“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you,” the shop foreman told us.
We were half a day into our car trip from Salt Lake City to San Diego to visit a friend. It was a Saturday, and my partner Kathy’s Pinto hatchback had started running badly a short time before, outside of Cedar City, Utah. This was disconcerting because the car had had a complete servicing before we left.
It was the early 1970s, and we were in our twenties. There was no internet or GPS, let alone cellphones. We had maps on paper and highway routes to follow.
Cedar City is located relatively close to some beautiful Utah country—Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park. In the ’70s, its population was under 10,000. The town began in the mid-1800s when Mormon settlers sent some men from the town of Parowan to establish an iron works. Today, there are no iron works, and instead tourism and festivals help the economy.
Cruising Main Street, we saw that Cedar City had a Ford dealership, and it turned out they were open on Saturday. This was good luck! The next large city was St. George, but it was 50 miles away.
“Why can’t you help us?” we asked.
The shop foreman explained that their “Pinto man” had the day off, and he had locked up his tool case. This was a problem because Pinto engines, made in Europe, were metric. No one else in the shop had metric tools. We wondered whether Pinto man could be contacted to at least unlock his tools—but the foreman said that according to the man’s wife, he had gone fishing, taking his keys with him.
“Again, I’m sorry, but without a nineteen millimeter wrench, there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “He’ll be back on Monday.”
Monday. A weekend in a motel in Cedar City, doing nothing? (And there was nothing to do on Sunday in Cedar City back then—believe me.)
We cruised Main Street again, which reinforced the realization that without work, the car was not even going to make it to St. George, let alone back to Salt Lake.
Surely, there had to be a 19-mm wrench somewhere in Cedar City. We stopped at a payphone and looked up auto parts in the Yellow Pages of the skimpy phone book that dangled on a chain from the shelf. No one was open. “We should look for a motel,” Kathy said.
Then I remembered—on the way into town, I had seen a VW sign. Cedar City had a Volkswagen dealer.
We drove into the parking lot. Someone was sweeping in the back. “We’re closed,” he said. “Is there anyone in the office at all who could help us?” I asked. Just then a man came out—he was a salesman catching up on work. I explained our difficulty and asked if they sold wrenches. He had us follow him to a room where they kept parts for sale. Wrenches hung from the wall, but one hanger was empty.
I was getting the idea.
We thanked him, sadly, and were on our way out when I saw a set of six wrenches in a locked display case on the wall. “Sir, do you think I could see that set of wrenches, just in case?” “Well, the set is pretty expensive,” he warned. Like I cared.
Fast forward to the Ford dealership. We strode into the shop and up to the foreman. I held up the 19-mm wrench and said, “Do you think you can help us now?”
If you’re familiar with car engines, you may have guessed that the problem had to do with a botched valve adjustment. Intake and exhaust valves allow the engine’s cylinders to breathe during combustion. If these valves aren’t adjusted to the right clearances, then the engine has problems.