This is a story about never being afraid to take something apart.

In my youth (whenever that was) I certainly didn’t know much about cars and engines. Oh I read a lot but never actually took one apart back then.

Straight out of high school, I hung around with two great friends; let’s call them Joe 1 and Joe 2 (actual real first names). I had my Chevelle, while Joe 1 had purchased a brand new ’69 Camaro 396/375 before he even had his driver’s license. I think he paid $3,500 for it (imagine that). Joe 2 had a Road Runner so we all had pretty cool cars.

One day, Joe 1 decided to  take his car to a local speed shop and have it dyno tuned (whatever that was). They would take the distributor out, recurve it for quicker ignition timing, adjust the carburetor and God knows whatever else besides charge him money. When Joe 1 got the car back, he didn’t feel it was running right. Rather than bring the car back to the speed shop, he felt they had the distributor in wrong because the plug wires weren’t lined up like they were.

Let me stop here and explain (even though I’m sure if you’re reading this you already know) that regardless of where the plug wires are, if the distributor rotor is pointing to the No. 1 plug tower when cylinder No. 1 is at Top Dead Center (TDC) and the ignition timing is set correctly… Oh well, what did we know.

The first step in finding out if the distributor was in correctly was to locate TDC of the No. 1 cylinder. We pulled the spark plug out and Joe 1 instructed Joe 2 to place his finger over the plug hole while Joe 1 cranked the engine over.

“What are you crazy,” asked Joe 2. “I’m not sticking my finger in the hole. The piston will come up and hit it.”

“No Joe,” said Joe 1, “not in the hole, just over the hole.”

Bear in mind that even though we were all of 19-years old, Joe 2 looked like he was 42 and a big guy. Finger in the hole? His hands were so big that none of his fingers would never fit in the spark plug hole. But I digress.

Joe 2 says, “I know how to do it. We stick a screwdriver in the hole. I’ve seen my brother do it all the time.”

Granted, Joe 2’s brother owned an auto repair shop so we thought, “Hey, he knows what he’s doing.” Famous last words.

With me standing in front of the car and Joe 2 holding a screwdriver in the plug hole, Joe 1 cranks the engine over. Maybe you can picture what happened next but suffice it to say, when the piston came up to TDC, the screwdriver gets smacked out of Joe 2’s hand while he yells, “Crap!” Looking at me for some sort of religious enlightenment or some reaction  Maybe even some other choice words were uttered… I forgot that part.

Sensing something’s wrong, Joe 1 asks, “What? What happened?”

With the screwdriver now jammed, Joe 2 says, “Nothing. Crank the engine over again.”

When he does, now the screwdriver becomes free and he pulls it out of the plug hole holding it up to show me. Screwdriver looked fine until further investigation showed about 1/4” missing off the tip! Where oh where might that tip be?

By now, Joe 1 is out of the car and staring at the same thing we all were looking at. Here was Joe 1 with a brand new car, barely 11,000 miles on it, his pride and joy, and somewhere deep inside the engine is the tip of a screwdriver.

“Don’t worry about it,” comments Joe 2. “We’ll put the plug back in and start it up. It’ll go right out the exhaust.”

I told you we didn’t know much about engines. But hey, that sounded good. Thankfully before we got a chance to start it back up, in pulls Joe 2’s brother, “What are you guys doing?”

After explaining it to him… “What are you stupid or something? You never saw me do that. I might have done it on a flat head engine, but not on something like this. You need to pull the cylinder head off.”

Pull the what? We were lucky we even knew how to pull the spark plugs out.

With a little bit of instruction from Joe 2’s brother, that’s exactly what we did. Turned out the tip jammed right through the piston deck breaking the ring land and the top ring. Somehow we pulled the piston out without taking the engine out of the car. Joe 1 bought a new piston and ring set and we slid it back in the hole. Because the car had very little miles and the cylinder crosshatch was still apparent, it didn’t require any honing of the bore.

I don’t think we had yet to race our cars at the track, but I remember when we eventually did, Joe 1 had run some 11.7s with the car.

I lost track of Joe 2 but Joe 1 and I still talk every so often and he still has that car, 50 some odd years later. He says we’re going to bury him in that car. “Yeah right. We’re gonna sell it and have a hell of a party.”

Moral of the story: Thankfully I learned a little more since then mostly by not being afraid to take things apart. What’s the worst that can happen? It’ll cost you more money to fix what you screwed up? Hey, it’s only money. -JOHN DiBARTOLOMEO