by Shawn Downey
“Because I really need you to help me. I can’t hit the starter and check for spark at the same time.”
“But it stinks out there, and it’s cold.”
“It does not stink out there, and I promise to use every volt in this house to power every single space heater we own.”
“It still stinks out there,” she objects.
“It does not.”
“It stunk out there the other night and don’t try to deny it.”
“That’s because Kevin was here. You know how barley agitates his sensitive digestive tract. Will you please come out there and help me?”
As she dons her coat and Doc Martins, I secretly celebrate victory. “Don’t gloat,” she reads my mind. “It makes you look like a politician. How come Joey doesn’t have these problems?”
“Joey’s got electronic ignition.”
“But his bike is the same year as yours. What’s up with that? Was electronic ignition some sort of elective option in the bad ol’ days?” she questions cynically. My only defense can be that of silence. “This better not be one of those namby-pamby ‘purist’ issues you and the rest of your crusty cronies are always talking about.”
Fearing that I might be breaking some type of vow I volunteer, “Well, kinda, but kinda not. Joey installed a Boyer electronic ignition to replace the breaker points that were factory standard equipment back in the ‘bad ‘ol days.’ It has some plusses, but it has some major league drawbacks as well. Remember what a hassle he went through to install the black box? I have heard nightmare stories of those black boxes frying at the most inconvenient moments. A points system may not be the most accurate system, but it does give little telltale signs of it’s gradual demise versus just plain quitting.”
“Yeah, well I doubt that he’s dragging Betty Sue or Betty Boop or whatever her name is out to the garage right now. So, how is this artful breaker point crap supposed to work?” she asks sarcastically.
“Well,” I begin almost apologetically, “when the breaker points are closed, current flows from the battery through the ignition coil and builds a magnetic field around the coil. The breaker cam rotates with the crankshaft so the breaker points open as the piston reaches the firing position or top dead center. As the points open, the magnetic field collapses which induces a very high voltage in the secondary winding of the ignition coil. That voltage is pretty intense, like 15,000 volts intense, which is more than adequate to jump the gap at the spark plug. Then, as the French say, waa-la.”
“What about that thing?” she questions while pointing at the little cylinder wired to the points.
“That would be the condenser. It is suppose to protect the breaker points by storing the surge of voltage from the ignition coil which sometimes produces voltage even after the points have begun to open. By storing the continuing surge, it prevents arcing at the points.”
“So why are we out here in this enclave of toxins?” she winces, sampling the somewhat pungent air in my den of equity.
“Because it won’t start. She’s getting plenty of gas, so it has to be the lack of spark.”
“What are we going to do?” she asks impatiently.
“Oh. Well, the first thing I thought we would do is take the spark plug out of the cylinder and lay it across the cylinder head to if a spark is generated between the electrodes when we hit the starter button.” Handing her a spark plug wrench I beg, “Here, you take the spark plug out while I study the manual.”
“Why don’t you take the plug out?” she says shocked.
“Look at my knuckles. You know the doctor said that I have to get at least one of these scabs to heal or he will be forced to start doing skin grafts. We both know where that skin will be coming from, and I don’t want to sit on an inflatable horseshoe for six weeks.”
She removes the plug, reattaches the lead to the plug and lays it across the cylinder heads. Not a bashed knuckle during the entire exercise. It amazes me every time. She thumbs the starter while we both concentrate in the dark hoping to see a big fat spark arch across the electrodes. Nothing. “Now what?” she inquires.
“Uhh, I dunna know. What does the book say?” I reply all too unknowingly.
“If there is no spark at any cylinder, the defect will be easily detected, since the only current is through the battery connections and the main switch to the coil,” she reads. Pulling the plugs on the other two cylinders confirms that just the one cylinder is not receiving spark.
“Okay, now what?” I ask puzzled.
“Rotate the engine until the points on the bad cylinder are closed.”
“Done,” I say after pulling a Mel Gibson and dislocating my shoulder while pushing on the kick starter.
“Now disconnect the high voltage lead from the affected spark plug and hold it 1/4 inch away from the cylinder head.”
“Okay,” I confirm awaiting her next instruction.
“Turn on the ignition and open the points.”
BLAM! A bolt of thunder courses through my veins. I see a white light and the midget from Poltergeist. The midget beckons in that eerie voice, “Go to the light, Caroline. Walk towards the light, honey.” The dreamscape is interrupted by my wife yelling, “Whoa, was that cool! Right before you ricocheted off the back wall there was this totally fat, bluish-whitish spark that jumped from the spark plug lead to the cylinder head.”
Rubbing the top of my head, which judging by the singed hairs circling the crown was where the lightening bolt exited my body, I murmur, “What does that mean? ”
“According to the book, it means you should have used an insulated tool to open those points. It also means that the spark is good, and all we need to replace is the spark plug.”
Still dazed from the electric shock therapy, I stumbled around the garage humming Mozart’s Requiem and trying to locate a new spark plug. Inhaling the fumes from the smoldering hairs on my head, my wife comments “Well, at least you got rid of the Kevin smell.”
*Author’s note: All names are purely fictional and any association to known individuals was purely intentional. I mean accidental.