Want to learn how to wrench? Befriend a demolition derby competitor

pulling an engine

I’m known around the office to pick up a wrench and help for just about any reason, so when one of Hagerty’s licensed sales agents sent me a message on Monday afternoon asking what I was up to Tuesday after work, I had an idea of what might come next. I was right, too. Tim Wahl is a big-body malaise-era Chevy guy, a passion which grew from his family’s pastime in demolition derby events.

The request he outlined was for help with a transmission replacement in his derby car. Plans for a bump-and-run event on Friday meant the Turbo 350 that only had third gear and reverse needed to be replaced with one that has at least one more forward gear.

Upon arrival, I learned the easiest way to service this hulk of a car is by removal. Rather than lay on our backs and fool with dropping the trans (likely on our heads, because we didn’t have a transmission jack), Tim outlined a loose plan to pull the whole powertrain out and swap the trans on the engine hoist.

We were halfway through the process when I realized working on derby cars is likely the best way to learn how to work on cars. I say this because the basic systems were there, without any of the peripheral clutter. I think there were fewer than a dozen wires in the car. One stretch of fuel line. The transmission wasn’t even bolted to the crossmember. Doing your first engine pull? This is as good as it gets.

We un-ratchet-strapped the radiator and pulled it; removed the headers (we probably didn’t need to); pulled the driveshaft; disconnected the leads to the starter, distributor, and ground strap; then knocked out the engine mount bolts and picked the whole combo up over the core support. That’s five steps. Maybe I’m forgetting one or two things we did; call it seven. That is fewer steps than are needed to properly connect vacuum hoses on some smog-era cars.

transmission change
Brett Lirones

Also, given that the whole car was bound to be smashed into other cars in its near future, we could use the thing like a jungle gym. Classic pickups are so nice to work on because you have space in the engine compartment, but this took that concept to another level. I found it easiest to guide the engine in and out by just standing in the engine compartment or sitting on the fender. Ferrari mechanics dream of this kind of thing as they hover around the car, cognizant of every possible way they could damage something.

The transmission tailshaft plug popped out right as the engine and transmission reached peak height and the oil pan cleared the core support, creating what looked like a murder scene of automatic transmission fluid under the car. A bag of cheap kitty litter came to the rescue.

Rip off the burned-up trans, slap on the “new” one, which I learned Tim had little faith in because “I basically traded a good driveshaft for it.” That included the torque converter, too. Bargain is an understatement. Tighten the bellhousing and torque converter bolts and ship the whole package back into the engine compartment. It ran at the end of the night. Time will tell if it holds together in the derby this weekend.

It was truly a delight to take a few hours on a Tuesday night to turn wrenches with a few friends, and reinforce the knowledge of the basics I have. That’s what this is all about. Having fun and sharing the love for cars. I’ll admit, I initially grappled with how my actions are helping someone absolutely destroy a car, but then again, some folks would say I have destroyed my Corvair, so let’s all play with our toys how we see fit and have fun. Life’s too short to be uptight.