Last week I waxed enthusiastically about owning a mid-rise lift. I crowed about how much I love it, how I use it at least three nights a week, and how it is a great alternative for those of us with short-height garages. Not only that, it is a savoir for my aging back, and having the body of the lift between the ground and the car makes me feel safe.
Now I’ll tell you about the time it damn-near killed me.
First, you have to understand how safety latches work on mid-rise lifts, as opposed to those on more expensive post lifts. On every post lift I’ve ever seen, there is a spring-loaded fool-proof safety latch that has stops about every foot or so. As the lift is raised, the latching mechanism retracts to push past each of the latch stops. When it passes each stop, the mechanism automatically springs into position beneath it. When the lift is at or near the desired height, you then lower it onto the nearest latch stop so the weight of the car is being supported not by the lifting mechanism (which can be hydraulic, cable, or direct drive), but instead is sitting on the stop.
To lower the car, you need to first raise it slightly up off the stop, then manually retract the latching mechanism via a lever or a button, and continue to hold the retraction control while you lower the car. In other words, the retraction mechanism involves holding in a “dead man’s switch” to prevent you from becoming an actual dead man. If it isn’t held in, you can’t lower the car.
In contrast, due to their more simple design and lower price, the mid-rise lifts that I’m familiar with (including the one I own) have a latching mechanism that is not fail-safe. That is, like a post lift, it does have a latching mechanism that moves past a series of latch stops as you raise the lift, but the latching mechanism isn’t automatic. It’s not spring-loaded. When you have the lift at the height you want, you need to stick your arm under it, manually flip a small latch lever into the locking position to engage the latch stops, then lower the lift down onto the nearest latch stop. If you don’t do this, the car will be supported by the hydraulic cylinders and the pressure in the fluid that drives them, but it will not be mechanically supported. So it is like a big floor jack, and you’re never supposed to crawl under a car that’s supported only by a floor jack.
To lower a mid-rise lift, you raise it up off the latch stop, stick your arm back under the lift, and flip the latch lever again to disengage the stops. There’s no dead man’s switch; there’s nothing you need to hold in place to keep the latch retracted as you lower the lift, like there is on a post lift.
Now, let me say that, regarding crawling under cars, I am safety conscious to a fault. In addition to common sense, it traces back to—and I swear I am not making this up—the fact that I had a physics professor in college who was killed when his car fell on him. I don’t know the details, but I drove by his house after it happened and saw that much of the driveway was on a steep incline. For this and other reasons, whenever I need to jack up a car, I make sure it’s on a level surface and “double-jack” it, meaning I raise it with a floor jack, put jack stands beneath it, lower it onto the jack stands, and then leave the floor jack in place as backup. I’m tempted to call it “belts and suspenders,” but that trivial-sounding name falls too short of the harsh reality. When your pants fall down, you don’t die.
Any lift, with its lifting mechanism and latch stops, effectively has the “double-jacking” factor built into it. That is, when you raise it up and set it down on the latch stops, that’s like putting it on jack stands. Even if it breaks a latch, there’s still the lifting mechanism itself (analogous to leaving the floor jack in place) supporting the car. Thus, for a lift to fail and cause a car to come down on you, both the mechanical stops and the raise-and-hold-up mechanism would need to fail at the same time. Or the car would need to be loaded horrifically off-balance. Or a cataclysmic geo-seismic event would need to occur, in which case you might be toast whether you’re in your garage or in the bathtub.
So how in the hell did my mid-rise almost kill me? It was a highly unlikely combination of three things—the design of the lift’s latching mechanism, a brain fart on my part, and a freakishly unlikely movement of something in my garage.
Here’s the story. I was doing the rear brakes on one of my BMW 2002s. I had the car up a few feet in the air. I’d replaced the rear wheel cylinders, shoes, and drums, so I had both rear wheels off the car. The final step was to bleed the brakes. I opened up the bleed valve on the left rear wheel, and nothing came out. I pumped the brake pedal and still nothing came out. When this happens, typically the problem is that the rubber flexible lines (those connecting the hard lines on the body to the hard lines at the wheel) have deteriorated and are swollen shut. But to verify it, you need to loosen the brake line where it enters the wheel cylinder and see if fluid comes out there. If it doesn’t, you need to work your way back to where the hard line enters the rubber line.
So that’s what I was doing, working my way back. If I’d been at the point of replacing the hard rubber lines, I would’ve moved away from the side of the car and crawled completely under it, but instead I was leaning in behind the rear drum, scooching further and further under the car. While leaning in and squirming to reach the next brake line junction, my legs swung to one side and inadvertently kicked something.
Then, with about half my body under the rear quarter panel of the car, the lift began coming down. It didn’t drop like a stone. It was a controlled pressurized descent.
It’s funny how you react to such things. Here I was, with a lift coming down on me, and life didn’t flash before my eyes. I thought, as I’ve often joked, “If I die under a car, Maire Anne will kill me.” But my main cognitive process had me wondering if my chest would get crushed, punctured, or just pinned. Such an engineer.
And then it stopped. But I could move. I wasn’t pinned; as it turned out, the back of the car came to rest on the rear drums, and there was just enough room between there and the underside of the rear quarter panel to accommodate my chest cavity. I got a good-sized scratch across my back. The next morning it blossomed into a contusion because the car actually hit me as it came down, albeit slowly.
When I got out from under the car, I was oddly calm, likely a combination of shock and denial. And I quickly saw what had happened.
Mid-rise lifts have an electrically-operated hydraulic pump in a little stand that looks something like a golf bag. On the front, there’s an “up” button that energizes the electric motor, and a “down” lever that releases the pressure from the hydraulics. I looked at the pump and was horrified to see that one of the wheels I’d taken off the car was leaning against the “down” lever. That thing I’d kicked when I was under the car was the wheel. By pure chance, I’d dislodged it and it rolled into the lever and depressurized the lift, with me under it. If the pump is like a golf bag, this was like a hole in one, though I’m not sure if I was the club, the cup, or the ball.
But the lift still shouldn’t have come down if it had been sitting on one of the latch stops. I’d never crawl under the lift unless I’d safely latched it, meaning I reached under it and manually flipped the latch lever into the locked position. Had the latching mechanism failed? I raised the lift and inspected the latch lever and found that it had not been flipped.
How was this possible? The only thing I can think of is that, perhaps when I was working on the car the previous evening, I raised the lift, and then something caused me to leave the garage without ever flipping the latch. Maybe my phone rang. I don’t know.
My ever-vigilant left brain said, “Finish the damned repair. You’ll process all this later.” So I did.
The next morning, when I came out of the shower and Maire Anne saw the wound on my back and asked me about it, I lied. “Crawled out from beneath the car and the license plate caught it,” I said. Hey, it’s happened before. But the truth was that I wasn’t ready to tell the truth. I needed time to process it. I didn’t tell anyone for nearly two months.
Now, there are things in life where you’re dancing in risk’s cross-hairs for too long and it’s just a matter of time until something happens. Some friends of mine who ride motorcycles have this sort of fatalism, that if you have never dropped a bike, it’s a question of when and not if. Is working under a car like this? Given enough activity over enough time, is a car likely to fall on you?
No, no, no, no, no.
As I said, when I’m not using the lift and need to jack up a car and get under it, I always remember my departed college professor, make sure the surface is level, and then double-jack the car. No exceptions.
As far as the lift goes, my mid-rise lift, like every other one I’ve seen, has the mechanical latch lever that must be manually flipped. I’ve never seen a mid-rise that has the dead man’s switch feature of a post lift. Despite what happened to me, I don’t think that that design is intrinsically unsafe, as long as you flip the latch. It was a fluke that I didn’t, and a double-fluke that something then hit the down lever. Believe me, it’ll never happen again. I now double-check it whenever I’m about to slide under the lift, even if it’s been sitting up there for days.
The business of the wheel rolling into the down lever was such an unlikely bolt-from-the-blue thing, and yet it did happen. I can’t pretend it didn’t. Although it shouldn’t matter as long as the lift is latched, I am now assiduously careful not to put anything in close proximity to the lift controls.
Lastly, when I need to work under the lift for extended periods, I now roll a spare wheel and tire under it that would prevent it from completely lowering. Because, you know…belts and suspenders. And a second belt. And Gorilla tape. And something steel between me and getting pancaked.
They say that when people have near-death experiences, their life often comes into clearer focus. They tell their family they love them more often, quit their jobs, do bucket list stuff, take the big trip they’ve always wanted to take, buy the XKE, that sort of thing. I am already very happy with my life, pretty gratuitous with spreading the love, and have more cool cars than I know what to do with. And, really, I’m just not a bucket list guy. You could say that I was shaken, but not stirred.
Maybe I’ll just work extra-hard at getting the ol’ Lotus Europa running. Hell, it’s so light that if it fell on me, I might hurt it.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. His new book, Ran When Parked: How I Road-Tripped a Decade-Dead BMW 2002tii a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is available here on Amazon. In addition, he is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.