It would be fair to say that I am never happier when I am covered in muck and oil – though a belly full of Lamb tikka pathia comes a close second. Going back a couple of decades, I came off the tools and became responsible for running the parts and service desk of a small retail Rover dealer miles from anywhere and during that existing management regime – it was a very pleasant world. There were no computers or dot matrix printers either… just a microfiche machine, a telephone, a box of parts catalogues and for those in the trade – a tumbler device containing the legendary T-cards.
I was required to work one Saturday morning 8.30 to 12.00 in three weeks and the bulk of our weekday workload was contract servicing from companies in Northampton, Milton Keynes and sometimes as afar as Oxfordshire. Over the counter parts enquiries were countable on one hand during office hours, while on Saturday I would be rushed off my feet selling Unipart wash ‘n’ wax and the odd headlamp bulb… as you will guess, it wasn’t a bad old existence while it lasted.
As far as spanner work mattered, Saturday mornings were strictly in and out affairs – the odd Metro 12,000 mile service, an MOT or two and the odd overspill job from the Friday afternoon – you get the idea. When we were really quiet at the weekend our own cars would be held aloft on the ramps for an illicit lube service as a Unipart GFE 173 filter at cost plus VAT was less than £2.00 and as for the oil? – well… what they never noticed they never missed. Fag packet calculations reckoned that my car had an oil change every 2000 miles!
Every now and again, the odd panic job would roll in be it a Mini with a slipping fan belt or a 200 series with squealing brakes and so long as the job was a five minute affair – they paid for the parts and gave you a drink. The workshop was always well over target so these nifty little ‘back hander’ jobs were ignored and besides, it was great for building up those customer staff relations and kept a decent proportion of customers in our keep nets rather than be attracted by the bright lights of nearby corporate main dealers.
I recall one such Saturday morning when a customer came by to purchase some valve cover gaskets for a 1.6 Maestro as he was complaining about an oil leak and pungent smell in the car – they all did that sir. Switching on the parts reader the bulb popped and because his car was an 1986/’87 model it was right on a change over. Identification was easy on that engine so a peer under the bonnet for look see would tell me if he needed the thin type silicone gasket or the modified wider item with locating lugs.
His car was, as I thought it would be, the later unit with ribbed cam covers but he needed more than just a pair of gaskets. The S-Series 1600cc engine features a cast iron head with die-cast alloy camshaft carrier – its actually not a bad power unit and in fact matured into a bloody reliable plant but it was known for wetting itself now and again. The union between head and carrier was a face to face fit using a liquid anaerobic sealant rather than a material gasket and Austin Rover somehow never seemed to get this joint right during manufacture.
Owing to the fact we were Vauxhall retail dealers too, our experienced fitters used the yellow goo that GM specified on the OHC ‘Family Two’ engine (the cam carrier/head joint practice was similar) as opposed to the recommended Unipart/Loctite branded stuff that never seemed to work for more than six months. The S-Series engine was a lovely plant to work, all the routine servicing could be performed without fuss and even a timing belt took less than an hour to change without breaking into a sweat.
A pair of cover gaskets were in stock but the customer was advised on the real route cause of his oil leak. Being an enterprising lad in his early twenties, it was suggested that the oil leak could be cured, the valve cover gaskets changed and a new timing belt fitted (the latter would be disturbed whilst doing the job) for a reasonable cost. It was asked if the job could be done right away but as we were an hour from closing I told him this wouldn’t be possible. Any chance of Monday was out of the question too as that day was a bank holiday and the rest of the week was flat out according to the booking list.
The customer was about to turn on his heels and go elsewhere as he had a long journey to undertake that week. The oil leak had dented his confidence although it would without doubt got him there and back without a murmur. The thought of him booking the car into our arch enemies workshop (Henlys of Northampton) turned my stomach so it was suggested that if he bought the required parts there and then, left the car with me and came back at 12.30 I would deal with the oil leak personally.
So the oily Maestro was slotted into a bay inside and after the last customers had been slung out of the building, I set about (rather rapidly) stripping down the cam carrier from the cylinder head now that the engine had cooled sufficiently. In next to no time, the carrier sat on the bench now nicely keyed with some fine wet and dry paper awaiting the sealer application and even though I was going at it like a whirling dervish, I had made sure the bucket tappets were all in the right order.
With my little plastic spatula in hand, some liberal dollops of sealant were spread neatly around the alloy camshaft carrier and everything went rather well. The timing belt and camshaft covers were fitted and after the fuel pump had been expertly put back in place, the engine had a good dousing with carburettor cleaner to flush away the gunk and grime. The customer was happy, I was happy (mainly due to a decent parts sale and a pocket full of poppy) and I locked the doors just before 1.30pm.
The pleasure of some decent cash in hand soon went out of the window when the customer phoned in mid week playing blue murder about his engine was still leaking oil. In his favour however, he had been discreet enough to ask for me by name rather than to scream and yell down the phone at A.N Other person which would have surely caused mayhem. It was agreed to bring the car down the following Saturday at a similar time and I had to hoodwink the chap on duty that day to swap rotas to ensure I was working.
In a nutshell, in my haste to complete the job for some back pocket bunts before going swimming with my girlfriend, a tiny O-ring that cost pennies was not replaced. More to the point I had not even re-fitted it and the high pressure oil feed to the valve gear had pushed its way past the sealant and pretty much soaked the whole front left corner of the engine. Thankfully, the cam belt was dry and could be re-used but the sealer, another pair of valve cover gaskets and a tin of carburettor cleaner came from my own wallet.
As they say… ‘more haste less speed’ sums it up nicely!
Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications
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