Repair Stories

Ronnie’s Roadside Repairs: Self-Reliance on the Dirt Shoulder

Out on the desert, between ocotillo and saguaro cactus, with the car jacked up and the engine lowered down, we pulled the heads. Immediately the problem was apparent; there were holes burned completely through the tops of two pistons.

Our solution followed the success we had converting a Chevy V-8 to a V-7. We converted the opposed-6 cylinder engine into an opposed-4 by removing the two bad pistons and relocating the good pistons matched with the best bearings into opposing cylinders for proper balance. The crankshaft throw bearing with missing rods had oil ports that required capping to hold oil pressure. We sawed the ends off from the two rods with burnt pistons, shimmed the bearings with aluminum foil, and snugly bolted these sawed-off rod ends on the crankshaft throw bearing.

Driving through the Baja California desert in 1966 in a $50 Chevy Corvair, Ron Mullisen and a friend started having engine trouble—and dealt with it, on the spot.

Ronnie's Roadside Repairs car repair

So, who is Ron Mullisen? He’s my former engineering professor, and (fittingly) I recently ran into him at my local hardware store. We caught up, and I told him about my job making teardowns and repair guides at iFixit. Naturally, he offered to send me a copy of his book: Ronnie’s Roadside Repairs. And we were so impressed with it, we added the book to our iFixit store.

Full of stories of road trips and the (inevitable) breakdowns along the way, Ron’s book illustrates the power of resourcefulness, self-reliance, and mechanical know-how. These virtues empowered Ron and his friends to embark on epic adventures—like driving a 1931 Model A Ford to Alaska and New York, and converting a ’55 Buick Special into a dune buggy to travel the Baja Peninsula.

Things fall apart, but Ron and his friends figured out how to put them back together again. The fact that Ronnie’s were roadside repairs makes them all the more impressive; they happen quite literally on the spot, with whatever and whoever is on-hand. And that’s an amazing skill.

The son of a mechanical engineer, I grew up around tools. I was encouraged to take “junk” apart and do what I wanted with it. But even growing up in a tinkerer’s paradise, I’ve learned that every single repair is a challenge—a puzzle with no guaranteed path to victory. Prying open an iPad or replacing the alternator in your Honda requires a certain fearlessness. Because there’s no assurance that you’ll be able to put the pieces back together. The only antidote to that anxiety is the confidence that comes with experience. Which is why reading about other people’s repair stories—learning from their trials and their successes—is so important for fixers like me.

So, get out there on the road. Have fun. Make mistakes, and learn from them. Being ready for a roadside repair is exactly the kind of empowerment that iFixit and its community hopes to share with the world—knowing that you can rely on yourself. You shouldn’t have to default to reaching for your cell phone (and your wallet!) to pay someone else to solve your problem.

If you’re feeling inspired to share, comment below with your greatest roadside repair story. We’ll pick our five favorites, and give them a free copy of Ronnie’s Roadside Repairs. To get us started, here’s my most epic roadside repair:

I was driving up a mountain with a couple friends in my ’83 Mercedes diesel when steam suddenly started pouring out from under the hood. We took a look—the radiator inlet hose had popped off. Coolant had spewed and splashed all over the hot engine, draining the radiator. A big symptom for a tiny problem, but an easy fix. I tightened the clamp, and refilled the radiator with a couple of gallons of water I keep in my trunk. Self-congratulations abounded, and we were on our way back down the mountain. Then, a few minutes later, steam started billowing out of the engine again.

A closer inspection revealed the full extent of the problem: The nearly-30-year-old plastic fitting on the radiator had cracked and disintegrated. No hose was going to stay clamped there. This called for a more innovative fix—a nylon pack strap, wrapped around the radiator hose and tied to the front of the car. The strap kept tension on the hose, pulling it snugly to the radiator. Problem solved … except the radiator was empty again and my water reserves were depleted.

The three of us wasted 15 minutes trying to harvest melted snow off the engine block. Eventually, my friend pointed out that  the thunderous water sound filling the valley probably meant there was a stream nearby—like at the bottom of the steep slope off the side of the road. So we tumbled down the hill to fill up our water jugs and marched back up with a bounty of icy-cold melted snow. With the radiator topped off, it was an easy drive in the mountain air. The next morning we loaded up ten gallons of water, removed the radiator cap to prevent the system from pressurizing and blowing the back hose off, and left in the cool before dawn for the 4-hour drive back across California’s sweltering central valley, stopping every half hour to top off the radiator.

As is often the case with roadside repairs, it wasn’t a pretty fix. But it got us home.

Add your best roadside repair to the comments below!

Get your stories in this weekend; we’ll be picking winners at noon PST on Tuesday, November 4.  Submissions are now closed for this contest. Thanks for all your stories! We are picking our favorite roadside repairs, and will announce the winners in a new blog post shortly!