The Master

It was a cool spring morning when I finished converting my Ford F250 from an automatic to manual transmission. I had first taken out the automatic transmission and all the components. Although removing the transmission was complex, the hardest part was fitting into the vehicle all the different components that a manual transmission needs. It was like taking the middle pieces out of a jigsaw puzzle and then gathering separate pieces from a similar puzzle to fit back into the original. I switched the original flywheel on the engine for a manual compatible one. I also invaded the interior of the vehicle by removing much of the cosmetic carpet and then precisely cutting a hole into the base of the floor where the manual shifter would lie. Careful not to get grease on the pressure plate, I installed a new clutch. In order to ensure that the input shaft would slide in, I lined up the friction plate with perfect accuracy. The next step was to fabricate some metal brackets to make certain components of the system work. I had to place the transmission input shaft inside the pilot bearing and line it up within fractions of a inch. I forced myself to assemble the components of the drivetrain as a clock maker would assemble the tiny gears of a clock. I was not born with this skill, this knowledge of how cars function and are assembled. It took a certain amount of professional teaching: teaching I wasn't even sure I wanted.

Two years before, an average Saturday had begun. That is, until my dad received a phone call. Mr. Wadsworth, a mechanic who attends our local church, informed my dad that he had to fix a car and was wondering whether my brother and I wanted to learn about cars. I had never really desired to work on cars before. I never thought highly of the smelly guy in blue clothes who has grease all over him and spins wrenches. I told my dad I didn't want to go. The way I was raised, it meant more to tell a rainstorm that I didn't want rain. Dad drove my brother Steve and I to Mr. Wadsworth's house. Strangely enough, there was a car there that looked as if it needed no help at all and wanted no diagnosis from us. The 2003 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor sat on the street, its white body with the words "Federal Reserve" still printed on it. We started by turning on the car engine and listening to the problem. Mr. Wadsworth explained in his thick Jamaican accent, "Diss knocking sound da engiine is producing is faar too internal to fix practically, ya know. Da entiire engine got to be replaced." Now Mr. Wadsworth is not superman; he cannot see through metal. His conclusion sparked my interest as to how a specific knocking sound could bring him to such a conclusion.

Dressed in Wranglers and old Reebok's, Mr. Wadsworth steered the car as Steve and I pushed the vehicle up his short driveway where we would perform this task. We began the actual work by locating a strong place underneath the car and jacking it up from that point away from the asphalt driveway. He told us to find the sturdy metal frame that every car has underneath and place the jack stands there to support the vehicle. Once we lowered the car onto the stands, Mr. Wadsworth gripped the side of the car and shook it vigorously, trying to dismount the stands from where we had placed them. Mr. Wadsworth explained that if he could dismount our stands by shaking the car like that, then we did not do a good job of placing them. The car could just as easily fall off while we were underneath. Remaining on the stands, the car passed Mr. Wadsworth's safety test.

For the extensive amount of automotive work Mr. Wadsworth does, most would imagine him having a large garage with plenty of space. It's really quite the opposite. Attached to the back of his home, the shed that shelters his tools is rather small and constricting. I took two steps before there were no more to take. His many ratchets, wrenches, screwdrivers, specialty tools, equipment, and fluids lay all around me as I stood in the center of the shed. Mr. Wadsworth attended a competitive automotive school in Jamaica where he learned automotive mechanics. Mr. Wadsworth explained, "We were taught everyting dere ranging from chemistry to meechanics. We had ta memorize every spacific component dat exiists on a vehical. Mon, every geear inside a differential, da valve train of da engine, da various circuits and relaays, even da intrigue concepts of engiine timing. Me do all dis at school in Jamaica, and everyting me donno now is because I forgot it."

As we stripped the engine parts, one system we came across was the engine control module (ECM). Because of the new technological age, cars are now controlled by the ECM which usually contains all the software for all the programs of the vehicle. Mr. Wadsworth described, "If Mr. Car senses dat his battry is dying, he will start to shut off car systems to preeserve battry voltage as long as possiible. But da ECM must be programed by engineers to shut off da proper systems in da correct order. If Mr. ECM first shuts off all da sensors going to Mr. Engine, den Mr. Engine is going to think dat nothing is happening and fall assleep. So in arder to keep Mr. Engine awake as long as possible, Mr. ECM may turn off da radio first…den dim da lights…den turn off the GPS…so as keep Mr. Engine running as long as possible until dere is no more voltage left and Mr. Engine eventually goes to sleep."

Now wearing a greasy blue jump-suite clearly too small for him, Mr. Wadsworth explained the relationship between chemistry and mechanics. He told me principles of chemicals and mixtures that I never learned in high school chemistry class. The seemingly most absurd thing he told me was that car oil didn’t burn. I immediately disagreed, but he insisted that he was right. So to prove me wrong, he nonchalantly walked into his shed and walked out with a small blow-torch. I scampered away from the bucket of oil that he was going to prove to me could not burn. Without hesitation, he lit the torch and put it directly on the oil. Nothing happened. He expounded, "Masta Danni, da oil is too deinse for da flame to light it. Car oil is not flammable." He often demonstrated how to remove the difficult parts of the engine that neither my brother nor I had the skill to remove. His hands moved around each specific part with ease so that he made even the tightest spaces with virtually no room look easy to work in. He loosened the tightest bolts by putting constant forward pressure on the end of the wrench, careful to direct it neither up nor down. Most tools we used that day I did not think required skill; that is, until I saw him use them. Like a scalpel in a surgeon's hand, he maneuvered whichever tool happened to be in his hand to do exactly what he wanted. With everything finally disconnected from the engine, we began to wrestle the engine away from its former home. As we jacked it out using a larger, different style hydraulic jack, the engine resisted our beckoning like a spoiled child. Mr. Wadsworth directed the engine, and it eventually came out.

On the next weekend, we began to work on the replacement engine and prepare it to place into the car. During this process, we often could not find certain bolts or gaskets. When I first told him that I had lost a 8mm socket, he replied, "Did you eait anyting haard? No. It's around here somewheire, we wiill find it." We assembled, greased, and cleaned the engine. Eight hours later, the engine was ready to be placed back in the retired cop car. We dropped the engine in place, connected the engine mounts, and then connected wires and smaller parts. Though we were relived when the car started and ran smoothly, our relief was short lived: The car died after running for about ten seconds. Standing there calmly, Mr. Wadsworth told my brother to start it back up. Sure enough it started back up and never shut down again. I asked him why it did that. He replied, "It's liike when you awaike in da morning. Unaware of da tasks neeeded to be done, ya may fall back asleeep. But den when you get woken up for a second tiime, you may realize dat you have to get ready for da day and go to school."

Now, when I look at a car, I no longer see just the car. I see the engine behind the front of the car, I see the sub-frame that holds the car together, and I see the wires inside the engine bay commanded by the ECM. This new-found interest in vehicles led me to do much independent research of my own. I investigated how to do various vehicle modifications and conversions on Google that I had never tried to do with Mr. Wadsworth. I was able to leverage the foundational training Mr. Wadsworth gave me by eventually installing a fully inter-cooled turbo system on my Ford F250, as well as converting the transmission from automatic to manual. I recently rebuilt an entire truck axle and then retrofitted it to go underneath the front of my truck. Mr. Wadsworth's knowledge of automobiles gave me a passion to learn more about how automotive systems work. I certainly would not love working on cars today without my experience with him on those brisk spring days.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License