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MAKE Asks: Roadside Hacks

MAKE Asks: Roadside Hacks

MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

MAKE reader James Brauer recently sent me this email:

Your blog/column got me thinking about all the roadside repairs I have done. MAKE asking about the contents of reader’s roadside repair kit would be interesting.

This week’s question: Almost everyone at one point or another has had something fail on their car, or been stuck on the side of the road. What have been your most ingenious methods of getting things up and running again?

One of mine actually happened just a few weeks ago, though I wasn’t directly involved. MAKE contributor Jonathan Foote organized a bus trip to some geeky Bay Area attractions: an electronics swap meet, a big surplus store, and Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories. We were ferried around in an early ’70s era bus, which broke down about halfway through our journey. A small posse of makers and hackers was dispatched to diagnose the problem. They narrowed it down to something electrical and tore the dash apart, then traced it to a blown ten amp fuse that was nearly the size of a banana. Someone snagged a ride to find a replacement, which was found, ironically, at the very same surplus store we were planning on going to. They put it back in and we were back on the road!

Post your responses in the comments section.

44 thoughts on “MAKE Asks: Roadside Hacks

  1. jdlee77 says:

    I cant come up with any off the top of my head that I have done.

    But the one that sticks out in my mind was from one of my favorite movies (Worlds Fastest Indian) when he uses a log as a spare wheel on his trailer to get to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

  2. Dennis says:

    Literally, chewing gum and tin foil to patch a cracked oil pan suffered in a ’68 Mustang 390. We came over a hill a bit too hot and bottomed out on the landing. The fix SLOWED the leak, but we were able to procure a case of cheap oil at a Seven-Eleven. The 390 brought us the 45 miles home ….. with two quarts to spare. Without the fix – we would have used three cases.
    We were glad the car had a proper gauge, instead of an “idiot light”, and we never took our eyes off it. Neither did we “baby” the car home. We were out to have fun, after all.

  3. MichaelShannon says:

    Just had to do this one myself. Shift interlock on my 05 Magnum broke, leaving the car stranded at a restaurant – luckily, we were able to get a ride home from a very nice waitress. Did some research on the net, discovered the source of the problem, and went back the next morning. I was able to wiggle a screwdriver down in the shifter to get the car in gear and get it home. Once there, I pulled the shifter assembly, and found where the attachment point for a spring had broken off from the interlock. I drilled a couple of holes in the piece, threaded some bailing wire through, twisted it to make a loop, attached the spring, and I was back in business. At least for the 4 days it took for me to get a real replacement (aluminum, unlike the original plastic) part…

  4. John Jackson says:

    We were returning from Holiday in France a few years back and found a couple waiting for the same ferry as us with a coolant leak from the heater matrix. It was summer so the heater wasn’t needed but the passenger foot-well was filling with hot water. The guy had found the hose feeding the heater and put a jubilee clip onto it to reduce the flow but they were still having to top up the coolant constantly. I suggested we use a wine cork with the jubilee clip to improve the pinch and it worked! They were able to make it onto the ferry and home.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      This reminds me of a cool little hack for a small radiator leak. You drop a raw egg into the radiator and run the car. The egg congeals and seals the hole long enough to get you home.

      1. James Bryant says:

        There are commercial products, rather than egg white, which make permanent plugs for small radiator leaks. Radweld and Bar’s Leaks come to mind (in England) but I’m sure there are more.

  5. Brandon says:

    Once upon a time (a college time to be exact.) A few of my friends and I decided to go scrounge up some compressed air from our local fire department so we could play paintball. We had very little money for paintball but fun was a necessity… Needless to say car care was not at the top of the list either. After a successful day graciously handing out welts we got ready to head home. However, upon entering the 1988 Camry that we drove in (about 9 miles of dirt road at 45 mph) we received the idiot light as was mentioned above in the Mustang Fiasco. (thanks Dennis, that light is there for people like my friends.) At some point we had bottomed out and ripped the drain plug from my buddy’s oil pan… we found a convenient 2000 lb steel boulder, possibly a Tercel? and drained what oil was left in that and a few other vehicles. Why are there random cars? Good question, hypothetical curious reader. Keep in mind we played paintball at the end of a 9 mile dirt road that used to be a cement factory. Anywho, we had about 4 quarts of used oil in a multitude of containers, all we needed was to plug the oil pan back up. A funny thing happens when you tear a bolt from it’s threads. The threads are gone. After some poking around we decided that a piece of pipe, 6 inches of radiator hose, a stick, and 8 feet of barbed wire would be just as good a bolt. We used the pipe to smash the radiator hose against the drain hole, the barbed wire to wrap around the top of the motor mounts (holding the pipe in place) and the stick to twist and crank down the barbed wire to the whole thing wouldn’t come loose. Remember the idiot light? They were invented for my friend. He drove that car that way for over a week before he scavenged a new oil pan. DL;DR -Brando

  6. Tom says:

    Wow, some of these are epic! Got two simple classics, though: 1) 67 International Travellall; Wyoming; worn carburetor tube; duct tape, got it to Ohio…and 2) same vehicle, a backwards compression start on a level dirt road..phew!

  7. Terre Tulsiak says:

    My husband -who is a doctor- for some reason feels he has to customize any boat he’s ever had by drilling holes in different places ‘that make sense’. Twenty years ago while diving in the Keys the ‘wimmin’ left behind on the 17 ft Wellcraft noticed that we were sitting lower in the water as time went by. No we hadn’t forgotten the plug (this time) but Dr Dave did neglect to fill the holes when he moved the swim platform, We were able to keep the water draining by running periodically, but only when we plugged the holes with a carefully nibbled carrot- jammed in- did the hull stop sucking in more water,

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      That is so funny because my Dad tells a similar story. Except it was something that had sprung in the outboard engine. My grandfather made him hold a carrot in the hole until they got back to port. :)

  8. jamesb says:

    About 20 years ago, I bent my exhaust pipe backing out of a steep driveway, and was in the yard trying to straighten it out using my scissor jack as a spreader clamp. The exhaust pipe was starting to move, and the jack was getting harder to turn. Just a little more to go, then “poonk”, the jack screw popped a hole in the tank and showered me in gas. I stuck my finger over the hole and laid there in the dirt wondering what to do. Finally, I ran in the old farm house and grabbed some insulating window putty I had glazed in the windows a couple of weeks earlier, ran back out, and stopped the leak. But it was still undriveable: the first bump, and my gas would leak all over hot, bent up, exhaust pipe. I went back to the window and grabbed the suction cup I had been using to hang a stained glass piece I made, and jabbed a hole in the center. Then I found a lag bolt that would thread into the gas tank hole, and secured the suction cup over the putty to hold it in place. I drove the car a couple more years like that.

    Looking back on this, I’m really fortunate to now have really good tools, and new vehicles.

  9. jacqueshacques says:

    Your floor-mats can come in really handy if you find yourself stuck in mud or snow. Cramming one under your tire can give you the traction boost you need to get unstuck in a hurry! Around the second time you find yourself hosing mud off your mats, you learn to just keep a rolled-up carpet remnant in the trunk, which also keeps you dry and more comfortable if you have to crawl under or kneel by the roadside.

  10. John F. Bramfeld says:

    Most of my problems have revolved around keeping liquids out, not in. On vacation several years ago, I left my moonroof open overnight, coinciding nicely with substantial rain. After drying the car out as best I could, I loaded the car with baggage and my family, started the engine and found the electronic shift interlock not working. I pried the unit out and just variously moved by hand everything that could be caused to move until it seemed to work, gave it a short squirt of WD-40 and it worked fine. I didn’t shift back to park until I got home.

    Last week, on my way to vacation in the same place, I found myself driving along with a truly torrential rain. Thus, a vicious 15 minute storm for everyone along the way turned into a vicious 90 minute storm for me traveling the same direction in the middle of it. Eventually, I went through so many flooded areas of the road that water got into my spark plug wells. I got to my destination all right, but the engine was missing badly. By the next morning it was even worse. I knew from a misadventure washing the engine what needed to be done, so I started idling the car right away to evaporate the water. Hours later it wasn’t any better. Finally I just hit the road for home under the cloud of a “restricted performance” message and an engine warning light. By the time I got home four hours later the engine was running perfectly. The next day I cleared 11 fault codes. I won’t even tell you about my house and water.

    1. jamesbx says:

      When I was a kid, Dad drove the Dodge Aspen through a flood and sucked water into the motor. I think, at someone’s suggestion, he pulled each spark plug and dry-cranked the motor to push the water out of the spark plug hole.

  11. Karl Bielefeldt says:

    One time on a camping trip the derailleur on my wife’s bicycle basically exploded, rendering it unridable. A couple days later driving back home, the accelerator cable in our pickup snapped in the middle of nowhere. It was pretty late, so we got a tow back to the nearest small town to spend the night. In the morning, we found out it would take two days to get a replacement shipped.

    However, we happened to have a broken bicycle with three perfectly good cables. We used one to replace the truck’s accelerator cable, intending to install the “real” cable if we had any future issues with it. It worked perfectly for the remaining three years we owned that truck.

    1. jamesbx says:

      Nice fix. My buddy had a Corsair, and broke the little ball off the end of either his accelerator or clutch cable, I don’t recall which. (The cable end where the ball is held captive by the pedal.) I twisted a hook on the end of the cable, and attached a small nut and bolt to the end to hold it in the pedal.. I knew it wouldn’t hold, and suggested he get a real cable. It lasted about three weeks.

  12. Russell says:

    So many hacks, where to start.
    1) methylated spirits in the petrol tank to soak up water in the fuel tank.
    2) same as above but use acetone for water in diesel.
    3) rejuvenate a flat battery by putting it near a camp fire to warm it up.
    4) use the girlfriends pantyhose as a make shift fan belt.
    5) use a splash of fuel and a match to blow a tyre back onto a rim and partially inflate it.
    6) wipe cut potato on the windscreen, the juice acts as water dispersant when the wipers aren’t working.

  13. Russell says:

    My favorite auto hack, though I’ve never had to use it, was from a documentary series called “bush mechanics” about aboriginals in the desert of Australia and how they kept their beat up cars running. You can find exerts from the series on U tube.

    When fuel pump fails, empty widescreen washer bottle and refill with fuel, then redirect the hose to the carburetor instead of the water spray nozzles. Need fuel, tap the washer switch. Brilliant! !

  14. Ken says:

    I know I’m a maker, but when it comes to roadside problems, well I would rather be in my wood shop or at my electronics bench. That is why my favorite roadside tools are a AAA card and a cell phone.

    But long ago, when I was young, I had a VW bug that I got stuck in a snow drift on a rather deserted road. I happened to have a tube of drafting paper (for those who only know of CAD, we used to draft our designs on vellum paper, and kept them safe in cardboard tubes), and this I jammed down on the accelerator. Then I popped the car into first gear and climbed out, went around behind, and, with wheels spinning in the snow bank, pushed the car out onto the road. I then had to chase the car down, and jump into the driver seat before it ran wildly into another snow bank. The rest of the ride home was boringly safe.

    1. terre says:

      Just keep that vision in mind when they call you a nerd… I keep getting the giggles picturing it for some reason- glad I don’t run into you in church or something…

  15. David says:

    Had this happen to me last week. After getting my brakes done at a shop in the middle of no where I was driving home after work and started hearing a horrific grinding noise. After a little inspection I realized the bottle bolt holding my caliper on had disappeared and my caliper was grinding on the inside of my wheel. I used a wire coat hanger to hold the caliper in place until I got home. Never going to a shop again.

    When I was a kid going Down to florida for spring break me and my friends were ready to start enjoying ourselves on the way down. An empty windshield washer reservoir, a little bit of rubber tubing into the cab and a bottle of jack inplace of washer fluid was fun. I wouldn’t recommend this though.

  16. Rich says:

    While traveling to Florida from Pa. during a rainstorm my windshield wipers stopped working. I limped it to a gas station. Luckily I had a truck full of tools so I could remove the wiper motor and inspect it. The problem was a worn out snap ring . I pulled a quater out of my pocket , drilled a hole thru it ,and screwed everything back into place. Best 25 cent fix ever. I was driving home one night in my 68 Camaro when the lights when out. I didn’t have a fuse , but I did have a chewing gum wrapper that I wrapped around the blown fuse and made it home safely.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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