Like the “Bernstein Bears” series of kids learning books where Pappa Bernstein is always making dangerous mistakes then sitting his cubs down to show then “what not to do”, here is a story of something that happened to me that it’s my guess could happen to you at any time and how you (and I) should protect ourselves maybe from ourselves. Hope this is a lesson learned for you without having to have it actually happen to you. Many times learning from your mistakes is the best way to remember– OK then so remember this…
We deal with old vehicles, 30+ years and over and over I explain to folks who will listen that to bring the reliability up to speed on these vintage classic machines– everything must be considered nand nothing can be left to chance and I mean NOTHING! I also explain that the hard part of what we do is not trying to compile a listing of “thngs” to do rather the hard part is trying to figure out “where to stop” in parts replacement, updating and upgrading. So we do our best to relate past expweriences and renew what we feel would be components of interest– things that have been known to put down a system. After 12 years of it, I say I’ve seen @ everything doing this “Co-op gig” and while it’s true the list of things I feel I need to attend to on a GMC has grown over the years, each time I find something that has effected the reliability of these machines, I add that thing to the list.
As an example, used to be replacing the fuel delivery hoses, we simply drained the fuel tanks, changed the socks and seals in the tanks, looked around for gunk in the tanks and slapped those babies back in with new hoses and clamps and called the job done. Heck today, we almost automatically replace everything from and including the fuel cap to the intake manifold! New carb many times, fuel filters, mechanical fuel pump and a backup electric one, all the fill and feed rubber hoses, clamps, wiring to the senders, replace the fuel selector, vapor seperator, body mount pads, have the tanks boiled out, pressure tested, painted and undercoated with Lizard Skin– I mean everything & I betcha we’ll find more we feel should be done as time marches on– as time corrodes, deforms, deteriorates, crushes, rusts, flakes and petrifies it’s way through pieces and parts on our beloved GMC’s.
Every system on board the coach has increasing lists of things to consider, it certainly will not shrink and my guess is coaches we attend to the “basics” today are much more prepared to survive problems on the road than the machines we worked on before. Sorry but that just the way it is in this restoration business. Every time we see something new, that component part gets added to the list.
OK, so whats this story all about and what broke now you ask? See, I donlt have some bubble of invincibility protecting me and my coach from anything, in fact the adage “the plumbers pipes always leak” probably is the best saying that describes my machines. I mean do I spend a huge amount of time working on my own stuff or do I try and keep the doors open and work on customers stuff? And when I do need to use my machines, I quick once over and I’m out the door. Something breaks— put in a new part and lets get going is how maintenance is done on Larry– what can I say, thats the reality of it.
So I’m trying to put Larry back together after it’s catastrophic motor lunching ordeal a year ago coming home from the Dothan GMCMI convention. Oh yes, piston through the block, damaged oil pan, I really wacked it good! Larry sat for a good long time, crankcase filled with oil from the breech, the entire coach reduced to a storage hole. Finally I got a motor for it, changed out the tranny to a Manny built unit, a roller cam motor, reman carb– the works. Now I have set a trip up to the upcoming GMCMI convention in Illinios– a good 1000 run for any machine so now I need to “shake down” this puppy to increase my bet that Ralph & I will get to and from the rally unscathed. The only way to do that is to give it a run. The first one 15 miles ended in an unexpected result– loosing the dist module at a critical time and making my way through that issue. A check out, module replacement and all looked good to go. The next run would be a 1.5 hour sojourn to Bradenton to the first Sunshine Statesmen rally of the new season.
Checked all the fluids, found some low and topped them all off and with a new module I felt ready to take on the super slab. Leaving Orlando during Friday rush hour traffic going right past Disney I was obviously either very sure of myself and my machine or a real fool. I’ll say I felt I was the first which ended up I was the later!
Lets talk ignition systems– The GM “HEI” (high energy ignition) set up is a compartmentalized exercise in perfection. You have this “lollypop” thing sticking up at the back of the motor, you supply it with a good 12 volt DC power source and spin the gear at the bottom just right and it sends lightning bolts to each spark plug just the way they like it. It is a self contained, simple, minimal part component that relies on very little to do it’s job. It seems that we can’t help but try and complicate our ignition world by hanging gadgets, boxes, meters and all sorts of stuff off the dist. in the effort to make it run better when all we really need to do is put power to it and stand back! That is when the main components all hold hands because when one item in the chain fails, the ignition house of cards comes tumbling down. These coaches are to big to push when that happens and there is noting you can rig around to make the HEI system work if there is one defective part. And worse of all, one or more of these mission critical parts can go intermittent where you can’t figure out which part is going– going– gone until it goes away. Bad ignition parts will run on for a good long time until they say godbye and with no warning you are on the side of the road! And this is where our Berstein Bears lesson starts off!
So after pushing Larry 2 miles to the shop after a module failure (we felt), we did what I figured was proper “due diligence” , replaced the module, put 2 extra modules in the glove box and went about my life secure in the knowledge that it was “fixed”. Ah, but see, that is the critical mistake I made— call it fixed or even believing that just because everyting seemed to be working fine… that it was in fact fine! What mysteries lie unchallenged in the hearts and minds of a vintage machine?
There are some major components that make up the HEI ignition system contained within the dist.. You have electronic parts that include the module, coil & pickup. Also, there is a condenser buried inside the dist. to cut down the ravages of the spark created as the rotor button spins putting the high energy power to the spark plugs. There is the rotor button, the dist. cap, plug wires and finally the 8 sperk plugs, one for each cylinder. Each of these parts work together to comprise the ignition system and if any one of them fail– yes, you have no spark. Usually, it’s the module– the solid state “ticker” that tells all the parts when to do their thing, the coil is number 2 in failing. Either one of these components can fail outright or they can fail then come back for a bit, maybe a long time but make no mistake, leaving in one of these components, even though they are working is like loading a gun with 1 bullet and spinning it hoping for a positive outcome. Then there is the pickup, it will usually fail and just go away, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an intermittent pickup– I guess it could happen though. The rotor and cap can crack and fail, burn out their contacts which that damage can usually be seen. Plug wires are not “wires” in the true sense of the word, “suppression spark plug wires” are basically made up of a string of some kind of fiber with carbon particles glued to it that give a current path for the voltage to the plugs. There are all sorts of maladies associated with burned out plug wires, most of those things cannot be seen. Oh sure, get a plug wire too close to the headers and it will burn, thats a sure sign but really, if you are in doubt as to the integrity of plug wires, you just replace them all– what else can you do! Yea, you can read the resistance but thats gives you a picture of what the wire is laying there in your hands, what happens when you drop the engine cover and it gets hot in the compartment– water splashes up in there or something else happens– you just cannot take a chance! Ah, and then there are the connecting wires, connectors, a condenser which are also critical mission components of the system. If a wire breaks in the insulation, you may not see it but things can go from bad to worse if something happens to even 1 wire in the circuit. All of these components must hold hands and like eachother for your motor to run– anyone unhappy and you are done!
OK, so when we lost our module, I ordered in a new one, actually 3 to spike my gun– a pair of plug wires and a coil. I had all that installed, put the extra modules in the glove box where “Murphy” probably inspected them carefully looking for some way of breaking them and I slapped the dist on the poepoe and called it good. Was it, it could be but really– did I do everything to assure the ignition system in Larry was solid— in a word— NO! But looking at past experiences I felt life was good, I have fixed the problem and was ready to go. I may have fixed it to work, but was it restored– was it renewed to a level of reliability that is needed? Time would tell and as it turned out I didn’t have to wait long to find out!
Back on with the story now, I had to wait and see what would happen next. Figured things out and here is where it lead next.
Saturday morning, I’m sitting in the coach, writing the beginning of this story when the parts finally arrived. I had to wait until my parts house opened to order up the following list– well actually 2 of everything on this list. To make this a bit more understandable, I will highlight (green- for the parts we just had replaced), assume I ordered up all of the listed parts including the ones I had already replaced– like I said “you make no exceptions”.
- spark plugs
- plug wire set
- dist cap
- dist rotor
There simply is no other part needed to make a spark! I replaced it all! A Delco module– oh man, it’s beautiful! I appreciate some opinions may vary– thats fine, we live in America but I do think there seems to be a difference in Delco stamped modules— call me crazy because these sorts of parts are all spit out probably of the same cow! But I still have the faith! The problem has to be from one of the 3 parts still being used right? Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe one being old messes up another new part– heck, I’m no rocket scientist and it should not take one to make this simple system perform well– all it takes is everyrhing new and a backup for those parts if one
Replaced all of that, marked the dist so I could drop it right back into the hole– put it all back together and reached to fire it up. Wham, we had ignition! And right now so I had a bit of faith in the repair right off the bat. I just stood there staring at the motor, daring it to sputter! Hey, I’m already a day late to the rally– here I am the guy that works on these things for many of the club and here I am a no show! This just cannot stand, we need to show it was more my fault for not faithfully follow the advice I give other and not some other issue– hey, we’ve had enough “issues”, we now need a little performance! A little of that good ole rubber meeting the road– a little road trip is in Larry’s future. So I’m still just standing there lookin at the foe I was hoping had been thwarted and all that.
Coming back in at 11PM, Friday night in the rain at 47 MPH, hey why push it– all I want to do is get back to the shop, we’re in recovery mode with all thoughts on just to get there. Coming up Oakridge Road from JYP there I was again, sitting at the corner of Oakridge and OBT, at the light– just as I was a week earlier when the module stopped the motor at the intake of this story! OK buddy, lets see what you have. Let’s just sit here waiting for the light– lets not do any of that stumbling thing and let’s just get though this intersection! Ah, so now you know where to title of the story came from — this was the final stress point I had to get through before I could relax and say I tempted fate and won! I had to get through this intersection, it had a little up hill content so in my “gemme what you got” mode I could just see the coach having some fit of vapor lock or some su ch other nonsense taking off from this light. I had my battery boost on– aux. fuel pump on, in neutral on high idle, rubbing the dash and talking kindly too him I was all about helping Larry make the next 200 yards! The light changed and it was our turn to make things happen– I dropped the trans into the big “D” and mashed forcefully on the gas pedal and said “come on baby”. Without a hesitation like it was supposed to the coach roared to life and pulled it’s way right through that dreaded intersection and on the way now to the shop and relaxation. It takes a pile of energy fretting over driving a sick machine trying to make it. All your senses are tensed, I feel like one of those aliens on MIB — tenticles all sticking out sensing the environment, looking for threats. On toward the shop, it was all down hill now. I had drug the Suzuki all that way for what? There was no way I would have left larry on the side of the road if it had failed– the tow driver would have a second seat for me if I had called for Dr. Hook and even if the thing burned to the ground I would have had to wait for the firetruck and Hazmat crew of which I could have probably hitched a ride so I think I will leave the towd back at the shop when I solo out again on the shakedown– that is if I can now throw the baby out with the bath water, scoop out the south side of the house, the dirt under the house and all to make my ignition system all I know it can be.
Getting back out onto Sand Lake Road, I pulled in to the same convenience store I had filled up with less than 24 hours earlier. I would pick up the trip again from that point and lets see if we have a better outcome..
Could have been in my head but it seemed like the coach did run better– ah, but would it do that later? It was Saturday @ noon now, the mad dash home last night was not in the minds of the drivers so the road felt just that much nicer, the sun was out, blue sky prevailed and yes, it was hot. Hey but no stumbling– passed the rest area where last night the drama unfolded with the cruise control running— no problems. Maybe I had tempted fate and won, at least this time. Maybe dispite best efforts, ole Mother nature had met it’s match— and then it happened again! I was starving for fuel going up and overpass– drat– and double drat! I flipped on the aux. electric fuel pump and on the count of 5 the bucking went away. Well, we touched the troubles– actually discovered we had 2 problems of which at least 1 has been solved. I could not fail, replacing all of the ignition components seems to have handled that pro blem and it seems that as long as I run the aux. fuel pump along with my mechanical one I have no vapor lock issues— this will have to stand up to some more scrutiny but hey, we did make headway– I got to the rally in Bradenton at the appointed time my GPS said I would. How does that thing know I would even get there much less what time it would be when I arrived? Yes, there seems to be some mirrors and a goodly amount of smoke having to do with that one!
Made the rally and explained several times that I needed to heed my own advice when working a problem with our coach– I hope ths also helps you see that just a little further diligence would have been better. The intent when working on these vintage machines should not be to fix it to run again for the day but renew all parts so there is a good chance at least that system will be running on. Sometimes doing things the cheapest way will cost you more in the long run.