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On Cars

by Going Slowly


I've never been the least bit interested in learning about the inner workings of a car. In fact, they always seemed mysterious and scary to me. Until recently, fixing them was certainly outside my realm of possibility – that's something something relegated to the domain of Professionals.

With all of this car-fixing going on around me, I've started thinking about mechanics. I am disappointed in my woeful ignorance of the way these things work. So, the next time a car breaks down in the hot, sunny desert, instead of reading or relaxing, I decide to learn something.

Richie & Mette in the Sun Relaxing in the Desert

Tyler has described for me how various car parts work on more than one occasion, but it never really stuck. When we had our daily breakdown today, I began asking a barrage of questions about what's what. Things are starting to fall into place. I'm learning the basics, and beginning to understand through experience what used to be a jumble of vague ideas in my head.

Now, when I lift the hood of a car, I no longer see a scrambled mystery of a cyborg with all manner of secret and special tubes going everywhere. I love becoming more knowledgeable and self-sufficient. With simple tools, and mostly non-computerized vehicles, creativity and resourcefulness can flourish when something breaks.

You really can just make it work with what you've got. Like Gem, Matt and Alex, who have created a roof rack mount out of an old guidebook (nevermind for the moment that this picture was taken after the rack flew off thanks to a giant Mongolian Supriiise).

Travel Guide Roof Rack Mount

More than anything, I've learned that mechanics aren't special geniuses. In fact, in Mongolia lots of them seem to lack common sense. One of them briefly started his gloves and face on fire in Ölgii, lighting a cigarette while working on the Fiat's fuel pump! Another didn't re-attach our car's battery after welding the exhaust – who knows why he took it off in the first place.


You're supposed to disconnect the car battery so you don't short out any electrical systems with the high voltages/amperages involved in welding. Our mechanics in Ölgii inexplicably removed the battery bar in addition to the negative terminal. I remember being confused by this, and then I forgot to check that he reattached it after. He didn't.

Yesterday, our car seemed to be idling and accelerating poorly. I didn't think much of it at first, but today, I did some investigation. The terrible roads out here have caused our loose battery to smash into the LRC's distributor cap, breaking off one of the points.

LRC's Battery Ziptied

While I assess the situation, Tara is right there with me, asking loads of questions about what a distributor is, how it works and more. Tom and I answer her questions as best we can, pointing out the cables leading from the distributor cap to the spark plugs, and explaining how bursts of high voltage get sent to them by it, igniting the fuel in each cylinder at the right time.

Wanting to be sure she understands exactly what is going on, I turn the engine over with the cap off so she can see the distributor's rotor spinning. Tara's note: I worked! By the time he and Tom were done answering my questions, I understood exactly what the problem was, and why our engine was sometimes running on three cylinders instead of four.

In the end, we strapped the battery down with zip-ties, and fixed the distributor cap with super glue and sikaflex. We have an in-joke with the team that you can fix anything with sikaflex. It is Tom's answer to every problem! Hole in your radiator hose? Sikaflex. Broken distributor cap? Sikaflex. Flat tire? Got any sikaflex? Receding hairline? Sikaflex it!

LRC's Distributor Cap

Tara isn't the only one who is excited about working on cars. I doubt anyone I know thinks of me as a "car guy." I've been riding motorcycles since I was a little kid, though, and I did spend a lot of my youth hanging out at my then-step-dad's motorcycle shop. I guess I absorbed more than I thought I did.

If not for that, the bulk of my mechanical knowledge has come from a deep-seated obsession to understand how things work. It isn't an uncommon occurrence for Tara to groggily rouse herself at 4AM, finding me in front of the computer screen reading about physics, chemistry, electronics, engines, and more.

I never thought that a night spent poring over would come to practical use in the desert of Mongolia! This leg of our adventure is stretching the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of more than anything else on our trip so far.

I can't wait to wrench on cars when we get home, putting my newly discovered skills to good use. There happens to be a dirt track oval near my hometown where they race cars just like our LRC…

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Hmm, interesting - I wonder if that mechanic was deliberately nicking bits! Maybe he's got a side project out the back that's missing a battery bar =)
Posted by Michael on October 11th, 2010 at 1:14 PM
Tyler, have you ever thought about becoming a science teacher or lecturer and sharing your enthusiasm for understanding how things work?
Posted by Katherine on October 11th, 2010 at 1:53 PM
If you're referring to Golden Spike Speedway T, they closed up shop!
Posted by Amanda on October 11th, 2010 at 6:45 PM
Haha, I sure hope not. Something tells me the Mongolian solution to a missing battery bar involves wire and a spare bit of wood :p

I have, actually! I used to semi-seriously joke about being a high school speech teacher when I get old. So many things to do, so few years on Earth to do them...

Crap. Isn't there one in Little Falls too? Say, I know you guys are busy being parents and stuff, but would you like to race some crappy cars with us for a summer or two in a few years? Nothing fancy like what Paul used to do though!
Posted by Tyler on October 22nd, 2010 at 1:15 AM
It isn't an uncommon occurrence for Tara to groggily rouse herself at 4AM, finding me in front of the computer screen reading about physics, chemistry, electronics, engines, and more.
run 3
Posted by anniekelly on August 29th, 2018 at 10:26 PM