This feature originally ran in Volume Two of Smith Journal, released in March, 2012.
If you can't be bothered squinting to look at the crappy images above, head over to my blog—it's much easier to read.
Or just read the text below.
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Guess what? I bought a car. It doesn’t have a roadworthy, isn’t registered and doesn’t reverse. There we are above. Me and my piece of shit—my new pal.
It’s a Mazda 1500; a classic car from 1969 designed by Italian Giorgetto Giugiaro for Bertone. Legend goes that Alfa Romeo rejected Bertone’s design, so Bertone sold it to Mazda. Old men get all excited when they hear “Italian designed, Japanese made”. Personally, I like the windows.
I met the owner late one night at his house in the suburbs. The car looked great and worked as well as all cars should, particularly the brakes. I slammed those puppies so hard the tyres quietly screeched to a stop, as if to say, “I’m in perfect working order, sucker!” We shook hands and the deal was done. I had a car.
Days later my stupidity slapped me square in the forehead, along with rust, leaking cylinders and an unending amount of worn parts. The structural rust of my own stupidity lay behind a flaky surface of unearned confidence and I was forced to face the consequence. Either I learn to fix my piece of shit or acknowledge my own stupidity.
I found a mechanic in Collingwood called Little Sam’s. The place belongs in an episode of Twin Peaks. Car parts are scattered about and guys with greasy hands walk from room to shed and back again. All these things make it live up to my idea of a good, noble mechanic, at least aesthetically.
Blue Overalls sits at the desk and asks if I’m in for a service. In my best deep voice I explain I’m not, that my 1969 Mazda is parked out front, that it doesn’t reverse, but could they please make it reverse, because that’s the most important thing to fix right now, wouldn’t you say?
As I walked to work my brain exploded in fear. How much will it cost? How long will it take? Am I really that stupid?
I’ve never been a car person. In school I’d feel left out when the other boys talked cars, but it didn’t bother me. Cars were for troublemakers and kids with learning difficulties. I didn’t need cars as much as I didn’t need to listen to NOFX, because those things were not “me” things, or for “me” people. Now my perspective has changed. Restoring a car represents values and lessons completely relevant to “me” people: lateral-thinking, patience, stamina, decision-making, learning a language, problem-solving, being frugal, working with others, confidence and identity. It’s a framework for learning about life. I’ve never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I imagine it’s the same thing.
Two days later I found Blue Overalls sitting at the front desk, yet again. “It doesn’t look good. The gear shift linkage is worn. We’ve made some calls but there’s no replacement part.” I had a feeling this might happen. I opened the hood and saw for myself. The gear selector mechanism was held together with cable ties.
I consulted the Gregory’s workshop manual I’d bought from eBay. I studied the transmission and began to understand how the gear stick connected to the shift arm. At first it made no sense, but now I think I can fix it myself: a generic ball joint, a new bushing, a u-clip or two. There’s a YouTube tutorial for everything.
I’m not stupid. In fact, I’m clever enough to find the shift arm on a transmission, godammit. If anything, this fixing-a-car process has helped me understand my own self-doubt and find confidence to complete a project and complete it well. It’s taught me a lot of things, but most of all, how not to buy a piece of shit even when the windows are slanted in the most beautifully perfect 1960s Italian-designed angle possible.