Last week we had the privilege of having dinner with our new pastor and his wife. In the course of the evening, we started talking about cars and how the final breakdown occurred. You know what I mean; eventually the car that has given all it has to give stops, or gets wrecked, and if you are very fortunate, it lives long enough for you to sell it or trade it in for something newer.
My family always bought older, used cars, usually for next to nothing. Daddy was a mechanic, and he had a talent for keeping sick Volvos alive. At one time there were six of us at home (Mom, Dad, and the four of us kids) and we had seven Volvos. The joke was “how many Volvos does it take to get the Blachly family to church? All of them.” Now, just as the cobbler’s children never have shoes and the plumber’s house has leaky pipes, the mechanic’s family often has to go without service or perfectly working vehicles. My mother, for example, always drove around with no working parking brake. To be fair, this was due to her propensity for driving off with the brake firmly engaged, a trait to which I have fallen heir at times. Nonetheless, there were times when Daddy was simply too busy to tend to the more mundane tasks of car repair, such as oil changes.
I was a college student in Gainesville, GA and working in Norcross at the time. And I had the great fortune to partake of my parent’s generosity in driving one of the Volvos Dad had sitting around. He owned the cars, and we were responsible for insurance, gas and incidentals like tires. Daddy usually took care of oil changes and other maintenance. I had gotten to the age of about 19 without ever having had to change the oil, but that was about to change. The particular car I was assigned was affectionately known as the Black Bomb. It was a Volvo 240, in the slightly round body style (before the later 80’s when they went to a more “boxy but good” style, to steal a line from Crazy People). It was a five speed diesel. Not exactly a sexy car for young lady, which I suppose was the point. At least I didn’t have to drive Debbie the Dasher, my sister’s car. Debbie had a top speed of 55 mph going downhill with a strong wind behind her. She was a diesel, too. The Black Bomb was a smoky, smelly thing and got great gas mileage. And I could drive it, always a plus.
Since I was commuting so far each day, oil changes were a fairly frequent necessity. Except that Dad seldom had time to do them. Being overly conscientious about some things (and, if I am being honest, completely irresponsible about others) I eventually got frustrated. I knew that the oil needed to be changed! And by golly, I was going to do it!
I consulted with my Dad to learn how to change the oil. He started by telling me to go to Wal-Mart to get the oil. The Volvo diesel engine needed 7 quarts of oil. So Daddy asked me if I knew the “big bottles” of oil at Wal-Mart, and when I responded yes, he told me to get two of them. Now, what Daddy did not know was that Wal-Mart at that time had 2-gallon bottles of the Rotella oil. So when Daddy told me to get two bottles, he omitted the fact that what I really needed was 8 quarts of oil. This was a very important detail. You see, the rest of his instructions were to “pour one quart off the first bottle into an empty quart bottle and stick it in your trunk for when you need it. Pour the rest of the oil into the engine.”
So, I did exactly that. I went to Wal-Mart, purchased TWO large bottles of oil and took them home. I proceeded with the oil change without a hitch. I was nervous crawling under that dirty car and loosening the nut to the oil pan and changing the filter, but it seemed to go well, and I was pretty confident when it came to putting oil back into the engine. I continued to follow Daddy’s instructions to the letter: I poured one quart of oil into a spare bottle and stuck it in my trunk for later, and then I proceeded to pour the remaining oil into the engine–all 15 quarts of it. And then I was done, congratulating myself on a job well-done as I went upstairs to shower the grease off me.
The next morning I got into my car and left for work. I got about 1/2 mile from home when I noticed that the engine really seemed to be knocking more than usual. Being a diesel, it was louder than anything else anyway, but this seemed excessive. I turned into a neighborhood and decided I better go ahead and add that last quart just in case. I was convinced I had done something wrong and that it was out of oil. As I started back to our home, the engine really started to make a ruckus. And then it started to rev and I noticed huge billows of black smoke behind me. Again, black smoke in itself was not unusual for the diesel, but this was a LOT of smoke. I pulled over on the side of the road and put the car in neutral. It was beginning to sound like an aircraft revving up to take off. I anxiously decided to turn the car off. It seemed the wised choice. Except that when I did, the engine continued to accelerate. I removed my key, grabbed my purse, and exited the car while the engine continued to race. By now huge billows of black smoke had completely obliterated the view of any near-by houses. I was terrified.
After a few minutes the engine stopped, but not before it had melted all the rings. This was in the days before wide-spread cell phone usage, so I called Mom at home. She came and got me, and I don’t think Dad knew about the car until he got home that evening. To this day I cannot remember exactly how we got the car home, although I do have a vague recollection of a tow rope, which would have been a typical way for us to have gotten it home. Daddy was always good at the red-neck fix. (And I loved him for it, as embarrassing as it was when I was a teen.)
My father was amazed at what I had done to the engine. Not necessarily in a good way, either. Now, for most families, that would have been the end of the story. Most sensible people would have just junked the car for scrap. But not my Dad. Because, you see, he was not like most people. It just so happened that he had a spare diesel engine for that car hanging in his basement garage. It took a few months, during which time I got to drive Debbie the Dasher’s sister, another VW diesel with a top speed of 55 mph downhill with a stiff breeze behind her. I was very grateful to have my smelly, dirty and much more powerful Volvo back when Daddy got it fixed!
Incidentally, Debbie the Dasher met her demise a year or so later when she burst into flames in the driveway at the house I rented with my friend Sonia.
I have never changed the oil again. Most of the time the Handy Man does it for me. He is not very mechanically inclined when it comes to automobiles, but he can handle the basics. I have, in desperation when an oil change was way over-due, gone to the mechanic for an oil change. But usually, all I have to do is threaten to do it, and it gets done. Seems burning up an engine by floating the valves is good insurance to prevent ever having to actually change the oil yourself ever again. I don’t recommend it as a strategy in general, but it seems to work for me.