Tips for new mechanics

Here’s an axiom for budding mechanics, whether amateur or on a career track: Never, ever, ever, ever say, regarding a procedure you are about to perform on any vehicle, “Oh, this should only take (fill in the blank) minutes.” Or hours. Or days. Or years for that matter, if you’re tackling, say, a ground-up restoration on an S2 Lotus Elite.

Our recently acquired 1997 Land Rover Discovery, which will be used for training at the Overland Expos, came with the usual assortment of issues one would expect on an $1800 Disco. Most noticeable was the fine and rarely experienced view into the interior of the passenger-side exhaust manifold, courtesy a quarter-inch wide crack that split it into two pieces, each held more or less in place by its bolts but leaving ample room for un-muffled exhaust gasses to escape just inches from the combustion chambers.

A bit of web searching regarding replacement turned up plenty of exclamation-point-strewn stories of frozen bolts, bolts broken off flush with the engine block, extractors, bulk purchases of Liquid Wrench, Helicoiling, etc. etc. Thus, along with a scrap-yard replacement for the manifold, and suitable gaskets, I procured a full set of new manifold bolts, plus studs and nuts for the manifold/exhaust pipe flange—and studiously avoided any mention or even thought of how long the job should take.

And . . . all eight manifold bolts came politely free with little effort, and even the flange nuts came off from underneath the vehicle with just a bit of octopus-like wriggling to get my ratchet and extension in there for access. The old manifold (should I refer to it in the plural?) dropped off into my hand, leaving not even any gasket residue to clean. The replacement bolted on, I found that the exhaust pipe remained a good inch from the flange, but by first loosening everything again I was able to match them up and then torque it all down (is this tension why the manifolds crack in the first place?).

Amost before I knew it I was finished, and convinced that avoiding any mention of how long the job might take was the key to a smooth procedure. Mechanic’s superstition, perhaps, but hey, if it works . . .

So there I was with hours in the bag. What else? I had only one other job to do that day: replacing the previous owner’s Oregon license plate on the tailgate with the new Arizona plate. Fantastic, I thought, then: This should take 10 minutes, max.

Pause here with me to reflect on the can’t-be-un-said nature of what I’d just said to myself. 

But really, I mean, it’s a license plate, right? What could possibly go wrong? (Axiom for budding mechanics . . .)

The old plate was secured with four rather rusty standard head screws or bolts—I couldn’t tell which. (The rust was my second warning, the first being the colorful metal plate itself noting that this vehicle was from OREGON, where rainfall is officially recorded in furlongs). I applied a screwdriver. With a little effort, the first one turned. And turned. And turned. I tried another, and another. Same result. Obviously there were nuts of some sort behind the sheet metal, and they were frozen onto the bolts. Sigh . . . okay. The open door revealed an upholstered panel, inset  with a set of speakers down right . . . where . . . the license plate nuts would be. Fine. I undid the eight fasteners holding on the speaker grille. Then the bolts holding the speaker assembly (noting that both speakers were completely shot, add to list). Still no access, so out came the set of plastic panel-removal tools I’d just bought for the 911 (highly recommended over a screwdriver). Panel off, and . . . a nice reinforcing inner panel of sheet metal, which supported the opening mechanism, completely obliterated access to the nuts.

They're  behind  this . . .

They're behind this . . .

Well, almost. I managed to get a set of pliers on one—it was some sort of T-nut with a plastic cover. Screwdriver on the other side, and zero luck—I couldn’t put enough torque on the screwdriver. Out came the vise-grips. With them clamped to the one nut I could easily reach, I put all the pressure I could on the screw. The vise-grips rotated until they jammed against metal, and still the screw would not budge (if anything the vise-grips were further squeezing the nut on the bolt, exacerbating rather than alleviating the problem). And this was the accessible nut—the other three were up in the one-inch-deep space between the inner and outer sheet metal. 

Have you ever noticed that when someone says, “To make a long story short,” it’s generally too late? In the end I had to file down the head of each bolt flat, then drill it out. (My right-angle grinder, which would have made a second’s work out of flattening each head, was out at Ravenrock.) Finally that damn Oregon plate came off, revealing a strangely ornate laser-cut Land-Rover-logoed rubber backing plate—an odd bit of style in a spot that ensures very few people will ever see it.*

Right—new plate, blank holes. Forget T-nuts, I got new stainless (!) bolts and nylocks, but, er, how to get them in place behind that one-inch gap? Fortunately I’m married to a woman who’s retained her slim figure, and with much cursing in harmony we were able to have her slide up the nuts behind the panel with two fingers while I inserted the bolts. A scant half-hour after inserting the first one, we were finished, and replacing the license plate had officially taken me longer than replacing the exhaust manifold.

As we were walking away, it occurred to me: “Aren’t we going to paint this thing?”


“Normally you remove the plate to paint behind it.”

A pause, then: “They can mask it.” And, “Did you take off the front plate?”

Uh oh. Mentally sticking my fingers in my ears and muttering a firmly non-time-committal abadabadabadabadaba, I walked up and looked at the front plate. Magically, one bolt held it in place. I held my breath and applied the correct 11mm wrench. 

And it came right off.

Followed by a three-foot-long piece of bumper trim . . .

So much for superstition.

*An update from Land Rover honcho Bob Burns: "So a bit of Land Rover history for you. That laser-cut rubber mat was a port-installed “damper.” It seems the speakers and subwoofer in the rear door of the Discovery were powerful enough that, regardless of how tight the bolts were holding the license plate on, the speakers made the plate buzz against the rear door. So that was our contribution toward quelling NVH on the Discovery. Now you know the rest of the story."