Crankcase Chaos

By Jay Lynch

Back in 1962, science classes at Eisenhower School always included lectures (and quizzes) on the workings of the internal combustion engine. As a young student, I wondered why we had to learn about a dated technology that would soon be surpassed by jet engines, rockets, solar power, wind and water turbines, and nuclear fission. After all, a rocket engine had just propelled Alan Shepard into space. Hometown Westinghouse was building nuclear powered submarines and the nearby Shippingport atomic power station was producing the world’s first nuclear energy. Even commercial jet aircraft were replacing propeller-driven planes. All this progress made me confident of the quick demise of the internal combustion engine.

I remember asking Mr. Radaker, my fifth grade teacher, “If George Jetson doesn’t need to know how a four-stroke engine works, why do I?” But he insisted that gasoline engine cars with rubber tires would likely dominate personal transportation during my entire lifetime. My response: “No way! If I grow up to be a mechanic, I’ll need to know about solar turbine technology, not pistons, crankshafts, and spark plugs. And, if I go to college, I’ll be flying around campus in a jet pack.”

Of course, Mr. Radaker was right. Ten years later, while attending Purdue University, my car was a high-mileage, poorly maintained rustheap with an old-fashioned 8-cylinder engine. The Olds Cutlass guzzled gas, oil, and antifreeze. I masked the sounds of its failing water pump with Pink Floyd and Steely Dan blasting from my cassette tape deck.

Jay Lynch leaning against his Cutlass

Purdue was (and is) highly regarded for its engineering school. Many of my Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers were majoring in engineering and, as you might expect, very well-versed on car engine design and repair. However, as an economics major, I was focused on academic theory and clueless about mechanical realities. My lousy attitude about car engine knowledge (and poor quiz results from Mr. Radaker) resulted in infrequent and second-rate car repair. When a gas station mechanic told me the oil in my Cutlass looked like molasses and smelled like a forest fire, I knew it was time to change the oil and replace the filter. It was a seemingly simple task, so I bought the oil and filter and proceeded to the Phi Psi parking lot.

Purdue University's Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in the 1930s

I borrowed a wrench from my good friend Tom Mingee, a fraternity brother, engineering student, and one of my best friends when we graduated from USC High School in 1971. He asked me why I needed the wrench. Knowing my questionable mechanical skills, Tom offered a good-natured, sly snicker when I told him I intended to change the oil in my car. With back-handed encouragement, he said, “Even an econ major can handle an oil change!”

Fraternity brothers outside the Phi Kappa Psi house; Tom Mingee is second from left

I crawled under the car and tried to remove the oil pan drain plug. But it was rusted and wouldn’t budge. After multiple attempts, and bloody knuckles, I gave up. My ego was deflated. I’d have to admit to Tom and the rest of my brothers that I couldn’t even change my oil. However, I started thinking about an alternative. Since oil circulated throughout the engine, there might be another way to drain it. I could remove the oil filter and run the engine, thereby forcing the oil out the filter hole. Then, I could install the new filter and add the oil. Voila! Mission accomplished! Mr. Radaker would be so proud of me!

But there was a problem. I needed a way to catch the oil as it flowed out of the engine. A large bucket wouldn’t fit under the car and using my rusted jack would have been risky. My solution: the “coal hole laundry room.”

The Phi Psi house was a classic, three-story red brick structure. It was built in the days when coal was used to fire its steam-heat boiler. The boiler had been retrofitted to use natural gas, and an empty basement room (where the coal had been stored) adjacent to the boiler and beneath the parking lot remained. When a few washers and dryers were placed in the room, it was deemed the “coal hole laundry room.” There was a man-hole in the ceiling that opened to the parking lot, where, at one time, coal had been dumped from delivery trucks. My plan was to carefully park my Cutlass so that the engine was over the hole. I’d remove the oil filter, and from the coal hole below, I’d climb a ladder and hold a bucket beneath the oil filter hole. All I needed was for someone to start the engine and let it run until all the old oil had drained into the bucket.

When I excitedly told Tom about my plan, he gave me a blank stare. He wasn’t sure whether to tell me about the flaw in my plan or let me discover it for myself. Sensing the entertainment opportunity, he stifled himself and agreed to start and stop the car’s engine on my command. On our way to the parking lot, he asked other brothers to join him to “see how an economist changes his car’s oil.” It became an impromptu party.

Tom sat in the driver’s seat as I positioned myself beneath the engine, on the ladder. I removed the old filter, positioned the bucket and yelled, “Let ’er rip, Tom!” When he turned the key, the assembled brothers watched in amazement (and amusement) as high-pressure oil sprayed from the engine, covering my head, face, shoulders, and everything in the laundry room. Very little oil made it into the bucket. Unlucky brothers, whose clothes were in the laundry room, had permanently oil-soaked jeans, shirts, and undies.

I could hear playful sarcastic applause and cheers as I descended the ladder to survey the damage. As I cleaned the laundry room with kitty litter and contemplated the cost of replacing the ruined clothing, I thought about Mr. Radaker and the part of his lecture that I clearly missed…an internal combustion engine’s oil pressure, at idle, is at least 40 psi. In addition, I think my buddy, Tom, may have revved the engine a little, just for fun.

So, kids, when your science teacher lectures you on a seemingly ancient but not completely outdated technology, pay attention. Being saturated with filthy oil and trying to get it out of your hair is no fun at all! 

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