Learning to Wrench

In browsing social media groups that focus on our 924, 924S and 944 cars, we have noticed a significant number of posts that look like this – asking for help.

I just got a great deal on a 9X4 from a neighbor down the street.  It runs well/won’t start/runs badly/etc. and I need to get it working properly.  I am (insert age here) and don’t have much in mechanical knowledge/skills/tools/garage space, so I need some help.

These posts then go on to vaguely describe a problem or situation that could require anything from a new distributor cap to a complete engine rebuild to a need for a completely new wiring harness.  And the Internet Helpers try to help, but the poor owner sometimes lacks the basic automotive knowledge or vocabulary to even understand the answers that are received.  This seems to be happening more and more (or maybe we are just noticing it more.)  At any rate, we can relate – and most of us have been there at one time or another.

Our first Porsche was a 1978 924 that we bought around 1982.  It was a four-speed car with air conditioning and a real rocket of an engine – 95 horsepower if memory serves.  At one point it needed a clutch, so with the Chilton manual in hand along with a carport and four jack stands, the clutch job was attempted – we could not afford to have a shop do it for us.  It took about ten days of wrenching between work, family and chores, but we got it done.  We also decided that we would never do that again without a lift..

At that point it was obvious that we lacked the facilities, tools and specialized knowledge to work on these cars.  We had some general mechanical skills, and the rather basic hand tools we had were okay, but facilities and knowledge were lacking.  So the next step was to plan and build a garage/shop in the back yard.  (Our house was built in 1885, so no garage.)

Our shop is in the background. Car is an ’88 924S Carrera GT replica that we built.

We built a 24×36 wood-frame garage – yes, we built it ourselves with the help of Lowes supplying the materials and plans.  And it is still standing today, 35 years later – no one is more surprised than me!  Many more car projects were completed in that shop, although we still didn’t have a lift.  More 924’s, parts cars, parts hoards, and more repair guides.  And more tools, better ones, more specialized.  And we educated ourselves on both general and specialized mechanics.

In 1987 Porsche introduced the 924S.  We looked at them, but they were $20,000!  Too much money for us, unfortunately.  A brand new Toyota Corolla was less than half that, and it just didn’t make sense.

We kept learning, and fast forward to 2019.  We bought a house on 2.5 acres fifteen years earlier, and now it was time to build a proper workshop.  With experience, we planned and built 2,700 sf of shop with two lifts and lots of storage space for the parts we accumulated over the years.  It is wonderful.

But here is the lesson – we focused on one brand (Porsche), one model type (944 and 924S) and built our parts, knowledge base and tool collection around it.  We don’t rebuild Oldsmobiles, we don’t build Cobra kit cars, but what we don’t do here we can access a long-standing network of people and businesses to get things done.  We don’t rebuild transaxles – a lack of tools and knowledge there – and we don’t do paintwork.

It is difficult and expensive to have work done on your classic front-engine water cooled Porsche at a commercial shop.  So educate yourself in the ways and means of Wrenching.  Learn about these cars and apply what you have learned to you car.  Join the Porsche Club of America and access the local knowledge bank there.  Learn the vocabulary and learn how cars generally work.  Then apply that to how your car works.

We have been messing around with these cars for many decades, but we are still learning.  We are still surprised when a repair or modification to one of our cars actually works well.

Finally, when you do need to do a repair, do it right with the right parts, the right tools and the proper care.  When we see a car that isn’t doing things in the proper way, deconstructing some silly shortcuts by a previous owner to “make it right” is the hardest part of the job.  We’re not saying that you need only buy Genuine Porsche Parts, but we are saying that the right fix is the goal.  Ask the folks who have short-cutted their fuel line repairs about the cost of a fuel fire that starts at the fuel rail and ends at the tank.

If you need help, here are a few tips that will help you get the answers you need.

  • State the year, make, model and mileage on your car.
  • Describe the original problem, then talk about what you did to try to fix it.  “It would not start, although it would crank over.  I checked the battery and it has a full charge.  So I changed the plugs, distributor cap and rotor, and nothing changed.  I adjusted the right side mirror, no change.  Finally I put a gallon of gas in the tank, and it would start but stall right away.  I have thought about cleaning the windows…am I on the right track?”
  • Remember the Theory of Last Touched.  It is very rare that two unrelated “somethings” will fail at the same time.  So put some deductive thought into it – what could I have done to make this happen?  Changing the spark plugs absolutely did not cause the left rear tire to go flat…
  • And lastly, ask for and accept help.  We once had a 924S that one day just quit running, although once in a while it would catch and run for about a half minute.  In the FOUR MONTHS that we worked on it, the decision to push it out into the driveway and set it on fire was really close.  We changed everything – reference sensors, coil, wiring harness, plugs, cap, rotor, oil, even put an air freshener on the mirror – nothing worked.  But we knew that it was a reference sensor issue, but we just kept changing stuff hoping on a solution without actually thinking about it.  We knew that it was a reference sensor issue, but never thought about what it might be reading on the flywheel.  Finally we looked through the starter hole at the flywheel and found that the little set screw that the timing sensor was looking for was partially broken and bent.  Further investigation showed us that one of the pressure plate bolt heads had failed and went bouncing around inside the bell housing, eventually hitting the poor innocent set screw.  So we changed the flywheel, put in a new clutch while we were there, and bolted everything back together.  Turn the key and “vrooooom” – it started right up.  Four months…

Happy wrenching!

Author: Kevin Duffy, Author and Chief Geek

Kevin Duffy is a retired Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Daytona State College in Florida and a dedicated car guy. He now spends his time with Porsche 924S, 944's and 968's in his backyard shop. He is active in the Porsche Club of America, and he concentrates on 924S and the 924S Special Editions, doing rescues and restorations.

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