Welcome to Stuff I Learned Yesterday. My name is Darrell Darnell, I love any model of Datsun Nissan Z cars, and I believe that if you aren’t learning, you aren’t living.

Today’s episode falls on the Monday leading up to Father’s day this coming Sunday. I thought it would be appropriate to share a story that will take us from doing wheelies to changing wheels, turning flatheads to fixing flatheads, and sending a car off to the scrapyard to saving a car from the scrapyard. That’s a lot to cover in 10-15 minutes, so let’s go!

I love Disney’s The Lion King. From the opening musical sequence culminating with the revealing of the prince lion cub, Simba, to the mirrored ending when Simba’s heir is presented to the kingdom, its theme of the circle of life is purposeful, powerful, and poignant. Simba learned important life lessons and skills from his father, Mufasa, and I think it’s safe to assume Simba was eager to pass those lessons on to the next generation of the family.

For my family, we have a generational heritage of working on cars. Well, except for my brother. He has no interest in working on cars and has asked me why I do it. He’s been known to buy a car without ever popping the hood to see what the engine bay looks like. It’s okay. He has skills in other areas, so I’ll give him some grace on that.

For me, it seems like part of my DNA. When I was a kid, I loved taking things apart to see how they worked and trying to fix broken mechanical things. I think most of us can relate to having a broken chain or brake on our bicycle, and while it was annoying when those things would break, I did enjoy the challenge of finding the problem and getting the bicycle back together. After all, fixing the bike was fun, but popping wheelies was better.

My dad is one of those men who would change the oil in our cars, make sure we knew how to properly change a battery and a tire, and he did as much of the repairs and maintenance on our cars as possible. He drove an 8th generation Ford F-150 and my stepmom drove a first generation Dodge Caravan. I remember helping him work on those maintenance items I just mentioned, as well as helping him change a CV joint, starter, thermostat, and rotors. 

I purchased my first car shortly after I graduated high school in 1994. It was a 1984 Ford EXP. She was a beauty! My version was a white primary color that covered the car from the roof down to about midway on the doors, which was the bumper line of the car. Below that was black all the way to the bottom of the car. Separating the white and black was a 1-inch red stripe running from bumper to bumper. The back opened up as a hatch, and the glass was covered in louvers. 

The EXP was a small, two-seat car with a 4 speed manual transmission and a 4 cylinder engine producing 88 horsepower. Some mistook the car for a Mustang, but it was a cousin to the Ford Escort.  Eventually the car developed an oil leak and I tracked the source down to a worn out valve cover gasket. I went to my dad for advice and he told me what I needed to make the repair. 

The repair was pretty straightforward. I just needed to clear anything obstructing the valve cover which sits on top of the engine. Then it was a matter of pulling off the valve cover, completely removing all of the old gasket, putting on a new gasket, and bolting down the valve cover. I went to the autoparts store and purchased a new gasket, grabbed my tool box, and went out to my car to make the repair. 

All seemed to be going well until I pulled off the valve cover. Once the cover was removed, all of the valves and inner workings of the engine were exposed! My dad had warned me about that and told me how important it was to avoid letting anything drop down inside the engine. But now that I was looking at all those pieces and seeing how impossible it would be to retrieve something if I did drop it, the job took on a whole new weight. My stress level went way up!

I decided to focus on the job and not on what could go wrong. I meticulously removed the old gasket, applied the new one, carefully bolted on the cover, and breathed a massive sigh of relief when the car fired up and the leak was gone. I’d done it and it felt amazing! 

I drove the car for a couple of more years until it developed an issue with overheating. I made the mistake of allowing the car to get too hot, and the head cracked. That was a repair that neither I nor my dad had the tools, skill, or knowledge to do, so we hired a mechanic to fix it. A thousand dollars later, the car was back on the road. 

Several months later, the car started overheating again. My dad and I did everything we could to find out the cause. We took it back to the mechanic, replaced the thermostat, flushed the radiator, you name it. It kept getting hot. Eventually I drove it too long and the head cracked again. Faced with sinking another thousand dollars into the car or buying something else, I opted to buy something else. 

The car dealer gave me scrap value for it as a scrapyard was the only option for it. I drove off the lot in a 1995 Ford Ranger, and a new, terrifying car payment. But that’s a story for another day.

Since then I’ve continued to do all the maintenance on my cars. I’ve not owned many cars in my life. Just the EXP, the Ranger, a 1984 Toyota Celica, 1972 MGB GT, and my current car, a 2011 BMW Z4. I’ve also done the maintenance on my wife’s 1994 Ford Probe, 2002 Honda Civic, and her current car, a 2020 Buick Encore.

In addition to the various maintenance and repairs mentioned above, I’ve changed out brake and clutch master and slave cylinders, brake pads, alternators, spindles, coils, distributors, and spark plugs. If you’re a veteran listener of this podcast, you also know that I stripped out all of the wiring of my MGB GT and rewired the entire car from scratch.

I sold the MGB GT earlier this year, which may surprise some of you. I’ll share that story in a future episode too.

Last summer, when I decided to sell the MG, I began looking for my next car. About 3 months later, I found it. In a full-wrench kind of moment, I rescued her from an auction car scrapyard in Texas. The car, as I previously mentioned, is a 2011 BMW Z4. 

The car is equipped with BMW’s n52 3.0 liter inline six engine producing 255 horsepower and a 6 speed automatic transmission. The car can also be put into manual mode which allows the driver to use the paddle shifters to manually control the transmission.

Z car had seen better days. The passenger side was wrecked from bumper to bumper. I was the only bidder on the car and since it couldn’t be driven, I had it delivered to my house. It arrived in around a dozen pieces, not including the 3 ziploc baggies of random screws, bolts, fasteners, and miscellaneous bits. 

The front bumper had taken a direct impact, but was not broken. However, it did have a massive scrape and the clear coat was cracked. There was a scratch that went from the front bumper, across the hood, front quarter panel, passenger door, gas cap, and rear quarter panel. The gas cap cover, side mirror, tail light, and side skirt were all separated from the car. The headlight was obliterated. The front tire held air but the wheel had a significant dent. The rear tire had shredded in the accident and all that remained was a massively gauged and road-rashed wheel. Inside the car was mostly okay other than dirt and grime. Mechanically the car seemed fine, but it was impossible to know for sure until it was repaired enough to test.

Between the accident and the auto auction, the car had clearly been to a repair shop. That shop had disassembled various parts of the car, and assuming because the repair cost would be too high, stopped working on it, stuffed all the various parts and screws in the trunk, and cut their losses.

Over the next few weeks of evenings and weekends I poured over every detail of the car. I went through every single screw and fastener in those bags. There must have been nearly a hundred different bits in those bags. I purchased brand new wheels and tires and I purchased a kit to try and buff out the scratches. Much to my delight, about 90% of the scratch buffed out. Only the cracked clear coat on the front bumper and small scratch on the gas cap remain.

I pulled everything out of the trunk, found a repair manual online, and poured through videos on YouTube. I scrubbed and sprayed and vacuumed and wiped. Eventually, bit by bit, piece by piece, the car came back together. Admittedly, I do still have 3 screws I haven’t found homes for. 

Here’s what I learned.

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around the car was nearly complete. When my dad came over for dinner, I took him outside and showed him the car. I showed him all the before photos and described all the work I’d done. He was impressed! He insisted I take him for a ride, which I was more than happy to do.

Once we arrived back home he looked at me with a proud grin and told me I’d done good. I told him that I had him to thank for it. He looked confused. I told him that it was all those times that he called me out to the garage to help him fix a car that made me think that I could do the same thing. 

I asked him how he learned to do what he did. He didn’t have workshop manuals or YouTube to guide him, afterall. He said he talked to guys at work or would call dealership mechanics and ask them questions. He said people were willing to help in whatever way they could.

I asked him if his dad had worked on their cars and he said yes. His dad worked on their flathead engines, which were popular in the early days of the automobile up until the 50’s primarily. He liked those engines because they were simple to work on.

So his dad taught him about working on cars, my dad taught me, and, of course, I’ve tried to do my fair share of teaching my kids about them. I told my dad that what he taught me through the years is what gave me the confidence to buy the Z and fix it up. Dad’s posture changed as he straightened up, smiled, looked me in the eye and said, “that’s all it takes, is confidence.” He’s right! I’d also add that it takes a willingness to try new things. 

For years I told myself that I’d never get a carbureted car because I don’t know anything about carburetors. But once I got my MG, I realized there’s no need to fear them. I also used to refused to buy anything newer than the early 2000’s because newer cars have too many computer components and the engine bay was too complicated. Sure, there are computers and fancy things in modern cars, but I love them now! Those computers give me great insight on what’s going on with the car. They make troubleshooting things MUCH easier. The engine bay may look more intimidating or have fancy covers, but once you remove those and dig in, it’s still just a car that gets repaired by turning screwdrivers and wrenches.

I love the satisfaction I get from taking on a new challenge, pushing myself to learn a new kind of repair, taking that post-repair test drive, and getting compliments on the car by random people. My dad gets pride from seeing me take the skills he taught me and putting them to use. Whether your thing is working on cars or it’s something else, you have the opportunity to create your own circle of life. For us, it’s a circle of wrenches. What will it be for you?

I’m Darrell Darnell, and this has been Stuff I Learned Yesterday.

I want you to be a part of the next Monday Mailbag on July 29th! Monday Mailbag is your opportunity to Share what YOU’VE learned, so that other listeners and I can learn from YOU.  It can be a message as short as 30 seconds or several minutes long.  It really doesn’t matter just as long as it’s something that will benefit others.  You can send in questions or responses to my SILY episodes, and I’ll respond to them via Monday Mailbag episodes. You can participate in Monday Mailbags by visiting the Golden Spiral Media listener feedback page at goldenspirlamedia.com/feedback.