Featured: I Found Peace Working On Old Cars

I Found Peace Working On Old Cars

By Alan Franklin
June 3, 2013

Patience is a virtue, but it’s never been one of mine. A persistent anxiousness has been the cause of a whole lot of strife in my relatively short time on Earth (insert predictable anecdote about growing up hard and it in turn growing a chip on your shoulder here). I’ll spare you the clichés and instead tell you how an old car freed me of my demons and gave me peace.

I’ve always loved cars—they first attracted me as a toddler with their colors, shapes, and varying styles and functions, a visceral, nebulous concept of design that would grow into a lifelong obsession with engineering, aesthetics, and the applied arts. As middle school wore on, Hotwheels and Matchboxes gave way to Road & Track and Car and Driver, and I began to learn about the inner workings of cars—I read voraciously, soaking up diagrams, cutaways, and technical drawings. I read Thos. L. Bryant wax poetically about the idiosyncrasies of early post-war British automotive engineering and construction, studied speed-blurred archival photos of flat-tracked Bugattis, their wheels apparently twisted into determined ovals punching a fast shoulder through the thickening crowd of storm speed air, and generally immersed myself in the oily lore of the automobile, out of which emerged a religious-like reverence for the history and technology of machines.

A few more years passed, and I was finally old enough to drive. A typically reliable Toyota, albeit a clapped-out rust bucket of one, my first car didn’t really give me all that much of a canvas on which to work my on-paper knowledge in a practical way, unless you count stress-testing various suspension and drivetrain components (read: all of them) far past their intrinsic limits (I once saw 85 MPH while standing still with the front wheels spinning on ice). After several minutes they burnt through, gained traction, and thus resulted the biggest, smokiest burnout in Tercel history. Nothing ever broke, though.

Abusing shitboxes was fun, but still, my angst remained. It took several more years, a move to the West Coast and a free, semi-operable, seventies-vintage Italian roadster to find my nerve tonic, but the wait was worth the ends. I found her on Craigslist one day—a derelict, faded, seat-liberated 1974 124 Spider. The lister wanted it gone ASAP, free to the first taker. I borrowed a truck, rented a trailer, and drove up for a near-midnight rendezvous with its owner. I remembered that sage advice “never buy a car in the dark”, but I wasn’t “buying” it, was I? We pushed it onto the U-haul and strapped it down, and with nothing more than a scribbled bill of “sale” and a handshake, I was on my way to enlightenment.

The next day I was surprised and pleased to see it was relatively rust free and mostly complete, the only areas of rot a bit of nonstructural surface stuff on the fenders. (Weren’t these things supposed to be made of Soviet-dog-house-roof-grade tin?) I couldn’t believe my luck—a Lampredi-engined, Pininfarina-designed sports car was all mine for no more than the cost of logistics. The guy said it ran, and I’m sure he simply forgot to mention it’d take a hotwire from alternator to coil and a few ounces of gas poured directly into the carb to do so—but that twincam bark and appetite for revs had me hooked instantly. I sat in front of the cracked “wood”-rimmed wheel on a dirty and dry rotted spare tire smiling from ear-to-ear. I knew I finally had my canvas.

“Rust-free” turned out to be a bit of a misnomer—sure, there was little surface oxidation, but it sure as hell thrived like moss on a wet rock underneath bolts and fasteners. Equipped with a blowtorch, penetrating oil, and a motley collection of secondhand tools, I banged, bled, and cussed my way to nirvana, lost myself in the process of resurrecting the old girl. After months of shady overseas eBay purchases, junk-yard scavenging, and a possibly (certainly) stolen set of Alfa Graduate seats, the Spider had its legs again. To put it charitably, she had a heavy patina, but mechanically was fit as a sprinter.

I’d spent countless hours, days, and weeks covered in disgusting, thirty year-old grease, contorted and sweating profusely, and it’d changed me forever. The experience taught me to be resourceful, self-reliant, persistent, and yes, even patient, a lesson I’d re-learn nearly every single time I took her out for a drive further than a few blocks—“character-building” doesn’t begin to describe it. Still, I loved every minute of the experience, and I carry its teachings with me every day. Thanks, little Fiat, “long may you run”.

Photography by Alan Franklin

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2 years ago

Your article has brought a lot of valuable information. http://hotmailentrarno.com/

Peter J Smith
Peter J Smith(@fb_1043682525)
2 years ago

Peace, periodically interrupted by tears of frustration.

Mercedes E Class
Mercedes E Class
4 years ago

Amazing old cars … The guy said it ran, and I’m sure he simply forgot to mention it’d take a hotwire from alternator to coil and a few ounces of gas poured directly into the carb… http://www.mercedessaigon.org/e-class

Steve Crowley
Steve Crowley(@ducktoe)
5 years ago

I started my foray into sports cars with a borrowed 75 fiat 124 spider. I went from Orlando to Tampa in under an hour. Fun car. Couldn’t find one on Chicago and wound up getting a 78 Alfa Romeo. I’ve owned that car for nearly 30 years

5 years ago

Wow! Great story. I can relate. I spend each weekend either working on my cars or detailing cars at the only Ferrari shop in town for free. Best stress reducer I have found.

David Kleppe
David Kleppe(@david-kleppe)
5 years ago

Love these cars! and i find them actually better to drive then then alfa cousin (allthough they have allmost no parts in common)
here’s ours my dad restored allmost 25 years ago

David Kleppe
David Kleppe(@david-kleppe)
5 years ago
Reply to  David Kleppe

file didn’t work

Ben France
Ben France(@bfrance)
5 years ago

LOVED this article Alan! The first sentence has been my credo for my adult life, especially when it comes to automobiles. (I’m on vehicle 28 in 23 years of driving if that is any indication…)

I just picked up a ’71 Volvo 142e to restore/modify. I’d love to hear of your continuing adventures with the 124. My older brother owned a plethora of ’70’s and early ’80’s Fiats over the years, so I’m quite familiar with the driving experience!

Here’s a pic of my 142. She’s crusty, rusty, and a bit musty, but she’s all mine for the meager sum of $250 and will be a fun learning experience and stress relief from the daily grind of my life!

5 years ago

What apropos track to quote. With your chrome heart shining in the sun….

Alexandre Goncalves
Alexandre Goncalves(@cacem)
6 years ago

Nice article!

I also found patience (and I still do), through years and years of waiting on my cars to be fully restored – there´s always something that´s missing, or that can be improved – but I don´t stress as I would in other situations… I patiently wait for the time when I have the money, opportunity, or just time itself, to complete the puzzle 🙂

Happy new 2016 to all, from Portugal

Shawn Bokaie
Shawn Bokaie(@ayrton91)
6 years ago

Patience indeed!

Russ Wollman
Russ Wollman(@twincamfiat)
8 years ago

After reading this, I think I might have grown up under-privileged, because a magical 124 Spider came my way new in 1973. I did do my share of caretaking and fiddling, though, and 14 years later, she looked so fresh that people were asking me how much the payment were.

It’s incredible and heartwarming to know that this series simply marches on, graceful and lovely as ever, in the hands of those who understand them, who feel them. The 124s simply transcended their price, transcended their origins, and now they’re transcending time itself. Damn that rust—full speed ahead.

René Flims
René Flims(@rene)
8 years ago

My brother had one of these, and he wanted to completely restore it.
I was in between jobs, so I had the time, and my uncle just had a new workshop for his FIAT dealership, so I could use the old one, with all the tools and bridges in it.
It was like a fulltime-job for me, but it felt very relaxing and rewarding, and my brother was very pleased with the result.
He didn’t let me borrow the car as I was still an inexperienced driver (understandably), and ironically two weeks later he caused a small accident with it himself (his pride was more hurt than his car…).

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay(@christophergay)
8 years ago

Nice story, Alan!
I had an ex-girlfriend who liked to tell people I was a good mechanic… as I was “[i]always[/i] fixing my cars.” It took me a while to realize that was actually a dig. Doh! 😉

Kidding aside, I still have the tools and floor jack my father gave to me when I was about 10 years old… and I still use them everyday.

Alan, that first picture shows a neighborhood that looks familiar. Are we neighbors?

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
8 years ago

Indeed Alan is in SD.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay(@christophergay)
8 years ago
Reply to  Alan Franklin

As I type, I’m in West Chula Vista… or, simply, Chula Vista, as we natives call it. 😉

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay(@christophergay)
8 years ago
Reply to  Alan Franklin

Hi Alan,

Get my info from Afshin, and come on over for lunch one day. We can share some car stories and talk shop, but if you stay too long we may put you to work! 😉

Vincent P
Vincent P(@vincentp)
8 years ago

Just love it. The only time I find any sort of real peace is when I am under/over/in a car parked neatly in the garage.

8 years ago

Very inspiring piece. I like it.

Mucking about with cars, for me, gives me an excellent creative release. In most of what I do, I don’t really get to create things. Something that I can build with my own two hands, and through my own ingenuity and graft improve.

Recommissioning and restoring cars gives me that, and then I get a kickass little runabout out of it too. Win-win.

Eddie Relvas
Eddie Relvas(@eddie124)
8 years ago

The 124 is one of the best classics there are. Mine is pretty much my daily driver, and it’s the car I trust the most. It’s also a delight to behold, and a pleasure to work on. The engineering is awesome, especially for something conceived on a budget in the mid-60’s.
I’m also one to find peace and relaxation working on cars. I take care of my own fleet, and sometimes fix friends’ rides too. Makes me feel good, and I might one day take it up more seriously…

8 years ago

What a lovely story.
Kudos for you work!