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Mitch Schneider: A Total Eclipse of the Son

Not all that long ago, an entire generation learned about high performance and hot rods from Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys. Their lyrics romanticized surfing, cars and the California lifestyle. I knew kids who quoted those lyrics as they described either the car they were driving, or the one they desperately wanted to drive. And, I guess that was OK.

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By Mitch Schneider
Contributing Editor

 Not all that long ago, an entire generation learned about high performance and hot rods from Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys. Their lyrics romanticized surfing, cars and the California lifestyle. I knew kids who quoted those lyrics as they described either the car they were driving, or the one they desperately wanted to drive. And, I guess that was OK.

We’ll never know how many of the kids seduced by those lyrics went home to tinker with their ride (Or, their father’s ride). Just like we’ll never know how many eventually found a home in our industry.

It’s a generation or two later, and while the music is gone, the car culture appears to be alive and well, although very different. Where kids in the ’60s learned about cars on the radio and dreamed of surfing off the Point at Sunset or at County Line, kids today are doing all their learning and all their surfing on the web!

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Once upon a time, “wiping out” meant choking down a little salt water and some seaweed when you were buried by the waves and had to fight your way to the surface. Today, it can mean learning some very expensive lessons about what works and what doesn’t, what fits and what won’t, while walking up and down the aisles of any one of a hundred virtual high performance shops, pulling six of these and two of those from their place on one electronic shelf after another, until your shopping cart is full and your credit card (or, perhaps more appropriately, your father’s credit card) is exhausted!

When I started working on cars professionally in the late ’60s and started seeing kids who knew nothing about what they were driving, uttering the same words the Beach Boys were singing, I really thought I had heard and seen it all. Forty years later, I’ve come to realize just how wrong you can be, especially when the subject is kids and cars!

This time it was a little red turbocharged Eclipse and a “wannabe” tuner who I talked about a column or two ago: the one who showed up the same week as the guy with the broken frame, and the kid with the bad tires and loose lower control arm.

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The Eclipse came to us with a serious noise coming from under the timing belt cover, a complaint of poor driveability, low power, really bad fuel economy and a driver who really didn’t look like he’d be old enough to drive for at least two more years.

When we opened the hood we knew we’d be in for a real adventure! There were cables the size of power lines headed toward the trunk; which, as you have probably already guessed, was filled with speakers and amps, sub-woofers and tweeters. No spare or jack to clutter up the truck: just enough mega-watts to melt your cerebellum and cause immediate and profound hearing impairment. But, that didn’t compare with what was going on under the hood.

UNDERHOOD SURPRISES
The first thing you saw, or didn’t see as the hood opened and you were blinded by the chrome and polished aluminum, was what was there and what was missing. You couldn’t miss the oversized cold air induction system, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I have one under the hood of my car. It’s just that mine fits; the system installed on the Eclipse didn’t. And, as a result, you couldn’t help but think, “Well, this isn’t right!”

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Following that revelation, your eyes were immediately drawn to the tangle of hoses, wires and connectors that seemed to be growing out of every empty space under the hood: wires, hoses and connectors going nowhere. It was a visual smorgasbord of things that obviously needed to be done, and things that should never have been done in the first place.

But, the visuals were nothing compared to the noise. And, I’m not referring to the heavy bass coming from the stereo causing the vehicle and everything around it to vibrate. The timing belt was beating out a rhythm against the timing belt cover that would have made any “rapper” proud!

If this vehicle and its driver weren’t representative of an entire generation of cars and drivers, it would be easy to blow them both off. But, they are! And, that, coupled with the fact that the vehicle was referred to us by the transmission shop we work with after the kid returned there insisting that everything he was experiencing, including the noises under the hood, were related to the rebuild mom and dad had just paid for, not all the modifications he and his pals had made on the vehicle, left us with just about no alternative other than to work on it.

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The transmission shop was finally able to convince mom and dad that the transmission was fine, and that the noise and driveability problems their son was complaining about were all originating under the hood. That left us with plenty to talk about.

There was that cold air induction system I mentioned earlier: the one designed to fit a different Mitsubishi model with a larger engine, not available here in the States. There was also the turbocharger: installed on this vehicle, but engineered and manufactured to fit that same vehicle, the one with the engine you won’t find here. In fact, there were all kinds of components and accessories installed on this vehicle that weren’t necessarily designed for it, but were bolted on nevertheless!

INTERNET PARTS POTPOURRI
Where did all these “bolt-ons” come from? The Internet, of course! How did all this stuff find its way on to the vehicle? Well, all of you have probably heard of the many “friends and family” plans for your cell phone, haven’t you? Apparently, there are “friends and family” plans available on the Internet as well.

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Our young hero had made his way through a virtual universe of forums and bulletin boards, user groups and individual messages, specializing in high-performance Japanese car modifications. He purchased a few of these, a couple of those, one or two of these over here, and, of course, that one over there, because they were guaranteed to produce the desired result — more ponies. And, he then spent countless hours with his “friends and family” trying desperately to make it all fit. Please notice, I didn’t say “work!” Some of it could and never would work because it wasn’t hooked up: It was just there. And, it was just there and not hooked up…well, because it didn’t fit!

The turbo couldn’t work properly because it hadn’t been installed properly and because there was no way to control the boost.

The engine couldn’t run properly because both the balance and timing belts were barely tight enough to remain on the engine, the mixture was off as a result of a half dozen vacuum leaks and the engine was misfiring because, among other things, the spark plugs were loose.

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REPAIR LAUNDRY LIST
We put together a laundry list of things that absolutely needed to be done to prevent a catastrophic engine failure — starting with the timing belt — and presented it to both the young driver and then again to his mom. She seemed to get it and authorized the work immediately. Her son, however, was having some difficulty connecting the dots. He wanted to control the repair based upon information he had received from his pals in cyberspace.

He didn’t want a tensioner because he wasn’t convinced he needed one. He wanted to provide his own parts, because he was sure the ones he could “get” would be both cheaper and better. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: He wanted to do it his way!

We called both the son and the mom and let them know just how things were going to be done if we did the job: how the job needed to be done in the real world, how it needed to be done in order to ensure the kind of dependability the friendly folks financing the repairs — the First Federal Bank of Mom & Dad — were insisting upon.

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We explained what we would do and what we weren’t willing to do; what we would “fix,” and what we would do the best we could with. More importantly, we explained what we couldn’t do; what we were unable to do. Not because we don’t have the skills, the tools or the talent necessary to achieve success, but because changes had been made to the basic physiology of the vehicle that made balance, and therefore, success, impossible.

Did we fix everything? No.

Could we? I wasn’t really willing to find out.

We fixed everything we were able to fix and balanced overall performance as much as we could based upon the changes that had been made.

You see, while you and I can take advantage of everything the virtual world has to offer, we don’t live there. We can’t. We don’t have that luxury. We are constrained by the limits of the physical world in which we live and the laws of physics that govern everything that exists here.

We can’t “build” a virtual car, with virtual parts that seem to fit together without a problem, and then expect it to work anyplace other than in a virtual world. That may be possible in a Beach Boys song or on the internet, but it isn’t likely to happen in your shop or in mine.

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In the end, our young hero wasn’t too happy. His wishes had been “eclipsed” by the mundane realities of life in the real world. Oh, he got back a vehicle that ran far better than the one he brought in: a vehicle that would prove to be far more dependable. He even got back a vehicle that was quicker and more powerful, something I’m sure he never expected. But, it didn’t work the way he thought it would because the parts he had installed didn’t fit the way he thought they should: the way he was promised they would on the Internet.

If he had purchased them from you or from me, we would make it right! We’d have to. All he would have to do is call and then come in. Returning things in a virtual world isn’t as easy as purchasing them there. Returning things in a virtual world requires sending them back in the real world.

Of course, if he had purchased them from you or me, they would work. They would work because they would fit! And, they would fit because…

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Wait a second… Isn’t that… Cool!

“Just a little deuce coupe with a flat head mill,
But she’ll walk a Thunderbird like (she’s) it’s standin’ still,
She’s ported and relieved and she’s stroked and bored,
She’ll do a hundred and forty with the top end floored,
She’s my little deuce coupe,
You don’t know what I got.”
— Brian Wilson & Roger Christian

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