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The Rebuilding of a Ford Fiesta
The Engine - Phil May

Michael Hillman

In April 1982, long before I first met her, Audrey sent a blistering letter berating the Chairman of the Board of Ford Motor Company for the quality of Ford cars. Audrey's letter was filled with clichés such as "Now I understand why Ford means 'Fix Or Repair Daily" and 'Why my car is usually 'Found On the Road Dead.'" This rare display of Audrey's wrath came abut as a direct result of the catastrophic failure of the engine in what was then her new Fiesta, and Ford's response to it.

Listening to her long litany of complaints, a Ford customer representative offered to pay half the cost of the repairs, which was not bad, considering the car was out of warranty. In exchange all that Ford requested was for Audrey to say that she was a satisfied Ford customer. Principled as she is, Audrey refused this request, which while in the short run made her feel good, nevertheless cost her a bunch of money since Ford immediately withdrew their offer and Audrey was stuck with paying the full cost of the engine repair. So she started to look around for the best place to buy car parts on-line.

Four years later, while dropping a horse off at the veterinary hospital where she worked, I happened to spy her gold Fiesta. Having put well over 300,000 trouble free miles on my own Fiesta, I had developed quite an affinity for them, even going so far as to have joined a Ford Fiesta fan club. In the hospital I inquired about the owner of the Fiesta in the lot, anticipating that, like me, its owner would relish exchanging happy stories about it. Having heard of my inquiries from her staff, Audrey approached me cautiously, figuring "anyone who liked Fiestas had to be on drugs."

After listening for several minutes to my happy go-lucky Fiesta fairy tales, Audrey let out a 15 minute diatribe over the problems she had had with the car. She ended with a categorical declaration that the only thing she detested worse than her stupid car were people who owned Jack Russell terriers. Her spunky attitude, not to mention her good looks, got the better of me, and before I knew it, I was offering to work on her car in exchange for dinners. Unaware of the chain of events her answer would set off, she accepted my offer. As I left the hospital, I surveyed the condition of her car and greedily rubbed my hands in anticipation of the meals I could milk out of the deal. All that stood between us and our fate was for me to figure out how to break the news to Audrey about PJ, my trusty Jack Russell.

Two years and about two hundred meals later, Audrey discovered that I had long since fixed all the problems with her car and that instead of working on the car while she was slaving over a stove, I was really out playing chase the cat with PJ. Needless to say, she was a tad bit hot at PJ and me. My attempts to remind her how well her car was now running did little to pacify her wrath over having been hoodwinked into cooking me all those dinners by. Threaten with losing access to her great culinary skills, I succumbed to the inevitable and asked her to marry me, much to PJ's dismay.

All went well for Audrey and I and our twin Fiestas for the next several years. In 1991, however, as I was bolting a two by four to the broken frame of my Fiesta, Audrey questioned whether the time had come to retire it a and buy a new car. In spite of the fact that the driver's side door had been rusted shut for two years, and the car filled with smoke every time the headlights light were turned on, I still figured the car's best days were yet to come. My well reasoned rational defense of the car however was undermined when the two by four broke and the drivers seat and the piece of plywood it had been sitting on for the past two years fell to the ground.

With much consternation, I decided that Audrey probably was right and acquiesced to buying a new car. Always looking for a way to save a buck however, I convinced a rightfully skeptical Audrey that the car should be dismantled and its parts stockpiled for spares for the other Fiesta. Much to her dismay, I began dismantling the car in the front yard and just about everything that could unscrewed, unbolted, or broken off with a hammer was removed, all of which I cataloged, sealed in plastic, and promptly misplaced.

After 13 years and 450,000 miles, I figured my Fiesta deserved a decent burial. So when I got down to the frame, I called Dicky Seiss, a neighbor who specializes in septic system installation, to dig a grave for it in my back yard (Audrey for some reason that still escapes me, had refused my request to bury it in her formal garden). Later, Dicky asked inquisitively if all city folks were that attached to their cars. "Around here we have a saying, 'When they're done running, their still good for flushing,'" irreverently suggesting, of course, that I should have turned my faithful little car into a septic tank.

Well as things go around our farm, Audrey got the new car and I got her Fiesta. Now over the preceding years, Audrey often accused me of not liking her Fiesta as much as I liked my Fiesta, a fact I will not dispute. Chagrinned that I had been duped into cutting up my car, I paid even less attention to her Fiesta. In spite of this, her Fiesta ran trouble free for the next five years, and only last spring did it finally begin to show signs of 350,000 miles of wear and tear. For several weeks Audrey and I pondered whether the time had come for it, too, to be buried. In the end, my desire not to waste a $120 warranty on the rack and pinion steering unit, not to mention the huge stockpile of used Fiesta parts I had collected over the years, tipped the balance in favor of jury-rigging a few fixes. Audrey reluctantly acquiesced to my scheme, especially since I assured her that the total cost for needed repairs was not exceed $200.

My original plan was to simply pull the engine out of Audrey's car and replace it with the old engine from my car. Although the old engine had been sitting around for several years, it had logged only a couple thousand miles since it had last been rebuild and should, I figured, do well. I had taken the precaution of coating it thoroughly with oil, and sealing it in plastic when it was pulled out back in '91. Stored in my carpentry shop, it proved rather useful as a weight for various projects over the years. Unfortunately, the plastic wrapper received a new tear every time I moved it. Needless to say, it was caked in sawdust and upon closer inspection, it was obvious a simple engine swap was no longer feasible, though I failed to relay this, and the resultant increase in cost, to Audrey.

The first step was to pull the engine, which was easily accomplished with the aid of my Mount St. Mary's rent-a-student, Stas, and my neighbor, Richard Broadbent. As I was wrapping a sling around the engine to attach to the bucket of Richard's tractor, Stas noticed the "Do Not Use" tag on the slings and question if the slings were safe. "Sure" I said "I got these slings from a safety class I took a couple of years back. They were given out as samples of defective gear that you should not use, but they work great for pulling out fence posts ... I think they'll hold the engine." For some reason, Stas refused to climb under the creaking sling and remove the last bolt holding the engine in. Instead, Stas and Richard stood back and watched me remove the bolt, shaking their head the whole time and mumbling to each other about Audrey needing to up the dosage of my medicine again.

Once the engine was out I quickly began to disassemble it. As I was doing so, Audrey appeared out of nowhere. "Great. I've spent years trying to make this place look nice, and now I have a car on stilts in my front yard and engine pieces in the driveway. This isn't going to take long, is it? I don't want people to think we're from Thurmont." (See rule #9 of learning to write)

"No, it shouldn't take long, maybe a week or two. I want this engine to be right, so I'm rebuilding it myself." Shaking her head in disbelief, she replied: "Now that's an oxymoron if ever there was one."

By four that afternoon, I had managed to disassemble both engines and, with the help of Stas and several double gin and tonics, I had intermixed the parts to such a degree that I was no longer sure which parts went with which engine. Perplexed, I sought out the advice of Phil May, who operates an auto repair shop over on Keysville Road. Phil, as I've learned over the past few years, has forgotten more about Fords than most mechanics ever knew.

"Fiesta, huh? They were good little cars. Made in England." As Mr. May rattled off the history of the car and his experiences with their engines, it occurred to me that, based upon my recent experience with the tractor, maybe it would be smarter to let him rebuild the engine. The decision was made academic when Mr. May told me what he would charge to rebuild it. "Are you sure you haven't misplaced a decimal point? This is way too cheap." Smiling, Mr. May said that he thought the price was fair. "Mechanics charge too much today. At my price, I can work on this engine at my pace and have fun. Besides, Kermit Glass said to be nice to you. Something about your medication not being quite right."

Well, in no time at all, Mr. May had rebuilt the engine and the drive shafts, wheel bearings, and just about every other mechanical piece of equipment I could take out of the car. The way I figured it, I couldn't buy the parts as cheaply as what I was paying Mr. May to buy and install them for me. Besides, I still had nightmares about the last time I had rebuilt the engine back in 1986. After laboring over it for weeks, I had reinstalled the engine without part of the oil line, an error I did not discover, in spite of red oil warning light shining in my face, until I had run the engine for several minutes.

When I went to pick up the engine, however, Mr. May refused to give it to me until I gave him the oil pump. When I insisted that I was capable of doing that, he replied, "Sorry, but I've got a reputation to maintain, and if the engine fails, I don't want everyone to read about it in that newspaper you pretend to write for. Besides, this engine looks like it was once run without oil. Didn't you say you rebuilt it last?"

Mumbling something about having to get back and help Audrey do the dishes, I handed over the oil pump and five minutes later he handed me a shiny engine, and a bill less than half of my most optimistic estimate. Once I had the engine back in my hands and Mr. May had washed his hands of any further responsibility, the "do not use" slings were pulled out and Stas, Richard, and I made quick work of putting it back into the car. Much to my delight, and right in line with Mr. May's expectations, the engine caught and roared to life the first time I turned the key. Following a few minor adjustments, the engine was purring sweeter then the day it came off the factory floor. Thanks to Mr. May's craftsmanship, I was confident that the car, for once, was mechanically fit, and set about looking for someone to do the body work.

Michael lives with his wife Audrey on their farm east of Emmitsburg where Audrey spends her time field-testing promising new herbal remedies to treat neurotic husbands.

Read Part Two:

Read other stories by Michael Hillman