Once upon a time on this blog, I was accused of creating “haigiography of a gas guzzling testament to why we don’t have widespread public transportation” in my tribute to Betsy, a gold, 1968 Mustang that saved me as much as I saved her. If that reader is still around, I’m sure she would be horrified of my most recent purchase: a 1966 Ford F-250 Camper edition with a 460 engine that gets about 10 miles to the gallon on a good day.
I’m not thrilled at the impact I’m having on the environment, which is why we own a Prius and drive it as much possible. Still, there is a reason I own these cars beyond the cool factor and the sense that this is a better way of dealing with a midlife crisis than fucking some random college chick, getting hair plugs and wearing a beret.
The beauty of these beauties is that I learned a lot about life by spending time working on them. The older cars are simpler and easier to understand than some of the more computerized gizmos and yet a lot harder to fix in some regards.
When I was growing up in Milwaukee, I had a fleeting dalliance with life as a mechanic. I was a snotty kid who went to “the good schools” and was pursuing a college degree, something rare in my family. During one summer, my boss at the gas station put me in the garage to help me pick up a few hours. I immediately went from the smartest guy in the room to the dumbest one. During those days, I managed to lose a lug nut down a drain, set my arm on fire and almost take my head off with a tire machine. Tom, the master mechanic, referred to me as being “as useless as tits on a bull.”
Eventually, I stopped coming home for summers and I gave up that job. The garage eventually closed, I got a bunch of degrees and I became the guy in the Ivory Tower who never had to really “work” at work. When I was thinking of buying Betsy, I had my dad’s car guy look her over to make sure I wasn’t buying a hole in the garage you throw money into. The guy told my dad something I’d always remember: If he want a show car, forget it, but if he can learn to be a bit handy and do things himself, it’s a good car. In short, I had to learn to be handy. Me, an uncoordinated intellectual dork who could get hurt walking out to the mailbox.
It was through this process that I truly fell in love with the art of auto mechanics and realized that it made my life better in so many ways I could never see coming.
I’m not a big believer in the “Hey, I just got into this thing, so EVERYBODY should do it too!” philosophy, but I do believe that this world might be a better place if Donald Trump had taken auto-shop instead of going to Wharton.
Here’s what I learned and why it matters:
- You need to learn or you are screwed: One of the biggest gripes I’ve had about cars is that too many people who work at garages take advantage of people. My mother always feared this, as she thought a woman walking into a garage was essentially a neon sign that said to the owner, “SUCKER!” It wasn’t just a woman thing, though. My buddy, Matt, told me how useless he feels when he walks into a shop and says, “My car won’t start.” This is a guy who works as an EMT and saves people’s lives on a daily basis, but he feels like tits on a bull when it comes to cars.
I knew that I had to learn what to do when it came to problems with Betsy or I’d be in that same boat. I had a few fragments of knowledge from what Tom showed me in between screaming about the “Fucking Nazi Go-Kart” or “Nip Mobile” he was forced to repair. Still, I knew basically nothing. I read, I prepared and I asked a lot of questions of people I learned to trust. I also avoided people I figured out were out for themselves. Being able to see these distinctions could be valuable if, say, your potential presidential candidate seems to be on your side but fucks you on the bill.
- There isn’t “The Answer:” People for some reason have gotten used to punching six terms into Google and finding out “The Answer.” We also have pounded standardized tests into our kids for so long that the outcome is the only thing that seems to matter. The Answer, it seems, is always boiled down into a cheap slogan: “No New Taxes” “Make America Great Again” or whatever. It’s a slick marketing ploy that overrides the more complex reality.
Working on these older cars has taught me there is no answer. There are actually a lot of answers. Where should you set your transmission bands after a fluid change? Depends on how you want it to shift. How many turns out should your carb screws be? Depends on your idle speed and interest in fuel economy. Every answer has three more questions and that’s actually a good thing to know in life. Otherwise, you find yourself following assholes who provide stupid answers, but espouse them with absolute certainty. This leads me to…
- Everything is feel: New cars are great in some ways. Something goes to shit, so you plug a code reader into a computer and the car tells you a code. You decipher the code and replace the part of the car that matches up with that code failure. (And if you own a dishonest garage, you charge someone $120 for a “diagnostic evaluation” that anyone who ever plugged in an Atari controller or used Google could do.)
Older cars are about feel and vibe and sense. When I rebuilt the carburetor for about the squillionth time and got it to run right, I spent about an hour making 1/8th turns of the carb screws to dial it in to perfection. It was “In… Better… In… Even Better… In… SHIT! OK, out, out, out… OK… In… In…” for an hour. Smoothing out an idle takes time and patience. It incorporates weird little things like taking a big whiff off your tailpipe to sense if she’s running rich or lean as well as using a note card to sense patterns in the expulsion of exhaust.
In fact, smell and feel is almost everything. When I was driving the Mustang a few years back, I sensed a vibration I couldn’t pin down. Eventually I took it out on a country road and got her up past 90 to try a few things. Turns out I could coast at 70 in neutral with no vibration, but not go faster than 35 in drive without feeling it. Turns out, I needed new U-Joints, which only operate when the car is in gear.
When I couldn’t get her to run well, I smelled for gas and found a carb leak. When I smelled something super sweet inside the car, I realized I had a heater core leak.
When it comes to feel, I’m amazed not only had how little empathy people at that convention had for others, but also how they couldn’t feel a sense that they were being used. I watched it for moments of time and got the sense that you could score some Wagner music to overlay on that thing and not miss a beat. How is it that people couldn’t realize that if they fucked over all the people who they say they want to “take our country back” from that this wouldn’t just perpetuate a continued anger-based tug of war? Maybe it was because they just liked hearing “The Answer” from someone: Build a wall, fuck NATO, make it rain and be awesome. Thus, leading into…
- Classic Car 101- There isn’t a right answer, but the car will tell you when shit is wrong: Newer cars have issues with computer codes or buggy transmitters and stuff like that, which will cause a problem for five minutes and then never again, or just randomly explode. It’s like being married to a bipolar passive-aggressive person with random psychotic tendencies.
Older cars are like coming home to someone who just tells you where the bear shit in the buckwheat every day. I’m happy for X reason. You pissed me off because of Y. I’m going to bed.
On the truck, I think I have about 12 actual wires, not counting the new stereo I put in there, and that’s it. Still, when shit is wrong, you will know it.
When I rebuilt the Mustang’s carb, I missed a small fragment of metal that managed to slip into the needle seat. How did I know that? Because when I started the car, the carburetor started pouring gas out of it all over the engine. When I bought a battery for it a few years back, the poles were reversed. How did I know that? Because when I hooked it up, the ground wire turned bright red and started the whole electrical system on fire.
In short, there wasn’t any nuance. Shit was wrong and you had to be an idiot not to see it.
- These cars will fucking humble you: Over the years, I’ve gotten better at cars and I’ve become more adventurous in the things I will try. That said, there are some serious situations in which I’ve been left questioning the size of my own brainpan. Monday, I finished some heavy work on the truck, including swapping out some leaky seals, redoing some gasket work, tuning up the carb and reinstalling the steering system. I felt really great about myself and had that “Yep, I’m a garage GOD” moment rolling through my head.
I started it up and took it on the road for a drive. The minute I tried to go past 30, the truck stuttered and stalled and gagged. Immediately, I pulled off to the side of the road in a panic. There, it idled perfectly. I tried to drive it again and the same thing happened. I started going through a checklist of thousand-dollar repairs I was probably going to have to make until suddenly something occurred to me.
When I was pulling the valve covers, I couldn’t get a wrench on a bolt because a spark plug wire was in the way. I unplugged the wire and went about my work. Hmm…
I opened the hood on the side of the road and sure enough: The wire was hanging there like a Great Dane’s balls. I snapped it back onto the plug and the truck ran like a Swiss Watch.
Humility comes in all shapes and sizes when a car of that age will tell you, “Nope. Still broken.” It can be big or small but it happens to us all. A master mechanic was telling me a story about having a 1971 Mach 1 Mustang and how he loved it. When I asked what happened to it, he simply said, “Missed third gear at about 80 miles per hour. You ever see a rod virtually explode?” Eeesh.
I learned a lot about having to beg for help, missing simple fixes and having to buy the same part three or four times because I fucked up my fixes. In the process. Humility, I honestly believe, is a lost art in “Fuck You Nation.” It’s why instead of thinking about how stuff works and why it doesn’t do what people want it to, they just chant “U-S-A! U-S-A!” like that’s going to solve everything.
- Car 102 – If you can problem-solve and you’ll be fine: I know life is a lot more complicated than the cars of the 1960s, but I honestly think too many people have given up on working through problems. I see this with my kid all the time. If she gets the answer right, she’s fine. When she doesn’t, she throws up her hands and declares it can’t be done. When I ask her to take the laundry upstairs, she loads everything into one basket and then says, “That basket is too heavy.” Or, she takes up everything one piece at a time. She never thinks, “If I put half of it in this basket and half in that one, I can get this done quickly and without blowing out several vertebrae.” (Part of that, I’m sure, is willful ignorance, but still…)
With the car, each system operates independently of the others and that makes for some pretty good step-by-step solutions. For example, the temperature pull switch in the truck wouldn’t shut off the heat, thus leading to a cabin temp of about 98 degrees in the middle of summer. I tried rebuilding the cable that ran it, only to find the cable kept breaking apart. I then stuck my head under the dash and followed the cable to its source, which was a spot where it left the cabin through the firewall and moved out into the engine bay.
I found where it came to rest: A valve that was so rusted, I couldn’t pry it loose with a pliers. After about five sessions of WD40 and a lot of friction, I got the valve loose. Eventually, it swung free, so I hooked up the cable, repaired the connection and reinstalled it. Works like a charm.
When the carb on the Mustang wasn’t reacting right to the tuning I was doing, I hooked up a vacuum gauge to test it. The gauge read zero, as opposed to 15-17, which is what it should have read. I checked every connection on that damned piece of shit and found every connection valid. Finally, I decided to just run a new vacuum line from the manifold, which is where I found that there was a giant leak because a plug had snapped off. I installed a new plug and the gauge jumped to 17. Still, not everything works out that way…
- Failure happens: Where did people get this idea that everything should work out in the end? Was it too many 1980s movies? Was it that summer trip to Nostalgia-ville? Who said each and every one of us is perfect all the time?
Apparently somebody, because when I see college kids try to write for me and I mark the shit out of their papers, they’re appalled. One kid told me, “I’ve never received anything less than an A on anything I’ve EVER DONE!”
Well, even DiMaggio’s streak ended, kid.
I failed a shit ton on those cars and it really pissed me off every time, but not nearly as much as failure pissed off Tom. I remember him at various times throwing a lit blowtorch across the garage once, kicking over a toolbox and screaming (in earshot of a convent member) that something was “fucking tighter than a nun’s cunt.”
I tried not to do anything that might cause me to fuck up anywhere near him.
When I was finally on my own and able to fail at my own speed, I learned a ton from failing. I learned what didn’t work and that helped me avoid those things so much more than random success helped me replicate completion. Failure often taught me painful lessons that required stitches, eye flushes and vomit. Failure wasn’t something I sought, but something I saw as a learning opportunity.
Here in ‘Mur’ca, that’s heresy. We don’t fail. We’re the best. Everyone gets a trophy. When things like Sam Brownback’s economic revival plan of trickle-down economics failed, it wasn’t his fault or the fault of the plan. It was some “unforeseen force” or Democrats or that little fucking Gremlin with the big Mohawk. When Trump’s businesses go bankrupt, it’s the fault of someone else: A developer, a marketer or whatever. Failure isn’t an option. It’s not even a real thing.
Without failure, there is no pain. Without pain, there is no growth or learning. I have two hands filled with cars that will testify to that.
This leads to the biggest thing of all…
- True joy over accomplishment: If you always win, how can you enjoy it? When the Americans knocked off the Soviets in 1980’s Miracle on Ice, the kids were delirious. They were laughing and crying and hugging. Years later, a Russian player said that they won so often, they had forgotten what the feeling was. They were just supposed to win.
I don’t always win with the cars, but when I do, it’s the greatest thing in the world.
Yesterday, it rained for about the ninth time in the past month and each and every time it did, there was water on the floorboards of the truck. I had a leak and I was freaking out that it might be the cowl, which would require welding and such. I ran wire cameras, flashlights and even fishing line through the cowl, looking for a telltale sign of deadly rust. I couldn’t find anything, which freaked me out even more. Where was this goddamned water coming from?
So, I did what any insane person would do: I pulled out everything between the dash and the fire wall so I could see the seams between the outside and the inside of the truck. Glove box, heater vents, radio, all of it came out. I then poured about ten gallons of water on the truck windshield and stuffed my head under the dash with a flashlight.
I found it.
The mountings where the windshield wipers met the firewall were dripping like Chinese Water Torture. Turns out, the two holes that let the wipers drain were plugged. I cleaned them out and added a silicone seal around the edges of the mounts. When it poured later, my wife and child feared a tornado. I was in the garage, jumping around like a teen after his first kiss because the floorboards were dry.
For all the stuff cars don’t do, the one thing they will do is let you know when you have actually succeeded. When the Mustang didn’t have heat, I played with the cooling system for weeks until I finally figured out what was wrong and fixed it. I drove around with the windows open and the heat on full blast in the middle of the summer, giggling like schoolgirl that I had heat. Truth be told, I was never going to really need it, as I stored the car in the winter, but fuck it.
I. HAD. HEAT.
I don’t know how normal this is or how many people feel it on a daily basis, but I do know that yesterday I would much rather have told people about fixing the truck than anything else that happened to me. I would win a major award that day and yet still want to say, “Yeah, that’s great! But check out the truck!”
There are dozens of other lessons I found over time: You get dirty as shit and you learn to enjoy it. There are nice people all over the world on chat boards and in auto parts stores who want to see you succeed, regardless of your opinion on immigration, abortion, guns or whatever. Don’t throw money at the thing and think it’s a solution. There are things you can live with and you need to find them.
The cars I love have taught me symbiosis in a strange way: I give them more time on this Earth, they return the favor to me through joy, pain and life lessons. I don’t know if everyone has something like this, but if we did, maybe we could get on board with the idea that we don’t have to be chest-beating assholes who exercise moral superiority over people while simultaneously enacting laws based on fear of those same individuals. Maybe we might learn that “The Answer” isn’t out there and that certainty is an illusion. Nothing is ever perfect. It’s just fixed enough for now.
We might also learn that looking back in time at “great” through our fun-house mirror of desperation will only breed discontent as we move to the future of the possible.
Just like America, these cars showed me that things weren’t “great” back then. The lap-only seatbelts, the rust-bucket floor pans, the rear-wheel drive and the lack of airbags are only a few things that show me what we have now is a hell of a lot better in a lot of ways than what we had then. “Governmental interference” gave us crumple zones, safety markers, three-point seatbelts and other things the car manufactures weren’t too thrilled with, even though they have made our lives exponentially better.
Still, for those few short months each summer, when working on a car is more fun than work, I get a chance to learn and grow and become someone better.
It’s a small price to pay for such a gift.