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