Backyard Engineers: When Realities Clash – UnderhoodService

Backyard Engineers: When Realities Clash

During the years and years of running my shop, I have run across a lot of hot rods, home built contraptions, and those "super-upper, make it better than the factory did" cars. I sometimes wonder why I take on these projects - maybe it was slow that day and I needed something to do. Or, the owner may have had one of those personalities and charisma that made me want to truly believe in their dream as much as they personally did.

It seems every time I get into one of these, I have to back up a second and take a good look at what I’m getting into. Whether it’s the motor setup, the transmission, or the wiring … something about the backyard engineering usual leads to a problem that you won’t find out about right away. I tend to look at it as if I were the engineer at the manufacturer. I’m sure they didn’t sit there and design a car, throw it together and expect everything to work the first time out.  

There is usually some “trial and error” that they will go through before a car goes into production. But, as soon as a customer brings their creation to the  “professional mechanic” they assume that they will find everything that is going to affect the drivability of their pride and joy.

I’m no engineer, I’m a mechanic…  I can probably spot problems before they happen a lot quicker than a novice can. But, I’m sure I’m not going to spot ALL of those problems with one glance. It may take several trips back and forth to the shop to work out the different kinks in the engineering to get the mechanic that I am to repair it.

Many times you find out too late that they have modified the motor mounts, or the clearance for the coolant fan isn’t enough. Sometimes it’s the added-on electrical systems that are poorly mounted and wires begin to rub shortly after getting it on the road.

Most of these items you can spot as you’re going through the car, but there is always the one or two things you miss or can’t spot that will get you in trouble. If you have an understanding customer, you won’t have a problem. If you have that customer that feels everything in life is perfect the second that it is in their possession … it’s going to be a bumpy ride to the finish line.

Once in a great while, I’ll make my way to a local car show. Occasional, I’ll be asked to do some judging or sometimes one of my customers has a car there that they want me to see. As I walk down through the rows of cars, I always wonder what is under all that pretty paint and chrome. What’s the wiring look like? Do those power windows work? And, how well are they mounted in that door that never had power windows. I’m not surprised when one comes in the shop and they want me to re-do some of their failed attempts at installing items such as these.

It’s almost comical in a way – the amount of bailing wire, metal strips, and oddball locations for screws that they have installed. Sometimes I just sit back in my little shop roll around chair and smile while staring at the interior of the door, laugh to myself, and think, this is going to cost you a bundle buddy.

A lot of times I get that expression from the customer as if I’m crazy. They don’t think it can be that bad because they just put it together themselves. Other times it’s the: “I know. I know. It’s a mess. Can you fix it for me?”

Even after I’ve done all I can possibly see that needs done, I like to leave to the door open for future repairs. I tend to tell the customer about working in the dark as far as the engineering of the items they have installed.  Even though you have taken every precaution you could possibly remember, there is still the chance that you have missed something.

A while back, I had a customer bring in an old International pickup truck. He tried to wire it himself, but failed miserably. The motor and transmission were installed, but they had their own set of problems.  I worked through all the wiring issues and got the motor running, charging system working and all his add-on accessories working. It was quite a job – a lot more than the usual rewire for sure.

As soon as he picked it up, I thought to myself … he’ll be back.  Sure enough, the first thing was the steering. The steering gear box had been moved from the factory position in order to make room for the bigger motor and headers.  Whoever moved it must have never welded before in their life. It was a horrible slag covered mess of globbed on weld. In fact, there wasn’t a spot to put all the bolts in the gear box.  I cut out the useless pieces of metal that they installed and welded in a stiffer bracket. Once that was done, I only had to wait for the next trip back to the shop.

Now it’s the speedo that doesn’t work.  And, of course, I wired in the dash panel, which made me the first obstacle in the reason why it didn’t work. After checking into it a little further, it ended up being in the transmission. The plastic speedo gear on the tail shaft had slipped out of position. The transmission was under warranty from a previous repair so I didn’t have to correct the problem. That is until he brought it back a few weeks later… with the speedo not working again.  The transmission shop had told them that there was nothing wrong with what they did so it had to be something that I did.

This time I told the owner… “Would ya let me fix it, I think I know what’s wrong.” He agreed. I took the tail stock off the transmission and sure enough the speedo gear had slid back again. Apparently the transmission shop didn’t know about the little metal keeper that locked the gear into place. (Maybe I did because I’m old and know this type of transmission inside and out.) I called one of my older counter people I knew. I was sure he understood what part I was asking about. He said he did, and sent the little clip to me.  It worked like a charm.

Now, I’m just waiting for the next dilemma to show up. Who knows what I missed this time or what isn’t right from a previous repair. I got to hand it to some of the backyard engineers … they’re pretty good. Sometimes they are absolutely impressive. Then again, the customer that needs help with their ride is what I’m here for.  The guy that gets it right and engineers things correctly doesn’t come into the repair shops.

But the ones that I really love are the few that have tried and failed, and then want to smooth things over with me with their intelligent insight as to how it’s suppose to work even though they don’t’ have a clue.  They are usually trying to save face and hoping it will lower the overall cost of the repairs.

Now that’s funny, anyway you look at it. One way or the other, you gut to love those backyard engineers.

Scott “Gonzo” Weaver is the owner of Superior Auto Electric. He is the author of the book “Hey Look! I Found the Loose Nut”, that can be purchased online at or at

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