any of the brittle quality of the old ones. The new one also came with new wiring, which quelled my fear of having to keep using copper that’s seventeen years old.
A more curious difference is the strainer at the bottom of the assembly. The old one seems to be a sort of micro-perforated tube of plastic sealed at both ends, looking like someone pinched flat the ends of a hot dog bun. The new one is some kind of felt, apparently meant to let gas pass through it like a lantern’s wick carries kerosene. It would certainly stop particulates from flowing into the pump, but I’m slightly concerned said particulates would get stuck to the felt, over time clogging it and necessitating a replacement. That’s a concern for another day, though. For now, I’ll settle for a pump that doesn’t threaten to fail with a death rattle.
New part inspection over and having looked in the tank for any undesirable debris, I maneuver the as-advertised “quieter” unit into the tank. Then I take it back out because I forgot to lube the new gasket. That’s important for both slipping it into place and creating an air-tight seal.
That done, now comes the difficult part of setting the retaining clip into place. The springs on this new one are brand new, and therefore stiff. I’m also meeting resistance from the gasket, which is getting compressed by the opening which has an ever-so-slightly smaller diameter than the gasket, and a new rubber gasket isn’t going to have quite the same modulus of elasticity an old one will. I’m actually now wondering if that wasn’t a polyurethane gasket they gave me…
This being a new part that was ordered online, and I don’t enjoy the idea of having to run around town looking for another one that might be inferior and cost more, I’m careful with the application of force I’m giving this part. The last thing I need to do is break it during installation. To protect the wires, I disconnect the couplers and set them off to the side, and try not to press down on anything that looks delicate, which doesn’t leave me a lot of room. Imagine pushing a fifty-pound weight straight up using the tips of your fingers; that’s what I’m dealing with.
Eventually, with the aid of a comfortably-handled screwdriver, I somehow grew a third hand and wedged the ring into place under one of the clips. This allowed me to systematically tuck it into the rest of the clips, one at a time until it was secured, and with great trepidation I stepped away, waiting for something to break, releasing the tension on the springs to send the retaining ring into the blue sky above, possibly in multiple pieces.
I must have hallucinated that happening, because after I blinked, everything was fine. I waited another thirty minutes for the inevitable that never happened. As it turns out, General Motors knew what they were doing when it came time to pick out the sheet metal for their fuel tanks seventeen years ago.
Now to do, in reverse, what I had done with the assistance of gravity. Once I’d reconnected the wiring couplers and placed the new hoses into the plastic do-hickey extending from around the filler hose that keeps the hoses and wiring from flopping around, the tank was slid down the carpet back under the car.
The tank strap on the driver’s side didn’t need to be dropped past the rear “axle,” so I carefully lift that side of the tank to rest upon the strap. I can then get the floor jack and borrowed 1x4 underneath it and start lifting. Occasional adjustments come in the form of futile tugging and pushing without the benefit of leverage before getting out from under the car and pushing one way or the other with my foot.
Having sufficiently lifted the tank with the jack, the tank straps can now get bolted into place, which effectively secures it into its proper position, taking the weight off the jack. With that disposed of, I can focus on reattaching the two fuel lines, filler neck and wiring harness.
If you’ve never connected or disconnected fuel lines before, it’s tough to know how much pressure to apply before the connection latches. So you make multiple attempts, pushing harder each time and releasing, hoping it caught. Then, under the red mist of frustration, you throw caution to the wind and shove them together with all your might until you hear and feel that satisfying click of the right things locking into place.
Then comes the filler neck, and since this is held onto the filler hose with a classic screw-driven hose clamp, I attach an 8mm socket to my power drill and let electrons do the work again. The fuel filter’s line also screws on like it came off, minus the fossil fuel shower I’d received earlier.
After an obsessive-compulsive double-check worthy of Adrian Monk himself, I get back to the driver’s seat and turn the ignition to the On position. This action, on a fuel-injected vehicle, activates the fuel pump for a few seconds to prime the system, much like an outboard motor boat has that ball on the line you have to squeeze before the motor will start.
I turn the key and I hear nothing. I try again. Nothing. A third time, listening real close, I finally hear (but only just) the faint whir of the new pump as it spins for a few seconds. With the confidence that I probably didn’t just imagine it, the key is turned to the start position, and Eddie springs to life without incident. Then I check for leaks.
So yeah, job done. Not a lot of drama, save for the spray of combustible fluid to the face. So the tools get packed away and I take off.
Then I have a rather profitable month of March at work, and I’m able to order Eddie a set of summer tires on aftermarket rims. These are delivered the day after I order them, which is faster than anything else I’ve ordered that wasn’t a pizza.
I zip those on real quick, and all of a sudden, Eddie is looking swag. The dark grey alloys sit well on Eddie, better than his old steelies with their plastic hub caps.
Then I took a test drive.
Remember that old adage your mom taught you to deal with teasing? The one about rubber and glue?
Yeah, turns out rubber and glue aren’t so different. I’ve never felt grip like this. And steering feels even tighter than when I installed the new tie rods. The ride is a little stiffer, which is to be expected of switching from 14” wheels to 16s. But this also helps telegraph the road surface, which is desirable for people like me who prefer driving to be an engaging experience.
And the ride is quieter. This is not unsurprising, since I had a pair of snow tires on the front axle, and those have a howl at freeway speeds which rivals the oversized off-road tires Jeep enthusiasts mount onto their Wranglers, and at low speeds they squeak like so many squished mice under a mill grinder.
I put the old wheels into temporary storage until I can get my own just before DC was hit by a freak snow shower in April. Since I had work in the morning, I was worried, since summer compounds aren’t worth shit in the snow. But it’s been so warm the past week, none of the white stuff sticks to the ground, so the work commute is like driving in a light rain, which these tires where meant to do, so they stick like Lord Business squirted them with the K.R.A.G.L.E.
I’m in love with these tires and I look forward to a whole Spring, Summer and Fall with them before switching back to the winter set. Then I’ll have my Smug Face again, since everyone will worry about snow, and I’ll be totally fine.