As for myself, while I didn’t manage to get out to the family manse to see dear old Dad, I did manage to remember to call him on my telephone machine. Did we reminisce about the salad days, or wax poetic on the deep and oft unspoken bond forged between father and son? Or do you imagine that we talked at length about the speed at which life changes, with retirement and children moving away and the hinted potentiality of future grandchildren?
Well, no actually. We talked (for a good hour) about how he’d finally fixed the brakes on his 1967 MGB.
So, whenever I am asked the question, “What got you into cars?” I simply need to explain that whoever wrote Deuteronomy had it right: the sins of the father shall be visited on the head of the son.
Speaking to the nature side of the argument, Dad’s genes clearly carried the gearhead allele, as my paternal grandfather, among other things, did a fair amount of work on diesel bus engines. That, and living on a small farm around machinery, was all Dad needed to get interested in taking things apart and putting them mostly back together.
When my parents moved from Belfast to Canada, Dad taught automotive shop, and while he would later move on to counselling and school administration, I’ll always think he was happiest underneath one of the school’s project cars. Certainly no normal person would have been possessed to do things like take a 1960′s Chevy pickup truck and remove its feeble engine, swapping in a Dodge slant-six instead. Dad then drove the whole cobbled-together Frankenstein to California and back, laughing as pump jockeys did double-takes upon lifting the bonnet to check the oil and seeing a Chrysler emblem inside a Chevy.
But then I came along, right around the same time as the aforementioned MGB. Sadly though, the MGB was retired from use when I was about six months old; not by the heavy responsibilities of fatherhood, but by a redlight-running dumptruck. Still, that little car was to play a further role in my development.
Dad bought, like nearly ever other Dad out there, a Volvo sedan. I’m sure it was fine, but we traded that in and bought a Volkswagen Westfalia camper-van; a great favourite with my mother, but you could tell that Dad was not overfond of its accelerative capacity, which was akin to molasses in January. At night. On Pluto.
At this point, I had graduated from tricycles to bicycles and from blocks to Lego, Meccano, and model-building. I was just about to enter the most important formative stage of development for a child: holding the trouble light and passing wrenches.
Dad got rid of the Westfalia and bought a 528i, and so followed twenty-five years of always having some kind of 5-series BMW in the family. When I learned to drive, it was in our 535i, but I certainly wasn’t allowed to borrow it until it really was on its last legs, with half-a-million kilometres (estimated: the odometer stopped working) on the clock. The BMWs were sensible, four-doored sedans, like that first Volvo, but they were all also Driving Machines, and, riding in the back with the armrest down to prevent my brother from encroaching upon my personal freedom, I learned to love a twisty backroad and a singing straight-six.
Come to think of it, I’m fairly certain it was at the helm of the 535i that my father received a fairly lucky break. Pulled over for speeding by the famously humourless California Highway Patrol, Dad was asked the oft-repeated, “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?” To which Dad replied, “Oh, I’m sure she’d do about 120 (mph) with the bit of a downhill there.” The State Trooper was so taken back by Dad’s matter-of-fact admission that he let him off without even a warning.
At any rate, Dad’s BMWs did their bit to corrupt me into a love of fast cars. Meanwhile, the other member of the family provided an in-depth education into automotive repair. Dad bought a Land Rover.
We still have the blue Land Rover that’s been in the family for about twenty-five years, although it’s little more than a semi-mobile shed filled with spare parts for the (very slightly) newer Landie that joined the fleet around only fifteen years or so ago. Land Rovers are characterful and rugged, with a go-anywhere attitude, and simple construction. They are also as unreliable as a French husband.
Nearly every weekend involved some sort of project to get the Land Rover back on the road, and so it was that I learned to love/hate the other side of gearheadery: what Dad called, “the mechanickin’.” At first it was just passing the ratchet, and (frequently) the small sledgehammer if a bolt required “a little persuadin’”, but later I had to become a quick-thinking mechanic as I was driving around in the Land Rover, having been banned from piloting the BMW for the crime of being sixteen and having a Y chromosome.
Dad kept the Land Rover in good shape, but it was forever giving me grief. The throttle assembly fell apart at a stop sign, and I had to repair it with a bit of baling wire that was buried among dirt and American pennies at the bottom of the dashboard. Once, late for work, I jumped in the Landie and tried to put it in reverse, only to have a two-foot section of gear lever come off in my hand. The solution? Fit a set of vice-grip pliers to the stump of the gear lever. We drove it like that for years.
So I became a near-expert mechanic specializing in elderly British machinery. Skill sets such as visualizing how a mechanism works, and having a light touch to disassemble delicate components are not important. What is important, I learned, is swearing. Lots and lots of very creative swearing. I quite clearly remember what Dad would call the Land Rover, although I can’t write it down here for two reasons: first, this is a family newspaper and some child might read it and forever be corrupted, and second, the paper might catch fire.
At the same time, Dad began restoring his MGB, having left its bent carcass in a neighbour’s shed for twenty years. He might never have moved it if the neighbour hadn’t planned to tear the shed down, seemingly happy to go visit it from time to time and talk about restoring it without actually doing anything. I think this is where I learned the important skill of seeing limitless potential in a gently rusting heap of metal that’s been the breeding ground for countless generations of rodentia.
So Dad restored his MGB, I helped until I moved away to University and bought my own car to repair/ruin, and now I call him up and find out that –and remember, this car’s been on-and-off the road for ten years– some eejit had installed the brake calipers backwards. “But now,” says Dad, “She’s driving beautifully again.”
I oft wonder what fate awaits my children, whether they too will inherit the strange fascination with greasy bits of machinery that seems to run in my family. If I were to have a son right now (or daughter, I’m sure I can corrupt either) by the time he’s sixteen, it’ll be 2026, and perhaps all cars will be whizzing electric jellybean-shaped eco-pods, and you won’t even be allowed to look under the hood without a degree in quantum mechanics.
But I do know this: if I say to my imaginary child, “Son, it’s your grandfather’s birthday, give him a call on your iHolophone (or iTelepathy or whatever),” he’ll be guaranteed to find out that the MGB’s carburettors are just fixed, or that it’s got a lovely new set of front brakes. “Ah,” Dad will say, “It was a bit tricky, but I’ve got her running beautifully again, just beautifully.”
©North Shore News