One of the things I’ve noticed about owning an old Saab is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING has a story around it.
The Saab this story’s about is my 1968 Saab 96. It’s been in a few stories, brought me through more than a few adventures, and in general, been a pretty dependable car.
It came with a V-4 engine (half a V-8) and a one barrel carburetor that got me about 27 miles per gallon. It was enough for smooth power, but not a lot of it.
One of the things I’d wanted to do for years was put a two barrel carb on it – which would allow the engine to ‘breathe’ more easily. Allowing an engine to breathe more easily made it more efficient, (it also meant more power …and if you’re thinking of cars, and breathing, between the carburetor, which did the inhaling, and the engine, which needed the air, was a hunk of metal known as an intake manifold. This was basically a cast collection of tubes that allowed the air from the carburetor to be divvied up and sent to each of the four cylinders that needed the air and provided the power. The one thing I needed in addition to the two barrel carburetor was one of these intake manifolds so all the pieces could come together. So over a few years I managed to find a manifold – as I recall, it came from a junkyard in Germany. I then found a carb on ebay, and was going to put the two together only to find that the carb was old and in desperate need of rebuilding.
It turns out that everything that could be worn out on this carb, was worn out on this carb. And… it had been dropped, and that meant it would have a bit of a vacuum leak if I wasn’t able to fix it. (that’s known, in technical terms, as a bad, but fixable thing). But, it was worth a try, so I bought a gallon of carburetor cleaner like I’d seen in a shop years ago, and just soaked the carb in it. That way everything that the cleaner could get to, would be gotten to, and then I could start this whole rebuilding process with clean parts and a rebuild kit. I needed good weather for it because you generally don’t work on car parts on the kitchen table (don’t ask why I know this, but it involves a friend’s motorcycle and the kitchen door catching fire… but that’s another story for another time), and one day, when it was sunny outside and I had some free time, I decided I’d actually do the cleaning bit, so to get started, I read the instructions on the can…
…and the thing that gets me about reading labels like that is “Why do the contents of the can only cause cancer in laboratory rats in California? I mean, is there something magical about laboratory rats in Seattle?”
Right. Bottom line, stay upwind of the stuff, don’t get any on you, and for heaven’s sake, don’t get any in the house.
I read a bit more, and found that the cleaner was to be used between 70 and 110 degrees.
The problem was it was 20 degrees outside.
No more, no less…
But 20 degrees was clearly on the “a little too cool” side of making this stuff effective, so I tried to figure out a way to warm it up without causing problems… I mean, the stuff’s evil, nasty, flammable, whatever… I had to come up with some way of heating it carefully so that I could get it up to operating temperature. After some thought, I got a pot of water and put it on to boil, figuring that the cleaner had been sitting there in the garage for weeks, and it’d take some heat to warm it up to somewhere between the required 70 and 110 degrees to make it work. I figured I’d just put the gallon can of carb cleaner into a 5 gallon bucket, then put the hot water in the bucket and safely heat everything up.
Oh, if you’re reading this, you know dang well that there’s a story here…
I poured the first pot of water into the bucket, it covered the bottom of the bucket up to a couple of inches. Figuring that wasn’t enough, I went inside to heat up some more water.
It took a little bit to heat that second batch up, and I took it outside as soon as it was ready, but by the time I got out there with the water, the gallon of carb cleaner was boiling out over the top of the can inside the bucket, and it was well into eating the label off the can. (see picture).
It became fairly clear that the reason for the 110 degree limit was that that was the boiling temperature of carb cleaner – and if it ate the label off the freaking can, I didn’t want anything to do with it…
For whatever reason, the plastic bucket didn’t care about the carb cleaner, and the cleaner that had boiled over was sitting down at the bottom of the bucket – under the water. But gosh, you’d think they’d make the label out of something a little more durable or something…
I ended up putting the bucket in the very back of the Buick station wagon we had at the time to take it to a hazmat place here in the city. It was a little surreal to be driving there in the station wagon, with my son, who was still in a car seat at the time, just chatting away, only to get out and hand the bucket to a guy who was dressed in a full-on hazmat suit.
But we got rid of it, and that was a good thing.
I later put the carb itself on E-bay, wrapped in several layers of plastic that it didn’t dissolve, with a warning that it would smell like carburetor cleaner…
As I recall, a fellow in Utah bought it along with the rebuild kit I’d gotten for it, because, as it turned out, it would fit his Lotus. I told him everything about it, and he still wanted it. In the end, he was happy, because it made his car run. I was happy because the carburetor was miles away, and I was to the point where I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Later, I just bought a new carburetor instead of trying to rebuild the old one, and put that on the intake manifold. I worked with Rob at Scanwest Autosport to make a linkage for it, and the car could inhale, deeply.
Now I had to figure out how to get it to exhale fully.
I’d learned that having an MSS (Motorsport Services) exhaust system on a Saab V4 was worth about 10 horsepower, and since the exhaust was pretty toasted anyway, I saved up my money and ordered one. The problem was that, if you’ve ever owned a Saab with a V-4 engine, there’s kind of a metal donut between the heads of the engine and the exhaust manifolds that allows everything to fit together. But the holes didn’t quite match up right. The exhaust came out of each head of the engine through a hole that was about 1 ¼ inch in diameter. The gasket that was between the head and our donut had a 2 inch hole in it. The diameter of the exhaust headers was also 2 inches, but the hole inside the donut was only 1 ¼ inch, all that breathing-exhaling stuff we were doing was nothing but huffing and puffing until that was fixed (because the car was trying to push lots of exhaust through 1 ¼ inch holes when it had a 2 inch pipe it could go through – it’s like putting your thumb over a garden hose) so that had to be fixed… I figured that if the gasket were the right size, then everything else should be that size, including that 1 ¼ inch donut hole.
I wasn’t sure how to do this, I didn’t have a machine shop, but then I found a fellow named Dan who did this kind of work.
On big engines.
I’d taken the heads off my Saab engine to get them down there to him to get hardened valve seats put in there so the car would run on unleaded gas, and he laughed as he looked at the valves that came off them. They looked like little toys in comparison to the engines he normally worked on. Some of the valve stems were 14 inches long, and the valves themselves were, I’m going to guess about 4 inches across. (by comparison, the valve stems on the Saab engine were about 5 inches long, and the valves 1 1/2 inches across).
The thing I learned quickly about Dan was that he came across as gruff as all get-out on the outside, but was a marshmallow on the inside.
I found out he liked Sprite, so I made it a point to stop by the shop on the way home from work a couple of nights a week, just to see how things were going. I wasn’t in a hurry, in fact, I was more interested in learning about the magic of turning a hunk of metal into something useful than getting it done fast, and Dan was a willing teacher.
And we talked… about life, about our families, about work, and friends, and how important it was to have them. I remember telling him how much fun it was to just be there in a machine shop, where things were actually made, which was so different from being in an IT department as a database administrator, which I was at the time.
To see him use all those tools he had at his disposal and make useful things out of raw metal was a treat. I mean, he could point to something and say, “I made that.”
He could reach out and touch it.
It was real.
But he kept saying I had to be smarter than he was because I worked with computers.
I told him, “Dan, you take these hunks of metal that are just that, hunks of metal, and you MAKE something of them. I work all day pissing off electrons. You tell me who’s smarter.”
He laughed, but I was serious.
It took a while, but I think it sunk in. I mean, I worked very hard at making sure the right electrons got pissed off, but at the end of the day, I just didn’t have anything to show for it, so chatting with Dan, in his shop, surrounded by all his tools, not a computer in sight, was a real treat for me. Not only did he teach, but he let me do some of the work myself. In one case, he was looking for the right drill bit in the mass of bits and taps and dies and all sorts of things he had on massive workbenches, and the sound of him rummaging around was so close to the sound of a kid looking through a pile of Legos that I just had to smile.
Eventually he did find the right drill bit, wiped it on his overalls, and popped it into the drill for me, then stood there, patiently, as I drilled out the new brass valve guides that he’d hammered into the heads.
One day when I came in with the can of Sprite, he was almost done. He’d installed the hardened valve seats and ordered valves to fit the extra-large holes he’d let me drill, and about a week later, the heads were finished. I put them on the car, where they are to this day.
But on that last day, when I was picking them up, I asked him what I owed, and he just waved me off.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“This was fun for me. Don’t worry about it.”
And he wouldn’t take my money.
I was floored. I couldn’t believe what he was doing, but it turned out that for Dan there was more value in something as simple as conversation than there was in a collection of little oval pictures of dead presidents.
I put the engine back together, and in doing so, was able to combine the heads on my Swedish car with the intake manifold from that junkyard in Germany and that two barrel carburetor from wherever it was made, along with the MSS exhaust system from Jamestown, New York, and I drove it down to the shop to show him, so he could hear how his work that connected all the different parts came together.
He listened to the rough idle, hearing music he’d helped make, and smiled as I revved it and it smoothed out. And I thanked him and shook the hand of a true craftsman.
For some time afterwards, I’d stop by every now and then to say hi, and if he wasn’t there, I’d just leave a can of Sprite sitting on the doorknob for him to let him know I was thinking about him.
A few years passed, I changed jobs, his shop wasn’t on the way to work anymore, and life happened. I didn’t see him for a long time, but a few months ago, my son had a problem with a metal part he was working on, and I thought it was time to introduce him to someone who could make metal do anything, so we got a cold can of Sprite and headed down the road to see Dan.
But it turned out Dan wasn’t there anymore.
His son was, and told us that his dad had had to give up the shop, and that it was going to be sold to their biggest customer in the next few months.
I looked around, and while I could sense his presence in all of his tools, and in no small way, in his son, standing there in front of me, I realized the spirit of the place had changed. Not only wouldn’t I see Dan again, at least the Dan I knew, but the shop, with all its familiar machinery, would soon be gone, too.
My son didn’t quite understand the catch in my voice as I asked Dan’s son if he’d take the Sprite to his dad and tell him it was from an old friend, the one with the little blue Saab. The one that he’d made go a lot better, a little faster, and just a touch louder.
© Tom Roush, 2012