Not a crank - just a daily grind - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

EV Life Not a crank - just a daily grind

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

Posted: Friday, November 11, 2011 8:15 am | Updated: 10:51 am, Fri Nov 11, 2011.

A Mesa man is marking a milestone, and it should come as no surprise that his wife said he’s more than a little cranky about it.

In fact, Larry Heebner’s wife, Priscilla, and his co-workers call him cranky.

But to be honest, Heebner is anything but. He loves his wife of 52 years and he’s only cranky when it comes to his job.

In fact, the soft-spoken 80-year-old Pennsylvania native is patient and precise when it comes to his profession that is considered a dying art in the fading community of mom-and-pop auto shops filled with the smells of oil, grease and sometimes gasoline.

“I’m not really cranky,” Heebner said. “That’s just a name that I’ve been called ever since I started grinding crankshafts.”

Heebner has been working in auto repair shops for 50 years — and for the last 47 of them, he has ground crankshafts — mostly for automobiles, but also for riding lawnmowers, boats and motorcycles.

Working part-time for B & B Automotive Machine Co. and also for Action Speed and Machine, both in Mesa, Heebner has ground 11,096 crankshafts to date, according to a stack of oil and grease-stained journals he has kept through the years. It’s amazing Heebner is not in the Guinness Book of World Records for it.

“At my age, I’m very lucky,” Heebner said. “Physically, I’m able to do it. I had rheumatoid arthritis in Pennsylvania, and planned to retire in the early 1990s. But, after we moved out here in 1993, my arthritis went away, I was like a new man. So I decided to keep working and got a part-time job at Southwest Engine Service in Phoenix.

“As long as I feel good, I’ll keep doing it. A lot of the younger people coming along don’t want to grind crankshafts. Let’s put it this way: A lot of people don’t like their jobs. When I get up in the morning, I can’t wait to get there.”

A veteran of the Korean War who worked as a jet mechanic in the U.S. Air Force in the early 1950s, Heebner later began working as an auto machinist for the E.S. Youse Co., in Reading, Pa., in 1961 cleaning engine blocks and cylinder heads. One day when asked if he wanted to start grinding crankshafts, he said “sure” — and he’s been doing it ever since.

Heebner ground his first crankshaft — a 450 International Inline 6 from a late 1950s model International 2-ton truck — on Jan. 18, 1964. About four years later, he ground his 1,000th crankshaft. And, on Jan. 25, 1991, he ground his 10,000th crankshaft when he co-owned the Hyde Villa Machine Shop in Reading, which he later sold when he and his wife moved to Arizona. 

The crankshaft is the heart of an engine — it is the main shaft at the bottom of the engine that rotates to turn the transmission and everything else involved in getting power to the wheels. If basic maintenance on a vehicle such as changing the oil every 3,000 miles isn’t done, oil can build up, engine pressure can drop and the crankshaft can eventually fail, requiring an engine to be rebuilt or be replaced. These days, it costs anywhere from $700 to $2,000 to grind or repair a crankshaft, taking an average of about 90 minutes. But it’s now a chore alone to take one out from underneath an engine as the entire front end of newer-model vehicles also has to be taken out for mechanics just to get to it.

“If it wouldn’t be for the crankshaft, there would be no engine,” Heebner said.

He said a pretty common crankshaft that crosses the grinder are Chevy V8s for 350 engines from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s as well as the Chrysler Hemi 383s. But, he’s also seen a number of other ones come into the shop where he has to determine how much build-up to grind off and polish after closely looking at a gauge — one ten-thousandth of an inch to one forty-thousandth of an inch.

Among the other crankshafts Heebner has ground: Earlier Chevy models for 216, 235, 327 and also ones from the big-block 427 and 429 engines. The largest crankshaft Heebner has ground was one off of a Cummins Diesel engine for a semi-truck, slightly more than 5 feet tall.

Heebner’s wife, Priscilla said, “It’s amazing how he can just line them up and know what they are. They all look the same to me.”

Bill Carroll, the owner of B & B Automotive Machine and Heebner, estimate there might be about two dozen auto shops around the Valley that have crankshaft grinders. That number has dwindled in recent years, as the machines can cost anywhere from $170,000 to $200,000 to refit one of them. Then, there’s the additional costs of wheel polishing, belts and coolants for the grinder, which further sets off profits, Carroll said.

John Goodman, president and CEO of the Automotive Engine Rebuilders Association in Crystal Lake, Ill., said that he only knows of six schools in the United States that teach crankshaft grinding as technical schools and community colleges have fallen victim to heavy budget cuts in recent years. The AERA represents about 2,100 members of machinist schools, government agencies and machine shops, or about 45 percent of the engine rebuilding industry.

“A school or shop teaching crankshaft grinding definitely is on the way out,” Goodman said. “It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a hard machine to learn. There’s a saying: You have to sell a crankshaft grinder twice — once to get it in the shop and once to keep it there. State-of-the-art equipment is expensive for a mom-and-pop auto shop. It’s hard to find a good crankshaft grinder because the machine has to be used properly and accurately. Crankshaft grinding is a niche within a niche. But, if someone learns it, they don’t have a problem finding a job. There’s been less and less of them.”

Through all the oil and grease, Carroll knows Heebner’s hands are just as valuable as a machine and his eyes are as good as technology.

“I hope I can be doing this when I’m his age,” Carroll said. “He gets around better than I do.”

Priscilla Heebner, who is a retired schoolteacher’s assistant, jokingly fears because of her husband’s notoriety in his business that he’ll start asking for breakfast in bed. But she marvels at his work, attention to detail and longevity in his profession.

“This is what keeps him active,” Priscilla Heebner said. “The longer he does this, the better he feels. It’s a shame this is a lost art. I’m very proud of him.”

She jokingly added, “After living with him for 52 years, I understand sometimes why he is ‘cranky.’ ”

Larry Heebner said: “All I can say is that my mind is still very good and physically, I’m doing pretty good. I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing this, but as long as I feel pretty good, I’ll keep doing it. I’ll know when it’s time to stop.”

Spoken like a true crank.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com

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