THE LIFT FROM HELL: By Burt Levy

In The Early spring of 1974, my new wife Carol and I opened up a sports car shop on Chicago's soon-to-be-fashionable near north side . The fact that she went along with the idea and stuck by me through three financially disastrous years is a tribute to her gumption, loyalty, steadfastness, and lack of temperament. The fact that she's stuck with me ever since (through countless more hair-brained schemes and dumb adventures) is a source of constant amazement to everyone who knows us. Particularly her family, who could never quite figure why I felt compelled to quit a successful, family-owned packaging business the minute we got married so I could pursue my star-crossed destiny as a multimillionaire shop owner, racing legend and mechanical wizard. And I knew exactly how I was gonna make those millions, too, seeing as how I'd worked all the numbers out on the back of a cocktail napkin (several, in fact) and figured if I just had three perfect, pleasant, loyal, reliable and hardworking mechanics plus an endless supply of rust-free, easy-to-fix foreign cars (which our shop would naturally repair in well under the specified flat-rate book time and never screw up so badly that their owners came after us with shotguns and/or blunt instruments) well, there was no way we could do anything but get filthy rich on the deal.

Perhaps it's not the absolute stupidest notion I've ever had, but it's certainly well up with the front runners ....

In deference to my post-collegiate odyssey as a so-called flower child (actually a misnomer, as most of us smoked the leaves, seeds, sticks and stems as well) I christened the shop "Mellow Motors." Although in truth there was little mellow about the place from the very beginning, and even less as time went on. But wife Carol and I were filled with hope and enthusiasm the day we hung out our shingle in front of a large and venerable brickwork garage at 747 Wrightwood Street, just east of Halsted, which we'd rented from a gritty, Royko-esque Chicago character named Bruno, who once kindly invited me out into the alley so he could try parting my hair with a claw hammer.

Among the many exciting features of Bruno's ancient building (besides the walkup toilet that threatened continually to fall through the floor and a gravel-filled cavern below housing the resident rat menagerie) was a fine and sturdy pre-Columbian example of that gotta-have-one necessity found in every bigtime professional car shop: a hydraulic lift. Now this particular lift was a real collectors' item with a fine patina of age (in fact, you'd get that patina allover yourself if you got anywhere near the thing) and the elderly rumpot next door swore it actually predated the internal combustion engine, and was used to hold up the rear ends of oversized horses during routine neutering’s.

The lift in Bruno's garage rested on a single, massive centerpost that had to measure at least a yard in diameter, atop which were mounted four heavy, articulated arms that would form the letter "H" when perfectly aligned. Flopping over a worn-shiny brass lever on the wall (a relic from the Lusitania perhaps?) caused the thoroughly antique air compressor in the back corner to start clattering like a steam locomotive on square wheels, and soon, with much hissing, groaning, and ominous, deep-register bowel sounds, that huge cylinder would begin oozing slowly upwards-ascending as if from the pit of Hell itself-drooling grease and brackish water like that disgusting lizard creature in the movie Alien ....

In a masterstroke of brilliant interior design, the lift in Bruno's garage was situated in a corner, barely three-and-a-half feet from the office wall. A constantly drizzling spigot on the wall ensured that the floor beneath our lift was always covered with a pudding like mélange of water, spilled oil and antifreeze, the lift's own personal excretions, several dozen pounds of used Oil-Dri, and a wide variety of tiny, irreplaceable, you can't- find-them-anywhere-but-a dealership (and they're on back order!) shouldered bolts, woodruff keys, special washers and hermaphrodite fittings that were forever falling in the muck and, I believe to this day, getting sucked right through the blessed concrete to that place television preachers (at least those still out on bond) talk about incessantly on Sunday mornings.

I must admit I learned many hard and valuable mechanical lessons at the foot of that ancient lift. And, if some of them seem lighthearted and amusing today, it's only because laughter is, in the end, just the final, fitful blossoming of despair.

How well I recall Mellow Motors' first ever XKE clutch job! The bald fact is that I didn't know Jack Shit about changing a clutch on an E-type, but, hey, I ran a damn sports car shop, didn't I? It said so right there on my singularly embarrassing W2 form. I'd be damned if I was gonna let something as trifling as total ignorance get in my way. Why, I'd personally changed the clutch in my TR3 (several times, in fact) and one of our so-called "mechanics" had an uncle who used to walk by a Jaguar dealership every day on the way to work. Or at least he said he did.

Following a long discussion of possible tactics and strategy around the coffee machine (always the first major step at any car shop), we carefully peeled back the carpeting and interior hardware to get at the transmission tunnel. Only an XKE is a monocoque, see, so it don't have what you and Gomer and me would normally recognize as a transmission tunnel. Well, not a removable one, anyways. Hmmmm. The owner of the local British sports car slaughterhouse (a deservedly infamous garage called Excelsior Motors over on Damen Avenue in the heart of Chicago's taco and chili pepper belt) recommended I could save myself a lot of time and anguish by simply cutting the tunnel out with one of those high speed pneumatic finger removers, pulling the trans out the back TR3-fashion, replacing the offending clutch, and then tack-welding the tunnel back in place once everything was bolted together again. Nobody, he assured me, would be the wiser.

Somehow, that didn't exactly sound like the factory-recommended, shop manual procedure, and we eventually settled on a conservative, common sense, full-frontal assault. With much grunting, groaning, straining of muscles and severing of vital tendons, we removed the Jag's one-piece bonnet (which, I swear, is roughly the same size and weight as a Pratt & Whitney jet aircraft engine) undid every bolt and nut we could find, and proceeded to lift the entire engine/tans assembly (roughly the same size and weight as a Pratt & Whitney piston aircraft engine) out the top. Only it wouldn't. No matter how we jockeyed around with the jacks and the lift and the engine hoist and the rake of the car and the angle of the dangle, that sucker just flat would not clear the top tube of the front crossmember. It lacked a solid three-quarters of an inch. And that's after we pulled the damn water pump, oil pan, and crankshaft pulley! %*#@*!!! So we stood around in Stymie City for the next couple of hours, silently drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and walking back over to our wedged-solid XKE clutch job every now and again to see if maybe the engine block had shrunk any.

In the end, I gave up and called service manager and legit mechanical guru Vince Woodfield over at the local Jag dealership, and he recommended we drop the whole shebang out the bottom (while warning us repeatedly not to let the ends of the torsion bars pop when we pulled the bolts out!) and that's exactly what we did. Let the torsion bars pop, I mean. But the hardest part was jockeying this massively jammed-up car/engine/trans assembly from where it was (imagine an alligator trying to swallow a diesel locomotive) to where we needed it so's we could complete the operation from the underside. Ultimately vie resorted to spreading the front lift arms as wide as they would go, pushing that hapless E-type waaay forward on the lift (allowing access to everything on its soft underbelly clear back to the tailshaft) and then strapping the ass end of that car to the back of the lift with ratchet tie downs so it would just sorta hang there (albeit precariously) while we completed the rest of the operation.

And hopefully not fall on our heads!

Imagine the owner's surprise when he waltzed unexpectedly into the shop for a progress check and found his beloved Series One E-Type dangling off the business end of the Mellow Motors lift like it was giving birth to that same diesel locomotive mentioned above. Needless to say, he was not amused. And even less impressed with our methods. As was I, come to think of it. And you shoulda seen the damn plumber's wrench it took to twist those freaking torsion bars back into position. I swear, the handle on that sucker had to be three feet long! And we had to put yet another three or four feet of pipe on it to get the necessary leverage!

But the award for worst lift experience of all time is reserved for (fanfare and drum roll, please, typesetter): The Sunday Afternoon of the Avalanched MG. No question about it. See, back in those carefree, innocent and unfettered days of the middle seventies (before the lawyers, do-gooders, and insurance companies got a stranglehold on this country's lower intestinal tract) we used to let employees, racing buddies, friends-of-the-shop, and people who bought us lots of drinks at the bar come in and work on their own personal cars on Sunday afternoons. It was a nice public relations gesture, you know? Especially since I could count on most of those dweebs to screw up their cars so badly they'd have to leave them in the shop for us to put right again-for money!-come Monday morning.

During the time in question, Mellow Motors' ever changing retinue of employees included a tall, thin, yet insidiously muscular fellow named Dale, who wore a wild, bushy, full-face beard and had the crazed eyes of a Viking warrior in the act of pillaging a Saxon village. He was a quiet sort, actually, but whenever you needed two pieces of metal violently separated from one another, Dale was your man. He also had (thanks to an insurance claim of perhaps dubious nature) the most incredible tool set you have ever seen on your life. I swear, Dale had at least one (or more!) of everything on the Snap-On catalog. Only problem was, Dale would spend literally hours in front of his shiny red, six-story tool cabinet, pondering exactly which precise combination of ratchet handle, extensions, knuckle-wobblers and six-point deepwell flex-sockets would be most appropriate for the job at hand.

Which is precisely why I sent Dale out on parts runs at every possible opportunity. He was good at getting the right stuff we needed, it kept him from not getting much of anything useful accomplished on whatever car he happened to be working on, and it allowed us free and unlimited use of his amazing tool set while he was gone. A good deal all around.

In any case, this one warm and pleasant late-summer Sunday afternoon, Dale had brought his brother-in-law's mustard-colored MGB over to our shop for a routine muffler job. Now this particular MGB was one of the unloved, late issue, fat-rubberbumper models, and as such was bedeviled with a strange, crimped-end muffler system that I can only assume the factory assembled out of recycled fruit cocktail cans and was therefore guaranteed to blowout at least once a year. If not sooner. And the difficulty with the fat-bumper MGBs was that the damn exhaust pipe ran very nearly down the centerline (pardon me, centreline) of the car, which posed a bit if an access problem on and H-style lift like the resident piece at Mellow Motors. Our boy Dale solved this particular bother by purposely mis-aligning his brother-in-law's MG on the lift, allowing the entire exhaust system (along with 49.9% of the car's weight) to teeter alarmingly off to the left-hand side.

I remember being home that particular Sunday afternoon, resting my poor, bloodied knuckles around my fourth or fifth can of Old Style while watching our pre Mike Ditka Chicago Bears getting pushed all over the field by, I believe, a local high school team. Then the phone rang. It was Dale, and I recall his exact opening words in perfect, crystalline detail: "I don't think 1 broke my leg."

Needless to say, that cheerful tidbit of news instantly wiped out the effect of three or more beers. "You WHAT???!!!"

It transpired that Dale had come upon a rather solidly rusted-up nut on the old exhaust system, and, after carefully selecting the appropriate drive-handle, multi-jointed extension combination, and deepwell six-point flex socket, Dale proceeded to tighten his jaw, plant his feet, and apply Significant Pressure as only he was able.

Which is about when his brother-in-Law's MGB came hurtling out of the sky like an RA.F. Spitfire (okay, an R.A.F. MG) riddled with anti-aircraft fire. I leave the fierceness, texture and decibel level of the accompanying noise to your imagination, but rest assured all three were of substantial magnitude. Fortunately, the car missed Dale by a whisker (or maybe less, since I recall a few stray beard hairs hanging off the undercarriage) as it crashed violently into the concrete floor beside the lift, driver's door downward. As if that weren't enough, Dale's brother-in-law's MG was now well and truly trapped; stuck underneath  the lift (so there was no way it could go down) in the vertical axis and wedged in securely between  the lift-post and the wall laterally. Not to mention that the windshield frame had neatly sheared off the business end of the water spigot, so a healthy (?) spray of our fine Chicago city water was thoroughly drenching the floor, the walls, and the MG's interior.

Such was the incredible, horrifying scene that greeted me as 1 walked in through the overhead door some ten minutes later. surveying the carnage, checking repeatedly to make sure Dale wasn't injured (all the while promising repeatedly to injure him myself) the two of us set about solving the puzzle of his brother-in-law's fountain like MGB trapped beneath the Mellow Motors lift. It became painfully obvious that there was no finessing our way out of the situation, so we ordered two large pizzas and several cold six packs, called a few friends and employees, grabbed the odd passerby off the street, and dragged that sucker out (accompanied by terrible screeching, grinding, scraping, scuffing, steel-against-concrete noises) and, once clear, gave it a hefty "one- two- three-NOW!" shove and flopped it (Ka-WHUMPFF!) back over on its wheels.

Let me tell you, this was one very unhappy-looking MGB. The driver's side looked like it had been run over by a steamroller, the windshield was busted, two inches of water sloshed in the foot wells, a brackish mixture of brake fluid, antifreeze and oil bathed the entire engine compartment, that fat, ugly and terribly expensive front bumper was badly scuffed (served it right!), the driver's side door handle was broken, every bit of glass on the car was either cracked or shattered, the radio antenna was sheared off, and countless assorted trim bits were suddenly due for replacement.

Oh, and it still had a bum muffler. ...

When you own a car repair facility, you are faced almost daily with legal and ethical questions regarding responsibility, liability, and culpability, and these concerns often form the very fabric and character of your business. Which is exactly what I had dead center in my mind as Dale and I rolled his brother-in-law's newly scrunched MGB to a curbside space well down the block from Mellow Motors. "Dale," 1 told him in a warm, fatherly tone, "I want you to remember one simple thing."

"What's that?" he inquired earnestly.

I looked deep into his Viking-warrior-sacking-a-Saxon-village eyes, narrowed my own, and growled: "Dale, this DID NOT happen in my shop!"