Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Chapter 3 - Mechanical Interludes (Part 1)

Charlie at Glastonbury 1984
Mechanical Interludes (Part 1)
About six months after Katharine & I had bought Charlie, the engine started making a faint popping noise. Now when you live with a VW aircooled engine long enough you begin to be able to diagnose the difference between the normal chugginess – as someone once said ‘it sounds like a tractor’ – and the portent of something more serious. I could tell that this was more than Ron’s ‘blowback’ gotten worse, but was not yet sufficiently versed in the specific sounds that emanated from the rear of the van to be able to make a firm diagnosis.
At the time we were members of the ‘South London Anti Nuclear Group’ and a bit of what is now called networking established that the man we needed to talk to was Christof, an infrequent attendee of the monthly meetings, but someone who apparently knew his way around anything & everything mechanical. Christof lived in a squat in Stockwell, South London, having moved to the UK from his native South Africa a few years before. He was one of the biggest people I’d ever met, almost as broad as he was tall, but all muscle, and a constant smile of delight and merriment illuminated his bearded, bear-like countenance. He posessed a booming voice to go with his physique, and no feat of physical or mechanical engineering was ever a problem to him. In fact, as far as I could tell he wasn’t constrained by the same universal laws as you or I, and could easily have been a member of an advanced species of beings from outer space, sent to help us puny earthlings. In the time I was privileged to know him, I saw him lift a VW engine (Charlie’s actually) unaided, demolish almost the entire side of a house extension in a day and re-build it in almost as short a space of time, install plumbing and heating systems of fiendish complexity, and drink more home brew in one evening and remain standing than anyone reasonably has a right to. He was one of those rare people who seems to know something about everything without being a know-it-all, and who lights up your life for a brief period and then is gone – in Christof’s case back to South Africa, about two years after arriving in the UK.

He was also a qualified VW mechanic, and his initial dignosis of Charlie’s popping noise was not encouraging. ‘Missing on one cylinder’ was all he had to say after a cursory inspection and a brief period listening to the van. ‘Probably a blown valve’ he added after a while, ‘need to take the engine out and get at the heads’, and then, seeing the look of anguish on my face as I contemplated a hefty mechanics bill, added kindly: ‘Won’t take more than a few days, shouldn’t cost much, you can do it in the garage round the side, and I’ll give you a hand.’ He went on to expain that VW aircooled engines almost invariably had problems with the inlet valve on the No 3 cylinder – mainly because this is the one which gets the least amount of cooling from the fan. I suspect its also part of the cosmic joke inflicted by the VW engineers which dictates that everything that is most important is almost completely inaccessible and that everything that can go wrong will involve having to remove at least three other pieces of kit before you can get to the real culprit.

Whilst the offer of help was mildly encouraging the idea of me giving Christof a hand, rather than vice versa, was pretty disconcerting. Did he not realise - I was afraid of oil, and had never used a spanner in anger before! I was also less than enamoured with the ‘garage round the side’, which turned out to be a very basic ‘lean to’ type structure with a leaky corrugated metal roof, no doors to speak of, and a dirt floor. I agonised about security, picturing the local populace visiting my precious vehicle at night and removing anything of value, or even spiriting the whole van away – busted engine and all. When I explained this Christof raised himself up to his full six foot ten height and assumed a look of such ferocity that I immediately knew the local criminals would never contemplate such rashness or temerity, and was reassured.
While we were working on the van Christof found time, in amongst holding down a job and regularly raiding Smithfields Market for out of date fruit and veg, to put up some doors. In true Christof style, they were beauties, strong and well crafted, and certainly had the effect of deterring any would be villains from attempting to steal my beloved machine. We began work one balmy Saturday afternoon. Christof in fact took charge, and I did very much become his assistant during the whole process. He worked with dazzling speed, barking orders and keeping up a running commentary. I was required to fetch tools and label various parts, including nuts and bolts, as we went: ‘so that you’ll know what to do when you’re putting it back together’ smiled Christof, and I hoped he was only being semi-serious. We had the engine out in under three hours, but he told me this was ‘very slack’ as the official time in a VW garage was about 35 minutes. Despite having a state of the art set of ‘Snap On’ tools, he was unfazed by the lack of a hoist or any of the the other hi-tech gizmos found in most modern workshops, and once all the ancillaries had been disconnected lifted Charlie’s engine out using only a makeshift trolley and a huge amount of brute strength. Once we’d gotten the engine out the serious business of stripping it down began.
This is probably a bit of a petrol-head moment, so for all of you who aren’t interested in the interior workings of of the aircooled engine, I’ll cut straight to the chase and tell you that Christof’s initial diagnosis about the blown valve was correct, and that eventually we replaced several valves and had the heads re-polished. This all took a week or so – we had to wait for parts, and my mentor could only work on the job in the evenings. Once back together and re-installed, the engine purred in a highly satisfactory manner, as much as an aircooled engine can purr, and it was several years before we needed any further major work on the engine.

Mechanical Interludes (Part 2)

This didn’t however spare us from some of the other tricks Charlie had up his sleeve. On the first trip to Ireland for example, a roadside picnic was followed by a complete refusal on the part of the engine to start. By this time I had considerably more mechanical knowledge, and armed with ‘The Compleat Idiot’s Guide to the Volkswagen’ by John Muir, I eventually diagnosed a stuck solenoid on the starter motor. This is a fairly common intermittent fault, and all that was required to get the engine turning over was for someone (me) to crawl under the van with a screwdriver and cross the two terminals on the solenoid. Muir’s longer term advice on this is fairly obvious; replace the solenoid you idiot – a fairly easy and cheap expedient – but in fifteen years I somehow never got around to doing this, and from that point on Charlie would regularly refuse to start - often in the most inconvenient situations – in traffic jams, on ferries, going through customs while smuggling dope, in motorway service stations, on muddy camp sites, usually in the pouring rain. I (and it was always me) would then have to perform what became known to the family as ‘the old screwdriver trick’, bringing entertainment and amusement in varying degrees to whoever comprised our touring party at the time. My response was always depressingly similar – bitter complaints followed by an avowal to ‘get a mechanic to fix this as soon as we get home’, but it all came to nought. Eventually we came to think of it as Charlies’s way of reminding us about the uncertainty of all things, and learned to live with it, if not to love it.

On this last note, I think we’ve lost something in our digital propelled, jerky video, soundbite driven age, something that people used to understand instinctively. I’m talking about the idea that things can take time, that the unexpected is often just around the corner, and sometimes we need to embrace life’s by-ways, diversions and frustrations, and not expect everything to work perfectly. We’re so used to getting in our cars and driving long distances without any problems that we’re offended by any difficulties that may arise, preferring not to think about the people we might meet and the challenges that might ensue if our mechanical contrivances did not function so perfectly, and we were to be thrown back on ‘the kindness of strangers.’ Every journey in Charlie was an adventure, partly because we always picked up a hitch-hiker or two along the way - and they were nearly always interesting, but mainly because we were never absolutely certain of reaching our final destination, and this turned every trip into an exploration of life on its edge, rather than on its periphery. As the sage probably didn’t say: ‘its better to travel than arrive.’
Charlie may have liked playing tricks on us, but in the big things he never let us down. No matter where we were in the world, even severe mechanical failure was seen by Charlie as just another challenge to be overcome. He never failed to get us home, and for this we were always inordinately grateful. 

Perhaps the best example of this came in Scotland in 1984. Storm force weather on the Isle of Arran meant the cancellation of what remained of the summer programme of ferry crossings, and we were lucky to be on the last boat to leave the island before two weeks of complete suspension of the service. Back on the mainland, it was raining in pretty much tropical fashion, while a gale of hurricane like proportions began to blow. Charlie was clearly uncomfortable with all this, and stalled several times in the first fifty miles of driving, necessitating ‘the old screwdriver trick’ in atrocious conditions. Being wet and thoroughly miserable, it didn’t improve my humour to discover on my second sojourn round the back that the engine had developed a crack in the crankcase through which large amounts of oil were being forced out under pressure. In any conventional engine this would have been a death knell, and knowing that its approximately 500 miles from Glasgow to London, my usual optimism began to desert me. Surely not even an engine as sturdy as Charlies’s would withstand such a journey? I was not relishing telling the others about this, but they would have to know, and with a heavy heart I explained what had happened.......(to be cont)

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