Saturday, November 15, 2008

Double, double toil and trouble (The Fifth Gear Chronicles, part 1)

I'm writing this to the acrid smell of smoke as ash falls outside like a light snow. The LA basin is surrounded by a ring of fires that have broken out over the last 48 hours. Here in Long Beach, visibility is limited to about three or four miles because of the smoke. Most of the afternoon has felt like twilight; by around three this afternoon, it got sufficiently dark that street lights started coming on. There was to be an airshow at the Long Beach airport this weekend, but I heard it may have been cancelled. Besides the poor visibility and lousy air quality, several of the aircraft that were to be on display are hard at work this weekend fighting the fires.

Local time about 3:30 pm. That's not an overcast, it's smoke.

There are no clouds in this picture: the varying colors are layers of smoke at different altitudes, from different fires . At nine in the morning, we had clear blue sky - you could clearly see the mountains. What you probably can't see in this picture is the heavy jet on final for LAX - but it's there.

Ash on the windshield of the car. This is about 30 minutes' accumulation.

I've had a couple of days off this week, due primarily to the fact that I requested them over a year ago when we bid vacation time last year. I had nothing particular in mind at the time I requested them (good thing, as you'll see); I just saw an opportunity for a four-day weekend. Those who know me already can see what's coming: another tale of a project gone awry. In this case, the two-hour project that became the two-week project!

In short, the whole point of this undertaking was to install a taller fifth gear in the Jetta to reduce engine rpm's at highway speed (from a .756 to a .681, if you're interested). The VW transmission is designed such that the fifth gear set can be accessed without completely disassembling the transmission; swapping the fifth gear is a common modification. At over 200K miles, it might seem a little late to be getting this done, but I've got no plans to replace this car anytime soon. I've had the parts for several months now, awaiting the opportunity to do the work. Also, despite the apparent ease, I was a little hesitant to attempt working on a transmission (and a perfectly good one, at that). I consulted several sources for instructions and any other 'nice to know' information to reassure myself that I was going to be able to get this done successfully.

The first attempt was two weeks ago, during my last two-day weekend. I won't regale you with all the steps involved, but will cut straight to the part where the gears are removed. The first gear that has to be removed is, naturally, also the most difficult. All the instructions and such had (I thought) prepared me for this. The job requires a gear puller - no big deal. Except that none of the pullers I had would fit; the arms
were too wide and/or the tips too fat. So I took one of them apart and 'adjusted' it with a buddy's bench grinder (gotta love a good bench grinder). That worked great - until I broke the gear puller. The nice thing about cheap tools from Harbor Freight and the like is that you're not afraid to grind, bend, or otherwise modify or destroy them if necessary - they're pretty much disposable. The not-so-nice thing about cheap tools from places like Harbor Freight is that they don't always get the job done before they break.

That was the end of attempt number one. Running out of time, I reassembled the car so that I could go to work. On the way home, the transmission occasionally showed an alarming disinclination to shift down from fifth into any other gear - I could get it out of fifth, no problem, but not into any other gear. It would happily go back into fifth, though. Subsequently, it sometimes decided it wouldn't shift up into fifth - the gate just wasn't there. While I had refilled the tranny with a different synthetic oil (Redline MT-90, for those of you planning on duplicating this endeavor) than what I'd drained out of it (VW g50), I was pretty sure that wasn't the root of this development.

The second attempt started this past Tuesday. Upon removing the transmission end cover, I found loose bits and pieces in the bottom of the pan - uh oh. That certainly explained the shifting problems - these bits and pieces came from the selector gear and synchronizer assembly. Here's what I saw first:

And then this:

In case it's not obvious what the problem is, here are a couple of close-ups:

These three little dogs in the picture below fit into the three little slots in the big gear on the left that you can see in the top picture above. The wire bits in the upper picture were the spring clip that holds them in place.

At this point, I knew that this was no longer a 90-minute job. Fortunately, I had a couple of days before I had to be back at work. Also fortunately (perhaps), airport buddy Dick had just acquired an airport car that I was welcome to borrow.

For those not familiar with the concept of an airport car, let me explain: An airport car is a spare car, usually an old beater, that you keep at the airport for those times when you have a plane, but no ground transportation. I used to have a sort-of airport car that lived on my parent's farm - it was mine to drive when I was in town, and the rest of the time it was the farm hack.

As you may have gathered from my description, an airport car usually has a few, umm, "quirks" shall we say, that give it character. At the time of this story, Dick had only had his "new" airport car for a few days. He did warn me that something drained the battery when it was parked, and he even gave me a wrench to use for disconnecting the battery cable when it was going to be parked for more that a couple of hours. The white station wagon in the picture below is said airport car:

The airport car: a 1990 Chevy Caprice Classic Station Wagon. Seats nine. What a tank!

I spent much of the rest of the day chasing down (ordering) the parts for the Jetta and then finishing up another project: The replacement of the front tires and wheels on the orange Clarkat tug. When I bought this tug, it had apparently previously been used as an indoor warehouse tug - the main differences being that it had been converted to run on propane and that it had solid rubber ("cushion") front tires. Propane is preferred over gasoline or diesel for indoor equipment because it's cleaner and safer. These days, electrics are preferred over propane for indoor use. Cushion tires are common on equipment that is used on very smooth surfaces like warehouse floors; they don't do well on most outdoor surfaces, such as asphalt, concrete, or especially gravel. The Clarkat's cushion front tires have started coming apart to the point that any time I take the tug out, it leaves a little trail of rubber shards to mark its path. The ride has also become a series of jolts as each hole and flat spot in the tires made itself known as they went round. Imagine the sensation of your car having one front wheel that is a pentagon, the other an octagon, and then driving down a washboard road. Or riding a horse with all its legs different lengths - on an escalator.

The old right wheel - you can see how it's coming apart. The stuck lug bolt is the one at four o'clock, surrounded by blackened paint.

Forklifts and most other equipment with cushion tires are specifically engineered to use cushion tires, and cannot easily be converted to use pneumatic tires. The front of the later (post about 1960, if I recall) Clarkat models however, are designed to use either. As such, the conversion itself is simple: the cushion tires and wheels are removed and the pneumatics bolted on in their place. The cushion and pneumatic tires do not use the same wheel, which requires replacing the tires and wheels together. I had managed to pick up a set of pneumatic tires and wheels from a local forklift company last month in preparation for the conversion, and had in fact started the conversion then with the replacement of the left front tire and wheel. The right side, however, had one lug bolt that absolutely refused to budge. I have a Dewalt electric impact wrench of decent power that has up till now been adequate for any lug nut or bolt sort of job. It was utterly powerless when confronted with this one particular bolt. Mind you, it had already removed all the bolts on the left wheel and all the other bolts on the right. I got out my 24-inch breaker bar, and found that with it I was able to turn the whole wheel while the tug was still sitting on it - but the bolt didn't move. I applied a liberal dose of PB Blaster to both ends of the bolt and called it a day.

The next time I tried the bolt a was a couple of days later, after several intervening applications of penetrating oil. I was still able to rotate the wheel while it was sitting on the ground. I next got a large C-clamp and put it on the wheel in much the same fashion as the police "clamp" the wheel of a car with excessive parking violations. I hope it works better for them than it did for me; using the breaker bar I was still able to rotate the wheel, even over the clamp. More penetrating oil was applied to the bolt, and I put it away for another day. Somewhere along the line, I'd also tried heating the bolt with a torch and then hitting it with a cold aerosol; no change - except that I'd burned the paint around it.

A few days afterwards I mentioned my dilemma to airport buddy Bill, who was sure that his heavy duty industrial strength pneumatic impact wrench would have that bolt out in no time at all. It didn't, much to his chagrin. Meanwhile, I'd been thinking about how to keep the wheel from turning when I applied the breaker bar to the bolt. After thanking Bill, I went to see airport buddy Kenny. I proposed my idea of a long arm, made out of angle iron perhaps, that could be bolted to the wheel using a couple of the operable lug bolts. This arm would need to be long enough to jam against the front of the tug's frame and thus prevent the wheel from turning any further. Kenny and I discussed a couple of other possibilities before I parked the tug again (after shooting some more penetrant on the bolt).

The next day, or maybe it was the day after that - I forget now, I went to a metal supply place and poked around in their scrap bins for some likely looking pieces. They sell it by the pound, but you have to buy the entire piece. They will cut it for you after you buy it, and in my case the cutting charge was more than the material. I had to have them cut it though, as it wouldn't fit in the car any other way (this was maybe a week before the Jetta immobilization project first began). I constructed a cardboard mock-up to see what size the pieces would have to be and determine a few critical measurements. I made some small cuts with my die grinder, but for the big straight cuts I would need a chop saw. That had to wait for the next day, when I was able to use one at one of the airport buddies'. After that, a little bit of grinding and fitting, and then it was back to Kenny to get it welded up. He suggested a change that I adopted: Instead of having it jam against the frame, it would jam against the ground. This would be more secure and more stable, while allowing a better angle of approach for the breaker bar - the whole thing would act like a scissor, with the breaker bar acting towards the arm instead of away from it. Meanwhile, more penetrating oil on the bolt. By now I'd used up the can of PB Blaster, and was making do with Liquid Wrench or some such.

The arm, shortly after its completion. I used the old left wheel as a jig to hold the parts in position for welding.

That brings us up to last Tuesday (remember last Tuesday - bits in the transmission?) After getting the parts on order at the VW dealer (nobody else wanted anything to do with it) I got back to the hangar and decided to try out my special tool. Ironically, I had to jack up the front of the tug enough to spin the wheel to the right spot for attaching the arm. Once it was on, I tried again with the breaker bar. The arm held the wheel and the bolt held firm, so I got out my cheater pipe and slid it over the breaker bar, thus making the breaker bar another foot or so longer. This didn't seem to be enough either at first, but using my leg on it did the trick - I heard and felt a sudden snap. Kenny and I had discussed the possibility of shearing the head off of the bolt, and I thought that's what had happened. But no, it was still intact, and grudgingly turned after further application of the breaker bar. Once I had it out, there was still no indication of what had kept it from turning: the threads weren't badly corroded or mangled, and it hadn't been cross threaded. But who cares? It's finally out. The rest of the job went quickly. I didn't use that bolt again (I'd gotten spares with the new tires and wheels - good thing), and just to be safe, I put some anti-sieze on all the bolts during reassembly. At least that job's finally done - a one-hour project that turned into a month-long project!

The arm in action, with the breaker bar and cheater pipe in place, and the impact wrench at the ready.

Mission accomplished! The new pneumatic tire and wheel installed and ready to go.

Here's another look at the old tires: Not much cushioning going on here!

And here's the offending bolt, with no obvious signs of distress.

One final bit of irony: While in Memphis, I had almost a complete set of spare parts for this tug, in the form of another one that I got from a salvage yard. The only work I ever did to that tug was installing a pair of brand new pneumatic front tires and tubes. In the rush to get out of Memphis, I sold it to a Fedex pilot - for about what the set of used tires and wheels for the orange tug cost!

It occurs to me (mainly because it's bedtime) that while the story's not over, this is enough for now. Stay tuned for more in the exciting saga: The airport car strikes back!


  1. In case you wonder why you get so few comments; it might be because the "Leave a Comment" fairy is so hostile. It is often impossible to jump through her multiple hoops to her satisfaction.


    This is my third attempt today.

  2. Ah, success at last! (A little like your two-hour-project in miniature.)


  3. I can't believe you are so optimistic as to still initiate these projects. Do you secretly think that THIS one will go off without a hitch?

    Look- N got her own account! I can post my own comments now!

  4. Another improvement in new scissor lifts is industry oriented workstations that combine a large amount of the tools required by electricians into the scissor lift platform hire

  5. I like your Clarkat. I've just acquired a CK20 with propane and cushion tires all the way around. I'm just starting my search for parts. Looks like the rear will need smaller hubs. Could you tell me the wheel/tire size and bolt pattern of the fronts you used on yours? Any tips on parts for the rears?

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Michael -

      If I understand you correctly, you currently have pneumatic (air-filled) tires and want to convert to the solid rubber (which are also called cushion) tires. I've never seen a later model Clarkat with cushion rear tires, although the first gen models that I've seen all had cushion rears. The fronts on mine were direct replacements for the pneumatics; the only thing I had to change was the tire/wheel combo -- the hub didn't have to change. I've still got the cushion wheels that I removed off the front of mine, if you're interested.

    2. Check out this link for an explanation of pneumatic vs cushion tires:

  7. Sorry about that, I had to type it so many times trying to figure out if it posted or not that I've jumbled the words up. I have solid cushion tires all the way around and I want to convert to pneumatic tires all the way around. The rears are 15" wheels and the brake drums are almost as large in diameter as the wheels. My tag says CK 020 but I do not know what age it is. I'm assuming it was always propane as I can't find a sign of a gas tank. Also the front wheel areas on mine are not arched like yours, but I do have a torch.

    1. If you've got no front wheel arches, yours is an earlier model than mine, and I'm not at all sure front pneumatics were an option on those. Rears most likely are possible. There's a guy a couple of hangar rows over from me that has one that sounds like what you're describing. The next time I'm out there, I'll see if I can check his out and see. These links are to pictures of the model I think you've got:

      If I remember right, that's sometimes referred to as the B model, although I don't recall where I learned that. If your doesn't look like those, you may have an even earlier one, like the one pictured in the third post in this thread:

      Those I'm almost certain did not offer pneumatics as an option, as the original market for Clarkats was warehouses and railroad stations, where they would always be operating on smooth concrete. One more link to check out is the Clark tug group on Yahoo, which focuses on both Clarkats and the larger (and more common) Clarktors:

      Keep me posted, and good luck!

  8. I am looking for a set of rear wheels for my Clarkat. Anyone know of some spares available

  9. Ryan -

    The two online places I can point you to are the Clark Tugs group on Yahoo, and Berns Equipment in Long Beach, California:

    Good luck!