A Simple Tune-up

by Ron Springer

Here’s a quote for ya.

“ That guy has probably forgotten more about cars than you will ever know!”
That phrase came out of the mouth of a friend of mine recently (not that he is the one who coined the phrase) in reference to long time drag racer and automotive engineering wizard Dan Griffin as he was tuning on car in our shop one day. Dan has campaigned his ’50 Olds Race Car, Wasted Childhood, for many decades and is somewhat of a folk legend with followers and admirers worldwide.

It all started when I spoke to Dan about the trouble we were having getting the engine to run right in a little 440 Dodge we were working on. It loaded up, overheated, idled rough and had a big fat dead spot off idle. Any number of people had made attempts to solve the issues, but to no avail. Dan took a brief look at it and listened to the engine run. He was convinced that the issues were in the Holly Double Pumper that sat atop the air-gap intake. Dan’s not a Holly guy. He suggested we let him find a good Carter AFB and rebuild it for us. I was a little reluctant since I was convinced we were already under-carbureted and what he was suggesting didn’t seem to fit that theory. But I liked Dan, and I agreed to accept his offer.

A week or so later, Dan swung by the shop one afternoon with the Carter. We bolted the newly refined unit to the intake and fired her up. Dan grabbed a screwdriver and went to work adjusting the idle mixture. Before long, the headers began to glow red and great explosions were taking place in the tubes that sounded like Cherry Bombs going off. There were several fellows standing around the car (including our Chief Mechanic) watching…or in this case, leering at Dan as though he was performing backwoods heart surgery on their prize Heifer. (The average age of the onlookers was about 35.)

After a couple minutes he signaled us to shut down the engine with a highly exasperated hand-slash across the neck gesture. Without saying a word he whipped out a wrench from his back pocket and started pulling the carb. “Anyone know what the total timing is on the piece of junk?” he growled.

He tossed the Carter on a makeshift bench and proceeded to pull it apart. In about four minutes (no exaggeration here) it was a pile of parts. Dan had brought a couple of small cardboard boxes with him, and he began to unload them onto the bench. There was one container which looked like something you’d see in a tackle box with dozens of carburetor jets in it. Another container had needle valves and accelerator pumps. There must have been enough parts in those boxes to rebuild dozens of carbs…springs, screws, gaskets…you name it. As he began to pull parts from the box I realized that this was most certainly NOT his first rodeo.

He fumbled around in the containers for the parts he wanted and without consulting a guide or a chart he made his decisions on the fly. He didn’t just change the jets, he changed everything; So much for baby steps. He called for a certain size drill bit, and using the diameter of the bit as a guide, he bent the float arms so that when he rolled the drill bit under the floats they just touched. Within a few more minutes he had the thing back together and we were bolting it onto the intake. We fired the engine and Dan grabbed the timing light. After readjusting things he leaned in under the hood spinning his hat around and cocking his head to the side. He closed his eyes and began twisting the mixture screws again. (Picture the same group of guys standing around the car, with the same scrutinizing expressions on their faces.)

As I sat in the driver’s seat monitoring the gauges and watching him through the gap between the hood and the cowl, I could hear subtle changes in the exhaust note, but Dan didn’t seem to be paying any attention to that. His ear was pointed toward the middle of the engine block. I listened more carefully trying desperately to hear what he was hearing. Deep inside the engine, I could detect all kinds of mechanical clicks and whirrs. But as I focused more closely, I could also hear a kind of deep hum, maybe even a kind of rumble. As Dan twisted the screws in and out the rumble-hum would change pitch and I could actually hear a kind of harmonic discord. What I was hearing was downright musical…like the sound a base string on a guitar makes when plucked out of tune. I continued to listen and the pitch would change moving up and down until it finally settled in a pleasant “in tune” place. There were no Cherry Bombs and the headers were fine. Then he blipped the throttle, and I mean blipped it! The sudden rush of sound startled me and it was then I discovered that I too had my eyes closed.

Dan stood back from the engine bay and motioned for me to shut her down. “Well…it’s a little better…I think,” he proclaimed.

I was stunned. The rest of the onlookers were slack-jawed. We all felt the simultaneous urge to bow as Dan walked past us with a grin on his face.

We all saw it happen! We all witnessed every step, but there was no explaining it. How did he know what to do? Why did he do what he did? What was going on in that obviously fertile and well plowed brain of his the last hour? We all wanted to question and grill him, but nobody said a word. We all just stood motionless staring at the engine as though we had just witnessed Jesus calming the storm.

Before Dan started tuning, there was no blipping the throttle. Opening the throttle yielded a magnificent roar, but you wouldn’t have called it a “rush of horsepower.” It was more of a crescendo. Now the engine idled contentedly in its own big cam kind of way but when you jammed your foot to the floor the response was nothing short of insane. It was genuinely instantaneous and the engine popped from idle to redline before you could pull your foot back.

We took the car out on the deserted road that runs along our property and made a couple of passes. I swear, the car felt as though it was going to leap out from underneath me; All this from a “simple” tune-up. That’s the power of experience!

et ita abscedit  Ron

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