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Secret Diary of a Female Petrolhead: Not Your Grandmother’s Hairdryer

2011 April 8

A while ago I popped down to the post office to collect a large parcel. Inside the cardboard box, nestled amidst plastic frames more akin to Airfix than to heavy machinery, were around 150 separate parts that the instructions promised would fit together into a workable model of an internal combustion engine. This model would be step one in the great Let’s Rebuild an Engine! project of 2011 in our BadRep household.

I had already recruited one colleague to help with the eventual engine rebuild, and she would therefore be present for the assembly of the model. The instructions promised that a 10-year-old would be able to put this together with a little adult supervision. Surely that meant that two 20-somethings should be able to manage it?

Of course, prior to assembly, we had to purchase a few things that did not come as standard in the kit. The first was batteries. The second was beer.

Photo: Box for Haynes internal combustion engine model

Haynes internal combustion engine model

Alcohol and batteries thus acquired, we put in our takeaway order and opened up the box. Out spilled plastic heaven. A million fiddly parts attached to plastic frames, with tiny numbers on the frames indicating the part numbers. The manual would instruct us on how to assemble it. It also named all the parts, so hopefully we would learn the names of at least some of the moving bits and pieces by the end.

Things started off pretty well. We had Top Gear’s Africa adventure on the telly and the pistons/crankshaft assembly in the cylinder block, and the pistons made satisfying up-down movements when you turned the crankshaft. The instructions said that you needed sanding paper to get the edges of the plastic smooth, but as we lacked sandpaper we made do with nail files, which seemed to do the trick. The whole thing turned so smoothly that we didn’t even need the vegetable oil to make it work.

“This would be even better if it was the right size,” I said as the plastic innards were slowly swallowed up inside the model.

“That would be much more satisfying,” Colleague X agreed, trying to get the tiny screw to stay perched atop the tiny screwdriver, and slot the entire thing into the tiny hole on the side of the crankcase. “This feels more like keyhole surgery.”

“Which is also important.”

“Yes. But not the sort of thing I had in mind when I bought the six-pack.”

I, too, was getting a little restless. Earlier that week I had opened my planner to try to book a last-minute meeting with a senior colleague. He, peering over my shoulder, wanted to know what “Engine Build” was referring to, and why it had so many exclamation marks. I attempted to explain.

“Hmmm,” he said, frowning. “Yes, interesting. But an engine’s a big commitment. Did you think about starting with something a little smaller?”

A motorcycle? Sure. Ultimately, though, I’d decided on the engine, because I was learning to drive a car, not a bike.

“No, not a motorcycle,” he said, just as thoughtfully. “Something smaller. A lawnmower, maybe, or a hairdryer.”

I very pointedly did NOT stab him with his own pen, but instead said that we were doing a model version first.

“Yes,” he said. “I think that’s probably for the best.”

Anyway, other than patience and tact when faced with senior people and their hairdryer suggestions, what did I learn from doing this little side-project?

Firstly, it’s bloody cool. There’s now a little engine model on a shelf in my living room, and if you press the little button it lights up and makes happy engine noises.

Secondly, the instructions may well be wrong. Try the different bits together until they fit. This will probably be more useful that memorising engine layouts.

Thirdly, the reviews and advertising for this product piss me off something chronic. “Ideal for a dad and son project,” one proclaims. Well, yes, it is, but it’s also ideal for a dad-and-daughter and mum-and-son project. Or mum-and-daughter. It’s basically model assembly, and doing this with a kid (without taking over and finishing it off yourself) would probably take an afternoon.

Fourthly, the rocker arm assembly fits on top of the valves and the camshaft, and there’s only one correct way of lining up all the cams on the camshaft. There is no obvious way of knowing what that way is without having them labelled in alphabetical order. (This may require a textbook. Or a mechanic.)

Finally, although doing the plastic model was fun, it is limited in several major areas. It is extremely simplified, for one thing. The water-pump is two bits of plastic moulded and snapped together. The ‘sparkplugs’ are tiny Christmas tree lights that light up according to the position of the crankshaft (so the position does have to be correct, and the wiring is a bit tricky, but it’s not actually how a spark plug works). The dipstick is a completely pointless clip-on piece of plastic that looks like a Barbie accessory, and I still have no idea what it does (although presumably you dip it in things).

Photo showing Vik's finished model: a blue translucent plastic engine case with glowing LED lights inside.

Lookit! All shiny and plastic and PERFECT.

You also get the feeling that filing tiny bits of plastic with a nail file is not precisely what engine maintenance is all about. (Although it may well involve nail files. At this stage I have no way of knowing.) Assembling the model did make me more familiar with a lot of the parts, and I think I understand the fundamentals. But it felt a bit… delicate. A lot of the parts were so tiny that you had to hold them by the tips of your fingers, and slot them into place using your nails. It’s the same problem as following a textbook: it’s too clean. I didn’t start this wanting to stay in my living room, with clean fingers and a perfect working model completed in a couple of hours. I want something that will take months and leave me exhausted and exasperated and absolutely triumphant when it is in fact finished.


Colleague X and I sat back and contemplated the finished product while James May and Richard Hammond performed emergency surgery on Oliver in the background.

“Well,” she said eventually, “it’s very nice.”

“Yes,” I said. I pushed the button again, and we watched the pistons move up and down and the little lights pretend to be sparkplugs. “Shall we build the real thing?”


  • Look out for more Secret Diary of a Female Petrolhead entries as Vik continues her engine adventures (you can read her previous Secret Diary entries in the “Toolbox” category on the sidebar on the right).


Photo showing a light display mounted on a building at night, with a car shape made from many tiny pink lights.

Real engines go in real cars. Our glowy plastic engine will have to go in a glowy plastic car.

One Response leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 8, 2011

    I used to go boating, and know what a dipstick is. It’s to check whether there’s sufficient engine (lubricating) oil. You pull it out, give it a wipe, re-insert it, pull it out again, and see how high up the dipstick the oil comes. You need to pull the dipstick out twice (I think) because running the engine spatters oil all over it.

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