Adventures behind the dashboard of a Ford Expedition

We had grand plans for last weekend. I had purchased Motorcycle Safety Training for my husband’s birthday so that we could ride together occasionally and relieve some of the monotony of being the sole employees of a small business.

Our objective was to finish the course together (I had previously gone through the training when I bought my bike several years ago) so that we could license Peter on Monday and hopefully, be looking for that second bike by the week’s end.
We have friends and co-workers that ride and done safely, riding is an entertaining way to spend the precious few discretionary hours we have available, relieve a little stress and provide an alternative means of transport for at least one of us in case our only operating vehicle breaks down.
Simultaneously, my truck Rocky (our only operating vehicle), began to show some ‘issues’. A ten year old Expedition with well over 200,000 hard earned miles; he was aging less than gracefully and I figured I was facing some eventual repairs.
I believe in running vehicles until their wheels fall off, reattaching them and running them some more, like until my feet fall through the floorboards.
Yes, I am cheap.
In the past, I had done much of the repairs myself as the lack of money prompted me to learn a few things about cars.
If desperation is the mother of invention, I am The Mother.
Many years have passed since the days of tuning or rebuilding my little six bangers, installing mufflers, thermostats, water pumps and changing brakes. Cars have gotten more complex and well, I have gotten a little older, occasionally have much more discretionary income to hire a trained mechanic to do it for me and (up until recently) always had an alternative means of transportation.
And since you cannot carry a dog on a motorcycle, and since my business is dog concentric, it is important to have at least one fully covered, operating vehicle that will fit at least one human and one dog, preferably in a crate.
The Rock had been problem free up until about 1oo thousand miles when some of the cylinders started to miss and a novel-to-Ford-Trucks-and-SUV’s-issue with shallow spark plug holes prompted a top engine rebuild (to the tune of over 4 grand) about 3 years ago.
He got a lot of new stuff. The one thing he never recovered was adequate controlled heat. The thermostat was new, the engine was new (the top portion anyway), everything was just fine otherwise.
From a truck that had cab heat capable of initiating climate change entirely on his own, Rocky developed a small problem. From little, to absolutely no heat. The colder the weather, the less heat he had. Defroster worked. Somewhat…
Since the truck ran fine otherwise, I couldn’t have cared less. Passengers in my truck were advised to dress warmly in the cooler months, and since there eventually was enough heat thrown through the firewall once you got up to speed, controlled heat became a non-issue.
Until last week, before the Motorcycle Safety Training.
On occasion, I drive to Frederick Maryland to train at Lily Pons with my friend, colleague, occasional employer and mentor, Pat Nolan of Ponderosa Kennels.
On one particular occasion, I had stopped at the Starbucks Coffee on the way to the Pons when the temperature gauge spiked to ungodly levels and I pulled off to park, calling Pat as I wanted to inform him that I was going to be a little late.
He was kind enough to meet me at the Starbucks and offer his assistance; a trip across busy route 85 to the BP station for a gallon of coolant.
By the time we got back, the truck had cooled sufficiently for the gauge to read normal.
I added the coolant, looking for leaks (none, anywhere) and went my merry way.
Drive home; no problem. Several hundred miles later, no problem. Four days later, the same thing happens again.
Added coolant (still no leaks) and off I went. Like a fool trusting faith, I went to the Pons several more times without issue. Almost a hundred miles, round trip from my home each time.
I went to the grocery store last Monday and realized that I had a problem. A BIG one.
Still no leaks, but now the cab was pervaded by the stench of coolant burning off the block. The sickly sweet odor was accompanied by the powerful heat coming off the firewall when none of the vents were open. When the vents were open, I got bupkus for heat or defrost and the temperature indicator skyrocketed into the red zone.
Ugh. Heat Core. The only thing not replaced be either of the mechanics when I got the compression issues from the spark plug debacle three years ago.
I had been warned, which is why it came to mind immediately. My realtor’s husband, also a mechanic; suggested it to me when I had complained about all that money spent on fixing the truck and now I had a vehicle with no heat. Since the coolant blowback had circulated throughout the engine, the likelihood was that the heat core that regulates and controls the heat for the cab was probably affected, or would be, all other things being equal (or all other things being new).
I stopped off at Schnauble’s Automotive in Westminster to ask what it would cost to fix it. Several dated transmissions on news groups and list-servs had quoted some prices as cheaply as 300 or 400 dollars.
Louis Schnauble is a wonderful and honest man. When I can afford him, he is the only guy I will let touch my vehicles. He is a prince amongst mechanics, a rarity and a blessing.
Knowing that the damn thing was located next to the firewall, I doubted that it would come in at any of the prices I saw, so I asked.
A minimum of $1200.00.
For a part that costs around $50.00.
We now, officially, had a dilemma.
Right before the Safety Training, which I had planned, plotted and saved for as a present to my husband.
I could milk it for the two classroom sessions, held at night and only a few miles from home. But the Saturday and Sunday Range time on actual motorcycles was in jeopardy. I was tempting fate each and every time I drove Rocky. Anywhere.
And no other vehicles to drive. It would have been fine if I had a passenger pillion on my bike, but it is a solo seat, made for just one rider.
I told Louis I would let him know. I thought to myself that there is no way in HELL I could cough up that kind of jingle on such short notice, that it would take more than two days and I would be totally without transportation (unacceptable to a person like me, who sweats at the very prospect of not being allowed to drive) for more than a day or two and that this particular price quote was simply outrageous. Over a grand to replace a fifty dollar part?
My husband and I sat in the truck and looked at each other for a second and decided then and there that we would do it ourselves. We went to the local NAPA store for our heater core and determined that we could get it done on our own. My dilemma remained, would we do it in time for the training?
Friday is the interim break between the classroom training and the range training that started on Saturday morning. If you are late or miss any of the training, you cannot continue at all. If you go to the classroom portion, you can neither be late or miss the range portion of the training. You lose your money.
I was already in for almost 600 dollars. I would lose it if we did not complete. No excuses, no second chances.
On the other hand, if we did not get Rocky fixed, we would be without transportation, to the store, to work, to get cigarettes, anything.
We chose survival.
I had found some on-line resources for DIY’ers here and here.
Friday morning, I ran all the errands we would need to start our task except for the most important ones. I didn’t get an adequate supply of either cigarettes or beer. Additional incentive to get this job done and right the first time.
Dunno about you non-smokers, but for you smokers, you know what I’m talking about. The beer was celebratory for the successful completion of our task. The cigarettes were not only to keep us sane, but to prevent us from killing each other.
So we started.
We disconnected the positive battery cable so the airbags would not accidentally deploy while we were dislodging the dashboard from the firewall. We drained the radiator and started to rip Rocky’s guts out.
I had a client stop by Friday afternoon (about 6 hours into the project) who doubted our sanity, let alone our ability to actually get the job done.

The offending part is in the black box on the right of the image. It sits on the cab side of the firewall, the connectors and hoses sit on the engine side. The vast majority of our time and effort went to the installation of the heater core itself. The aspect of removing the dash and reinstalling it correctly, although time consuming, was not difficult. Wrestling that stupid core was. It took two people 14 hours with no prior mechanical training or experience beyond little DIY projects to get the whole job done. The largest chunk of time was figuring out how to get that heater core connected to the other side.

Everything is almost back together here, minus the interior console and the glove box. Total time to this point was about 13 hours.
Yes, we ran out of cigarettes. We were reduced to smoking butts until we got a reprieve from a neighbor looking to buy 8 dozen eggs just as we were finishing up. Thank God! We would have certainly perished without him! He probably would have perished had he not been bearing cigarettes!
I did lose the money I spent on the Motorcycle Safety Training, but we learned some valuable lessons and gained an immeasurable sense of pride and accomplishment.
Not that it is my intention to deprive my mechanic of an income, one which he richly deserves. I am just a dog trainer, fraught with all of the concerns a weak economy threatens. I need to conserve. So in the spirit of becoming more self sufficient, my husband and myself have decided that we will do much of these auto repairs ourselves. Next is the air ride suspension springs and bags on the rear end.
The Safety Training will just have to wait til spring!
The rains started just about the time we finished up. We didn’t kill ourselves or each other and we did manage to get those celebratory beers, along with our own supply of cigarettes. I took my guys to Five Guys for dinner.
And Sunday, we returned to Valhalla where we slept and feasted.
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Filed under DIY Car repairs, Stone Soup Diaries

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