I Found Peace Working On Old Cars
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