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Not everyone who tinkers in the workshop comes from a mechanical background. Consider occupational therapist Jeff Mah of Abbotsford, B.C. When he was younger, he was focused on academics and sports. Now 41, Mah had never really used a wrench or a screwdriver until he started his job. Occasionally, he needs to adjust a client’s wheelchair or walker.
“I enjoy that part of the job,” Mah admits, “but I never really worked with my hands on anything mechanical at all.”
Until, that is, he decided to fix the rear hatch on his 2008 Dodge Caravan. It was dented, and he found a replacement hatch in a wrecking yard. He bought it, executed a quick paint job, removed the old one and installed the new one. “The paint didn’t look really good, but I’d done it myself,” he explains.
That’s when he began working on other aspects of the Dodge, but his wife, Lindsay, suggested instead of learning about mechanics on his daily driver, he find an old car to work on.
“Lindsay pointed out TV shows like Rust Valley Restorers, Fast N’ Loud and Rust to Riches,” Mah says. “We started to watch those, and she encouraged me to build on my interests and take up working with my hands to modify and repair an older vehicle.”
Mah soon began searching for a suitable project car. With a modest $1,000 budget he located an English-made Vauxhall for sale. He set up a time to visit the seller, but when he got there, he was sidetracked by a four-door 1953 Chrysler Imperial that was also for sale. Ignoring the Vauxhall, he looked at the Chrysler. It was mostly complete and in reasonable condition, but it didn’t have an engine. The fact it was missing an engine didn’t concern Mah and instead of the Vauxhall he bought the Chrysler. He had it towed home and put it in the couple’s oversize single-car garage.
“The floor of the Chrysler was a little rusty, but I really liked the look of the car,” he says. “I was a little nervous when I started, because I knew it would be a lot of work and thought it might be something that would stall, and I’d just stop doing.”
So far, that hasn’t happened. He bought the car just before the first pandemic lockdown took place, and he used that time in the shop. He armed himself with a manual, built a wooden workbench, and as his budget allowed began acquiring tools such as a 60-gallon air compressor, MIG welder and angle grinder. He essentially dismantled the car, separating the body from the chassis to cut out the rusted floor sections. With an introductory welding workshop under his belt, Mah took on the task of cutting sheet metal patches and welding them in place.
“I took a step back, however, and have decided to try again,” he says. “My first welds weren’t as good as my later welds, and I think I can do a better job. I’m learning as I go, and it’s enjoyable. There’s no timeline on my end, and I have no problem going back and doing projects again.”
One of his most important tasks was sourcing a powerplant that would suit the Chrysler. Searching online, he found a 331-cubic inch hemi V8 located in Alberta. He bought it and had the engine shipped to Abbotsford. It’s mounted on an engine stand and Mah has now dismantled the powerplant down to the block. He’s spent time cleaning the casting and inspecting the internal parts, attempting to determine what will need to be replaced.
“When I get to the point of actually building the engine, I might get that done professionally, I’m not sure yet,” he says. “I’d like to do as much of this as I can myself, and would like to learn the skills as I go along but some things just won’t be feasible, like specific machining jobs.”
He’s spent a significant amount of time over the last few months making a lower bell housing for the hemi engine. On that specific model, there’s a top half that’s cast into the engine block, but the bottom half is a removable cover – it was missing from his project.
“I’ve cut pieces of 1/4-inch steel plate to shape and welded them together,” Mah says. “It’s taken me some time to get all the holes drilled in the right place, but in the end I’m happy with what I’ve made. I will keep looking for an original piece but they’re hard to find, and in the meantime, I hope this one will meet my needs.”
If he runs into any difficulties, Mah watches YouTube videos or searches online forums for answers to his mechanical dilemmas.
“My confidence is building, especially after successfully competing tasks like dismantling the engine,” Mah says, and concludes, “I look forward to going out to the garage on the weekends, and consider myself lucky to have picked this up as a hobby.”
(Greg Williams is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). Have a column tip? Contact him at 403-287-1067 or [email protected])