Put Your Back Into It: Blowin’ Gaskets

Simo really likes to put his back – and other parts of his body – into his work


HAD a great catch-up with a few mates at the recent Asphalt Demons shindig and our conversation soon turned to comparing our 40-something aches and ailments.

We quickly agreed on two important points: Firstly, we sounded like a bunch of pathetic old whingers, and secondly, we realised that the majority of our physical woes were caused by car-related shenanigans.

Years of hunching over engine bays, kneeling down doing panelwork and corkscrewing under dashes to tackle electrical tasks have left all of us nursing sore backs, knees and necks respectively. That’s pretty standard fare across the board with this hobby.

It got me thinking back to the more unusual and sometimes comical stacks that I’d endured or witnessed in my time throwing spanners, some of which produced tears of both pain and laughter. Sadly, I have to own up and say the most epically stupid workplace injury I know of was carried out by yours truly.

It was the early 1990s, and I was a first-year apprentice mechanic at a local performance shop. I was living at home and my girlfriend at the time was a first-year nursing student, also living with her folks, which made it difficult for us to enjoy ‘special’ time. It nearly always had to be a stealth mission executed at either home or in the confines of the car, so the chance to have a dirty yet comfortable weekend away at a Sunshine Coast hotel was just what Dr Love had ordered.

We were both broke, so had busted our arses to scrimp and save to make this happen, and couldn’t wait to hit the road on Friday arvo and enjoy some freedom.

I’d not long bought my VG Regal hardtop (which I still own today), which was powered by a dead-stock Hemi 245 six-cylinder. The motor was tired but still had plenty of grunt, and the only changes were a 350 Holley that replaced the troublesome 2bbl Carter and a set of 3.5 diff gears I’d swapped in out of an XA ute.

I was supposed to be nursing that 245 until I built a decent 265, but of course by nursing I really meant just wailing on this thing with big peg-legger burnouts and the usual teen mayhem.

The Thursday night before the big weekend finally rolled around and I left a mate’s place around 9:30pm to go home and pack. He urged me to channel all my excitement into a burnout and I accepted the challenge. I was feeling pretty pumped about my impending release – pardon the pun(s) – so when I got to the uphill T intersection at the end of his street, I gave the steering some extra lock to help unload the right rear and proceeded to lay a decent liquorice stripe up the road.

The engine started to miss and clatter; it was normal for this thing to bleed out the lifters after a decent rev, but this time it never cleared – she was missing bad and I was in trouble. I needed this car to ferry us to the coast for Operation Submarine Racing and I had no other transport options.

It wasn’t getting hot, so I suspected the head gasket had blown between cylinders. Shit! This was the last thing I needed!

I rang my boss and told him of my dilemma and he guaranteed we’d make time to fix it the following day. The fact he was only in his mid-20s helped immensely as he appreciated the sheer importance of my weekend plans.

I nursed the car to work at sparrow’s fart Friday morning and removed the tappet cover, clinging to the slim hope it may have busted rockers or the like – no such luck – after gently hosing the engine to help it cool quicker. I cleared a bench in preparation for the world’s quickest head gasket replacement, disconnecting the engine pipe and ancillaries in between my normal jobs. With a break in customer work and my boss out for a couple of hours, I decided to whip the head off to make sure my diagnosis was right.

To make it quick, the rockers were simply loosened and turned to get the pushrods out and I left the combination cast-iron inlet/exhaust manifolds with the carby still attached to the head.

I removed the head bolts, but needed a hand to lift this behemoth onto the bench. My boss was still not back, and being just a two-man show, I was left to my own devices. The engine crane was mid-job supporting a Clevo in a Landau, so I devised a method to slide this bloody heavy cast-iron assembly across to the driver’s-side edge using timber laid on the inner guard.

That worked a treat and I had it propped up ready for the big lift over to the workbench. I tucked my arms under the head face from the sparkplug side and held onto the inlet runners so the non-manifold side of the head was against my stomach.

With a big heave I lifted the whole lot off the guard and shuffled over to the bench. Man, it was a tall order for this scrawny weakling, but I made it.

Now this is where things got tricky: Both the work bench and position of the cylinder head in my arms were at groin height, smack-bang in the vicinity of my nether regions. I sat the manifolds onto the bench and pushed the remaining head assembly forward using my groin area as leverage. I worked my arms back until I had my fingers under each end of the head face, then carefully pulled one set of fingers out and let that end of the head rest on the bench. So here I am, with one set of fingers – so a tapering 1cm-to-nothing air gap – all that stood between the plug edge of the head sitting completely on the bench.

Okay, it’s time to pause and let me set the scene. On this particular day, the ‘frank’ part of my frank-and-beans assembly was pointing to the left, protected only by my undies and shorts. This sensitive part of my tackle must have been hard-pressed against the side of the cylinder head and dangerously entering that remaining gap between the head face and bench, because as I’ve pulled that second set of fingers out to let the head drop, it pinched the side of my tockley shaft!

The pain was instant as this cast-iron lump taught me who was boss, and to make matters worse, my instant reaction was to jump backwards, which stretched that shaft skin out like it was a piece of chewing gum.

I buckled over in pain and tried to make sense of what the hell had happened. I ran to the toilet to check the damage; thankfully it had just pinched the skin and not squashed the whole assembly to make it resemble a paint scraper, but a blood blister was forming fast and a throbbing of the wrong kind was settling in.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so pressed on with the car, confirming that the gasket had blown between three and four and cleaning up the deck of the block.

My boss returned not long after and knew something was up. I told him what had happened and he said: “Do you need to go to the doctor?” When I said I thought I’d be okay, he took that as permission to burst out laughing and proceeded to crack every “Can you pass me a flat-blade screwdriver? If not, a squashed penis should work” or “Have you cleaned the block surface with your cock scraper?” joke he could think of.

We straight-edged the cylinder head, which measured up okay, and got the car back together and running by mid-afternoon.

But what about my weekend? I needed things to be in perfect working order, and I didn’t just mean the car! I broke the news to my girlfriend, who didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. When things were as soft as jellyfish snot it was okay, but as soon as it was time to stand to attention the pain of stretching that blood blister was intense.

But you never waste an opportunity, and a couple of trial runs kind of work-hardened the injured area and the wound found its happy place. Thankfully, so did I!