It had been happening for a while. Every time I touched the Alfa’s inside rear-view mirror to adjust it, the next road disturbance would knock it back out of adjustment. It had gotten to the point where it didn’t take a bump in the road – I’d fix the position, and the weight of the mirror itself would cause it to slump like a wilted flower stem. Given that my car has only a driver’s side outside mirror, and poorly located at that (it’s halfway up the fender, out of my reach from the driver’s seat), I rely on the inside mirror a lot. It was time to perform a proper repair.
Peering behind the mirror, I could see a threaded shaft, but putting a wrench on it would have been a blind operation. There were only 3 Philips head screws holding the assembly above the windshield, so down it came. As soon as I pulled it away, the rubber gasket revealed itself to be completely deteriorated, so I was already in the well-known “might as well” mode, aka Mission Creep.
Putting the mirror on my workbench gave me much better access to the shaft and nut. This sub-assembly served two purposes: it allowed some adjustment of the total length of the shaft between the mirror and the glass, and it also allowed some adjustment in the amount of effort needed to move the mirror.
I played with the adjustment a bit, alternately tightening and loosening it to get to the right “feel”. While doing this, I seem to have noticed for the first time (after 9 years of ownership!) that the interior mirror has “day” and “night” settings, only of course in my case they read “giorno” and “notte”. With the work on the actual mirror quickly accomplished, it was time to turn my attention to the gasket. The original gasket measured about ¼” thick. I found nothing similar in any of my local hardware or auto parts stores, so to Amazon I turned to order up some ¼” thick black rubber sheeting. Tracing and cutting the gasket was simple enough. To make the screw holes, I first considered punching them with an awl. However, I experimented on an extra piece of rubber and tried drilling the holes. To my happy surprise, the material was thick and strong enough to allow clean holes to be drilled.
As they say in the repair manuals, “reassembly is the reverse of disassembly”. Everything went back together smoothly, and I used my newly-secured mirror as an excuse to take a 12-mile shakedown run. It held! Now I’ll have a crystal-clear view of that F-250 Super Duty six inches from my rear bumper while I’m cruising at 50 in a 45.
In all the years I’ve been turning wrenches on cars as both a professional and a hobbyist, I’ve had plenty of successes and more than a few botched repairs, probably about the same as anyone else with my experience. While I’m reluctant to refer to myself as a skilled technician, I will acknowledge that I enjoy being the student, and the desire to learn has only grown stronger as I’ve gotten older. Before diving into a project, I’ll research it as much as possible in order to approach the task in a more educated way.
This willingness to go ‘back to school’ as it were paid off when working on the Weber carburetors on my Alfa. In my first blog post on this topic back in early October of this year I said the Webers seemed “unnecessarily complex”. In fact, they really aren’t. The perceived complexity exists in the myriad combinations of different sized jets and deciding whether to replace them. Changing jet sizes up or down can be a trial-and-error process, involving test drives, spark plug examinations, and yet more jet swaps. In my case, there was no need to replace jets, as I was having no related driveability issues. That kind of experimentation becomes necessary when installing Webers on a modified engine, or on a vehicle not originally fitted with them. (One of the best online articles I found re: Weber side draft operation was on a Datsun 240Z website, as these side drafts are a very popular upgrade on that sports car.)
The sole reason for the ‘rebuild’ was to replace leaky seals and gaskets, after which I would need to reset the basic settings. I was using no fewer than four different Alfa Romeo / Weber service manuals, and while there were some slightly different approaches among the four, they all agreed on the basics. Those basics were: Remove the top, side, and bottom covers (note that the float is attached to the top cover). Do NOT remove the jets, throttle plates, or throttle shaft. Clean out the carburetors. Set the float height. Reassemble the carbs with new seals and gaskets. Reset the idle air/fuel mix, the carb synchronization, and the engine idle.
One service tip I learned is that good access to the carbs is available without unbolting them from the engine. The float, the internal mesh filter and all the jets are all accessible once the top cover is removed, held on with 5 screws plus the fuel line banjo bolts. On my car, one does not even need to touch the plenum cover. However, I wanted to get to the bottom cover, and also wanted to perform a thorough ‘off the car’ cleaning.
The float setting is a bit fussy. There are actually two settings: the top and the bottom. The top cover gasket must be in place. The two setting measurements are 8mm and 14.5mm, and the books claim that a deviation over 0.5mm can be troublesome. I fashioned my own measuring tools, one using a hex key wrapped with masking tape, and the other made from a piece of rubber hose. Both floats were off enough that they needed both their top and bottom settings adjusted.
The new rubber carb mounts arrived from Classic Alfa, and I was a little disappointed that the studs were not anchored in place. It’s a good thing I discovered this before putting it all together, and the problem was easily resolved with some threadlocker. While I can’t prove that my old rubber mounts were part of any problem, the rubber was clearly past its prime.
It was news to me that there was a mesh screen filter inside each of the carbs. Thankfully, a replacement was part of the carb gasket kit. I went through about 5 cans of Gumout before I was reasonably satisfied with the cleanliness, and even then, there was some dirt on the outside (but none on the inside).
The corner had been turned, and it was time for reassembly. First, the rubber mounts were bolted to the intake manifold (remember that half the bolts are hidden on the cylinder head side of the manifold). Adding yet another step to this litany of work, I decided at the last minute to replace the coolant, which was more than several years old. This meant hunting down some old-fashioned green antifreeze and distilled water (Walmart was down to its last 5 gallon bottles of distilled, but I only needed 2). The manifold was bolted back to the cylinder head, the coolant hoses were reattached (it’s a wet manifold), and the radiator was filled.
The cleaned carbs were bolted to the rubber mounts, and the choke and throttle linkages were reattached. I decided for now to leave the intake plenum off the car. The engine would run without it, and I didn’t want to do any more work than necessary in the very unlikely event that the carbs needed to be removed again.
It was time to try to start the car.
Many minutes were spent pumping the throttle and cranking the engine in short bursts so as not to overheat the starter motor. The engine wasn’t even trying to start. After about five minutes of this, I knew that something else needed to change. Each two-barrel carb has two idle mixture screws, so there are four, one for each barrel (obviously). My repair books differ in describing the basic setting of these idle mixture screws. While all the service literature agrees that each screw should be turned down to ‘bottom’, then turned ‘out’ (counterclockwise), the exact number of recommended turns differs. I had settled on one full turn out, while some books recommended two, and others didn’t even give an exact number. When the car wouldn’t start, I turned each idle air mix screw one full turn further out. Climbing back into the car, the engine started on the next try.
Next, the books advised on how to continue with the basic settings, including carb synchronizing and idle setting. Before either of these can be set, however, the engine needs to reach full operating temperature. I watched both the temperature gauge and the coolant level, and both were fine. But as the engine warmed up, the idle kept increasing. Nothing I did at the carbs seemed to have any effect on my ability to lower the idle. After a few minutes, the car was ‘idling’ at 2500 rpm, and it should be between 800-1000 rpm. While I was happy that the car was running, and running well to my ears, something else was up with the idle control. It was time to shut it down and hit the books again.
It’s long been a tenet in the old car hobby that cars like to be driven; they don’t do well when they sit; and as long as you’re on top of maintenance, there’s no reason not to expect some reliability from an older car.
I’ve been lucky with the Alfa Romeo (although frankly, luck has little to do with it): having purchased the car in March of 2013 with 54,000 miles on the odometer, by July of 2019, the car had just shy of sixty-six thousand on the clock. In a little over six years, I managed to drive a 1967 Italian car almost 12,000 miles, which neatly works out to 2,000 miles a year. That changed, though, when the brakes seized, resulting in a complete teardown and rebuild of the braking system that took a year to complete. The car had not sat silent under my ownership for that long before, and when I did restart it, it ran poorly. Suspecting the fuel had gone sour, I drained the tank, added fresh premium, and swapped out the plugs. Success! Except … now I had a fuel leak under one of the carbs.
So, much of September was spent reading up on Weber carburetors. At first blush, they seem unnecessarily complex. Add to that complexity the words of the late Pat Braden, as he wrote in The Alfa Romeo Owner’s Bible, a copy of which I own (and I’m paraphrasing here): “if your car is running fine, don’t touch the carbs. Everyone wants to fiddle with the carbs. If it’s running ok, leave the carbs alone”.
Well, Pat, the car does ‘run’ fine, but liquid fuel dripping onto my starter motor does not get me very excited, at least not in a good way. I did some more research, including reading some very helpful posts on the Alfa BB (Bulletin Board), and concluded that the gaskets and seals were probably old, and the float height should be measured and adjusted, but other than that, I am going to leave the carbs alone!
I’ve never removed the Webers from my car before. Removal didn’t look complicated, but would certainly prove to be time-consuming. First, the upper plenum is removed (two hose clamps, one bolt, and two nuts, all easily accessible). Next, the lower plenum comes off (ten nuts and washers, four of which are totally blind). Now one has access to the carbs themselves (eight nuts, four of them blind). Once the banjo bolts for the fuel connections are undone, the carbs can be removed from the car. The carburetors bolt to 4 rubberized mounts, each of which has 4 studs. To remove the mounts, one first must remove the intake manifold, as 8 of the nuts for the mounts are only accessed if the intake manifold is unbolted from the cylinder head (7 nuts, some of them only reachable with an open-ended wrench, which only allows 1/6 of a turn at a time).
Back to these rubberized carb mounts: it was eye-opening to learn from the Alfa BB that side draft carbs, hanging off the right side of the cylinder head, are prone to enough vibration to cause fuel delivery issues. To combat that, Alfa employed a bracket extending upward from the right motor mount to the lower plenum, and mounted the carbs on rubber mounts which absorb vibration. But a number of the Alfa owners on the BB stated that these mounts should be considered service items: eventually, the rubber hardens and develops hairline cracks which allow air to enter the intake stream, throwing off the fuel-air mixture.
Former owner Pete must have replaced them at one point, because I had an old set among the spares he had given me. Checking the website of my favorite (really only) parts supplier Classic Alfa, I saw that they had a carburetor gasket kit for $35, and new carb mounts for $25 each. That all seemed reasonable enough, and as usual, my order arrived from the UK 48 hours after I placed it. I was ready to get to work.
It was important for me to stay focused on the goal: I wanted to clean out the carburetors, inspect them for any obvious faults, then reassemble them using all new gaskets. Perhaps it’s from a lifetime of dealing with old cars, but I do have the habit of over-repairing my vehicles. The issue with Webers is that other than setting the idle mixture, idle speed, and float height, any other adjustments involve a lengthy trial-and-error game of swapping jets. One more time: aside from the fuel leak, the car ran fine. I selected the rear-most carb (the leaker) and removed all the covers.
Having several service manuals with exploded diagrams at my side, things didn’t look too bad. There was clearly some dirt built up, but no obvious faults or defects as far as I could see. Numerous cans of Gumout were emptied to clean things up, and I’ve been pleased with the progress. The float needs to be carefully measured and adjusted, and once that’s done, reassembly will commence, which is where I will pick up next time.
With the Alfa’s hydraulic brake replacement essentially finished, there was one more related task to complete. As the previous owner had suggested to me, the battery B+ cable could stand to be replaced. Not only had he indicated that it was undersized, he also wasn’t sure that its attachment points had stood up over time. (My car was born with its battery in the engine compartment, but Pete had relocated it to the trunk, where it still is.)
Conveniently, the cable almost completely followed the routing of the brake line from rear to front. There was no extra work to dropping the battery cable when removing the brake lines. The old cable looked to be possibly 2 gauge; I had purchased a “Battery Relocation Kit” which included 20 feet of zero gauge cable (the smaller the number, the larger the cross-section). I only needed about 16 feet.
The old cable had been secured in place with metal hose clamps; thankfully, there were no signs of potential incendiary damage. The new cable followed the same routing as the old, and instead of clamps, I used about two dozen high-temp plastic cable ties. (Cable, or “zip” ties, are available in different quality levels. In the past, I had some which snapped upon tightening. For this job, I researched and purchased higher quality cables.) I was quite happy with the appearance of the end result; the new cable is tucked far enough up into the underside that at no point is it the lowest object under the car.
To gain access to the starter solenoid, I had removed the intake plenum. (Alfas and some other Italian cars do not have a traditional intake manifold. Instead, the air filter feeds air to the plenum, mounted to the outside of the side-draft carburetors. The carbs in turn are mounted to small tubes which themselves are bolted directly to the cylinder head.) I gave the plenum a cleaning, ran a 6mm x 1.0 tap on all the studs, used new washers and nuts, and with new gaskets at the ready between plenum and carbs, bolted it all back together. The thread chasing and new nuts helped immensely given that 4 of these attachments are completely blind and are in tight quarters.
Saturday was going to be the big day; there always are the dozen final details (spark plug wires and various other small connections underhood), and I triple checked all around the car, which was still on jackstands, still with tires off. The battery had been on trickle charge. Nervously, I completed the final connections at the battery. Nothing caught fire. Climbing up into the driver’s seat, I turned the key on, pumped the pedal about a half-dozen times, and cranked. The crank was strong, but the engine made no attempt to run on its own. Key off, pump the pedal some more, try again. And again. I smelled fuel, got out, and peered underneath. Raw fuel was pouring out from under the front right corner. Key off, battery safety switch turned to off. Time to stop, take a breath, and think.
Was this related to what I had been working on the last 11 months, or was this complete coincidence? Grabbing a flashlight, I looked into the right front corner, where the mechanical fuel pump and fuel filter are. Feeling with my hands, the wettest area was the rubber fuel line for the pump’s outlet. It took about 2 minutes to loosen the clamps and remove the hose.
The hose was completely dry-rotted. First, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was ‘just’ a hose. I also immediately realized that, like the brake system I had just overhauled, I really didn’t know how old these hoses were. A quick car ride (with mask) to Advance Auto Parts, and I was back with 3 feet of 5/16” fuel hose.
Sunday morning, all 4 fuel hoses, each only about 8-10 inches long, came off and were replaced with fresh rubber. Time to try again. This time, after about 7 to 8 pumps of the pedal (and no leaks), the engine started. Hooray! I bolted the tires back into place, removed the jackstands, and my Alfa was back on the ground for the first time since July of last year.
Gingerly, I moved the car outside under its own power. The brakes worked well, even if the pedal still felt a little soft. One more round of bleeding is in order. I’m also going to try to adjust the ‘throw’ at the master cylinder, as the brake pedal is not quite lined up with the clutch pedal. These are mere details, and I will get to them in the coming days. For now, I’m happy, satisfied, and truly pleased to be able to say that this project is done.
I’ve always likened working on an old car, when there’s little or nothing in the way of published instruction, to dancing the tango. It’s two steps forward, and one step back. Two forward, one back. And repeat….
In the last post about the Alfa’s brakes, two weeks ago, I wrote about the awkward position of the brake master cylinder. Like so many cars with pedals coming up from the floor (what Alfisti call “standing pedals”), the master is underneath, bolted to the pedal box. When I removed the master cylinder last fall, there were no written instructions to follow. I loosened the pedal box just enough to lower it and access the two bolts holding the master in place. The removal was such a chore that frankly I had been dreading the reinstallation.
Re-reading my words in that last post, I see that I was unintentionally vague. The sentence that now bothers me reads “Once the lines to the master cylinder are done, I need to reinstall the pedal box in the driver’s footwell, as all three pedals had to be loosened/removed to gain access to the master.” My sentence leaves it completely unclear whether I had removed the entire pedal box, or had merely loosened it, when in fact it was the latter.
Why am I harping on this? Because I found myself doing the tango. In the process of attempting to reinstall the new master, I ended up completely removing the pedal box from the car. If only I had done this during the initial disassembly! The hang-up was a bracket which I had mistakenly identified as part of the transmission cross member, but is a bracket for the front exhaust pipe. Laying on my back, on the garage floor, holding a flashlight, and trying to focus through my progressive lenses made its correct identification difficult. Once I realized that it could be safely removed, I undid 5 bolts and it was off. Suddenly, the entire pedal box was in my hands. Eureka!
Since the exhaust bracket was off, I replaced the two rubber bushings inside it, cleaned it up, and repainted it with Eastwood Chassis Black. When friends ask why this brake job isn’t finished yet, it’s these “might as well as” side jobs which eat up time, but are important to complete.
With the new master cylinder bolted in place, I reinstalled the pedal box, sealing it against the unibody with fresh dum-dum (I have a box of 3M dum-dum that’s probably 25 years old, and that stuff stays pliable!). The two final brake lines were bent to line up with the threaded inserts on the master, and I was happily surprised that I got the threads to “bite” after just a few minutes of trying.
The time had come to add fresh brake fluid to the system. I filled the reservoir, attached the little magnetic one-man bleeder bottle from Eastwood to the right rear caliper bleed screw (always start with the brake furthest from the master), and began to pump the brake pedal by hand. Forum posts on the Alfa Bulletin Board (AlfaBB) recited tales of horror about the difficulties in bleeding Alfa hydraulic brakes. I believe that later cars with dual circuits AND dual servos can be a challenge to bleed. I was happily shocked that I had fresh fluid coming through the hose on the bleeder screw on the second or third try.
I was less happily shocked to also see that I had some leaks. There were two leaks at flare fittings that still weren’t tight enough. An eighth of a turn with the 7/16” flare nut wrench solved that. I continued to add fluid and pump the pedal, moving from right rear to left rear to right front to left front. But then a larger fluid leak sprung, from a lousy location: the master cylinder. I got under the car, but both lines at the master were as tight as I dared to make them. My heart sank. Could the new master cylinder be defective?
When you’re doing the tango, and your feet start to go in a direction that could make you trip and fall, it’s sometimes best to get off the dance floor. I put down all the tools, exited the garage, went for a walk, and came back to have lunch. (I learned during the Isetta restoration that before anxiety drives you to act hastily and BREAK something, walk away, think about it, then go back to it.)
An hour later, I believed I had diagnosed the problem, without even touching the car. The leaking line ran from the exit port on the master up to the brass four-way junction block on the firewall. I remembered that when I had formed that line, I told myself that it was “symmetrical”, that is, the same flares and the same flare nuts on each end. While the flare NUTS were the same, the flare at the master needed to be an ISO bubble flare, and I had formed a 45 degree double flare. It took about two minutes to pop that line out of the master to confirm my diagnosis. Yup – I formed the wrong flare fitting.
Back to the two steps forward and one back routine. It was a complete pain to remove that line, cut off the wrong flare, make a new flare, and fit the line back in place. However, the rapid diagnosis made up for it. The fixed line was back on the car, bleeding resumed, and there were no leaks. In a short while, I had a pedal! I’ll bleed the entire system one more time, then the hydraulic work will be done.
Perhaps the ongoing lockdown has distorted my sense of time. Brake System Update Part 5 was posted on April 3, and I would have guessed that it was more recent than that. Progress has continued, and I’m not shy about admitting that 12 weeks of working from home has allotted additional free time with the removal of a two hour round-trip commute. It also felt redundant and nonconstructive to add a post which only stated “… and today I cut and flared two more brake lines….”
The month of May had me in limbo because of the master cylinder. I was keen on keeping the original part and simply rebuilding it. I had taken a chance last year by ordering a rebuild kit that I knew might not work, and it didn’t. Then I found a new supplier based in Germany whose website looked like they had the correct ATE rebuild kit. That order was placed in late April, and I’m still waiting. Supposedly DHL has the part (or more likely has lost the part).
As much as I wanted to avoid the expense of a new master, I bit the bullet and bought a brand new unit (almost two bills) from my main vendor Classic Alfa. One concern is that there are so many master cylinder variants (standing vs hanging pedals, LHD vs RHD, non-servo vs one servo vs two servos, 20mm bore vs 22mm bore). While I was nervous about getting the correct one, I needn’t had worried. It arrived in two days (the usual Classic Alfa timeliness), and all threaded fittings and mounting points are 100% accurate.
As of today: all 3/16” brake lines have been replaced with new lines cut and formed by me, all new flare fittings are on, and all lines are in place on the car (some final fitting still needs to be done). All three rubber brake hoses have been replaced with steel woven reinforced pieces (this is a case where originality is easily overridden by better quality).
All four rebuilt brake calipers have been reinstalled, with new Ferodo pads in place (the Centric front pads I had installed several years back shed a lot of dust; let’s see if these are better).
The new master is (loosely) bolted in place, but the two brake line connections have yet to be made to it. (Not since the Isetta have I worked on a car with the master located below the floor. The Isetta was easy because the body had been removed from the chassis. The accessibility on the Alfa is horrible.) Once the lines to the master cylinder are done, I need to reinstall the pedal box in the driver’s footwell, as all three pedals had to be loosened/removed to gain access to the master.
I then have the ‘extra’ job of replacing the positive cable for the battery. The previous owner had relocated this car’s battery from the engine compartment to the trunk, and used (in his own words) “a battery cable sourced from a junkyard Renault”. Since purchasing the car from him, he has recommended that I replace this cable. I’ve purchased a much heavier-duty one from Taylor Cable, which needs to be cut to size and have the appropriate terminals connected. Part of the intake plenum was removed for access to the starter, so that will need to go back together.
The goal is to get this vehicle off the 4 jack stands upon which it’s been sitting before we reach the first anniversary of the brake seizure which happened in July 2019. I miss driving my Alfa! As I said, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
A big part of this brake project has always been the intention to replace all the hard lines. It was back in the fall of 2019 (days we’ll forever remember as “pre-coronavirus”) when I purchased a 25’ roll of new CuNiFer (copper/nickel/iron) brake line (from FedHill) and all new line fittings (from Classic Alfa), knowing that the day would come when I’d need them.
Well, that day did come, and I’ve spent a somewhat enjoyable last few days in the garage making up the new lines. The rear rotors and calipers have been bolted back in place, so with the old lines as templates, I cut the first two new lines for the two rear calipers to the appropriate lengths.
The creation of new brake lines requires that the ends be flared, which requires a special tool. I have one of those cheap old flaring yokes, a tool I’ve had for so long that I couldn’t tell you the last time I used it. Maybe never. My good friend Mike G owns a high-end brake flaring tool kit made by Eastwood, which he generously loaned to me. I’m going to walk you through the step-by-step process, which on an old Alfa like mine can be a bit tricky! You’ll see in a moment.
With the exception of the ¼” hard line from the brake fluid reservoir to the master cylinder, all the other hard lines on the car are 3/16”. That’s the easy part. The fittings, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. The car’s four-wheel ATE calipers use metric M10x1 threads, while most of the remaining connections, such as at both front and rear T-fittings, use UNF 3/8”-24 threads. Further, the M10 end requires an ISO bubble flare, and the 3/8” end takes a double 45° flare. Please don’t ask me why – I’ll just point to the car and say “that’s how the Italians did it!”
The Eastwood tool, which I used for the very first time this week, is a bit intimidating at first. The instructions in the box are ok, but I thought it would be wise to cut a few short pieces of pipe and make some test flares (I purchased about 7 feet more brake line than needed, because sooner or later I’ll make a mistake and need to redo a line).
The Eastwood instruction book states that before you make a flare, you should do 3 things with the cut tube: run a file on the inside to remove burrs; run a file on the outside for the same reason; and slightly chamfer the edges. I dutifully followed instructions.
The tool itself is designed to be securely clamped into a bench vise. The two most important pieces which require your utmost intention are the tube-holding dies in 4 different sizes, and a rotatable disc with the various flare-forming dies. This is when I discovered that the 3/16” tube die is double-ended: it says 45° on one side, and DIN on the other. The instruction book didn’t say too much about this.
I grabbed the 3/16” tube-holding die and placed it into the tool, with the 45° double-flare at the business end. The tube itself was inserted between the two halves of the die, and with the disc’s “OP. 0” (Operation Zero) facing the tube, I pulled the handle. This step simply squares up the end of the tube with the end of the die. Once done, I made sure the clamp was tight.
Rotating the disc to “OP 1, 3/16”, I again pulled the handle. As a final step, the forming die disc was rotated to “OP 2, 3/16”, the handle was pulled, and I removed the tubing to examine my work. It looked good! I had a nice, neat 45° double flare.
Before you flare the other end of the tube, you MUST slide on the two flare fittings; once both ends are flared, you’ll never get them on. In my case, not only did they need to face the correct way, they needed to be the correct threads! With the 45° double flare done, the 3/8” fitting went on first, and then the M10 fitting. It is highly recommended to delay the celebratory glass of vino until AFTER these steps are completed.
It was a good thing that I had made some test pipes, which is when I discovered that the DIN end of the tubing die would make the needed ISO flare. I further discovered via experimentation that while the forming die does have an “OP 1” and “OP 2” for the DIN flare, I needed only “OP 1” to get a bubble flare that matched my old brake line.
I’ve made two lines so far, and am quite pleased with the progress. It’s a nice feeling to have rounded the curve and to have begun reassembly. With most collector car events cancelled for the spring, the pressure is off, but the progress continues.
I’ve often referred to the two years I spent as a professional automotive technician as my “post-college” graduate work. It was a different kind of education, and included the benefit of earning a salary. One of the earliest lessons, and one I still carry today, is that there is no substitute for having the right tool for the job at hand. The correct tool ensures that the repair is done correctly, safely, and within a reasonable amount of time. It is not an exaggeration to state that there were times when sweat dripped from my brow, and curses sprang from my lips, when the lack of the appropriate tool made a repair attempt a real struggle.
A corollary lesson states that sometimes, one needs to practice some creativity and “invent” a tool, perhaps by assembling one from hardware parts, or by modifying an existing tool. This point was put into practice during the Isetta restoration, as tools for that car aren’t exactly found in your local NAPA store.
The challenge rose up again during the recent brake work on my Alfa. I found myself struggling with the reassembly of the parking brake shoes, which reside inside the rear brake rotor ‘hat’. The shoes and their assorted springs and clips came apart easily enough. But now my efforts to put it all back together were just taking too long.
Let me be more specific: the brake shoe assembly mounts to a backing plate, like on most cars. Unlike most cars, though, the wheel hub is mounted on a bearing that is press-fitted into place through the backing plate. The parking brake reassembly would be easier if the hub were not in the way, but to remove it, I would need to remove the entire axle and press the hub and backing plate apart. That was more work than I wanted to bother with. I was convinced that there was a way to put the parts back on with the hub in place.
And Alfa Romeo actually made that accommodation. The hub surface has two additional holes, lined up in such a way to allow a tool to pass through them to access the brake shoe hold-down pins. The pins require a 5mm Allen tool, and I have one as a 3/8” drive socket. Since there is so much spring pressure to overcome, putting the Allen socket on an extension, with a 3/8” drive ratchet wrench, provides way more leverage than one could ever get from a tiny hex key.
Herewith was the problem: I could not push the pin in far enough to engage its lock, because the socket was too wide to pass completely through the hole in the hub. I briefly considered grinding down the socket, but a close examination revealed that would likely weaken it to the point of failure once an extension or a wrench was snapped into place. I briefly (like, for 10 seconds) considered enlarging the hole in the hub before rejecting that crazy idea. (Repair lesson #39.b.2: when making permanent modifications, always do so to inexpensive, replaceable objects, NOT to complex, difficult-to-replace components of the vehicle itself.)
Staring at things for several minutes brought forth the revelation that if the 5mm hex shaft were longer, I’d have what I needed. After considering a Home Depot run, which I internally wagered would yield a 25% chance of success, I challenged myself to modify the tool I owned. Could I do this in less than an hour? I thought it entirely reasonable.
With a 3/32” drift, I hammered out the roll pin and pulled out the existing 5mm bit from the socket. I found a standard 5mm hex key in my Allen key collection, and tested it at the car. It was long enough for my purposes. Next, I secured the longer hex key in the bench vise and hacksawed off the short end. (I really should have pulled out the Dremel tool for this step, as the hardened steel took longer than I thought it would to hack off.) I filed the end smooth, and it fit right into the socket. My attempts to drill a hole in it to reinstall the roll pin resulted in two broken drill bits – like I said, that tool steel is hard! But the new bit was a tight fit in the socket, and since I’d be pushing against it, not pulling on it, I let it be, feeling certain that there was nothing to worry about.
Total time to modify the 5mm Allen socket: approximately 30 minutes. I attached my ‘new’ socket onto an extension, snapped on a ratchet wrench, and was easily able to engage the brake shoe pins in their locks. Mission accomplished!
I’m keeping my new, longer 5mm Allen socket as is. Who knows when someone might need my help with their Alfa Romeo parking brake shoes? “Hey, I got just the tool for that!”
The weather today in downtown Neshanic Station NJ reached a balmy (for February) 55 degrees F. While I desperately do NOT want it to be 90 in April, I didn’t mind today’s spring preview; after all, the calendar claims we’re only four weeks away.
That high temp was accompanied by blue skies and lots of sunshine, all of which inspired me to get back to the garage. The Alfa’s brakes have been ignored since last autumn, and even I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve put up a blog post about my progress, of which there has been scant little. I have been ordering parts, reading service manuals, and perusing online forums, but there’s been no actual wrench-turning since before Halloween, which feels like a very long time ago.
While today’s progress was not substantial, it was significant. The corner has been turned; everything that’s to be removed has been removed. I am now embarking on reassembly, using new parts as required. Starting at the left rear, a new parking brake cable was installed, and a new upper e-brake shoe was also put into place.
Projects never proceed at an orderly pace. There may be a flurry of activity, then a slowdown. Other, smaller projects may jump the line. Sometimes, it’s a parts delay that forces the pullback. However, there’s something to be said for picking up the tools again after a long layoff: it reinvigorates the soul, and reawakens the motivation.
I’m also motivated by an email I received from the NJ Chapter of the Alfa Romeo Owner’s Club, announcing a one-day spring tour for Sunday April 26. That’s nine weeks from today. I plan to drive this car on that tour. Sounds like I have lots of time, but we know how quickly that time will fly. The last time I drove my Alfa was July of last year. I have not gone this long without driving it since my purchase in 2013. So I’m motivated! Let’s hope the trend for an early spring continues.
Where did the year go? I swear that just the other day was sunny and 75; today is frosty and 40….. Every year I need to remind myself that putting the cars away for the winter needs to be done well before Thanksgiving, lest we get an early taste of winter and my ever-shrinking window of opportunity gets blown away like the final leaves of autumn.
Today was the day to put the Miata to rest until spring. The Alfa, on the other hand, is still up on four jack stands as it patiently waits for me to complete the brake overhaul I started during the summer. The only accomplishment today in the Alfa’s favor was funneling a few ounces of Sta-Bil into the tank. I can’t start her up, because the battery positive cable and carburetor intake plenum have been temporarily displaced. We’ll save the rest of that story for the next post about the brakes.
Back to the Miata: my routine for winterizing this car, or any of my cars, is fairly simple. Unlike some friends who keep their collector cars “at the ready” should we get a sunny dry day above the freezing mark, I believe in putting them down with the intent of not starting them again until spring returns. The tasks to reach that goal are: add air to the tires; fill the tank and add fuel stabilizer; dissuade critters from making my car their winter getaway; connect the battery charger; and cover the car to protect the paint.
Tire flat-spotting is a potential problem with any car, even one that sits only for a few days. The issue seems to vary among tire brands. When I bought my Acura TSX, the tires on it would be flat-spotted every morning. It took 2-3 miles of driving for them to warm up and stop going “thump-thump-thump”. A car which sits all winter is especially prone to this problem.
Like everything else I’m recommending, there is more than one solution. I’ve read that you should remove all the tires from your vehicle (necessitates jack stands) and store the tires on a wall-mounted tire rack (takes up extra space). You can buy cradles designed to go under each tire which distribute the car’s weight more evenly along the tread (more cash outlay, and I’ll need to store the cradles when not using them).
My method, which I’ve used for almost 20 years, is to over-inflate the tires and just let them sit. The extra air supports more weight, and it costs nothing other than about 10 minutes of work. I check the tire sidewall for the tire manufacturer’s maximum tire pressure, and aim for a number about 5 psi below that. Come spring, I bleed the tires back down to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation, and drive off without any thumping. Tires I’ve treated like this have never flat-spotted.
Modern fuel will go bad in about 6 months; it’s been said that the ethanol in today’s fuel only exacerbates the problem. Besides the fuel turning to gel, condensation (from minuscule amounts of water in the fuel) can end up on the tank’s walls and cause corrosion.
There are two good solutions for the condensation issue: store the car (or lawn mower, or snow thrower) with a full tank of gas, or with a completely empty tank. My lawn equipment, with its pint-sized plastic tanks, easily lends itself to the empty tank approach. But I do the opposite for the cars, because I don’t want to expose the remainder of the fuel system to whatever debris is likely lounging at the bottom.
I’ve written before about fuel stabilizers; there are a few different brands, and I’ve been partial to Sta-Bil by Gold Eagle, simply because I’ve been using it for years and it works very well for me. One necessity with any fuel stabilizer is to run the engine for at least 5 minutes AFTER you’ve added the stuff, to circulate it through the rest of the fuel system. I’ve one more trick, and that is to add the Sta-Bil to the tank before filling it up. As fresh fuel is added, it mixes the two, and the drive back from the filling station usually suffices to distribute to good stuff through the carbs, injectors, and what-have-you.
The good news is, I have a 3-car detached garage in the yard next to my house. The bad news is, I have a 3-car detached garage in the yard next to my house. I joke; there is no bad news. Except sometimes, critters, mainly field mice, want to see my collection. They think it’s cute. I don’t think they are cute. While no real damage has occurred, I’ve caught a few of them in there. They are not welcome. Rather than catch them, I’d sooner discourage them from entering. Through the years, I’ve used bait, traps, dryer sheets, mothballs, and black pepper, to varying degrees of success. Last year, the black pepper approach seemed to help, but it was loose on paper plates, and invariably, I would kick the plates and scatter the pepper about.
My wife came up with this suggestion: she offered to buy “potpourri” bags, like you’d use in the house for scented objects. (She got them in Michael’s in the bride’s section.) I bought an institutional-sized container of black pepper from Costco (get the coarse ground, not the fine), and filled a dozen bags with pepper. These went into the interior floor, trunk, and engine compartment. My entire garage smells like pepper (it’s better than mothballs; the one time I used them, the odor lingered for almost a year). As long as I spot no signs of toothsome damage, I’ll consider the pepper bags a success.
Again, there are multiple approaches for off-season battery maintenance, and none of them is wrong. What’s important is that your battery charger offers a trickle-charge function so the battery does not overcharge and boil over. The Battery Tender brand has been my choice, simply because that was the first one I bought. I now own several.
I used to remove the batteries from the cars and arrange them on a shelf, connecting each one to a separate charger. (If you have multiple cars, and access to a wall outlet is an issue, there are trickle chargers designed to charge an entire bank of batteries.) I’ve now decided that there is no advantage to taking the battery out of the car; it’s just more work. However, I disconnect the negative cable to isolate the electrical system during charging. Once the terminal clamps are connected and the unit is plugged in, my work is done.
Before working at my current employer, I didn’t believe in car covers. Somehow I was convinced that they did more harm than good. Then I researched some of the better covers that we sell, and did a 180 on them. My brand of choice is Covercraft: the fit is excellent, the materials are top-notch, and there is a good variety of covers at different price points. Once the tires, fuel system, battery, and interior are treated, on goes the cover.
The first day of spring next year is Friday 03/20/20. I’ll be OK with it if Mother Nature wants to usher it in a week or two sooner, so I can undo all the above and take the Miata on its first spin of 2020.