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To Sleep, Perchance to Scream

While working on my car last weekend, I had a kind of vision. I was trying to loosen a bolt on top of the frame that had been assembled before the body had been installed. The wrench slipped and I contacted my brain housing assembly on the crossmember. As I hovered between sweet dreamland and painful consciousness, I thought I saw a group of automotive engineers assembled around a large conference table discussing the design considerations for my car.

"Can the idle mixture be adjusted without removing the carburetor?" The boss asks.
"We've done better than that, sir. You have to remove the carburetor and drill out the brass cap."
"And as it's set, will it pass the emissions test in any state?"
"No way in the world, sir."
The boss nods. "By the way, you do have the standard 17-hose harness on the air cleaner and it is secured with four nuts and four clips, I trust."
"Yes, sir."
"Can you do anything under the hood without removing the air cleaner?"
"You can remove the radiator cap, sir."
The boss glares.
"I'll work on it."
The boss lights another cigar and asks for other comments.
"You know, our special projects division is having great success driving the price of torx wrenches out of the reach of the average car owner. I'd suggest we use torx-head bolts everywhere."
"We could use Metric and SAE fasteners side-by-side on the same assemblies," one young fellow suggests.
"And double-check every assembly to ensure that it includes bolts of many different sizes," offers another.
The boss puffs on his cigar and beams like a proud father at his son's first little league game.
"Hey!" exclaims one of the assembled engineers. "Let's use fastener materials that react with the mating part to virtually weld them in place."
"And all the bolts should have nuts rather than threaded holes in the mating piece, so you have to use two wrenches."
"Well, not all of them. The body panels would use sheet metal clips on the inside. One turn of the bolt breaks the clip; makes 'em impossible to remove."
"Yeah! And the bolts holding the accelerator pedal to the firewall should be sharp, pointy sheet metal screws that extend way into the engine compartment." The speaker thrusts his fingers out like claws. "You can't change plugs or even add brake fluid without slashing your hands to ribbons."
The assembled group furiously scribbles notes. I am getting the impression that they enjoy newscasts featuring starving children with bloated bellies. I wonder if what I'm seeing is a product of genius or just years of experience.
"The bolts that a socket can fit have to have brackets around them to prevent access."
"Or we could use extra long bolts from the back. It's easier to make it hard to fit a deep socket."
Now the engineers are getting really wound up. "All of the accessories brackets on the car could incorporate a plate behind the bolt head with barely enough room to fit an end wrench. As the bolt is backed out, it closes the gap between the plate and the bolt, making it impossible to remove the wrench. If you use a ratcheting box wrench that doesn't reverse, you'll never remove the bracket or the wrench."
"Let's make sure Toyo works on final assembly."
"Who's Toyo?"
"He's a three-hundred pound ex-sumo wrestler with hands the size of your baby sister's. He can reach into places that no wrench could possibly fit and hand tighten a quarter-inch bolt to 100 ft-lbs." The engineer grinned. "His wife left him for an auto mechanic. Guess how he feels about people that work on cars?"
As I was faded back to consciousness, the discussion had turned to the mathematics of wrench angles. That's a fascinating emerging science whereby an engineer is able to position bolts that a wrench can only be moved through a carefully calculated small angle, after which it has to be removed and turned over to get another grip on the part.

I'm sure those dedicated engineers would be sad to know that the market they're targeting is rapidly diminishing. No one looks under their hood anymore. We used to spend a lot of time talking about headers, hot cams and horsepower. If you ask someone these days how much power their car has, you're likely to get an answer like "One hundred watts per channel." These days, a tri-power means stereo, burglar alarm and on-board computer. They're driving a Honda Quaalude with a Maytag motor and a stereo amp you could use to weld steel plate.

Frank Leany

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