The Weekend Ballad of the Oil Drain Plug

Blog, Motorcycles / Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Nearly everything went well for my holiday weekend. Nearly everything with the exception of my automobiles. For the 4th, Ellie and I spent the afternoon with a friend of mine from college and then in the evening we had dinner at Ellie’s parents’ place. All was normal. On Saturday, we went to my parents for a family get-together. I had suggested that Ellie and I go for a motorcycle ride over the weekend while she was in town, she suggested that we ride it all the way to my parents. I was delighted. So we loaded it up with all of our gear and goodies to take to the barbecue and set off.

The Nighthawk
The Nighthawk

Ellie soon regretted her suggestion to ride it all the way to my parents (about 45 minutes). The bike vibrates a lot and it’s less comfortable in the passenger seat and she really had only ridden the bike once before and that was for a ten minute hop from her parents’ house to my apartment. So a trip of that length was rather ambitious. We made it, with a short break so Ellie could stretch, without a hitch.

On the way home, though, the hitch happened. It was bad too. Definitely in the top three of bad things that have happened while I was riding a motorcycle. We got about ten minutes from my parents’ house and we were just slowing into a small town when I looked in my rearview mirrors. I saw smoke. Smoke is bad on a bike that I baby. I instantly shut off the engine and coasted to a stop. I told Ellie to get off the bike right away. We both had the same thought and it was that the bottom of her footwear was melting on my exhaust pipes. They weren’t.

I bent down to investigate, and quickly found the culprit because bikes are small and easy to diagnose. The problem? My oil drain plug had fallen out with the rest of my oil. Instantly my mind shot back to my solo road trip to the east coast, just over four years earlier. This time, I kept myself calmer. I wanted to panic that I had burned through another engine, but I’ve grown and taught myself not to jump to conclusions. The oil was empty and I couldn’t fill it without an oil drain plug, so the bike was parked in a lot for at least the night. I had knocked on a door and asked if the people who lived there knew of a place I could store it and they seemed unwilling to help. They said the apartment lot across from their place, where I had the bike parked, should be fine. I had to trust them, even though they didn’t seem to trust me. My dad picked us up and drove us all the way to my place.

The next day, I dropped Ellie off at her parents to get her car and do her laundry and then drove over to the auto parts store to see if I could get something to get my bike running again. My friend Geoff has a truck and was willing to help, but it’d be best if I could ride the bike home. As I was driving to the auto parts store, I turned off a main road and then my car’s check engine light started flashing. Flashing. I’ve never seen it flash before. I didn’t know it could flash. At the same time, my engine got rough, shaky. I could tell something bad was wrong. My Dash app told me that my cylinder #2 wasn’t firing. Great, I thought. Just what I needed. When it rains, it pours. Fortunately, I was at the auto parts store and I could get parts for both while I was there. Dash told me some possible solutions to fix the car problem, one of which was to change the spark plugs. That was easy enough so I got a new set. I also grabbed a piece which may have plugged my bike, if the thread turned out to be correct (it’s really hard to determine bolt threading on parts sales websites).

When I got back to my apartment, a very rough and stutter filled drive of a couple of miles, I set about replacing the plugs. I’ve worked on cars before and motorcycles but for some reason, the old Kia Rio wasn’t like my ’88 Ford Ranger or my ’90 Mazda 626 and it wasn’t like the ’78 KZ650 or my ’07 Honda Nighthawk. It was nothing at all like the ’78 Honda Express moped sitting in my living room either. It was, well modern. The engine design was different from what I was used to. It had a cover. A COVER! FOR AN ENGINE! Under the cover, I had trouble knowing that I was looking at the spark plugs. I wasn’t I found. I was looking at tubes that connected to the spark plugs. I pulled those out and replaced the plugs, gapping them properly, and put it all back together. The plugs I pulled out were pretty clean for their age and consistently gapped higher than spec. Other than that, nothing seemed wrong with them. Lo and behold, when I turned on the car, the engine still sputtered and stumbled and that ominous flashing “Check Engine” light still taunted me. The plugs hadn’t done it.

During the fiasco, I had talked to my dad for his advice, and he talked to the guys at work. They all seemed to have the same thought, if the plugs didn’t fix it, check the spark plug wires. Those are likely to go on an engine with 93,000 miles on it. Wires, got it, I thought. I’d have Ellie take me to the parts store when she came back over so I didn’t need to drive the car more than necessary.

The Kia Rio, AKA The Angry Bird
The Kia Rio, AKA The Angry Bird

At the auto parts store, they told me that my car didn’t have spark plug wires but instead, those tubes, had a coil for each plug. I made a split second decision to replace one of them (I would have replaced all four, but at $85 a pop, I didn’t really have the dough). Ellie made her first auto parts store buy. She got a bottle of RainX to coat her windows. I was so proud.

After getting back from the store, I ran inside quickly to check dinner and then Ellie and I set to work on our cars. Her job was easy, mine was a little more difficult than I expected. I know I needed to replace the coil in cylinder 2, I just didn’t know which cylinder that was. They weren’t labeled and I didn’t have a book to tell me. Hell, I couldn’t even find the information online. Logically, they should be in order left to right, or right to left but it doesn’t always work that way. I decided to gamble and replace the second from the left because if I was wrong, it was only a bit of work to try another cylinder. As luck would have it, the second from the left was the cylinder I needed and when I fired up the engine after putting it all back, she ran smooth once more.

That evening, after Ellie left, I decided to take the Kia for a thorough test drive to where my bike had been abandoned the previous night. I brought the oil drain plug I hoped would fit the oil drain pan so I could confirm the bike wasn’t seized. When I got there, the car still running smoothly, I bent down to fit the drain plug and found out I had bought the wrong threading. I packed up my tools and headed home. The next day, while at work (GASP!) I did all the research I could do to track down the correct thread for the oil drain plug for my Nighthawk. It wasn’t easy but in the end I did find one website which had a thread size but I still felt unsure about it.

After work, I went to the bike shop a block from my place to see if they had any on hand. They didn’t but suggested I try calling a few oil change places as they tend to have the bolts on hand. I did and they either denied having them, or didn’t sell them, or offered me one if I got an oil change. Instead of getting the oil change, I decided to scour the auto parts stores around. Where I live, there are many. Four or five within less than a mile of each other. At one, I managed to find the plug size with the thread that I needed, but I couldn’t tell if the plug would be too long. It didn’t say if it was meant for a bike or a car or anything at all. I took another gamble and bought it.

I picked up Geoff and we drove over to my bike, hoping I’d be able to plug it and fill it with oil so I could ride it home and he could drive my car. There were still a handful of things that could go wrong, like the oil drain plug not fitting or the engine having seized after all.

The drain plug fit. We filled the bike with oil. It wasn’t seized and I was the happiest man alive.


I very cautiously rode my bike back to my apartment. The whole thing seemed to have been dipped in oil and it had gotten on the rear tire so I was more than a little concerned about falling through a turn. I made it though and I’m looking forward to giving it a nice soapy bath and a wax. In short, it was not my weekend to own automobiles.

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