I remove the boost air tube so that I can better access the lift pump. Looking down into the black maw of right-angled metal, curved hoses and light-absorbing grease covered parts I can feel a twinge of fear creep over me. “I hope I don’t screw this up,” I think to myself as I dig into the engine bay.
Owning an eighteen year old truck you expect to occasionally have issues arise. Living in an 18 year old truck you plan to have issues arise, or else you’ll be caught off guard and find yourself stranded.
Before Beth and I bought the 1997 Dodge Ram we affectionately know as Darlene, I had owned a multitude of vehicles, while the only vehicle she ever knew was a 2006 Ford Escape. My fleet of vehicles started with an unknown year Ford Ranger, then a 1998 Ford F-150, 2006 Scion xB, 1984 VW Vanagon, 2005 Nissan Frontier, 2005 Yamaha XT250 motorcycle, 2001 Ford F-150 (again), and eventually I settled with a 2009 Suzuki DL650 VStrom. Through all this time I knew oh-so-little about engines or routine maintenance (other than oil changes) until I bought that damned 1984 VW Vanagon and was forced into the world of a shade-tree mechanic. Before this I happily drove, occasionally checking my oil dipstick, and panicking (like most drivers) when my “check engine” light illuminated.
Diesel pours all over my hands, the engine, and ground below where my tools and tarpaulin lay, collecting in shimmering pools. Shit. I forgot to drain the fuel filter before unscrewing it from the housing. Can’t do anything about it now.
Prior to flying half-way across the country to drive that ol’ VW home to NC from AZ, I researched like a madman – studying schematics, diagnosing hypothetical problems and learning how and why engines worked. It was a time of wonder and excitement for me – I had never considered myself capable of engine maintenance or repair.
I only owned that VW for a year before I sold it to some new-age hippie girl, passing along my debt and headaches to her. However, the short time that VW and I had together taught me invaluable lessons in maintenance and fueled my desire to be more self-sufficient with my motor vehicles. Gone were the days of hearing a clunk and worrying what was going wrong – now I could still worry with every odd creak, groan or shudder, but I could diagnose and fix the problems!
The old lift pump is off, no turning back now. From the ground below I reach up with tired hands, attempt to pair bolts with holes. Not happening. I try leaning into the engine bay, laying across the engine, reaching into the depths of where I need both hands to stabilize the new lift pump, but can only fit one. Grunting, straining, and bleeding from some sharp edge the bolts suddenly find home and slide into place. “YES!” I hiss from clenched teeth.
Ignorance was bliss for quite a long time. Little did I realize with this knowledge would come great stress – now with our home on wheels I am at constant high alert for anything out of the ordinary. Any stutter in starting, any minuscule movements, shimmies or noises and my mind races in an attempt to diagnose the issue. While driving I’ll often see a phantom light illuminate on the dash from the corner of my eye, which disappears upon full glance. When I owned that ancient VW van, I constantly expected problems to arise and felt great when the ol’ gal was simply running. Now that I own a “newer” 1997 I somehow expect everything to work and feel pressure and stress when something goes awry.
It has taken a while to find my Zen with Darlene, to not worry about every out of place sound, to understand that things will go wrong, that I can fix whatever happens along the way.
The last of the fuel hoses are tightened, double, triple checked. I glance around at the mess I’ve made, make sure no spare parts are left lying around, or worse yet – that no new parts are still out. Reaching into the cab I feather the ignition until I hear that beautiful twelve valve engine come to life.
Working on Darlene’s 5.9L Cummins Turbo Diesel engine has become something of a love-hate relationship – I love getting in there and learning more and more, feeling more confident among the hoses, pipes, valves and bolts. I loathe when I have to do something that seems incredibly mundane and easy, but takes nearly an hour of grunting, swearing and bleeding. I’ve started to measure my maintenance times in “beers till completion” to introduce humor to my times of aggravation. The longest project of replacing the lift pump took nearly a 12 pack worth of time, even though I didn’t actually get a single sip – my mechanic looked on with helpful hints as I fumbled and cursed, offering a cold one upon my successful completion.
From my elbows down I’m black with ancient grease, blood and engine oil mix to a burgundy color near my hands. My face tells of itching where my greased hands left their mark, my glasses splattered with diesel and oil. The clothes I am wearing will soon find their new home in the dumpster, but not until I’ve had my celebratory beer. I smile with joy, teeth a brilliant contrast to my darkened face, once again I’ve done it!
We’ve owned Darlene for a little over a year and 16,000 miles. In that time she’s had her hiccups but never let us down or stranded us. She’s built around an incredibly reliable Cummins diesel engine – we’re sure the body will fall apart long before the frame or engine dies. As much as I’d like to say that being a Dodge or Cummins is the biggest factor in her reliability (I mean, it’s probably true), just as much of it comes from being in tune with the engine, and keeping the engine in tune.
Ever since learning to work on and maintain my own vehicle I’ve vehemently preached this knowledge unto others, encouraging self-sufficiency. Unfortunately I don’t believe my dream will come true of drivers licenses being issued only when it has been proven the operator can not only steer their cage of steel, but also maintain it: check the oil and coolant levels, change a tire, read the gauges, and diagnose (not necessarily fix) when something sounds awry. Unfortunately most folks feel that their vehicles are too complicated (and sadly most newer vehicles are) but I encourage you to learn to depend upon yourself, rather than dishing out your hard-earned cash for simple work. The biggest hinderance to learning is the fear of showing oneself a fool. But who is the bigger fool – he who gives up easily, or he who tries and fails?
The following is a list of repairs and maintenance I’ve done to Darlene since we drove the big red beast home with 194,000 miles on the clock. Not all of it was easy, but all of it was accomplished with a simple bag of tools and a bit of courage tossed in, with caution tossed out to the wind.
- valve cover gaskets
- serpentine belt
- serpentine belt tensioner
- transmission fluid and filter
- gas shocks
- rear wheel speed sensor
- neutral safety switch
- engine air filter
- fuel filter
- engine oil
- engine oil filter
- 90º hose from lift pump to fuel heater
- fuel heater delete
- fuel pre-filter screen
- fuel overflow check valve
- feed & return fuel lines
- fuel lift pump
- starter rebuild
- fuel solenoid relay
- fuel shutoff safety switch boot
- steering stabilizer
- rear axle leaf spring u-bolts
- front hitch receiver
- front speakers
- dome lights
- high-intensity reverse lights
- aftermarket stereo
- rear-view mirror replaced
- air horn installed
- auxiliary reverse light