What’s in your Toolbox?

The value in the tool, not the battery capacity it contains, can make all the difference

Andy Bolig - November 22, 2012 10:00 AM


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Our toolboxes are a personal expression of ourselves.

They range from hand-held cubes of do-it-all to furniture features amid an enthusiast’s garage-mahal. Whether large or small, shiny or worn with years of use, these boxes of drawers contain some of the most important items that allow us to enjoy our hobby. They also enable us to get a few things done.

There has been a lot of talk about today’s cars. How they contain so much technology that, unless you hold a certificate of accomplishment from somewhere prestigious, you have little hope of finding out what ails your late-model ride. The tools that allow us to peer deep into the silver boxes that seemingly dictate all of the actions in our modern cars can get quite complicated, and expensive. Wires, pushbuttons, LED screens and code numbers do have an ominous appearance to those more at home with fuel jets and timing lights.

On the other side of the workbench, there are tools that can be so simple and unassuming, that they might easily be overlooked as beneficial to those trying to sort out an issue underhood. I’ve got at least one such item in my tool box. It was handed down to me from my father, who was a lead mechanic at a local service station many decades ago. I’m not sure where or when he got it but I can recall many times it has saved my bacon trying to decipher why an engine wouldn’t run.

It looks like a little black ball-point pen. If you’re trying to decide if an engine is getting one of the three major components that allow it to run (compression, fuel, spark), it could be much more useful than ANY ball point pen and safer than many screwdrivers. It’s the Champion CT-436 inductive firing indicator. I don’t know if it is still in production, but a quick search will show that some are still available online. It has sections of metal on each end, separated by a black, plastic center. The clip on the one end tricks you into reaching for it when you want to jot down something important, but the blunt end and little glass window that lights up to the time of your engine’s spark cycle lets you know that you’ve got more than any ol’ pen in your hand. It resides in the top drawer, right next to many of the other items that come from an earlier age of auto repair, like the brake shoe spring tool or the battery electrolyte tester. Remember those?

Since even cars with disc brakes and maintenance-free batteries still run on internal combustion, it does see more time out of the toolbox than they might on any given weekend. In fact, it just recently helped me solve a misfire in a friend’s daily driver. Her description sounded very much like an Aamco commercial with all of its shimmy-ing and the occasional “Ka-chunk!”. She informed me that it all started soon after filling her tank with fuel, so we didn’t rule out a fuel filter as part of a possible fix. If an engine has fuel, spark and compression, it SHOULD run! It might not run well, but it should run.

Because her car is one of those dreaded newer ones with a problem-solving, tattle-tale connection under the dash, I hooked up my more technically-advanced tool and found a misfire code. That ruled out the new fuel purchase but it wasn’t until my trusty spark indicator came out of my shirt pocket that we would know exactly what was going on. With a quick touch to each of the plug wires, we could tell that cylinder number three was deader than a cockroach at the Orkin corporate headquarters.

She was amazed that something so simple could contribute to finding something amiss in today’s high-tech autos, and I was thankful to have such a simple, but oh-so useful tool in the midst of my box of DIY. With a few small bolts and a trip to the local parts store, she was on her way, all thanks to a little ballpoint pen-looking tool that has spent generations deep within a Bolig-owned toolbox.