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Why Clean Your Engine?
Cameron Lovre

Some of the old Volvos (and some of the newer ones) here in the greater Portland area seem to pride themselves on their unkempt appearance. Their owners drive with the special joy that comes with owning a testament to the durability of the breed. If it runs in spite of my treatment, it must really be a good car.

Years ago I had a '68 142 like that. It was covered with stickers, hand drawn figures and handwritten quotes from genius minds such as the Lorax, Marley and Garcia. I didn't wash the outside of that car for well over four years, but learned the value of a clean engine compartment since I had to do all of the maintenance myself and relied on the car to get me up and down the West Coast for various musical events that seemed more important than silly things like working or schooling. When I did finally wash the thing, it was with a toxic mix of comet, laundry soap and water

If you won't (or don't want to) wash your Volvo, that's okay by me. It's yours and you get to do anything with it you like. But please keep in mind that if you want it to stay running, there are some real good reasons to at least keep the engine compartment clean:

  • You'll be able to see when it begins leaking.
  • You'll immediately be able to see where it's leaking.
  • You'll be able to tell which fluids are leaking.
  • You'll know how much of what substance is leaking.
  • If the engine isn't covered in greasy oily dirt, it will shed heat more effectively.
  • Working on it will be much more pleasant.
This last point is as important to me as any; I don't mind getting dirty and I don't mind getting oily, but I have a strong dislike for getting oily and dirty at the same time. Personal weirdness.

I've shown my current 122 in a couple concours events and have generally scored okay as far as "engine compartment cleanliness" in spite of the fact that my engine leaks oil from the front seal, the rear seal, the valve cover gasket, the head gasket and the pan gasket. (And I've scored much worse in areas that I thought were much better.) My M41 leaks its oil and my Webers spit fuel goo every so often. The list of things that don't leak is much shorter: the rear axle and the radiator.

While I'd love to execute correct repairs for these annoyances, I also need the car to run every single day, all year long -- not true for most trailer queen show cars that never get driven at all, a kinda weird blend of meticulous attention to detail and mechanical neglect.

So instead of effecting the correct repairs, I clean the engine regularly. More regularly than any other part of the car. This usually includes a four-minute visit to the local car wash (which is grossly inadequate for the outside of the car), with the water-wand set to "high pressure rinse" (please, never use their soap on your paint). It's probably best to put plastic over the distributor and the air cleaners to keep the water out (though I never do), and if you do it with the engine running (which I don't), any errant water that makes its way into the carb(s) can be quickly evacuated with a blip of the throttle. Water in the distributor is not so quickly evacuated and usually requires removal of the cap and drying of the internals.

Pretty simple stuff: just blast everything off the engine that isn't supposed to be on it; avoid (but don't panic over) the generator or alternator. Blasting through the radiator helps remove dead bugs and similar crud that compromises the radiator's ability to do its job, and if you blast from the backside of the radiator, all that stuff is nicely displaced to outside the engine compartment instead of the other way around.

Once the engine and surrounding compartment is cleaned up (including the underside of the hood), I like to get down on the ground (yucky as it is) and spray off the suspension components, the tranny, the rear axle and the inner fenders. Nobody (besides you) will ever notice, but it's a lot easier to inspect components you can see, and much nicer to work on a clean car than a dirty one.

Last steps: remove the plastic from the carbs and distributor (if you're using any), dry up the puddles on the interior floor and make a mental note to start shopping around for suitable firewall grommets.

Total cost: about $3 and a half hour.

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