My Very Very First Start In Auto Mechanics

by Matthew on June 17, 2011

After my post about my start in auto mechanics, I realized that, although that was my first really significant project, there was obviously more leading up to my asking my dad to buy me a project car. All my life, I’ve been drawn to mechanical things and always wanted to know how things worked, but a few things stand out in my memory.

First, I remember the old-timer shady-tree mechanics decrying the “plastic cars” of the 1980s. I was four years old when I first remember hearing this kind of talk; I remember that because my parents had purchased a new car and everyone had to chip in their two cents about the new Japanese automobile. “I remember,” they used to moan, “…when you could actually open the hood of a car and know what was going on under there. Now there’s so much stuff under there, and all those tubes and wires…and now those computers and now some cars have fuel injectors!”

I remember thinking “that’s funny…the guys at the garage my parents take the car to seem to generally be able to figure out what’s going on under that hood.” For a number of years, I was completely confused by the idea that cars used to be understandable and now they weren’t. Surely some people built them, so some people must understand them, right?

In fact, what those commentators were saying was that they didn’t understand new technologies. That’s it! It probably took me until I was 11 or 12 years old to realize those comments were statements about the folks making them, not really about the cars.

Secondly, my parents generally had 1.5 cars while I was growing up. One was a commuter which my dad drove to work. The other was a “second car” my parents could afford which typically meant a domestic POS station wagon. Color: oxidized. Two or three of the doors could reliably be opened from the outside. Those cars broke down with astonishing regularity.

One time, the POS needed some kind of exhaust work. Being the kind of family we were, money didn’t grow on trees, so these things were significant expenses. My parents got a quote from a local reputable shop and eventually dropped off the car for the repairs. I forget the quoted price but whatever the quote, when they went to pick up the car, the bill was three times the quoted amount. This literally shocked the family budget with tsunami-like ramifications. Knowing what I know now about automotive work, I’m sure something broke when the mechanics were trying to fix things and they did what they had to do, but the customer service was poor, the shop owner was relatively detached, and I swore this would never happen to my family again. (I think there are laws about this now.)

Not too long after this episode, the alternator in the POS blew out. I forget how we figured this out–maybe some guy my dad worked with suggested it, or maybe the AAA guy started to recognize us and figured he’d give us a helpful tip–but I tagged along over to the auto parts store with my dad and we brought home an alternator in a box. I think the idea was that we could somehow fix the car ourselves this time and save some money. That alternator sat there in the box for a number of days when one afternoon I figured I’d open it up and see what the thing looked like.

That was another shocking moment in my life. There in front of me lay a hunk of metal with just a couple holes in it (“hmmmm…bolts must go through those”) and literally one electrical terminal connection. One. (“hmmmm…I wonder where the wires go?”) There was a pulley which I figured a belt must go onto, but I went and asked my mom for the car keys so I could open the hood and check things out.* Hey, the old part was already in there, so that should be able to tell me how the new one should go in. (Some of this stuff really isn’t that complicated.)

I’m not sure what I had in mind before, but looking at this alternator, it was obvious that it didn’t take a genius to replace one of these. Two bolts and a wire. I’m sure I made a couple rookie mistakes, but when my dad came home from work–car-pooling with a friend–I had pulled some tools out of my dad’s toolbox, removed the old alternator in the car, and was trying to put the new one in. If I recall correctly, the family friend helped me make sure the tension on the belt was correct for the new alternator and that was it.

The reason it was such a watershed moment was that I had been listening to all these adult “experts” talk about how complicated cars were, seen outrageous bills from mechanic shops, and yet I was able to confront and resolve a problem with no training just by looking and trying what seemed right. Two bolts and a wire. Adults sometimes…sheesh…

Sometimes in life you just have to go out there and do what has to be done; not just hang around talking and thinking about it.

I was hooked.

*Note: Props to my parents for letting their 11 year old just start unbolting things from their car…even a dead old crapper like the family station wagon.

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