Ode to a Drill

My dad was no different than most fathers in that he wanted a better life for his son than he had. Yet I was so influenced by my father that, in spite of my occasional anger toward him, I wanted to be like him. Therein lies the conundrum; my father, a man who didn’t finish high school, was a brilliant mechanic/machinist, mostly self-taught, who had a knack with tools that allowed him to fix almost anything mechanical. I, his college-educated son, was completely bored with my post-graduation desk job and wanted to work with my hands, essentially as way to get paid while learning how automobiles work.

These worlds collided in August of 1978 when I quit my job as an Economist with the U.S. Department of Labor to become an apprentice mechanic at a car dealership. (The specifics of this career move are covered in the blog post “Working in the Retail Automotive Business, Part 1: Autosport”.) My father was more upset with me over this decision than anything else I had done up until this point. Through tears, he expressed his concerns about quitting a “guaranteed government job” for what he saw as the difficult life of a blue-collar worker. But my mind was made up, and he was eventually resigned to it.

He didn’t agree with my decision, but that didn’t stop him from providing me with some of my first tools. The one tool that stuck out above the others was his Black & Decker corded electric drill. Its all-metal case and hefty weight made it obvious to anyone who lifted it that it could take some abuse and still function. I soon replaced its ¼” chuck with a 3/8” version. That drill got me through two years of professional wrenching, most notably as the tool used to drill all those holes in the roofs of new Volvos for roof rack installations (a very popular dealer-installed option on 245 wagons). My Service Manager borrowed it once and commented, “this is a serious drill”.

By 1980, I had moved to Service Advisor and my full-time technician days were finished. I kept all my tools, although they didn’t see much use through the remainder of the decade. By 1990, I owned my first house and began restoration on the BMW Isetta (the drill is visible in the 4th photo of the linked post) and the B&D drill was the only one I owned. It never failed to get the job done, whether I was drilling in wood or metal, or using it to spin a wire wheel brush of some kind.

Fast forward to 2001 and, now in a different home, this drill continued to see extensive duty. At some point, the power cord’s attachment to the drill began to fail, and required partial disassembly to repair. The trigger and its lock button began to stick, and another partial disassembly was needed to lube and service. I wasn’t even considering replacing the drill, though; I had owned it so long, and it had done so much work for me, that I thought of it as an old friend.

About 20 years ago, I supplemented the B&D with a Ryobi cordless drill. It had features which were completely missing on the ol’ metal job: keyless chuck, two speeds, and reversible direction. Still, the Ryobi just didn’t have the oomph of the Black & Decker. I kept both, using the Ryobi primarily for driving screws, and using it for drilling only when a 120V outlet was not nearby.

Last year, the trigger on the B&D began to act up again. There were times when the drill wouldn’t operate. I looked at the beaten metal housing and asked myself if it was time. During some routine visits to Home Depot and Lowe’s, I began to check out replacements. I’ve owned a few DeWalt tools, and their lineup of drills impressed me. I was determined to stay with a corded model for power, and a keyed chuck for its ability to better tighten around bits. I found one on sale for around $100 and went for it.

Here is where I realized that sometimes, sentimentality can get in the way of rationality. I was holding onto the Black & Decker drill longer than I should have, convinced that it was a great drill (emphasis on the past tense). Once I brought the DeWalt home, I learned what I had been missing. Yes, its case is plastic; yet it has a nice heft to it. The chuck spins like a precision mechanism. It has a variable-speed trigger and is reversible. It’s a wonderful drill.

A quick Google search for my Black & Decker turns up some references to this model drill dating back to the 1950s/1960s. My recollection may be cloudy, but I remember the drill being “old” when I got it in 1978. Let’s be charitable and presume that it was 10 years old when it was gifted to me. It died in 2021. That means it lived as a functioning tool for 53 years (and I didn’t pay for it!). Thanks dad; it was a great gift, and it’s fair to say that we both got our money’s worth from it.

All photographs copyright © 2022 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

Don’t have the right tool for the Alfa’s brakes? Then MAKE the tool!

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.

Original 5mm hex socket on extension is placed through access hole in hub

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.)

Socket bottoms out before pin can be fully inserted in backing plate (spring and shoes removed for clarity)

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.

Here is the Snap-On 5mm Allen socket about to be modified

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.

Drift makes short work of roll pin removal
This hex key is about to give up its life for a greater good
Hacksaw got the job done, but it took 10 minutes of muscular effort

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!

“New” socket has considerably longer shaft

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!”

Success! Longer hex shaft makes short work of engaging pin

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

 

Tucker Restoration Shop Holds Open House

For a vehicle which reached a production count of only 51, the “Tucker 48” automobile has fascinated auto enthusiasts, historians, collectors, and conspiracy theorists ever since the Tucker Corporation ceased operating in 1949.

On Sunday January 28, 2018, I had an opportunity to visit a shop which is in the process of performing a complete restoration on Tucker #1044. Via my membership in the NJ Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA), the word went out that Ida Automotive, a shop in Morganville NJ, was hosting an Open House, allowing invitees to see this Tucker in its disassembled state.

Arriving shortly after the announced start time of 11 a.m., the lot surrounding the building was already so crowded that finding a parking spot took a few minutes. By the time I worked my way inside, I would estimate that I was one of at least 100 people in attendance.

This is one of three shop rooms

There is no need to delve into the detailed history of Preston Tucker and his eponymous cars here. If interested, the author invites the reader to visit this Wikipedia page, or this page from the AACA Museum website. Indeed, Richard’s Car Blog briefly highlighted the Tuckers at the Museum when we visited in early 2017.

Back to Ida Automotive: the shop building is set back from busy Texas Rd. by about 100 yards. With no identifying signage out front, those driving by on this busy street would have no idea it existed. Entering the front door, one passes through a small but neatly painted and carpeted front room and then into the shop area itself. There are multiple rooms, and each room is jammed with cars-in-process, tools, supplies, machine equipment, lifts, parts, and most notably, sheet metal, both in ‘stock’ and ‘formed’ shapes. The mob on hand made it so crowded that moving about took time and patience.

Having visited my share of automotive repair shops, there was an immediate sense that this operation is different. The primary work product here is sheet metal fabrication. The car collection within was eclectic, and included a ’50 Mercury convertible, an unidentifiable ‘40s-era pickup truck under cover, a Ferrari 365 GT “Queen Mother”, and a ’58 Cadillac custom (covered and on a lift, exposing its rack-and-pinion steering!).

’50 Mercury convertible, almost done (but I found green over red colors odd)

A FERRARI IN A FABRICATION SHOP?
The question was answered once I spotted the “before” photo: something had crushed its roof, and the skilled metal workers at Ida Automotive had beautifully repaired it:

That brings us to the Tuckers. One was immediately drawn to a brilliant blue Tucker, appearing to be a perfectly restored car – until one noticed the twin-turbo engine out back, sitting in a chassis that looked about 4 inches lower than stock. This Tucker otherwise appeared ‘normal’, but the blank VIN plate caused me to conclude that this was a replicar, albeit an extremely well-done one.

Behind it was a wooden buck (upon which sheet metal is formed into shape), and again, first glances proved deceiving. While the overall form looked Tuckerish (if that’s not a word, it should be), certain shapes on the buck deviated from the blue car next to it.

Moving into the next room, the shiny object in front of me was some sort of car, but what? Again, the word “Tuckerish” came to mind. But there were enough hints lying around in the form of printed images to solve the riddle. Ida Automotive is in the process of recreating the original Tucker Torpedo, the design study shown to the public in two-dimensional form, but never built. It’s an odd-looking thing, especially without glass and doors installed, preventing you from seeing the whole shape. But the more one stared, the more one could see the familial resemblance. Oh, and that buck behind it is for this Torpedo.


THE TUCKER TORPEDO
The “Torpedo” was the name given to the illustration of the prototype. Many mistakenly called the production car the “Torpedo ’48”, but that was not its name. The efforts by Ida Automotive to create a vehicle which never existed is fanatical.
Minus doors and glass, Torpedo looks awkward from this angle
Its most unique feature (so far) is the seating arrangement. There are 3 seats, arranged on an electrically-powered carousel disc. There is one seat in the front for the driver, who sits behind the centrally-mounted wheel; in the rear are two passengers. However, the carousel rotates, which means any one of the 3 seats can be the driver’s seat. This might also assist with ingress and egress. One can only hope that the carousel’s rotational ability is disabled while the Torpedo is in motion.
The Torpedo’s 3 seats, mounted on a carousel (note magazine illustration)

The final room held the star of the show, Tucker #1044 (its serial number). Interestingly, this very car was recently featured in Hemmings’ Classic Car magazine. The gentleman who owns it bought it last year, and must have decided that, although a decent driver, it deserved a complete do-over, and he concluded that Ida Automotive was the best place for it.

Spacious interior looks even more so here

 

Front suspension detail. Originally car had rubber suspension.
There was always a crowd around #1044 (note wall posters)

 

It was very generous for the proprietors to open their doors on a Sunday to those of us interested in Tuckers. Our hosts went so far as to provide coffee, water, and breakfast treats. There were no formal presentations, so we were left to figure things out by snooping around the place.  A poster on the wall was a big giveaway: a man named Joseph Ida was the dealer principal of a Tucker dealership in New York, so it’s not a far stretch to conclude that a descendant owns Ida Automotive. Another poster proclaims: “Ida Automotive Est. 1959”, so they’ve been at it for a while.

Wall poster shows Joseph Ida in front of his Tucker dealership in NY

MACHINE  AND SHEET METAL TOOLS


The business’ associated websites offer little in the way of clues as to what actually transpires within these walls. Based on the quality of work I observed, it’s fair to say that Ida Automotive excels at what they do. It’s also refreshing for this collector to see some things still done the old-fashioned way. We in the hobby can only hope that workers with these skill sets continue to be around so that our automotive treasures can continue to be maintained and enjoyed.

Please don’t be alarmed: Chapter Four of the Isetta Saga will return next week, promise.  

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK:

Tucker #1029, the car personally owned and driven by Preston Tucker, was sold by RM Sotheby’s at their January 2018 Arizona auction for $1,792,500.

 

 

Garage Tools: Micrometers, Vernier Calipers, and Dial Indicators

My dad was a career mechanic-machinist, spending most of his working life first in the garment district in Manhattan, repairing sewing machines, then with Proctor & Gamble at their Port Ivory (Staten Island) manufacturing plant, maintaining the production lines. Much of the love and respect I have today for tools of all kinds came from hanging around my father in his workshop. It is also my privilege to have inherited many of his tools, which now reside in my garage. Recently, when straightening out one of my tool drawers, I thought that featuring some of my dad’s old tools would be an enjoyable topic for a blog entry.

While it’s a cliche to say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”, in many cases they don’t (but in some cases they still do!). To the point: these measuring tools, each about 60-70 years old in my estimation. Their metal composition gives them heft in the hand, yet operating their slides and dials is to exercise their silky smoothness. Their markings are for the most part stamped into their faces; no printing or transferring to wear away. They feel like they will last another 75 years. They may see infrequent use; but there is no doubt that they have maintained their measuring accuracy.

Starrett micrometer #216
Starrett micrometer #216

This first tool is a micrometer, with two features that I especially enjoy: it’s metric, and it’s digital. Reading a micrometer in the conventional way is something I can do, but I’d rather look at the digital readout! This one is marked “Starrett No. 216”, and to my surprise, it’s available today from Starrett:
http://www.starrett.com/metrology/product-detail/216P-1

 

Starrett micrometer #230
Starrett micrometer #230

Another Starrett micrometer in my collection looks a little worse for wear, but still functions fine. This one, model #230, has its fractional readings converted out to 4 decimal places in both 16ths and 32nds. I love the way those numbers are sturdily stamped directly into the frame of the tool.

This too can be bought new from the Starrett Company:
http://www.starrett.com/metrology/product-detail/Outside-Micrometers/Micrometers/Precision-Hand-Tools/Precision-Measuring-Tools/230FL

 

MZB vernier calilper
MZB vernier caliper

The kind of automotive work I’ve done has called for use of Vernier calipers more often than a micrometer. This Vernier caliper was made by a company called “MZB”. A Google search coughed up this ad from the May 1951 issue of Popular Mechanics. It would not surprise me if my dad bought this via this advertisement. (What, they don’t take Pay Pal?)

 

MZB caliper ad, May 1951 Popular Mechanics
MZB caliper ad, May 1951 Popular Mechanics

 

On my calipers, of special note is the reverse stamp: “Made in Germany Western Zone”. That must date its production to the time immediately after the end of World War II. (Also note my father’s name engraved into the tool, as he did with almost everything he owned.)

MZB caliper: Made in Germany Western Zone
MZB caliper: Made in Germany Western Zone

Spot-On Engineering Products of London England produced this lovely dial indicator, in its own protective hard-shell case. Little else is known about Spot-On, at least based on futile Google searches. However, the tool lives on in my garage, seeing occasional use for run-out measurements. It’s delightful to operate, and I especially enjoy watching the dial move around the face of the gauge.

What is it about tools that appeals to us car guys? Whether we fix our own vehicles or not, I think we share an admiration for the fine workmanship and usefulness that goes into a long-lasting quality tool, much like we feel about our classic rides.

 

All photographs copyright © 2015 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.