IT’S fair to say that many of life’s lessons are learned through experience. One such example of this came back to me the other day, when I was charged by the gaffer with the job of recruiting our new apprentice.
I have a great belief in apprenticeships, as they’re massively important in developing people. In the spannering trade, particularly, I’ve seen many youngsters go from being potential troublemakers to becoming honourable young men, with a strong and determined work ethic. But then I should know, because 25 years ago, I was one of them myself.
A typical 18-year-old, I dropped out of school with limited qualifications. It wasn’t that I was thick or lacking in academic ability. I just wanted my own life, didn’t fit into the academic system, and I loved cars. Working on them, and solving mechanical problems, was my calling.
My teachers told me it was a waste. I wasn’t a bad lad at school, and while I didn’t excel academically, I was told I was bright and easily capable of going on to bigger and better things, should I wish to apply myself.
I found that vaguely insulting, as I felt my career calling was simply to do what I chose to do, and a quarter of a century later, as a 43-year-old mechanic, father and garage foreman, I’m proud of my achievements.
But I’m also lucky to be here to be able to tell my tale! I started my apprenticeship in the autumn of 1990 working in the very same garage as I do today. Back then, cars were simpler.
On-board diagnostics existed, but were in their infancy, and young lads like me were largely kept away from such witchcraft.
Our job, instead, was to look after the more traditional, mechanical jobs. One such task, for me, was to do a brake overhaul of a 10-year-old Ford Cortina, owned by one
of our older customers who, despite having the means to afford a much newer car, was happy to enjoy the one he had.
I remember it well. It was a silver, W-reg, 2.0-litre GL and had been impeccably well maintained. Back then, unlike today, it was perfectly normal to find a 10-year-old car with extensive corrosion, but this example was a minter – garaged, cleaned every week, and serviced twice as frequently as it needed.
The owner had brought the car in ahead of its MOT and, because it hadn’t had any brake work carried out for three years, he’d asked for the front discs, pads and rear shoes to be replaced regardless of wear, as he wanted to ensure it remained in tip-top condition.
These were fairly straightforward tasks on a Mk5 Cortina, so the boss asked me to go ahead.
Indeed, the process was pretty simple. Starting at the rear, I jacked the car up, changed the shoes and adjusted the handbrake so it was nice and tight, with a low biting point. Finishing the job with a generous spray of brake cleaner, I then moved on to the front axle.
The job here was a bit more complex, as I was charged with removing and replacing both disc brakes, applying new pads, cleaning up the callipers and reassembling the lot. Using the brake cleaner, from a spray can, made the job much less messy and easier to execute.
So I didn’t hold back, spraying it generously around the callipers, and adding a generous dose to the new discs and pads before I put them in place. By the time I’d finished, the front hubs of the car were so clean you could eat your dinner off them. The brakes’ components were equally brand new and squeaky clean, but I gave them a generous blast of the cleaning aerosol as a final flourish.
All that was left was to put the wheels back on and take the Cortina down the road to ensure everything was working as it should. So I did, and less than half a mile from the garage, I found myself approaching a red traffic light. Luckily, nothing was coming as I applied the brakes, panicked, and found the Ford wanting to do its level best not to stop as it sailed across a busy intersection. I drove gingerly back to base to try to discover the error of my ways. And it was apparent as soon as I pulled back onto the forecourt.
In my haste to reassemble the front brakes, I’d gone not for the can of brake cleaner, but for a trade-size spray can of WD40, which had done exactly as it said on the tin, and reduced all the friction within the car’s braking system.
Clean, they may have been, but the discs and pads were also next to useless.
Luckily, the customer wasn’t due to collect the car until the following day, which gave me ample time to take the brakes apart again and put all of the constituent components through our parts washer, after which normal service was resumed.
But it taught me an important lesson – always read the label, and make sure you’re using the right stuff…
Who is Our Kev? If we told you, we’d have to kill you… What we can say is he’s been around for longer than he cares to remember and has a fund of stories to tell…
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