Sprockets, Tappets, Pistons & Horse Power

Posted on May 14, 2013

Cars seemed to have dominated my life in the last few days, I have experienced on three consecutive days, a flat battery, a flat tyre and a speeding fine which was the result of a self-inflicted dash up the M3 motorway late on Sunday evening.

The flat battery was self-inflicted as well, courtesy of leaving my ignition on at the cricket club on Saturday afternoon but as much as I try, it is hard to go for an unenviable hat-trick and blame myself for a slow puncture. What is ironic about all this is that on Friday night I was engaged in a long conversation about cars and their development since the collapse of the industry in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Let me get this straight, cars or motorbikes and how they operate, is something that has been totally alien to me since childhood and discussions about them have always been constant source of emasculation. My Dad was one of those blokes who had a hoist in the garage to lift engines out with and such was pitiful build quality of anything made by British Leyland, it was a hoist that got regular use.

It was something of a shock to me on Saturday to turn the ignition on my car only to hear silence, but back when I first started driving, a car that started first time, particularly on a cold morning, was cause for a minor celebration. My Austin Maxi, a beautiful piece of British engineering if there ever was one, had so many quirks that if a stranger was to attempt to drive it, the chances of getting it going were near on impossible.

As I recall, depending on the air temperature, the choke had to be pulled out about three quarters of the way and you had to wait 3.4 seconds before furiously pumping on the accelerator as if your life depended on it. Failure to carry out this task resulted in the flooding of the engine and a half hour wait before the process could be repeated.

As a bit of additional fun, my Dad had discovered that the brushes in the starter motor would tend to stick, so it would often need a light tap with a hammer, something that made for a highly embarrassing incident if you stalled at a junction or traffic lights.

In fairness, the starter motor issue was not unique to the Maxi, a chap (Mick Dolan) who I played football with, had a Vauxhall Viva with the same issue, which was, quite remarkably, solved by me. As I tapped his starter motor with my now resident car hammer and his Viva burst in to life, Mick congratulated me as if though I had just split the atom.

Sadly, that was and still remains my only ever mechanical success and whenever people discussed pistons, tappets and injectors I drifted off in to a world of utter confusion. I still don’t know what tappets and injectors are if I am honest, though I am not sure that they still exist in modern cars that are essentially a Microsoft operating system under a bonnet. Words like piston have been replaced by equally confusing ones like converter and diagnostic, which to me is something of a relief, as my lack of knowledge of cars is now more widespread, with even some practical people holding their hands up and admitting they have no clue how they work.

To pick out my most humiliating mechanical failure is not easy but I think it dates back to owning a moped when I was sixteen. This thing was called a Honda CB50 and it went wrong as regularly as I fell off it, which on average was about once a week, twice if I was really in the mood. My friend Gavin, had decided that it would be a great idea to put a bigger carburettor (whatever that is) on it, thus taking its maximum speed from 38mph to 55mph in an instant.

The Honda CB50: Not suited to larger carburretors

As I raced off down the Pineapple straight near Brimpton, I was really impressed to see the speedometer approaching 50mph, then suddenly there was a huge bang and I shuddered sideways into a nearby ditch with my leg resting on the exhaust pipe that was now as hot as the surface of the sun. I can’t say that this masterstroke of Gavin’s didn’t work but it was a piece of engineering that was not to last long.

I gathered up the debris and took it home to my Dad, who without a manual, started piecing it back together bit by bit, with the re-setting of tappets apparently being a really tough task. The poor sod spent the whole day working on it as I looked on helplessly while he tutted, mumbled, and mildly celebrated a breakthrough with an AHA! Or “Got the bugger.” The tension was unbearable, it was like watching complex brain surgery, I just felt that one false move and the bike was dead.

However, my Dad made nuclear bombs so he wasn’t to be beaten by a motorbike and as day drifted into night he gave me the news that he had cured it, the bike was mended. In my tender years I regarded this as a heroic achievement; all what I needed to do was put the spark plug in and I would be off and running again, ready for my next crash. Why he allowed me to carry out this task is still beyond me, but he did.

As I tightened it, something didn’t feel right but I carried on regardless. Then it happened, it spun really quickly…I HAD CROSS THREADED IT!!! All those hours of work had been wrecked, what the Hell was I going to say to my Dad? How could I explain that I was such an imbecile? In total panic I wrapped the thread in masking tape and rammed the spark plug in to the engine before my Dad was alerted to the mess I had made of his work.

“Go on then Bob…Start her up then.”

I was nearly crying as I kicked the starter pedal and sure enough out popped the spark plug with the masking tape flapping around it. There is a first time for everything and this was the first time I had heard my dad say “What the fucking Hell….? Entirely understandable I suppose; it was a hideous moment of black comedy.

So at least with modern vehicles I don’t have to go through the process of mechanical humiliation anymore, it is all part of my history that I can now laugh at. Or so I thought before I got caught speeding the other night. The copper, a decent bloke I might add, was taking on my explanation that the car was new to me and agreed that with modern cars you can go quickly without realising it.

“I do understand sir, modern cars can be quick but when you are on a clear run, you really need to keep an eye on your speedo…two litre is she?”


“What horse power has she got?”



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