Thursday, September 08, 2005

Simple Show Stopper

Doubtless the folks reading this blog are of all sorts of backgrounds and ages, and depending on your motoring experience, or indeed your own era, you may or may not be familiar with vehicles which do not start with the turn of a key. (An alien concept to many these days!) Indeed, I myself remember my father's 1950s Ferguson "Petrol/Paraffin" tractor having a start gear with which you sparked up the electric "self-starter" if you were too lazy to have a go with the starting handle (which being a teenager, I invariably was). The revelation of not turning a key to start the engine made this rather fun. I'm not sure to this day why ... it just did.

The same is true of the Fiat 500, and when carrying a 500 "virgin" they always comment with something like "how funny!" or "how does that work then?" when you start the engine, not with a key of course, but with a little lever down between the front seats. Marvellous!

Far simpler than the electric start buttons on some sports cars of a certain age, the start lever on a Fiat 500 pulls a cable exactly the same in nature as you would expect to find operating the brakes on a push bicycle. This cable pulls the lever on the side of the starter motor through two positions. First position spins up the motor and second engages it with the flywheel to turn the engine over. In the course of a swift pull you don't notice these two positions, but they are very much there. All in all this remarkably simple starting system works very well without requiring any electronics. There is only one thing can scupper you. Any change in the relationship between the location of the lever, the location of the starter motor and the length of the cable.

That sounds pretty unlikely, but a good friend of mine couldn't start his any more after an unfortunate shunt. Everyone checked for damage, swapped insurance details, all the usual stuff and then he went to start his car only to discover the chassis had been compressed by an inch or two by the collision and the starter cable was subsequently too long to engage the starter motor of the newly shortened Fiat!

Or you can suffer simple wear and tear problems with the cable, as we did.

Being the intrepid "wannabe" mechanics we are, myself and my girlfriend decided to fit our new starter motor ourselves. We called our man Bob (the 500 genious) and asked him what to do. When he'd stopped lauging (I still can't figure out what Bob found so hilarious about the prospect of us fixing our car) he told us what we needed to know and off we went.

The task involves blindly disconnecting the afforementioned cable by cutting a wire pin holding it in place, removing the starter motor from a gap only fractionally larger than the unit itself and right at the back of the engine bay, replacing it and re-connecting the cable with a fresh pin. After much jiggling, swearing, sweating, swearing some more, jiggling and a lot more swearing we finally succeeded. (It is a b*stard of a job if you don't have the means to safely jack the vehicle up! And you're mechanically incompetent, which I confess, it hurts my male pride to admit but admit I must.)

Now, when you get to the "re-connecting" bit there are three holes on the end of the cable to allow for some basic minor adjustment of the cable length. We had to re-connect the cable using the hole that made it as short as it could possibly be. We did, then eagerly ran to the starting lever and gave it a tug. Nothing. We tried to start the car again, this time from the rear with an arm inside the engine bay pulling the lever. This time the starter whizzed up but failed to engage with the flywheel, preferring to sit there making a noise like a particularly large dentist's drill. (Now you see the significance of the two positions in the starter motor's operation?) The cable wasn't pulling the lever far enough, if at all.

This, coupled with a large degree of paranoia that we'd done something really stupid and potentially damaging to our little car, caused us to do what we always do when our Fiat doesn't work. We called Bob (who don't forget, knows us to be mechanically inept). He immediately announced to us we must have used the wrong hole. "No!" we cried, bitter at this gross injustice. We were particularly careful to use the right hole! Especially as Bob had well and truly instilled in us the consequences of using the wrong hole. Our holes, we were sure, were all in order.

There was nothing else for it. We would have to go and see Bob to prove to him we had indeed used the right hole and we weren't quite as incompetent as he thought (if not far off). We tow-started the car with the help of the runabout and took it over to Hersham (again!) and upon our our arrival, Bob immediately reminded us we must've used the wrong hole.

"Nooooo!!! We didn't!"
And after some banter, a surprise visit by a Fiat 500 loving friend of Bob's, an inspection of our handywork and some more banter;
"Oh. No. You didn't. Your starter cable's all stretched and frayed. That'll need replacing."

Vindication! Hurrah! We knew it! Wait ... what exactly does that mean for the Fiat?

Well it means we don't have the Fiat right now. It's at Bob's. The cable costs next to nothing, but replacing the cable means taking all the seats out and doing (you guessed it) a lot of jiggling and swearing. We decided to let Bob jiggle and swear this time. At least we know we did a good job of fitting the starter motor after all and were merely victims of circumstance. Though I have a sneaking suspicion Bob thinks we had a stroke of beginners luck.

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