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Car Trouble November 11, 2009

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes.

As keen trivia vultures will well be aware, the above title refers to a crap track on an Adam Ant album (ringtone downloads are available) and an equally forgettable 1985 movie somewhat improbably starring Julie Walters as a romantic ingénue smitten by an E-type Jag. Not that I am either romantic or, god forbid, an ingénue, but we do have something in common, namely problems with motors.

Indeed I’ve already lightly chronicled the saga of my Lancia’s knackered engine in these postings and it continues with ever increasing complication and the expense that is its inevitable bedfellow. (If you are not even remotely a petrolhead, you may wish to stop here and turn to the more infinitely more edifying Heat or Waterways World websites). And last week I borrowed a van and collected a ‘spare’ Gamma engine from a barn in Oxfordshire which also housed a brace of jaw-droppingly pristine Bitter Coupes (rare German supercars). This engine looked as if it had been stored in a ditch for ten years but did – just – turn over when a 23mm spanner was sternly applied to its crankshaft end, however shortly after depositing it at Tanc Barratt’s classic Lancia emporium outside Kidderminster I got the call saying that it, too, was basically knackered. So that’s another few hundred quid down the toilet.

Or not quite. After further investigation at nice Mr Barratt’s not unreasonable hourly rate, it might prove possible that the undamaged crankshaft and con-rod(s) from the spare can replace the shot ones in my original. And whilst in the process, as the spare is a Series One engine with higher-lift camshafts, I’d quite like to stick them in my Series Two motor: even in the often genteel world of dodgie aulde motorcars, speed is all. Then the ancillaries will have to be stuck back on, a very large cheque handed over and I can get on with the business of halting a worrying vein of rust that I noticed creeping into a front wheel-arch as the car sat forlornly outside Casa Barratt.

At that point it’s usual for the impoverished classic car owner to decide to cut his or her losses, flog the damn thing and take up ornithology (or a subscription to Heat magazine). And vexatiously, this is the situation I’ve already arrived at with my daily driver, namely an utterly undistinguished but cheekily fast and hitherto reliable Citroen ZX Turbo Diesel estate.

Now some 15 years-old and as such almost approaching classic-dom itself, in the last year the ZX has exhibited a steady appetite for new components including a new clutch, timing belt and, most recently, rear brake cylinders. The recent discovery of rust (look away now if you’re of a sensitive disposition) in a suspension turret suggests that it won’t pass its next MoT without serious remedial welding using custom-fabricated parts (in its inevitable quest to build in obsolescence, Citroen neither rust-proofed nor offered appropriate spare mounts for this model), all of which would cost more than the car’s probable worth, i.e. about 300 quid.

And so the madness begins, namely the search to replace it. This involves an unduly obsessive trawl through classified ads in local papers and nowadays of course, myriad websites devoted to used car sales. Infuriatingly, the latter all seem to steal ads from one another, but re-drawn in different formats so just when you think you’ve spotted a really super 1998 Citroen Xsara TD Estate at just the right money on Yakaz.com, you realise that it’s the one you ruled out yesterday on Fish4Cars… because it’s 190 miles away in Hull.

So yes, primarily because it’s the ZX’s replacement with the same powerful, unburstable engine, I’m keen to get another mid-size Citroen estate, albeit at well under a grand. Certain iterations of the Xsara also offer the joy of air-con for our typically long, hot summers and of course I want one with a tow-bar for the ‘bike trailer I rarely use, but my lofty aesthetic standards mean that I can’t entertain a silver-coloured example which inevitably rules out most of them. This makes the search endless, time-consuming and leads to enticing little diversions such as a Peugeot 406 estate (same engine, same aircon, slightly bigger and thus heavier body so better find one with the uprated engine option), or a Fiat Marea Weekend (powerful turbo diesel, all the toys but ugly, patchily reliable and thus rare).

It will, of course, end in tears but possibly not before I’ve spent yet another wet afternoon trudging through that mélange of mud’n’sump oil common to all UK scrapyards in search of bits that could be cut out from a wrecked ZX and manouevred into place on mine. The sadness of it is that with neither the Citroen nor the Lancia have I the kit, skill or space to do the work myself, but the worrying thing is that I’ve just rented a second lock-up to house all the other bits that came with the latter’s useless spare engine, so it looks as though the madness may be with me for a while yet whether I like it or not.

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1. Arnold Brewer - November 11, 2009

Well Mark you astound me – you buy a Lancia engine from a barn in rural Oxfordshire and expect it to work! As one who has lived in said County , in fact in County Town of Dreaming Spires ( for Town read City) for the past 61 years 9 months and a few odd days I have to tell you that never have I found anything of any use in any barn in the County!
But worse you continue to hope that marrying the two engines together may make a good one – maybe so in my youth when we knicked carbs for Villiers 2T engines from the local breakers and got them to work – but as you well know engineering tolerances were – shall we say somewhat tolerant in those days- I fear you really are ” throwing good money after bad” with this one.
Which brings me to my problem- having just got my ever reliable TTR 250 mot’d at Dave Clarkes in Oxford – what does it do? come to a shuddering halt on way home and despite my skilled spannering it will only tempt me to further work with an occasional start only to be followed by a spluttering stop. As you will know said bike of 1992 vintage is probably worth only a few hundred quid – so where do I go from here – engage Yamahas finest spanner merchants or throw it in the cut? Keep us informed with the Lancia / Citroen saga and perhaps I will follow with my TTR – yes throw more good money after bad – You know it makes sense!!!

markswill - November 11, 2009

Well Arnold, being ever the optimist I do indeed believe that two-into-one may work I also pragmatically realise that it’s probably the only game in town as the requisite spare parts for this engine are in the hen’s teeth department. Sorry to hear about your TTR but I shall resist the temptation to launch the woes concerning my own TTR which is also currently in full non-running mode. Oh the shame of it.

Frank Westworth - November 22, 2009

The woe with the TTR is most likely carp in the carb (just enjoyed exactly the same delight on the H-D MT350) which is easy if dull to fix.

Following the 2-into-1 debate is always amusing. It is generally true that almost identical engines will suffer from almost identical faults, all other things (like religious servicing, anorak warming-up and repeated running-in exercises) being equal. And so, chew on this egg, grandma; try to buy engines from crashed cars / bikes. Before great age, wealth and apathy came my way, that is what I did. At least you know the engine was working when the rest of the thing got wrecked.

These days, as you would hope and expect, my rotary Nortons are kept running by a simple flex of the Amex. So much easier, as all parts are unobtainable, to get A Man to … well … make them.

Seething yet, Mr Mark? Seething is good.

2. Ian Powis - November 11, 2009

Hi Mark, Just thought I’d add a comment on my experience with making 1 out of 2. It must be about 12 years ago now that I had the dreaded Gamma experience – the snapping of N/S cambelt causing much crunching of pistons into valves and head. It happened on a bright sunny day, on a straigh road, after the car had been warmed up – in fact nothing like the usual conditions of cold winter morning with power steering on full lock. But when it went I certainly new about it, much wizzing from the engine and a very rapid stop. I knew with sinking feeling what had happened straight away. Belts weren’t that old either – maybe been on for 4 years with low mileage. Anyway, I had the spare engine, as all sensible Gamma owners have, having driven all the way to Pease Pottage near Gatwick some time previously to collect one that was being advertised. My very good luck though was to know a chap called Jack Foggin. We were living in Durham at the time and Jack is based near Penrith and had just retired. He had been working on Lancias of all ages for donkeys years and several LMC members I knew took their cars to him. He rebuilt the engine, using bits from both, and touch wood it has been totally reliable since. Jack also designed a power steering pump modification to take it from the crank rather than the back of the n/s cam – which does seem like a pretty daft design fault but I know many who haven’t had the mod and had no problems. I think Jack stopped doing big jobs like engine rebuilds soon after this. On the recent Turin trip I didn’t have to add any oil or water during the whole trip. although I have had the belts changed recently. I suppose your rebuild is a different kettle of fish but I think the lesson is that if the Gamma engine is handled properly by a real engineer then it’s OK. Just not many folks sufficiently skilled or prepared to put the time into it to get it right, but hopefully Tanc Barrett will do ‘a proper job’. If they do then I think they could be getting further Gamma work because it is difficult to know where to take them these days. I still have one of the damaged pistons – must bring it along to a Consortium do sometime.

3. Jeff Stone - November 14, 2009

Interesting stuff Mark for anyone with an interest in mechanical contraptions. I too consider two in to one will often go and work well. My early years saw much tinkering with Triumphs and BSAs swapping worn camshafts for less worn ones and selecting clutch plates to carefully match clutch baskets etc. A reconditioned cylinder head made all the difference to a previously rattly old Marina, a salvaged rear axle quietened down a Vauxhall Viva while dropping an 1100cc engine and gearbox into an old Morris Minor transformed the old jallopy. There’s always a sensible limit of course, but once a tinkerer, always a tinkerer. We have a Hotpoint washing machine well over 25 years old that I keep going with bits salvaged from our previous machine. I have a 40 year old Qualcast mower which still works well thanks to scratching around for used parts. Newer carb, cutting blade, air cleaner and other home repairs means it still runs sweetly-even run it on Motul semi-synthetic oil as used in my Kwacker! As for your cam belts, my 996 Ducati only comes out on sunny days and even then, it’s recommended that belts are changed every two years irrespective of piddling mileage, or dire consequences will ensue. Stick with it – you know it makes sense – sort of!

mark williams - November 17, 2009

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your positive comment on two-into-one which some of my friends have cast serious doubts about. Mind you, there is a big difference between a relatively simple TriBSA lump and a bloody Italian nightmare! (Or a Qualcast mower!).

Hope you’re well.

Cheers – mark

4. Jeff Stone - November 17, 2009

Hi Mark,

I agree there’s a technical difference, but the principle’s the same. I never throw anything away until it really is ‘beyond repair’.

The work I put into it makes no real sense but I always want to know why something’s stopped working. Having stripped the item down be it bike engines, car engines, central heating boilers, washing machines, vacumn cleaners or whatever, I’ll repair it, but if it really is catastrophic failure, I often still canabalise it and retain all useable components for that ‘one day’ moment.

I have a friend with a collection of vintage bikes and cars and I’m often amazed at what you can still get made and refurbished. An engine is only a sum of its parts so other than if your engine has actually exploded into a thousand fragments, it’s repairable. Deciding on whether your pockets are deep enough or not is of course highly relevant!

Keep us all updated won’t you.

Best of luck!

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