Repair Stories

The Most Epic Roadside Repairs … Probably Ever

Last week, we launched a new book in the iFixit Store about one man’s adventures on the road. Dr. Ronald Mullisen’s book tells of harrowing breakdowns and creative repairs that he performed on dirt shoulders around the world. Ronnie’s Roadside Repairs is as much a memoir as it is a celebration of on-the-spot repair—the kind that tests your knowledge, your mettle, and your resourcefulness.

We wanted to celebrate that, so we asked our community to tell us their most epic roadside repairs. And you guys certainly delivered some great stories. We read all your submissions, and we picked our favorite five stories. These fixers just won themselves a free copy of Ronnie’s Roadside Repairs.

In no particular order, here are your winning roadside car hack submissions:

From Loco deSane

Well, my best roadside repair stems from my Army days driving a 48 ton wrecker back and forth on the German Autobahns. After every convoy to a training location, we would spend the next few days driving back and forth, policing up all the broken equipment. Since the rest of the unit was out training, we would be on our own. Of course we were in the middle of a modern, Western country….so what could go wrong?!

Late one night on the A3 around Nurnberg, we were on the return trip from towing something back to home base (about 300 miles away). All of a sudden there was a lurch, a bounce, and a screech. This was quickly followed by something passing us at high speed on the right. It turns out that something was one of our tires…hub and all!

Now my wrecker was a M984A1 HEMTT wrecker, which is a 8×8 vehicle…two axles front and two rear. Once we dismounted from the truck (after pulling onto the shoulder), we quickly saw that the forward, rear axle was sitting on the ground….the tire and hub had passed us and left the Autobahn some 500 meters further down the road.

So what to do? Separated from our unit and miles away from any military base, we were on our own. Besides, who do you call to tow the tow truck when it breaks! We needed a self recovery solution. After some thought and taking an few hours to locate and retrieve our newly liberated wheel + hub, it was clear that we would not be able to put it back on….it and the axle were trashed. After some further deliberation, we decided to jack up the axle as high as it would go and use a logging chain to tie it to the frame. We then drove the remaining 200 miles with the truck in this configuration. In fact, the “fix” was so successful, we were able to actually recover one more vehicle before reaching base.

Roadside repair of a truck
Image courtesy of Loco deSane

From Mike Watson

In 1971 I was one of a gang of eight who clubbed together and bought an old van. We fitted some seats out of a bus and two roof racks and drove from England to (the old) Yugoslavia for a camping holiday.

On the way down, in the Alps, the head gasket split, and we started to lose water and oil.

We had stopped in a lay-by where there was an Italian woman selling bags of peaches, so while we cooled down we bought some peaches for a snack.

We realised that the Peaches bags were pretty substantial heavy paper, so we cut up a stack of 4 pieces of paper to make a head gasket. It worked; we got all the way to our campsite, all the way home, and we sold the van when we got back to a friend who used it for months with no problem.

Roadside car repair
Image courtesy of Mike Watson

 From bassdrumben

I was hitchhiking on a dirt road in the south of Cambodia when I got picked up by a guy in his twenties, along with his mother. My Cambodian wasn’t so good, but my Thai was rudimentary, as was his. After about half an hour, we managed to communicate that he was having brake troubles, and I explained that I was a mechanic (more or less). I had him stop the car and I took a look at the brake lines and found a leak at one of the wheels. I always have a small tool kit with me, which happened to have zip ties in it. I snipped off the end of the rubber line where it was split with my swiss army knife, pushed it snug over the nipple, and zip tied it down. We made it to the next town an hour away without incident and picked up more brake fluid. In thanks he treated me to dinner and a night at the hotel we was staying at. Usually it’s the hitchhiker who’s lucky to get a ride, in this case the driver was lucky to get a hitchhiker!

 From Gary Paudler

After visiting my parents in Portland, New Year’s Day 1990ish I was driving home to Summerland in my 1970 Datsun pickup with Brenduh, the best dog there ever was, one of many best dogs there ever were.

It was snowing and cold but the Datsun had an okay heater and a bench seat so we could snuggle for warmth. With only 600 miles to go we approached Weed, near Mount Shasta, and the little truck was running really badly. With 96 seething horsepower at the best of times, she felt like two or three cylinders wanted to spend the holiday on the couch. We chugged into weed with the vain hope that the town’s best mechanic was shivering in his garage just waiting for a broke punk in a weird, foreign sled to limp in for a whirlwind diagnosis and a free holiday repair. In all of Weed – all of Weed isn’t much – only the Zippy-Rip was open for business.

We lurched into the parking lot and turned the engine off uncertain that it would ever start again. After letting Brenduh take a whiz, I opened the hood (as you knew I would) and looked for something obvious to fix. The 1.6 liter four-banger fit with plenty room to spare in the little truck’s engine room with only a few easily-traced hoses and wires leading to simple, analog lumps that even I could recognize.

With that simple, pre-computer engine – about as unsophisticated as a motor can be – and all the resources that a boondocks convenience store had to offer, there wouldn’t be much that I could do at zeroºF and only the few tools I tossed into the glove compartment less as wise preparation for a 2000 mile journey in an ancient truck than as a superstitious and futile, as it turned-out, warrantee against anything going fubar.

After checking for any disconnected fuel, vacuum or electron lines, I popped the spring clamps holding down the distributor cap and, inside, saw that the rotor had been hitting the four contacts and sparking, once in a while, two, three or four cylinders. I grabbed the rotor and found that the distributor shaft had a ton of play, enough to let the rotor flop into the cap contacts at random intervals. It looked like the steel distributor shaft spun in an aluminum distributor housing that, after 20 years, had given-up any semblance of precision machining.

In the Zippy-Rip I bought a can of dog food for Brenduh. I used my pocket knife to cut the side of the aluminum can into a strip – let’s call it a shim – that I wrapped around the distributor shaft, shoving it down between the shaft and the housing. I replaced the rotor and cap and drove Brenduh home.

I don’t remember replacing the distributor before selling the truck years later. Brenduh really was the best dog.

 From Pino Chiucini

Some years ago – I don’t tell you how many – I was driving my economic car FIAT 500, wich suited the personal finances of a young TV repairing technician – it was still the time of electronics tubes – to a village, called by a medical officer who had problems with his own TV set. After I repaired it – I remember the failure was due to a final video amplifier tube PCL 84 – I was on the way back home. Suddenly a clanking noise followed by an unpleasant stop told me that some serious event had happened to my car. Although I wasn’t a motor expert it was easy to understand that the failure was a serious one! The smoke column escaping from the back bonnet – the motor was installed in the back part of the car – was symptom of a possible piston seizure! In that times the mobile telephones didn’t exist yet! No way to contact anyone, besides I had chosen a little frequented shortcut. I didn’t lose my heart! In the worse one of the cases, I would have reentered home on foot. I looked around me and I saw in distance some free oxen that pastured next to a demolished cow house. Thinking that there was the farmer I entered the enclosure and I began to shout for someone. I had not been fortunate! No answer, I was alone. I was reentering on the road when I saw abandoned in an angle an old yoke. It was not under good conditions and it had one of the two collars ruined. I immediately had the idea to be able to use it. It was heavy but I succeeded in dragging it up to the car. With the help of thread of rusted iron I succeeded in connecting the rod of the yoke to the hook of drawing. Now I would have had to face the most binding part of the program to bring two oxen up to the car. I had never approached an ox and I didn’t know whether to convince it to follow me. With some cables of electric thread, I had with me in the car, I made a big slipknot to put to the neck of the animal and to force it to follow me. Won the fear to approach it, I succeeded it in catching the ox that then, slowly, followed me up to the car. It was more difficulty with the second ox that however, after some insistences it succeeded in following me. After having attached the yoke to the two oxen, I had only to convince them to stir, but the thing resulted nearly impossible. They didn’t move. Despite my efforts, my cries and my curryings. They didn’t stir. I had lost by now every hope when suddenly – maybe they guess my bad mood – they set out towing the car as it was a modern type of cart. I followed on foot. Some kilometer later, despite my wish, they left the principal road and entered in a farm. It was the farm of the oxen’s master. He was amazed and upset to see his oxen attached to the yoke hauling a car. After my explanation of the when, of the where and of the why, the factor showed him comprehensive in my comparisons and loaded the car on a towing, hauled by its farm tractor and conducted me up to the first village in a shop of car repairs. As you see anyone has his own way to repair the car!!!!