Project Bonnie

If there is one thing a gearhead can’t resist it’s a project. No matter if its an old car that needs restoring, a decent car that is a prime candidate for a custom make over, or a perfectly good running car that begs (at least in our minds) to be modified.

“In the Beginning”

Modification, upgrading, improving efficiency, enhancing
appearance, and producing more power, are all well-used terms by the gearhead both seasoned and novice alike.

All we have to do is read or hear that some part of our car might be defective, prone to failure, or in need of regular maintenance and the flywheel in our brains takes a giant kick-start. We begin to scrutinize every nut and bolt that must be removed in order to perform this “needed” task and we pile on everything else we can “while we’re in there.” All in the name of the aforementioned goals while rationalizing each part or modification with “I wont have to do it later.”

Many of these rationales can easily be justified by cost savings, downtime, or potential roadside failure. All good excuses mind you,
but they ice over the pure truth that we just want to add and change all those little toys to make the car an extension of our personal expression.

Such was the case with my 2004 Pontiac Bonneville SLE, which is equipped with GM’s rock solid 3800 Series II engine. This stout V6 has been around for decades in various forms, and has powered some of the fastest factory hot rods The General has ever produced. You can mention the Buick Grand National in almost any car-guy conversation and adjectives like “wicked” and “giant killer” are sure to surface.

GM’s Pontiac Division produced many models of Firebird and Trans Am that are the stuff of muscle car legend, but the 1989 Turbo Trans Am boasted one of the most potent performance packages ever to roll off the showroom floor, and that car was powered by the venerable 3800 six-cylinder.

Over the past couple of decades, the auto manufacturers have experimented with plastics for various engine parts in an effort to save weight and lower costs. Today many vehicles make extensive use of plastics in the engine bay, but one of GM’s ill-fated uses was for intake manifold gasket frames. My Bonneville’s 3800 was so equipped with these gaskets, and to prevent coolant from leaking into the oil and sending my otherwise staid powerplant out to a permanent lunch, I made plans to upgrade to a superior gasket set.

You see how simple this begins? Lower intake manifold gaskets, but there are many parts that must be removed in order to replace said gaskets, and so the snowballing avalanche was set in motion. I began collecting parts in preparation for my grand project, and the thought of a gleaming, shiny engine bay showing off every detail of my handiwork danced in my brain. The pile of parts grew to staggering proportions, until the task itself began to be intimidating. I kept putting off the project (you see now it’s a project instead of a task) until Mother Nature could provide me with not just one sunny afternoon, but a string of two or three clear weather days.

Even after the Heavens and the calendar cooperated, I pulled the lower radiator hose to drain the cooling system with a level of trepidation, knowing the goal I wished to achieve still lay far ahead.

I must at this point give an enormous amount of both credit and blame to the online community of car enthusiasts I am a part of. This group of car owners is a tremendous and invaluable source of information and guidance when it comes to car repair. Whatever the problem you may be facing, you can bank that at least three other owners have already tackled a similar problem and happily share the dos and don’ts of getting the issue fixed. They are also quite guilty of filling your head with all manner of suggestions about what modifications they would perform were they in your shoes. As harmless as that may sound, the old adage about the power of suggestion has never delivered more mayhem than it does in the brain of a car-guy.

After extensive reading and study of the how-to section of the website, or “techinfo” as it’s called, I moved forward with Project Bonnie armed with a level of confidence that can easily be described as dangerous, maybe not to life and limb, but definitely to my credit card and overall financial health.

If there is one thing a gearhead will do, he will find a way to move mountains in order to make a project happen, and when I consider how many shifts of overtime I’ve volunteered to work, sacrificing sleep to earn the funds to feed my automotive habit, I often wonder if there will ever be a car-guy rehab center formed someday.

 

The sound of a pneumatic power tool can be annoying to the unwilling ear, and I’m sure my neighbors grew tired of the howl produced by my air ratchet as the disassembly process went ever deeper. By the end of the first day there were carefully arranged piles of bolts and parts laid out on banquet tables borrowed from my wife’s art show display (covered in requisite thick brown paper to prevent stains of course)

Upon surveying what I had wrought, I was instantly reminded of two movie lines from Star Trek films. The first uttered by Captain Kirk as he watched the Enterprise burn in the atmosphere above, “My God, Bones, what have I done?”

The second delivered by Mr. Spock, “As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.”

“My God Bones…”

If you’ve ever had the feeling that you’ve bitten off more
than you could chew, this was definitely one of those times. Luckily for the car-guy, the desire to bolt on all those shiny new parts is a strong one, and it has the ability to trump any self-doubt we may encounter.

The next morning I began installing the first of those new
parts, a set of machined aluminum, high ratio, roller rocker arms. These little gemstones had been soaking in 10W30 oil overnight so their needle bearing pivots wouldn’t be dry when the engine restarts. As I bolted each piece in place there was a bittersweet moment knowing that once the valve covers were replaced, they would be completely hidden from view, and that was sad.

Now I know how every machinist feels, laboring away on parts that will do their job well but be done away from appreciating eyes.

“Ain’t they purrty?”

Slowly but surely, each new part found its place under
Bonnie’s hood, and things started to look like an engine once more. Reassembly, when it involves painted and plated parts takes on a much more careful pace as air tools are eschewed in favor of wrenching the new pieces tenderly into place by hand. I use the term “tenderly” with some reserve since there will always be the stubborn part or bolt that requires more than a bit of persuasion to get into its proper place. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to installing the “modified part.”

I had purchased an aluminum airbox from ZZ Performance that
was designed originally to fit the Pontiac Grand Prix, but the website showed pictures of a finished installation on a Bonneville just like mine. The web page went on to say, “Easily installed on the Bonneville with slight modification.”

Now there isn’t a gearhead alive who doesn’t feel like he’s capable of a slight modification, so when the time arrived for this piece to go in, I looked forward to seeing it sitting in place with great delight. The first test fit revealed that some selective cutting of the box would be required, and this is where the two sides of the human brain go to war. The logical, fact-based side says that the part doesn’t fit directly, and it should be put back in its box and returned to the vendor. The artistic side counters with the foreknowledge that modification was a given, and that the other side should relax because this will be handled in professional manner.

Measurement and marking take place before the jigsaw is plugged in as the logical brain screams one last plea for sanity against cutting anything.

The first pass proves to be not enough, as does the second, until the third steps largely out of bounds as the creative brain is screaming at the logical side to shut the hell up. Finally the collective pieces are relocated to the used parts pile. You know the place, where the pack rat in each of us holds onto things with great certainty that they will be utilized someday, somehow, somewhere, the details of which are forever in limbo. In most cases, every part in this automotive misfit zone represents a lesson learned at some expense, and this one was no different.

The next major setback involved a direct replacement part, which was the fuel pump module. The fuel gauge on Bonnie had taken a mind of its own shortly after I purchased the car, and when I say a mind of its own, read that as wildly unreliable. When one witnesses a fuel gauge read full, drift down to half, and then spike back to full when no gas has been added to the tank, generally removes any confidence of accuracy.

General Motors in its infinite design wisdom chose to mount the fuel gauge sending unit directly onto the fuel pump module, which is immersed inside the fuel tank. At least someone realized that this part might have to be replaced someday, so a small, egg-shaped access panel resides under the trunk carpet. I assume this was done to make you appreciate that you don’t have to remove the entire rear suspension to get to the gas tank.

Once again, one of my fellow online owners produced a YouTube video on how to replace the fuel pump module. This goes to show that even with a small hand-held camera, the magic of editing can make anything look easy. There is a metal lock ring that holds the fuel pump in place, and after disconnecting the fuel lines (and spilling a fair amount of gas in the process) Video-man proceeded to tap the lock ring loose with a hammer and large screwdriver. The potential for a spark seemed far easier than Tom Hanks trying to create fire on a deserted beach in “Castaway,” or more to the point, it reminded me of the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where he tested artillery shells by thumping them with a hammer. No explosion meant the shell was marked as a dud.

Video-man also neglected to show how awkward it is to crawl into the trunk of the car. Now let’s be clear that Bonnie does indeed have a spacious cargo area, but my six-foot-three frame still found it to be rather tight quarters. Holding a plastic-coated dead-blow hammer in one hand and trying to angle an ash-hardwood dowel in the other as a striking tool proved much more difficult. The hardwood proved to be futile against the lock ring so I exited the trunk to find a better tool. I say “exited” but the process probably looked more like Bonnie was giving birth to me out of her trunk. It was not a graceful movement by any means.

Repeated attempts to budge the stubborn lock ring only added to my frustration level. This combined with nightmare images of my hair on fire while trying to exit the trunk like a newborn baby elephant finally sealed my decision that this was a job for younger and more flexible men at the local auto shop.

With the fuel lines reconnected, pump relay replaced, and battery hooked up, I braced for my moment of truth. I turned the key and the engine spun over and then sputtered to a quick stop. This was expected since the fuel system had to re-pressurize for the injectors to deliver a full fuel shot. A second twist of the key and the engine spun and growled to life, and I could not contain the smile on my face. No matter how many times you take a car apart, tinker with its inner workings, and put things back together, the moment that it starts and runs with healthy noise is a sweet reward all its own. It is a true feeling of accomplishment, and one that sings the joyful melody of horsepower.

“Finished…sans the airbox”

This feeling was quickly dispatched and replaced with one of peril as a billowing cloud of smoke rolled from the engine bay. A rapid
inspection put my fears to rest and replaced it with another moment of education. I had painted my new tubular front exhaust manifold with a special ceramic paint that claimed it would withstand 1500 degree heat. Don’t you believe it. Maybe the claim could be verified by saying ‘withstand’ meant that chips of paint remained intact as they bubbled and flaked off onto the ground below, all the while sending Indian-style smoke signals to neighboring tribes.

Then again, the Pontiac name hails from a legendary Ottawa War Chief, so maybe this was a rite of passage. Luckily, the smoldering stopped in about five minutes, and a quick test drive revealed that Bonnie the Ghosthawk was ready to spread her wings and sound her war cry once more.

“Ready to fly”

Right after I clean up the mess I’ve made in my garage.

 – T. August Green

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