Turning wrenches on your old car: When things go terribly wrong

There are no photos of the crime scene.

The event was too traumatizing to even consider documenting it via photography. Besides, there was a deadline to meet.

It was May of 2007, and to my great delight, rally brother Steve and I were once again registered to drive in the New England 1000 classic car rally. This would be our second time using my ’68 Mustang as the rally car, and our fifth event together as co-drivers and co-navigators.

The previous month, I had again shown my car in the Garden State Region Mustang Club’s annual all-Ford car show. Driving it to the show and back proved that it was in great shape. There was little to do to prep it for the rally other than check its vitals, an easy enough task on a ‘60s-era American car.

My ’68 GT/CS at the GSRMC car show, April 2007

One thing bugged me. It was like an itch I needed to scratch.

Some previous owner, most likely as a repair, had replaced the door lock cylinders. They worked fine. The issue was that I had 3 different keys for the car: one for the doors, one for the ignition, and one for the trunk. The factory gave you TWO keys: the same key was supposed to operate the door locks and the ignition switch.

Every one of the 19 Mustang parts catalogs I had showed new sets of ignition and door lock cylinders for sale. It looked easy enough to do. Best of all, when I was ready to give Steve a set of keys to hang onto for the rally, he’d only have two. As would I. I placed the order.

The only time available for me to do the job was the day before our departure. The door lock cylinders went in first. While I had the door panels off, I did a quick adjust-and-lube of the window regulators and channels. On to the ignition switch.

The instructions said that I needed to insert the existing key into the ignition, and use a paper clip in an access hole to release an internal catch. Once the paper clip was in, it said, turn the key, and pull outward.

I did all the above. The ignition cylinder came right out. At the same time, I saw a puff of talcum powder emanating from the switch area.

It wasn’t powder.

It was smoke.

My car’s wiring harness was on fire.

It took about 30 seconds for me to run into the garage, grab a ½” wrench, and disconnect the negative battery cable (the hood, thankfully, was already open). The smoking stopped.

WHAT in creation had happened?

Two observations: one, in re-reading the instructions, I had clearly overlooked the line which stated “disconnect the battery before proceeding”. Two, it was very typical on a car like this Mustang for the manufacturer to run an unfused B+ wire from the battery directly to the ignition.

Something had shorted out. I didn’t know what, and at that moment, I didn’t need to know. There were fewer than 24 hours before we would be departing for the rally. Frantically, I began to remove the engine compartment wiring harness. The sheathing had melted, but there had been no open flame. With the harness on the garage floor, I cut it open.

Exactly one wire was damaged, the feed to the ignition. All other wires were fine. Racing off to the auto parts store, I bought all the 14-gauge wire they had. Working through the afternoon, evening, and into the following morning, I was able to replace the one damaged wire, re-wrap the harness, and reinstall it in the car.

The car started up without drama (which is to say, without smoke).

Steve arrived at my house and endured the telling of the tale. We left, a little later than planned, and headed for this year’s starting point, the Woodstock Inn in Woodstock VT. Everything seemed to be working well with the car.

On the NYS Thruway, we pulled into a multi-level parking garage to make a quick pit stop. It was dark in the garage, so I turned on the car’s headlights.

They didn’t work.

We checked turn signal and brake lights, which did operate. But we had no headlights or tail lights. Given our tardy departure, we were almost guaranteed to arrive in Woodstock after dark. We hustled as quickly as we dared push the car, which is to say, with its 390 V8, pretty quickly.

We pulled into the Woodstock Inn just as the sky turned from twilight to black. We made it.

I normally stick to wine or beer on the occasions that I do have an alcoholic drink, but I believe I had a scotch on the rocks that first evening in Woodstock.

And how did we do on the rally? That’s for a future post.

 

All photographs copyright © 2017 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.