This is What’s In Your Toolbox?, an occasional post series where we showcase tools and tips from our favorite fixers.
Have you ever loved an object that does nothing but punish you, and make you feel dumb for loving it? You’ll understand David Tracy’s relationship with Jeeps. Not all Jeeps, mind you―just the best Jeeps in the worst situations.
Tracy writes for auto blog Jalopnik on all matters automotive, but it’s his keen eye for ridiculous fixer-upper opportunities that caught our attention. He wears his love for abused Jeeps on his sleeve, and in his headlines:
We interviewed Tracy by email about his work, his obsessions, and how he saves ancient Jeeps from ruin.
Explain to our community who you are and what you do!
I’m David Tracy, staff writer at Jalopnik. I write about cars, specializing in all things technical. Most folks probably know me for my annual Michigan-to-Utah road trip in a cheap, rusty junker. I used to work as an engineer on the Jeep Wrangler “JL” program.
How did you get started fixing and working on cars?
In college, I bought a 220,000 mile 1992 Jeep Cherokee for $1,400, and since I didn’t have much money leftover, I had no choice but to fix the beloved unibody off-roader myself. I had zero wrenching skills, so I reached out to a car club at a neighboring university, and its president walked me through basic repairs. That simple, short instruction from someone knowledgeable was the foundation for what is now a confidence that I can fix damn-near anything. I’m now rebuilding engines and transmissions, welding up frames, and doing whatever else I need to do to keep my ancient crap-cans mobile.
What’s in your toolbox (or garage)?
I borrow many specialized [tools] from the local auto parts stores for free, but otherwise I’ve got everything I need to maintain and diagnose older automobiles. I’ve got a bunch of socket sets (because I still can’t find one with a good enough case, so I keep losing sockets and eventually having to buy new sets), hammers, screwdrivers, power tools (a drill, an impact gun, an angle grinder, a Dremel), a dirt-cheap $100 Harbor Freight flux core welder, a compression gauge, a timing light, a vacuum gauge, various wrenches, an impact driver for removing rusty screws, a soldering iron, a quick-release C-clamp for compressing brake caliper pistons…the list goes on.
How do you organize your tools?
I’ll be honest and say I’m incredibly disorganized. Right now, I’ve got some tools in the back of my pickup, some just laying on my driveway, some in a rodent-infested 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, some on the floor in the garage, some in my house, and only a few where they should be.
What do I mean “Where they should be?” Well, I’ve got a cheap Harbor Freight toolbox that’s only full when I haven’t wrenched in many weeks. Usually, though, I travel quite regularly to the junkyard, so I take my socket set (which, as previously mentioned, is often missing a socket or nine) and a Carhartt tool bag filled with a hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, and usually a can of PB Blaster. You’ll be surprised how much actually fits into one of those small bags.
Back in college, before I had a garage in which to store tools, I had a huge Rubbermaid bin in the back of my old Jeep Cherokee. It housed dozens of tools, from hammers to screwdrivers to various wrenches. In retrospect, it was a terrible way to organize tools, as everything was mixed together in this bucket, but it was cheap and simple, and kept my car clean. Those were the days when I was doing all of my wrenching in parking lots and on public roads, even in the winter. Good times.
What are your most-used tools?
Unfortunately, my most-used tool is my can of PB Blaster and my MAPP gas torch, because southeast Michigan is rust-topia, and I hate breaking bolts. Aside from those, if I had to go to a junkyard with a single group of tools, it’d be my swivel-head ratcheting wrench set. These are organized in a tool roll, and they’re just so good at getting to bolts in tight places and loosening them quickly. Gosh I hate using a standard combination wrench in a tight spot, and having to turn the bolt 1/100th of a rotation, reset the wrench, turn the bolt another 1/100th of a rotation, reset the wrench, and on and on until my wrist is numb.
What’s your most-coveted, yet least-used tool?
“Big Red,” I like to call him. He’s an enormous, red-handled flathead screwdriver from Harbor Freight. He and his Phillips sibling are both a bit large for most applications, but when I do come around to a giant screw that needs loosening, Big Red never lets me down.
Is there a certain tool you use often, but seems unorthodox for your particular field?
I actually have the nozzle part of a stainless steel turkey baster in my toolbag at all times. It’s just a thin, sheet metal pipe, and though it may not seem strong, it’s got a pretty large area moment of inertia about its neutral axis, so it’s highly resistant to bending. And that’s all I need, since the baster just slips over the ends of my ratchets to act as a “cheater bar” to help provide me with a bit more leverage on those stubborn bolts. The reason I use the baster over a pipe is that the baster is smaller and thus significantly easier to get over the end of my ratchet when I’m working in tight spots.
Every fixer has a gruesome tool injury story. What’s yours?
Once, while writing a feature story on cooking in my Jeep’s engine bay, the piece of aluminum wire that I was using to tie my food to my exhaust manifold made contact with both the positive and negative posts of my vehicle’s battery. The aluminum, which I was holding in my hand, turned red hot, and the pain was excruciating. I let go of the wire and shook my hand, but the wire—which had come free of the battery, but remained hot for a few moments—had melted my skin and wouldn’t let go. My hand hurt for days, and the burn-lines were there for over a month.
What’s your advice for people who want to start fixing cars (or just anything in general)?
I actually wrote a story on this very topic. In it, I mention buying a repair manual, referencing YouTube and car forums, inviting friends over to make wrenching more fun, learning from experienced wrenchers, and most importantly just going for it. The number one thing that stops folks from wrenching is a fear that they may hurt themselves or that they may break something. Getting over that fear takes time, and it takes a solid understanding of how your car works. So read about how your machine works; Do research to find out what each component under your hood does. As soon as you know exactly how your car is put together, you’ll become a lot less fearful about hurting yourself or breaking things, because you’ll be better able to anticipate the danger/failure modes.
Anything else you want our community of fixers to know?
I’m not a mechanic, I’m a self-taught wrencher with a solid understanding of how cars work. Still, if anyone has a wrenching-related question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, I’m always fixing and road-tripping sub-$1,000 junkers, usually Jeeps, in an attempt to see how much life neglected hoopties have left in them. Check out Jalopnik and my instagram (@davidntracy) for that silliness.
Do you do fix up neat stuff with interesting tools? We want to hear from you! Contact email@example.com if you’re interested.