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Why wrench? More often than not, the cure for what ails you is covered in grease

Rob Siegel in his garage

Recently, I was out in the garage making forward motion on retrofitting A/C into my Euro-spec 1979 BMW 635CSi. It’s a ridiculous project, but there are reasons for doing it: I want a cold car, I’ve done this kind of retrofit before, I got a good deal on the parts, etc. It also made me think about the larger question of why so many people are into working on their own cars. We might start off doing it purely for economic reasons, but for many of us, wrenching becomes a central, lifelong activity. Why?

If you think about it, most hobbies involve three things: a physical object, an activity, and a social circle. If you like all three, you often get sucked into the hobby for life. Our physical object is the car. Our social circle is other folks who are into cars. While the activity can be driving or collecting or going to shows, for many of us, it’s wrenching.

In a world where I’m trying to juggle too many things, I find wrenching to be a profoundly centering experience. When I go out to the garage and immerse myself in a repair, my mind doesn’t wander. Not even a little. I’m addressing one square foot of reality one 10-mm nut at a time.

I find joy in identifying a problem and solving it from beginning to end. I can’t fix healthcare, but I can figure out why my windshield-washer pump isn’t working. When it starts squirting fluid, it’s pure bliss.

Then there’s the hands-on spatial stuff. I spent 35 years as a software engineer. It was rewarding but overwhelmingly analytical and left-brained. When I wrench, I exercise my right brain, hold tools, visualize spatial relationships, take things apart, put them back together. That is enormously satisfying. Matt Crawford, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, talks extensively about this.

A sense of nurturing comes with working on cars. I suppose it’s like quilting or gardening or cooking. Yes, you could simply buy a quilt or hire a landscaper or order takeout, but the satisfaction is not only in the final product but also in the process. I’ve nurtured my ’73 BMW 3.0CSi for more than 30 years. That’s longer than my kids have been alive. Not to get weird about it, but that’s a pretty intimate relationship.

If you’re lucky enough to have a garage, there’s the real estate. I am not a “garage mahal” guy. Forget the “man cave” psychobabble. My garage is a greasy, messy, angular place where actual work gets done. But whether you’re like me or have an eat-off-the-floor ’50s thing going with a jukebox and deco stools, odds are your space reflects your tastes, needs, wants, and desires.

The physicality of wrenching is quite enjoyable. I don’t get as much exercise as I should, but when I emerge victorious after the contortions involved in, say, dropping a differential, I feel the same sense of whole-body accomplishment folks probably feel after running a marathon.

And consider the money saved by maintaining a car yourself. Vintage cars are like old houses. They always need something. If you have to pay someone shop rates every time they hiccup, or you want to make some improvement (particularly something silly like my A/C retrofit), the costs add up fast. Certainly, trustworthy shops exist, but many of us have horror stories of places that ripped us off, didn’t listen to us, or didn’t know the car as well as we do. It’s no wonder the go-to move is often, “Dang it, I’ll just do it myself.” Even so, I don’t know anyone who goes into the garage grumbling and griping about how they hate wrenching and do it because it’s the only way they can afford to keep the car they love on the road. So go into your garage: Experience repair as a form of therapy. Tear something up, then put it back together. Center your world.