Working On Your Own Junk
Part of Car Lust is living with vehicles that have seen better days. Sure it would be nice to drive the newest and latest and greatest, but the reality is for me, and many others, that we drive the wheels off what we have, and what we have is rarely all that good.
Late last week I ordered a radiator online for our 2001 Dodge Caravan with the 3.3-liter V-6. The original radiator with 212,000 miles had sprung a leak and was losing fluid; it had me worried it might rupture in an inopportune time. I live in a small town in southern Minnesota, so I called around locally and discovered there wasn't a radiator shop in town, with the closest being 15 miles away. Radiator replacement is usually pretty straightforward, so as I have more time and skills than money, I decided to do it myself.
Mechanically, I can hold my own. I grew up in my grandfather's car shop watching my grandpa and my dad work on our cars. I also spent many years working alongside my father in his motorcycle shop, where I really learned to be competent with a wrench. Add to that the fact that, with money tight, I have spent my whole life working on my own vehicles, and on the surface this seemed like a no-brainer job for me.
So at 4 PM I started taking the radiator out. I have done many radiators in my years, but this one was unlike any other. A little over 2.5 hours later I finally had the radiator out and was missing a sizable chunk of flesh from the palm of my hand. My hand had slipped and caught a sharp metal post on the radiator housing about an hour in, just in time for me to bleed on everything and just before I started draining the system. Fun.
When I tackled the project, I didn't know that I would need to disassemble most of the front of the van. Honestly, it would have been easier to remove the front bumper, quite likely saving time and headache. I did remove the grill portion that is attached to the bumper. There are some little clips that hold this on that are an absolute nightmare to get off, especially if you have arms larger in diameter than those of a 4th-grade girl. You have to remove a cross member (one of the few easy things), all the plastic above the engine, the hood latch and both electric fans. The fans fight the whole way, but if you stick to it, they eventually come. By this point your lower back is barking; since I'm 6'3" and fat, mine really was barking. And then the fun began.
Getting the radiator to separate from the air conditioning radiator was a real chore. On the left side where the AC lines run, there is a peg on the A/C cooler that sticks into a hole on the radiator. This is darn near impossible to lift out with the A/C lines fighting you and the tolerance being very slim. After fighting and fighting--and subsequently contemplating opening the garage door and pushing the van out into the street and lighting it on fire--I finally got apart. But the fun didn't end there. Then I had to get the radiator out. Everything possible fights you--all the wiring and everything else in the front half of the engine bay. There isn't much space to get it out, but slowly and surely, once I wiggled it back and forth and pulled off everything that seemed to grab it on the way up, I was eventually holding the radiator in my hands.
It seemed like a victory, until I realized I still had to put the other one back in. The good news is that reassembly took only about half the time as removal, since all the rusted bolts were loose and I had figured out how everything goes. But it is by no means easy or enjoyable.
I checked the hoses, refilled the fluids, double checked everything was tight and made sure I didn't have any left-over parts--check. Then it was time for the test drive--if everything came up to temp and held pressure, I'd be in the clear. Thankfully, everything checked out after my test drive.
On a scale of 1-10 for special skills, this really wasn't all that special--probably a 4. But on a difficulty scale, this was an 8 or 9 simply for the continual frustration I experienced because of the design. There are few other shade-tree projects I have undertaken that pegged my frustration like this did. I wanted to break things about halfway through, and that never helps the work process.
Add to this the horrible experience of installing the rear spark plugs (the fronts are easy) and both O2 sensors in this van, and I am quickly learning to loathe this vehicle. The only good design I've encountered on this van is the fan relay switch that was burned out when I got the van. Remove the glovebox and two small screws, one wiring plug and you're done--a three-minute job. Otherwise, everything else I've touched on this van has taken at least three times longer than I'd like, and twice as long as any similar project on a different vehicle.
But in the end I achieved victory, albeit almost four hours later with a desperate need for Advil. I no longer have to worry about my van stranding me on a cold winter night in Minnesota, and that peace of mind is worth a lot with a 6-month-old son.