Bonding with your car is all about the effort you put into it

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Working on your car Gabe Augustine

I wrote in the January/February issue of Hagerty that new cars have never been better, and I’m optimistic for the future. Why? Just look how far we’ve come. In 1949, you bought a Rolls-Royce, and it had a six-cylinder engine, a manual transmission, an AM tube radio, and no air conditioning. Now a Toyota Corolla has 10 times the features, and it goes faster, stops better, uses less fuel, makes less pollution, is safer in an accident, and comes in nine colors. You used to need 750 horsepower to win the Indy 500; now you can get that much in a Corvette, and it comes with a factory warranty. And I believe the best years are still coming.

But things are definitely different, and there is something being lost. More and more we are separated from the machinery. I was talking recently to a big star in Hollywood (who shall remain nameless) who had just bought a car, and I said, “Oh, that’s rear-wheel drive.” And he didn’t even know what I meant. He goes, “Well, all the wheels turn.” I tried to explain that I was talking about the drive wheels, and I could see his eyes glaze.

The thing that bonds people to their cars is the effort they put into them. Whenever I hear people talk nostalgically about their first car, they always say, “I bought it for X amount of dollars, I put all the money I had into it, I put in a huge amount of effort, I drove that thing for five years, and I sold it for Y.” And there’s a great sense that they did something, they accomplished something. You can see it in their faces and hear it in the way they talk. And that’s the part I think is disappearing as cars get better and we switch to new types of powertrains.

In the early 1950s, Betty Crocker had a cake mix with powdered eggs in it. All you had to do was add water. Initially, the mix sold well, but after the buzz of this easy new process wore off, the company couldn’t give them away. Homemakers just wouldn’t buy it. General Mills did a big study and then reformulated the recipe to make people first break a couple of eggs into it, then add water, and then mix it up. The new product took off, because now people felt like they were actually involved in making the cake.

The exact same thing happens when I take out an old automobile, especially a prewar car. I clean the plugs and put them back in, or I change the oil, and, magically, it seems to run so much better. Really, I probably haven’t done a darn thing, but there’s a sense of accomplishment that old-car people love and that is definitely lost with our modern vehicles.

Like a lot of you, I’ve always prided myself on being able to get a car home no matter what might have gone wrong. The frustrating thing about new cars, and especially new exotics where you can’t even open the hood without tools, is that when they stop, there is absolutely nothing you can do to get them running again. To me, the funniest thing about the McLaren F1 is that it comes with a titanium tool kit. You get a few wrenches and a screwdriver and a couple of allen wrenches. What are you going to fix on an F1 with those? Nothing, of course, but the kit is still there because of an old-school sense that onboard tools enable you to be self-sufficient.

My mother knew nothing about cars, but she knew that if the Valiant didn’t start, you took off the big round thing that looked like a pie pan, stuck a screwdriver down the thing underneath that with the big hole in it, and then the Plymouth would start. She knew enough about her vehicle to do that.

Meanwhile, the number of guys I meet today who can’t even change a tire is absolutely amazing. A while back I stopped to see if a couple in a BMW with a flat tire were okay. I asked the guy if he had a spare. He said, “I don’t think so.” We opened the trunk and found the spare. Then he pointed to the plastic cover over the lug nuts and said, “How do you get the wheels off?” I showed him, and he was stunned. We changed the tire together, and he really felt involved with his Bimmer. All he had done to this point was drive it, but now he had actually fixed his vehicle. I’ll bet he never looked at that car the same way again.

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