Everything I Know About Cars, I Learned From My Dad

My dad has a certain… aversion to mechanics. He’s been working on cars since he could hold a spanner, so he knows what he’s doing and like any DIY-er out there, he can’t stand to pay so much for something he could do himself. This means almost every repair on our cars has been done by him in the driveway, and my brother and I would spend hours just sitting on the ground watching while dad explained what he was doing. 

Since I started my apprenticeship at the Simpson Garage, I’ve learnt just about everything I know about cars from my dad. I know how to change a tire, I know to bleed brakes, I even know how to replace engine mounts in a totally safe and not at all sketchy way. I’ve also discovered the three key beliefs of the shadetree mechanic:

  1. Don’t Be Afraid
  2. Do It The Right Way
  3. Failure Is Always An Option

Don’t Be Afraid. 

I’ve worked on several cars with my dad, but my favourite is the Fuego. My daily driver is a 1985 Renault Fuego GTX, a beautiful 80s machine with some fantastic French engineering. That is to say, she looks like a spaceship and requires constant maintenance.

Of course, at her age and being French she requires a little more attention, so together we’ve replaced everything from brake pads to cambelts. Several times during this process we shared that very particular look that dads share with their kids a lot. The spiritual sister to “don’t tell your mother”, this look says “… well. We may have broken that. Pretty sure we can fix it…. Probably?” 

When the instrument cluster needed to be removed to fix a sticky speedo, we couldn’t get the thing out of the dash, though we were pretty sure no screws or clips were left holding it in. The book we had showed a different model, so we weren’t certain how this was going to go. Eventually, an executive decision was made to just wrench on it, although the board had raised concerns we would break something, until it finally came free. Cautiously, we inspected the dash for the telltale snapped clips, and were delighted to find nothing broken.

As we then tried to pull the caps off a dial to remove the front plastic, we heard a concerning graunch and noticed that we could no longer press in that same dial to reset the trip odometer. Okay, we would come back to that one later.

We nearly broke (or added patina to) many pieces in this project, though we kept going, and we got it back together and working in the end. Having put aside our fears of breaking things and just going for it, we saved a lot of time and money while gaining the satisfaction of fixing a very difficult fault ourselves.

Funnily enough, this lesson doesn’t just apply to car maintenance. As a kid, every time I was afraid to do something, Dad was always the one pushing me to just go for it. He would remind me “it’s a lot less effort to just do the thing, than keep worrying over it.” To quote Jillian Michaels, you have to feel the fear and do it anyway.

There’s nothin’ to be gained from staying in your comfort zone and it’s fucking exhausting to worry about all the ways it could go wrong. Don’t be afraid to just go for it, it’s almost never as bad you think.

Do It The Right Way.

Now, a lot of people would say that fixing cars the Right Way means following the book, and using the correct parts and tools. Sometimes, however, things must be done the “right” way. You may find yourself lacking instructions, or being asked to take the entire engine out to replace one little piece when you don’t have an engine crane kicking around. On the odd occasion, you might discover last minute that a crucial part cannot be sourced locally.

Such is the case with the Triumph GT6. The wiper fluid bottle had gone walkabout long before we bought the car, and you will definitely die in a fiery crash without one, at least according to Sammy from the VTNZ up the road. But alas, neither Repco nor Supercheap deigned to stock such a part. We would have to order it out of the UK and wait the required month of shipping.

Or, we could do it the right way.

Off we headed to the Storage Box in search of something we could jerry-rig into a solution. The goal was a bottle roughly 8cm in diameter, to fit snugly in the engine bracket, with a narrow nozzle top to fit the hose. What we ended up purchasing was the perfect size, with the added bonus of being absolutely ridiculous. A bright red tomato-shaped sauce bottle. We sauntered back to the VTNZ, smugly asking for a retest, daring Sammy to deny its satisfactory containment of wiper fluid. I suspect he did not find it quite so funny as we did, based on the frown he maintained as he applied the fresh WOF sticker. Our piss-take of a solution worked perfectly.

You might be thinking “That just sounds like the lazy way.” Which, while not entirely untrue, is an oversimplification of creative problem-solving. My dad’s “creative shortcuts” style of fixing cars has shown me that when you look for an easier or quicker way to solve problems, you often find a better method. The “right” way is not the correct way, or the established way. It’s whichever method gets the job done to your satisfaction. 

Great innovation is often the result of taking shortcuts and rejecting the dogma of “that’s how we’ve always done it.” There is always progress to be made when you try something different – not forgetting how good it feels when you half-ass something and it turns out fine.

Failure is always an option.

Not being afraid to try, and doing things the “right” way has plenty of advantages, however it can blow up in your face quite spectacularly. Every time we start a potential disaster-project, my dad reminds me that Failure Is Always An Option. If we’re trying something a little difficult, or very sketchy, we have to accept that we might need to spend twice as long fixing our fuckup. Sometimes, the pieces don’t fit back together, other times you helpfully manage to break the piece you’re trying to reattach.

When Dad bought a 1985 Land Rover to hack around in up on the farm, he enlisted his young apprentice to assist with a few fixes, so that we might thrash it more enjoyably. One of the most pressing jobs was replacing the steering box, as it was rather like steering a cruiseliner. We found a new one in the box of bits that she came with, so there was nothing stopping us. It wasn’t until halfway into the job that we realised it would not be a simple swap. In fact, as we tried to line up a hose fitting with the new box, it snapped clean through. And we happened to be at the farm in Tinopai on a Sunday, which forced us to stop working, leave the Rover outside, wait until we got back to Auckland to order a new part, and finish the job off the next weekend. 

Fail. 

And so what? We had other projects to do at the farm, plus the hose-fitting had a dodgy-looking weld that needed to be replaced anyway. Twas but a tea break. 

Since I was a child, I’ve had an almost crippling fear of failure that I’m still working through to this day. But the more failures I experience and the more fuck-ups I make, the less I fear them. I can accept that they might happen, and most importantly, I know that I can make things right. Failure is always an option, because 99 times out of 100, it’s never so bad you can’t recover. It might even give you the opportunity to make things better.

I’ve learned a lot about fixing classic cars by hanging out with my dad, and I’ve also learned a lot about overcoming anxiety. I’ve learned to push myself out of my comfort zone, to try new and innovative ways of doing things, and to make peace with failure. 

Thanks to the General Education requirement at Auckland Uni, I’ve taken a few philosophy classes before, but the best one by far was lying on my back in the oil-stained driveway under my “classic” French daily driver, messing around with my dad.

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