Technician’s Update : The S-Express

Mike Humble

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!

Mike Humble


  1. Ouch!

    The more stories the merrier, Mike. There are many of us on here that love reading your recollcetions.

    How about some buyers guides as well? Or what to look for when your car’s serviced type stuff for all the British tin?

  2. I always thought the A plus 1275cc engine was a far more reliable unit than the S series. Ideally faced with the choice of a 1.3 Maestro and a 1.6 Montego, I wish I’d chosen the Maestro as the Montego I owned for six months leaked oil, had its water pump fail and then started using a litre of oil every 100 miles. Also it must have been the only car that I had to junk at less than ten years old as the electrics were shot, rust had taken hold and the engine was on its last legs.

  3. Great story Mike. It always makes my day when I read something you’ve written. My late father was the Sales Manager at a Rover dealer in Motherwell. This story brought back memories of my student days when I worked there during the holidays.

  4. Great story there Mike, It’s story’s like this that remind me of a job I done as a favour for a good friend of mine back about 20 years ago.
    He had a 1985 2 door saloon 1.3 Nova that needed a new carburetor fitted, so he asked me to fit it as he was not mechanically inclined, I stepped up to do this job as I had done the same thing many times on my own Mk1 Fiesta’s and Cortina’s and Mini’s so a OHC Vauxhall would be a breeze
    How wrong I was,with my mate the owner of the Nova giving a hand all went well, cables and pipes disconnected and carb un bolted, as I lifted the carb I heard a tinkling sound like a bolt dropping to the floor, so we hunted for the source of the tinkling noise but found nothing, but I had this stomach turning feeling that something had dropped down the exposed inlet manifold.
    I told my mate the consequence of this problem but he said that it was very very unluckily that anything would have dropped in there, and he told me to carry on fitting the new Weber carb which I did.
    The sweating palms I had as I turned the key to fire up the 55000 mile pristine Nova turned to a gut wrenching feeling in the pit of my stomach as, when the engine ran for about 2 seconds it emitted the sound I never wanted to here from any engine, as the dropped nut or something was smashed into the piston.
    And so started a week long head strip down to reveal a nut embedded into number 2 piston and a smashed valve that also took out a hydraulic lifter and cracked a cam carrier.
    So one re con head and 2 weeks of my time later the car was fixed, luckily my mate didn’t ask me to pay for the parts as he took the blame for telling me to carry on against my fears. Mates rates Huh…

  5. Neil R, you obviously don’t have a brass neck. An acquaintance of mine sold a motorbike after an enterprising DIY repair. About a week later, he was in the pub, and overheard the distinctive braying tones of the punter.
    “You’ll never guess what happened to that BSA I bought last week”, he was announcing to all in that county, let alone pub. “A nut and bolt got sucked in through the carburettor, and smashed their way through the piston”
    My mate, who had applied said nut and bolt to seal a hole in said piston, made a sharp exit – making a mental note to use a bigger torque wrench next time!

  6. I used to love changing cam belts on S series engines as I rarely had to release the tensioner, just slid off & on.

  7. These are fantastic stories, lots of fun. It reminds me of a cock up I did when I was serving my time I was working on a (i think) a mini. I did the front wheel bearings. Please understand I was serving my time, and mistakes happened. When I put everything back together, I didn’t drive home the half shaft and click it into place.

    I thought I had done a superb job, I even got a few quid of the head mechanic for taking on the job from start to finish.

    Needless to say I had to give the £3 back when about 2 minutes after the lady left the garage, another customer informed us that “there’s a Mini broke down just outside”, she was going around the small round-a-bout just outside the garage, with the steering on full lock, the halfshaft popped and she lost all drive.

    All I can say in mitigation, is I was a kid

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