Friday, March 05, 2004

Got a feel for my automobile 

I may have mentioned that I drive an old car. It’s 30 this year. I love it – the looks, sound, smells – it’s a multi-sensory experience. Apart from the terrific fun I have driving it, it is a big Meccano kit. I never had Meccano when I was a kid, but as an adult, at the grand old age of thirty something, I enjoy having something like this to play with. I derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction from getting something to work properly, on the rare occasions that I manage to do it myself, or from just understanding how it works. It gives me a moral superiority over the regular road users who just put petrol in once a week, then drop their car off to be serviced when the light on the dashboard comes on. Around Cape Town, there are many old cars, often piloted by ex-pats. Sunny Sundays see them being eased out of their garages and driven around the coast to a sunny lunch or drinks at sundown.

It has just occurred to me, though, that in a perverse way I enjoy it most when things go wrong with it. I derive enormous satisfaction from musing over the latest clunk or squeak, tracking down its source, and figuring out how to fix it. Fixing it is not always (OK, not usually) within my mechanical skills, but if it is, then that is the icing on the cake. Another bonus is if the newly discovered problem explains something else that has been bothering me for weeks.

The latest incarnation of this phenomenon was a clunking noise when the left rear wheel went over a bump. Not good. Wheels coming loose makes it very difficult to drive in a straight line. Trust me on this one – I’ve been there. Several times. Anyway, a quick acceleration to deliberately hit the bump coming into our drive, almost running over the dog in the process, confirmed that I have two problems. One: the dog has no road sense whatsoever. Cars are simply couriers of beings that stroke and feed, so we need to get as close as possible. Two: the clunk is definitely there, definitely coming from the rear wheel area, and happens every time. That’s great – the worst things are those that generate their squeak or rattle intermittently. When you try and demonstrate it to the mechanic, it cures itself, only to return, worse than ever, when it’s got you on your own again.

Anyway, in the garage, and bounce the back of the car. Clunk. Do it again. Clunk. Diagnosis time: try and shake the rear wheel – I’ve seen mechanics do this, so it must tell them something. It doesn’t tell me anything except that the wheel is firmly attached. Good. Next, feel behind the wheel for the shock absorber. Ooh – it feels loose. Bounce car again. Trap fingers in loose shock mounting. Success: I have found the problem, and sustained the obligatory daft injury in the process. What is more, I think it’s something I can fix. Drive happily to work, listening to the clunk.

Then: a revelation occurs. For a few weeks, the car has had a funny twitch as I exit a right hand bend, and it has just occurred to me that this could be the same problem. Spring and shock are compressed in the bend, then coming out, the spring bounces back into place, but the shock is loose, so it gives easily, then catches the spring again as it comes up. Hey presto: a twitch! Fault – problem – explanation of additional symptom – success! My day is complete.

The next thing is to get round to fixing it. I find that I can put up with something almost indefinitely if I know what causes it. This is especially true if I know that whatever it is does no lasting damage. In some ways I even prefer it:
“Oh yes, that’s just the shock mounting. Must get round to fixing it.” Our hero gazes thoughtfully into the distance, as if imagining the feel of the torque wrench in his oily fingers.
It’s very satisfying. Next week: what happens when our hero fails to put the wheel back on properly. The adventures of a sports car with wheels that point in different directions.

Listening to: Bonnie Raitt, Luck of the Draw – my favourite car fixing music.

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