The Great Tire Caper

We arrived in Zipolite after a surprisingly long drive from Oaxaca. The 270 kilometers had taken almost 7 hours as the roads were winding and we had come across a lot of construction amongst patches of very heavy rain. The combination of rain and construction meant that we were left to navigate long stretches of roadworks (reduced to a single lane) on our own, as the flagmen were hiding in trees or culverts.


At any rate, the weather broke as we got to the coast and we managed to check into a really nice campground just a couple of blocks from the beach. Having been up early to pack the camper and stop for groceries before the long drive, we were exhausted by this point and only managed a short walk to the nearest restaurant for a bite before turning in.


The next day, being Kristel’s birthday, we had plans to enjoy the sand and sun and started off the morning with a long walk on the beach. As we were leaving, I noted the right front tire looked a bit low. By the time we returned an hour or so later, it was obviously low. We decided it would be best to change it then so we could return to our plans. With the good spare on, we could deal with the flat tire later.


With the spare tire carried under the rear of the truck, I was a little concerned about getting it down. We had driven through a lot of mud and other stuff since we left and the ocean air had already produced rapid rusting on several camping items. Fortunately, I had no problem and started to think this would be a quick job. I got out the jack and positioned it to take some of the weight off the tire.


I went to loosen the lug nuts but realised I had a locking wheel nut to deal with. I had put these on before we left and needed the key to remove them…. “Now where did I put that key?” ….and then it hit me, right in the gut. The key was in the tote of spare car parts which were……oh yes, they were stolen when the truck was broken into in Puebla.

The locking nuts are designed to prevent the tires being removed without the key. If I could remember the manufacturer’s name, I could order a new key….if I remembered to register them on-line (I must have…surely) …that would probably still take a week, but didn’t really seem to matter as I couldn’t find a name on them.

Two intelligent engineers, surely we can beat these things….at least this time we are stranded in a nice place….this could have been a disaster on some of the remote roads we have been on.
A quick check of the internet listed 5 ways to get them off without a key.
1. Get a key (Not going to happen anytime soon).
2. Hammer on a slightly oversized socket and then remove with a ratchet (My 19mm socket is too small, my 15/16 inch is too big).
3. Weld a bolt on the nut. Be careful not to overheat (No problem except I don’t have a welder).
4. Get a special nut extractor, make sure it’s just the right size (Not likeky to find one in this tiny beach town).
5. Have a professional grind it off, even a professional might ruin your rims (Hmmm, I don’t have an angle grinder and it does sound a bit risky).

With none of the 5 methods available to me, I tried to attach my vice grips as tightly as possible to the locking nut. At first they just slipped but when I used another pair of pliers to close them I could get them on so tight they didn’t slip….I also couldn’t turn them. Luckily I have 2 tire jacks with me and decided to use one to turn the vise grips. Incredibly I managed to turn the vise grips with the jack but only to sag back in defeat as I watched the vise grips slip on the nut. By this time is was nearing noon – I was in in full sun and miserable in over 35C. I became drenched in sweat as I repeated the process a few more times but it is obviously futile.

Kristel enlisted the assistance of Edgar who works at the campsite, speaks excellent English and has been very helpful. He understood the problem as the owner had the same thing happen a while ago. He said he would contact him and see what needs to be done. He came back first with the advice to get a nut extractor (solution 4 above) and he would go to nearby Pochutla to the wheel shop and try to get one or find someone who could help. In the meantime he brought someone who might be able to help. This fellow brought a small pair of locking pliers and a bar but when I showed him what I had done with the vice grips he also resigned to defeat. Edgar said he had some work to do but would go to town in 2 hours. It was after noon now and we were out of ideas had some time to kill. Kristel suggested a swim to cool down. This was a great idea and after the swim (and a beer) I was feeling a bit more optimistic.

Three o’clock came and went with no word from Edgar. By the time four o’clock rolled around, we were giving up for the day and planning a new strategy for tomorrow. A few minutes later Edgar came by but without much good news. He had no luck in town. There may be a nut extractor in Puerto Escondido, about 2 hours away, and we could borrow his car to go get it if it turns out there really is one and it is the right size. There is also a mechanic named Pedro who might be able to help but the cell network is down and he needed to find a land line. A while later he came back. Pedro could not be found but there was another mechanic (sort of) who had the right tools for the job and could come by 20 minutes. (Later, we realized the “sort of” mechanic actually runs the carwash around the corner – well carwash might be a bit fancy for his operation….although it was premium enough to include a small pressure washer which is not usually a feature of these local carwashes)

About 20 minutes later, two fellows showed up and one was armed with a small sledge hammer and several rusty chisels. He looked things over explained to Edgar that, if he used these tools, the locking nut would be wrecked. Through translation, I indicated that that would be okay, I just needed it off. First he wanted to try it with the socket (solution 2 above) and I showed him the 19mm was too small and the 15/16 inch was too big. He sent his partner to get the big tool box. The partner returned with a tool box full of assorted wrenches, sockets and pliers of various vintages, none too recent. Despite a desperate search, there was no elusive 20 mm socket in the box and nothing else that would work. It looked like it was going to be the hammer and chisel method after all. I began to lose confidence as began to wack away at the locking nut and a little concerned that I was even allowing someone to do this, but the alternatives were limited. At first I thought it was crazy (and fruitless) until I realised what he was doing. He was not trying to break the nut just get enough of a notch in it to allow him to give a good hit on the edge so it will rotate and loosen. And after several hits, Bingo! It was free! With the one on the wheel with the flat removed I asked him to do the others. Each was a little faster now that he had mastered the technique and he removed those from the other three other wheels in less than five minutes.


We were delighted and asked him what we owed. He said whatever you like, just a tip really. I didn’t know what to give him and Edgar suggested M$100 ($9.00 Cdn). We decided that was worth more than that and offered M$500. At first he refused but finally accepted with gratitude. The mechanic said that he should share the money with Edgar as a finder’s fee but Edgar refused. When I suggested the mechanic should buy Edgar a beer, everyone seemed pleased.

We had our tire free and now all we needed to do was have it repaired. I asked the mechanic if he knew where I could take the tire to get repaired. His looked at his partner who grinned broadly and said that he could do it….apparently the carwash doubles as a tire shop. They headed off rolling the tire down the street and promised to be back in 20 minutes and sure enough they were! It turned out to be a broken valve stem and they had replaced it and obviously had tested it in a water bath. They insisted on installing the tire and I had to insist that I would put the spare tire back or they would have done that as well. The cost including the new stem was M$90. When Kristel insisted they keep the change from a M$100 note, we were treated to a huge smile.

After a slow start and what for a while looked like a problem that could strand us for days, it was completely resolved by only a little after 6:00 pm, still plenty of time to head out for a birthday supper and back for a movie in the camper.

Mexico seems to have a way of always brightening things up just when you’re really down.

3 thoughts on “The Great Tire Caper

  1. Kiran

    Thanks for sharing what happened on Kristel’s b-day:) Glad to hear it worked out well for you two and that you made others happy! Good job. Here’s to many more bright days ahead:) Hugs.

  2. Geoff

    I had a similar problem with locking lug nuts and had to resort to the same solution!
    Sounds like you’re having an amazing adventure.

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