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  • Scott Murdock

Expect the Unexpected

This is the third article in a series. Read part one, A Single Step, and part two, Seek Professional Help.

A fresh motor can be made or broken on the first start. Some are less fragile than others, but it’s never something to take lightly. You can work carefully and double-check everything, but when push comes to shove, there’s only one way to find out if you’ve done everything right.

This day seems like a lifetime ago.

With one hand on the key and both ears straining to hear the fuel pump, I braced myself for the initial startup of the engine I had spent a year rebuilding. Was every bolt tight? Were all the lifters facing inboard? Was the oil pan gasket pressed into the corners by the timing chain cover firmly enough? My wife, posted in front of the open hood to watch for signs of trouble, gave me a look that said “well, what are you waiting for?”



After 22 years of hard use and one of meticulous attention, the old 5.2-liter Magnum roared to life. The elation I felt at that moment was overwhelming. It actually worked.

Next came the break-in process (much to my neighbors’ dismay, I’m sure). There are a few theories on proper engine break-in procedure and each has almost religiously devoted followers, so I’ll spare you the details and inevitable controversy. They all involve extended periods of operation at varying engine speeds. Pair that with a hot-rodded V8 and the loudest exhaust Flowmaster will sell you, and I’ll admit I genuinely felt bad about it.

That was when a whole new type of learning started to occur.

The first issue was a small coolant drip at one of the freeze plugs in the back of the block (of course). I frantically called Machinist Johnny, who talked me off the ledge. There were ways to fix it, he said, but that type of leak usually seals itself by the end of the break-in period. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened and I haven’t seen a drop since.

The second problem came almost exactly 200 miles later, when starting became extremely difficult. I had to tease the throttle just to get the dang thing turned over. Pulling the spark plugs revealed that the fuel system was running far too rich and carbon fouling was preventing an adequate spark. A new set of plugs confirmed this, but what was the cause? Cue the barrage of text messages to my car-minded friends.

Every sensor was new, so I could rule out that possibility. After much online research and hours obsessively searching for exhaust and vacuum leaks, I determined that the new camshaft–lovely as it may be–was the root cause. It turned out that the new cam’s profile resulted in very little vacuum at idle. That wasn’t a problem on its own, but it was outside the stock computer’s parameters. Thinking the engine was struggling under load, the ECU rushed to the rescue by dumping more fuel into each cylinder. This all made sense because once I got going and engine speed picked up, vacuum increased and the engine ran wonderfully. Back to Hughes Engines I went to order a custom tune. What’s another $500?

Three weeks later, I commented to my wife that the new tune should be just about ready to ship. The project was finally coming to an end and my beloved little truck was days away from being a reliable daily driver and better than ever. We each raised a gin and tonic to celebrate.

Both our phones rang.

Our town was being placed under a tornado warning and hail had been spotted to the west, moving fast. Within seconds, our roof sounded like a Travis Barker solo. Baseball-sized hail shot out a skylight. Shear winds of 130 miles per hour whistled under our door. Twenty minutes after the alert message, the storm was over.

This was not in the plan.

When we walked outside to check the damage, so much hail covered the ground that it looked like Christmas morning up north. My stomach turned as I walked past car after car with broken glass. Around the corner sat my pickup and my wife’s Tiguan. Both windshields were shattered. Her car’s back glass was completely gone. Every single body panel on both cars had taken a beating–so hard in some places that the paint had splintered off.

I always knew that restoring this thing would be a challenge, but filing an insurance claim was something I never expected. After reporting her car’s damage, my wife passed the phone to me to initiate my own claim.

“Are there any modifications to the vehicle?” the agent asked.

The question left me nauseous. Where to begin? On paper, the old Dodge was an instant write-off. And yet I had poured thousands of dollars and countless hours into this pickup.

A few days later we received confirmation that both vehicles were deemed a total loss. So long to our lovely orange Tiguan, hello to car shopping. The Dodge, naturally, isn’t going anywhere. The insurance payout–though more than I expected–was nowhere near enough to cover the necessary bodywork and paint. The shattered windshield had let in enough moisture that the carpet needed to be replaced, too. So much for an almost-completed project.

As painful as this is, at least they’re just cars. We’re fine, the dog is fine, and I haven’t heard of anyone in our apartment complex who was injured by the storm.

Time will tell how it all pans out. There were so many claims filed in the aftermath of the storm that local repair shops were booking ten weeks out the day after the storm. Until then, we’re pedestrians. The only thing I know for sure is that my irrational commitment to this vehicle hasn’t gone anywhere.

At least the theme of this build remains intact: “it’s just money, right?”

Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. Scott works as a freelance marketer for Dingo Productions in Fort Worth, Texas. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.

The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.



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