My First Time… Changing A Head Gasket

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I was reading this thread about a mechanic who accidentally switched the left and right heads on an EA 82 Subaru engine, and started to wonder what my worst repair blunder might have been. Most of us back yard mechanics have installed distributor 180 deg off, screwed up on the timing belts at least once, or some other silly thing. I was wondering what memorable mishap you’ve done in the shop.

I think my favorite would be the first time I ever replaced a head gasket. The year is 1986. I’m in college and of course very poor. The car that got me started on my long ascendancy to shade-tree mechanic uber-master was my 1976 Honda Civic, one of the ones with the little 1200 CC  CVCC four banger under the hood (great little engine). After noticing excessive smoke coming out the exhaust pipe for a few days, the car suddenly won’t turn over. Try to start it, and the engine goes “kunk” and won’t turn. I have the car towed to a local shop, and the mechanic tells me I have a blown head gasket, and it would cost $400ish to repair (it was long ago, I don’t remember the exact price, but it was in that ball park). I can just barely scrap up that amount, so I say go ahead. Two days later, he calls me with a list of other stuff that needs to be done; mill the head, replace a few burnt valves, blah, blah, blah… which raised the cost well out of my price range. So, I told the mechanic I couldn’t afford the cost, and ask him if he could just bill me for the time taken to tear down the engine. He was fine with that. I gave him $100 dollars, and had the car towed to my parents place. I asked them to let me borrow their garage, as the ultra-tiny house I was renting didn’t have one. They agreed. Away I went.

It took a week to get the new parts – head gasket and a couple of replacements for burnt valves – and another week to put the thing back together. I had never taking an engine apart, and didn’t take this one apart either, so, except for the Chilton’s guide (God Bless You Chilton!) I was basically flying blind on where things went, including the bazillion vacuum hoses going to and fro from the carburetor. It was like a really drunken vacuum hose spider had gotten all confused and had just laid its lines all over the place. Those of you who had ever worked on an angine with a carb know exactly what I’m talking about. Well, two weeks later, late in the evening, I had put the last bits of foo back on the engine, checked to make sure I had tightened the valve cover, center pulley, and all the obvious bits I had put back together, filled the radiator and oil, and, though extremely nervous, I got in the car to try and start it.

I turned the key. The engine cranked…. nothing….


I double checked the distributor, and realized I was off a tooth. Tried to start it again.

Putt, Putt, stall. OMG! I’m closer!

In those days, I didn’t have a timing light, so I was flying blind there too. I fiddled with the timing advanced a few more times. Got back in the car. Turned the key


OMG! OMG!!! OMG!!!! I did it!!!!!! I couldn’t believe it!!!!

I got so excited, that I immediately backed out of the garage and into the driveway. When I got out of the car to close the garage door, that was when I noticed it. There was a huge wide streak of oil marking my path from the garage to my current position. Crap! Oh Crap! Oh Crap!!! Mom is going to KILL ME!!!!!

I did check various nuts and bolts before trying to start the car, but never even thought about the oil pan plug! Luckily, I had plenty of kitty litter on hand!

To this day, I am still amazed that I was able to fix that car and get it right the first time. Of course, I did have a few screws and bolts left over!!!

PS. I was not the only one who was amazed. My Dad, from whom I got my mechanical spark from, also voiced his amazement that my repair worked. It wasn’t that he didn’t think I could do it. It was that, as good a mechanic as he was (he repaired our radios and TV’s, invented a teacher toy, and even rebuilt a carburetor…. once, swearing along the way), he himself had never been brave enough to attempt this type of repair. And as a shade-tree mechanic, he very well understood the difficulties involved when you have to put something together you didn’t take apart yourself.

Again, thank you Dad, for giving me the skills to be able to do things I can do with wrenches and screw drivers and multimeters and wires. Thank you Dad.

4 Comments to “My First Time… Changing A Head Gasket”

  1. By Jeff Alberts, January 26, 2010 @ 4:45 am

    I had plenty of kitty littler on hand!

    Is that to make your cat smaller?

  2. By Sonicfrog, January 27, 2010 @ 12:28 am


  3. By Sonicfrog, January 27, 2010 @ 12:29 am

    You know, I could be making those mistakes on purpose, as kind of a hide-and-seek game just for you!!!

  4. By Jeff Alberts, January 27, 2010 @ 3:14 am

    I’ll believe that like I believe Michael Mann is an honest broker.

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