Journal: I Can't Wrench: A Gearhead's Shameful Confession

I Can’t Wrench: A Gearhead’s Shameful Confession

Avatar By Alan Franklin
December 2, 2014
37 comments

Photography by Josh Clason and David Marvier

After a long break from writing on these pages I’ve decided to reintroduce myself with an embarrassing confession: I can’t wrench. Or rather I’m not very good at it and don’t particularly enjoy it. I sincerely admire those who are good at it, even more so those who aren’t but do the work anyway, but it’s just not my thing at all. A humiliating admission for this gearhead, especially considering my DIY, blue-collar Midwestern roots. Or is it? Well, yes—it is, at least partially. Sorry, Grandpa Pete.

My other fifty percent, the dedicated, hopelessly obsessed, semi-professional car nerd half feels less and less shame as time passes, the self-acceptance and confidence that one gains in their 30s helping me to feel secure with and take ownership of my god-given deficiencies. Finally having enough money to pay someone else to burn and cut themselves on my cars has helped greatly as well–nothing’s too good for my haggard and mostly worthless collection of slow, uncollectable, and uncomfortable junk.

Like I said though, it hasn’t always been this way. I’ve done brake jobs, changed struts, water pumps, and even once replaced a motor in an AW11 MR2—a terrific car notable for its unsurprisingly terrible engine bay. I had a lot of help from my life-long professional mechanic father-in-law for that last one, sure, but I did most of the work, and I have the scars and disorganized drawer of awful, half-broken, and greasy Harbor Freight tools to prove it. A deeper understanding of the car and the tighter bond I felt with it were other, more beneficial gains, and I’ve never been more proud of a gross polluter smog certificate. I still sold it rather than finishing the job, though.

Even before legally licensed, I was boldly failing to live up to my handy guy potential. At the age of 15, I offered to change the oil in my mom’s ’86 Tercel, and seeing an opportunity to save a few bucks she gladly accepted—after all what could go wrong? Her son had shown a keen interest in mechanical things from a very young age, and he was pretty good with scale models, RC cars, Lego, and stuff like that. What could go wrong? Well, ask my little brother about his broken wrist and an abandoned, formerly promising junior high school basketball career. Twenty years later and he still mentions it frequently.

Despite my lack of talent, patience, and tolerance for discomfort I remain at least a tiny bit conflicted, though, especially with the recent arrival of my firstborn son. Like all dads, I want my boy to be well-versed in the manly arts, but would also like to spare him the experience of nearly dropping a gearbox on his face, losing brakes on a steep hill, or accidentally setting barely contained garage fires. I guess we’ll do a lot of fishing together.

This pressure among gearheads to be as proficient at working on cars as driving them, as knowing their histories, designers, specifications, quirks, and performance numbers is real, and I know I’m not the only one who’s felt its weight from an early age. An unspoken but understood prerequisite to wear the badge of authentic car guy or car girl, it’s been an integral part of the hobby since day one, and though I can’t honestly say I don’t understand why, I can assert with all sincerity that I feel its importance has been somewhat overblown.

A prevailing attitude in many, if not most, hobbies that occasionally dip into technicals, I won’t argue against the idea that a computer enthusiast should be able to change out a hard drive or update BIOS, or that a biker should be able to do a roadside derailleur adjustment. On the other hand, is it really necessary that a canoeist hollow out their own fallen tree or that a pastry enthusiast bake all their own cakes? There’s got to be a fair balance somewhere in between working knowledge and practical experience, and that’s what I’m arguing for here.

I’ve paid my dues, made the necessary sacrifices, and I don’t want to get greasy and curse at cars anymore, thanks. I’ve swung wrenches, fixed things, and tried with an open mind and heart to acquire a taste for the work, but if it hasn’t happened yet it never will. I’ve learned to appreciate whiskey, to enjoy the texture of tendon and various other offal, I’ve even come to kinda like accordion music, but I just don’t dig working on cars. I get plenty of satisfaction from looking at them, driving them, and patting them lovingly on the dashboard.

A deep fascination for engineering and the inner workings of machines has guided my life, and even if I’m more of an admirer than a doer, I can’t say it hasn’t worked out pretty damn well. I know a camshaft from a countershaft and a dog clutch from a differential, and that’s good enough for me. Kick me out of the club if you like, but my cars run well, I’ve got no gushing hand wounds and I’m quick behind the wheel.

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Brian GrantPeter J SmithMike AldridgeGary LooperMark Fraser Babbitt Recent comment authors
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Peter J Smith
Peter J Smith

If you can’t wrench, you’re NOT a gearhead. If you own a classic car, or, bike, and, pay someone else to work on it, you don’t deserve it. You’re just another rich douchebag that’s destroying this hobby.

Brian Grant
Brian Grant

Lighten up Francis.

Mike Aldridge
Mike Aldridge

I’ve taken heart from reading this. I’m currently right in the middle of changing the lower wishbones on my Alfa 156 V6, and it I’d a pig of a job. In spite of watching YouTube videos, asking specialists and buying expensive tools, it almost had me beat as I could not remove one crucial nut. I even started resembling everything so I could take it to the mechanic, when I realised there was another way to approach it. Managed to get one side done, and am now gathering courage to take the other side. What I have realised I’d this:… Read more »

Gary Looper
Gary Looper

I think since you can now afford it, purchase good tools, keep them clean and in good working order….do the jobs you want too, in your own time, and slow down. Most of us aren’t Formula 1 mechanics in the heat of a Grand Prix. If your not sure of a job, YouTube is your friend!

Mark Fraser Babbitt
Mark Fraser Babbitt

Since 1980, when I had a brief stint racing a Formula Ford, followed by becoming an automotive Service Advisor, then Service Manager, I came to rely on techs that I took good care of by making certain they got their fair shar of “gravy” work. When I had somthing that needed to be done to my vehicle, one of the techs would take care of it, usually at a highly discounted rate. My joy of any vehicle is to drive the snot out of it…

Dan Wils
Dan Wils

I love restoring cars, much as I hate it, the process, disbelieve, angermanagement, soulsearching, happy and proudness, when it’s ready to be driven for the first time. I like building them to and beyond perfection, more that I like driving.. That does’t make one thing more right than the other. What counts in my book of life, is the thing that makes one smiling? What I don’t fancy, are those that try to convince their soroundings about their skills, and they do not know what they are doing at all? When all that said, I found myself a bit more… Read more »

Rick Spartan
Rick Spartan

Wow! It’s like you’ve entered my mind and wrote down my thoughts on the subject. Thank you.

Clayton Haynes
Clayton Haynes

I don’t think it’s a major sin if you don’t enjoy working on cars because working on them and enjoying them are two different things. What is a major sin, though, is being a car enthusiast and a sub-standard driver. It’s simply not possible to truly enjoy a car if you can’t drive well, but there’s way too many people who fit into this category. The worst offender I can think of is Jay Leno. So many cars. So much enthusiasm. Such a great communicator. But an awfully talentless driver. One might argue that it’s still possible to enjoy cars… Read more »

Todd Cox
Todd Cox

I’m probably a terrible person. I’ve been engaged in conversation with interesting people who have amazing cars on several occasions. The last one was an old Pierce Arrow; a beautiful machine from a bygone era. I started to point out the interesting ways early automotive pioneers dealt with problems; often in elegant and clever ways. When probing into the car, the owner simply new nothing other than what one might find in a quick Google description. He knew enough to sound like he knew what he was discussing, but it was all very much anecdotal knowledge. My heart sinks a… Read more »

Thomas Faires
Thomas Faires

Most people are not into fixing their cars. Nothing wrong with that. I do work on mine and have helped plenty of people who are the non fixers. First thing, it is not fun fixing cars; it is fun having fixed the car. It is like playing golf. No one has fun playing golf; after they have finished the game is when they say they have enjoyed themselves. It is a time of problem solving, meditation, and frustration release. If you have a real love for the car, you will admire the technology or craftsmanship, or cuss it! But only… Read more »

JB21
JB21

There are people who have special touch with machines, that’s for sure. Mechanical sympathy is what I usually call it. On the other hand, pretty much everything on a car is made already, so what you do when you work on a car is sort of IKEA style do-it-yourself hobby kit, meaning you don’t have to be all that good with anything to change this or change that on a car. It’s really just a matter of will and desire. I’m mechanically inclined, and I work on my car, but it’s not because I like it, it’s just because I… Read more »

Kuroneko
Kuroneko

You cannot wrench? That’s OK, because I cannot make glorious video or contribute entertaining & thought provoking writing for free to the internet hordes. Keep at it! Neko.

graeme langford
graeme langford

I believe that you have to have a talent or feel for working in cars. Something I do not possess. Sure 35 years ago I used to do all my own service work. But cars were much simpler back then. I had no money and needs must. I remember replacing the oil pump and drive bar on a MK1 3 litre Capri with a good mate who lived up the road. Both of us lying on our backs in the snow on the driveway. The advice sort said I needed to take the engine out. I could not afford an… Read more »

G Math
G Math

There certainly is something to be said for the enthusiast who appreciates cars but does’t really have the ability or desire to wrench. I don’t really think that there is anything wrong with it, however I think maybe those who feel excluded or shamed just need to “man up” a bit. I’m not telling you to start wrenching, I’m telling you to just learn to not take such offence to the minor teasing that may happen as a result of your lack of knowledge. This teasing exists in any field of study or interest. Granted that this teasing is being… Read more »

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay

I tried to conjure up a comment here several times, but it kept sounding either too crass, too elitist, or it evolved into a much-to-lengthy discourse.

You have managed to express much of what I was thinking in a thoughtful, polite, and productive manner.

Thank you. Well done.

As for the rest of you: What [i]he[/i] said.

matthew mcleod
matthew mcleod

I agree . . . nicely said!

Jake
Jake

Im a 17 year old who loves classic cars (haven’t driven a classic car) but simply the design and the lack of bullshit intrigues me when i say bullshit i mean computers. But i really don’t know where to start? like do i buy an old e30 for my first car and try and work on it or do i buy a book? i know this might sound pretty dumb but any suggestions would be a lot of help because its something i really want to pursue in my life!

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson

If you’re from America, an older American car, truck or a Fox-body would probably be a good place to start. The reason? Knowledge will surely be plentiful if you get stuck and parts will be both cheap and readily available. If, however, you’re not from America or purely don’t like American cars, there are plenty to choose from. The easiest will most likely be a VW Beetle. There are competitions in how fast you can remove the engine and I think the record in somewhere around 4 seconds (however, done in a very unsafe manner). Parts and knowledge are also… Read more »

jake
jake

Thank you !!!!!

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson

You’re welcome. Out of the cars mentioned, I’d personally say that an E30, Golf GTi Mk2 or the Japanese cars are the most exciting choices when talking about driving experience, while a Fox-body or there about will net you the most horsepower for your money. However, all of them have their upsides and it’s purely down to preference I guess. That being said, a stock Volvo isn’t the most exciting (even if it’s got a turbo). However, they are immensely practical and probably among the safer (at least the 240). Mr. Wilmot also makes a fair point. If an E30… Read more »

Christopher Wilmot
Christopher Wilmot

If you want to build an E30 then do it! You can always learn along the way. It’s the passion that keeps you going. I remember when I was 17. I had a 01′ Honda Accord. Now at 21 I’ve added a MGB that I’ve restored last winter, a E28 that I’ll be doing the body work on, lowering and painting, a 49′ Chevy Truck that I’m swapping onto a newer rolled S10 chassis and a TT that I’ve gone big turbo and currently stripping and turning into a track toy. Don’t let anyone ever try to steer you away… Read more »

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson

Although I have a hard time understanding why we seem to have an absurd affinity to constantly label ourselves and others, I guess I’ll be a hypocrite and take a stab at this none the less (as I did in the other thread today). Granted I don’t actually know who coined the term gearhead, I personally interpret the word as someone who is into cars and also enjoy fixing or modifying them. Someone who is into cars and driving, but doesn’t like to work on them, I’ve always considered to be a “car enthusiast”. But that’s just me and the… Read more »

Michael
Michael

Glad I’m not the only one. For me, it’s just time. I’ve only got so much. I’ll pay someone to fix it while I’m at work, so I can drive it when I get home. Time in the car, rather than under it. Credit to those who have the touch. Your skills are appreciated. Great perspective Alan… You re not alone.

Josh Lederer
Josh Lederer

I completely “get” where Alan is coming from. The reality is that the old car hobby includes a cross-section of people with a wide range of interests and talents and everyone brings something different to the table (or workbench). My father is not a gearhead and is relatively indifferent about cars. Consequently I never spent time wrenching on cars growing up but have always appreciated their design, performance, and history. Most of all I enjoy the drive. In fact, a fascination with cars is one of the reasons I became a professional product designer. I am easing my way into… Read more »

Engineer
Engineer

A lot of what TJ said is true. Most of this generation (my generation, I am 31) is completely incompetent at all things manual labor and expects things to be done by other people in general. My generation also like to congratulate themselves for recognizing their deficiencies and expects to be applauded for it (read the article). I am not going to tell Alan he is not a gear head, because he obviously loves cars. Alan you are a gear head, so don’t worry. I am going to call Alan and my entire generation lazy though. But hey, it’s your… Read more »

Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop

For me the realization came one day at the age of about 26 that I could do a better job than what I was paying for – since then I have done everything (bar paint and complex upholstery) myself – taking the approach that the people you pay are humans too, it’s not rocket science, and slowly pushing my repertoire of skills out . Of course – there are those 60+ y/o guys who have been doing certain jobs since they were apprentices, and I recognise that without years of practice, the ability to form a flat sheet of steel… Read more »

driver x
driver x

I ain’t no gearhead.
But I do love cars and driving.
Hands on mechanical tinkering never really appealed.
I prefer to admire their design and driving aesthetic.
If that means paying someone to get their hands dirty, so be it.
But I won’t pay for a chaffeur.
🙂

Nathan
Nathan

People like TJ Martin are one of the reasons the number of car enthusiasts is dwindling. He clearly needs to learn the difference between a car enthusiast and a car snob — or more to the point, a car enthusiast and someone who has self-esteem problems and is trying to overcompensate.

TJ Martin
TJ Martin

IF .. you’re going to own and drive classic machinery …. here’s a few reasons to get over it [ the fear and discomfort ] as well as getting on with learning how to do it …. now ! 1) When … not If your classic fails in the middle of Podunk NoWheresVille where all the money in the world won’t help you in the slightest …. nine times out of ten you’ll be able to fix it good enough to get you to a qualified mechanic 2) Having deeper knowledge will also keep you from being screwed by unscrupulous… Read more »

Simon Potter
Simon Potter

Hmmmmmm I have to disagree tj with 4, 5 and 6.
Its called getting your mates together, having a few beers and doing it with your friends. Without my friends my Rx2 never would’ve brapped a day in her life, let alone stopped properly.
Part of being a gear head is the bonding you have with others over a project, its purely a catalyst for friendship. The result is the pleasure of achievement and the excitement of getting to drive your beast.

Derelict
Derelict

The only thing I will not touch is the gearbox and the axle gearing. Motors, electrical, everything else I have done. I do not have the technical knowledge right now to mess with gearboxes and setting up axle gearing. That does not mean it will remain that way forever. I will, at some point, tackle them. Time, good manual, and some knowledgable people are all I need.

Joris
Joris

hey at least you are doing something usefull with your passion. It’s nothing to be ashame of. Just do the things you are comfortable doing on your own. And ast Josh points out a motorcycle can be that comfortable thing. Anyway keep up the good job with the website. I love it!

Nicolas
Nicolas

I feel your pain. I love cars, especially the engineering behind them. I’d love to be a mechanic, but I’m crap with tools. Like you I did much more when younger, but that might have been because it was such a great time to spend with my dad, who enjoyed working on cars. Since he’s gone, its no longer the same… my kids don’t share the interest, so its usually just me and a bunch of grease. So I do much less; I still change the simple routine stuff like oil changes, and even did a brake job a few… Read more »

kruno stankovic

you are lucky if this is your garage on these pictures

Josh
Josh

I have a happy medium.
I won’t touch engines nor gearboxes, however I will happily pull a motorcycle into a large amount of small parts and re-assemble.

But no engines. Nope. Never.

Other Josh
Other Josh

But engines are the best part!