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Thursday, May 16, 2013


TORQUE WRENCH…We don’t need no stinkin torque wrench

 From "I Used TO Be Stupid"   

When we last left the Cranky young man his precious MGA had a cracked engine head, normally a $500 fix.

see part I here  

Somehow Dad found a suitable Head in a local junk yard for $50.  He bought an MGA manual for $15.  Dad had virtually every tool possible to replace the head, and for two weeks my new job was as an automobile mechanic.

I did not know how to change the oil in a car.  I had some trouble changing a tire, but with the proper tools and the MGA manual I became a mechanic.

With the hood (bonnet in the manual) removed for easy access to the engine, I began.  I worked slow and steady.  Every screw, nut, bolt, washer or rod was carefully removed and labeled.  Every part was kept in a separate container, labeled and set aside in the exact order in which they were removed.

The valves and valve seats were pitted.  Dad showed me how to grind them and reseat them with a special gritty mix and a valve spinning technique similar to starting a fire with two sticks.  “This is how we used to do it.”  He asserted.

It took two weeks to do a three day job, but I was careful and meticulous (not a natural trait which anyone who knows me will attest.)  When at last I had it all put back together, the head was to be attached by tightening eight bolts slowly and in a very specific progression.  The bolts ultimately needed to be tightened to exactly 50 pounds of torque.

I was now a bit over my own head, so I did nothing without checking with Dad.  “What is torque, and how do I measure it?  It seems pretty important.”

“Torque wrench” Dad said, “and we don’t have one.”

Once again I go to Wikipedia for an explanation:  

A torque wrench is a tool used to precisely apply a specific torque to a fastener such as a nut or bolt. It is usually in the form of a socket wrench with special internal mechanisms. It was invented by Conrad Bahr in 1918 while working for the New York City Water Department. It was designed to prevent overtightening bolts on water main and steam pipe repairs underground.

A torque wrench is used where the tightness of screws and bolts is crucial. It allows the operator to measure the torque applied to the fastener so it can be matched to the specifications for a particular application. This permits proper tension and loading of all parts. A torque wrench measures torque as a proxy for bolt tension. The technique suffers from inaccuracy due to inconsistent or uncalibrated friction between the fastener and its mating hole. Measuring bolt tension (bolt stretch) is more accurate but often torque is the only practical means of measurement.

“Torque wrench is a little expensive” dad explained, “And not worth getting for this one-time use.  What we used to do is just guestimate the pressure.  Take a fifty pound dumb bell and use that as your guide to the amount of pressure to apply.  These engines are more precise than when we used to do it that way, but you should get it good enough to get to the gas station and borrow a torque wrench to get it exact.”

The next day, I followed Dad’s advice.  The head was attached at “approximately” 50 pounds torque.  The engine fired up and it purred.  I was off to the station, maybe ½ mile away.  My father was right; the head was just fine for the trip to the gas station……which was closed on Sundays.  This was a Sunday.  Damn! 

I should have left the car at the station, walked home and come back the next day to finish the job, but as you know by now….that’s right….stupid!

I drove back home and before I reached the driveway water started squirting out between the head and the engine block.  It was a blown head gasket.  SHIT!! Now what?

I followed Dad’s instructions (I may have been called several names first, Nimrod being the nicest).  First I drained all the engine oil.  Then I filled the oil and drained it again all in hope of getting all water out of the engine.  I took the head apart once again as carefully and meticulously as before, replaced the head gasket and reattached the head.

This time I spent the $50 to purchase a torque wrench.

The MGA purred again, and that summer I was really cool again.  I was also very proud of my mechanical prowess.  I successfully followed instructions and took off the old head. I ground the valves and reseated them, and successfully installed the new head.

In the fall I went back to school.  Chris took the MGA to Boston for his last year at Harvard Law.  Before he got to school the MGA ceased!

 The water from the blown gasket was not completely cleared, and this gummed up the oil, over time this messed up the bearings and the engine overheated and ceased.  Repair was not possible and the MGA was sold for $50 junk! 

Dad was furious and blamed me for not seeing and reacting to the “engine light”.  Was I driving with the engine light lit?  Maybe, I just don’t remember.

I think Dad was mostly angry because his MG dream was now at an end.  I think he was just taking his disappointment from the Christmas 1955 “joke” out on me.    


Yeah Dad.

It wasn’t your fault; I should have sprung for the torque wrench.

Thanks Dad!

And I was disappointed by that 1955 mini MG!

I know Dad

Well I still think it was funny.

It was Jim!

*Italics represent voices from heaven.


  1. I certainly admire your willingness to become a mechanic. My dad was NOT mechanically inclined at all, therefore I had no one to teach me. I regret that to this day.

    It's sad that today such shade-tree mechanic work is almost impossible. To fix a car today you don't need a $50 torque wrench. You need a $100K diagnostic computer. You think that was done on purpose?

    And I still feel bad for your dad.


  2. My husband is quite the mechanic. He changed the cylinder head gasket on one of his Volvos. Once was enough for him! I think he'd rather get a whole new engine than do that again! I'd rather he'd just get a new car...

  3. Ah, the good old days. Great story Joe!

  4. A first class story of an American boy's boyhood, a boy's dream, coming of age and a couple more themes.

    It reminded me of my brothers, who spent two years reconstituting a junker while my dad was hospitalized in another city and mom needed something to keep them busy.

  5. awww. you gave it your best work to keep it going.

  6. I think you did a helluva job!!

  7. Great two-parter (which I enjoyed before from the book, of course.) Reminds me of the time I replaced a starter in my old Ford Falcon (which had twelve moving parts under the hood, and six of those were squirrels who ran on a wheel.) I am no mechanic, nor was I then, but that car was simple enough for me to think I could do such a job. And I did, by very carefully doing everything in order, making sure things were in order to replace them, etc., much as you described (although the job you did was way more complicated.)

  8. Our son loves all things mechanical so I intend to send your post to him so he can check it out. I know he'll love it.

  9. I am impressed with your mechanical aptitude. When I moved away for my first job, my dad taught me to change the air filter, the oil filter, a tire, and the little fuses for the dash lights and such. I eventually did everything but the oil filter.

    Not that I'm bragging. I wouldn't know a head gasket or a torque wrench if they bit me on my butt cheeks simultaneously.

  10. Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is by doing it. My hubby was a gearhead when we were young, and now that he's retired, he's gone back to rebuilding old cars again, and loving every minute of it. Okay, so maybe that's a slight exaggeration... there is sometimes an expletive or two involved. But he mostly enjoys it. (a '76 Corvette, '77 El Camino, and '30 Model A rat rod)