Welcome to Mechanical Sympathy

Mechanical Sympathy 01 Kyle Smith garage
Kyle Smith

Hey there. I’m Kyle. My presence on these digital pages is not new, but this column is. I’m a former runner, B-grade cyclist, musician of the annoying variety, married man, caretaker to three cats, and step parent of four chickens. My property has a humble but hardworking 2.5-car garage that I try my best to keep clean and functional while working on a collection that seems to constantly spiral out of control and retreat to manageable.

Kacy Smith

That collection currently spans 85 years of technology, which means it’s no surprise that something always needs attention. Mechanical brakes to suspension tuning and everything in between, I do as much as possible myself. Sometimes I do call in for help or borrow some machinery. Don’t we all?

You name the adventure, and I’ve probably done at least something related to it. Cross-country, time-speed-distance rallies in a 1917 Peerless Speedster to hot laps in a 2021 Porsche Cayman GT4. Preparing and showing a 1951 Pegaso Z-102 (not mine) at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida to orchestrating a rally of ratty cars around California’s swanky Monterey peninsula. Riding the canyon roads of California on a wide range of motorcycles to crossing Michigan’s Mackinaw Bridge on a decrepit Honda Goldwing. I hold a novice race license. Whatever roadside repair you can imagine, I’ve probably attempted it. And succeeded.

The breadth of my experience has taught me one thing: You can’t do much if you don’t care for the machine. I didn’t grow up watching racing or reading the instrumented tests typical of automotive magazines 10 to 20 years ago. Sure, I flipped through a few, but consider the buff books background noise in my origin story.

It was working on things that really occupied my time back then. Understanding the mechanics of how something functioned—rather than its performance potential—became the anchor of my universe. A stack of push mowers my father picked up from the side of the road taught me the mechanics of an engine and how the bits and pieces inside interacted. Maybe the can of a cold beverage I drank in my own garage last night was made from the recycled aluminum of a Briggs and Stratton that met its sad end at the hands of a 12-year-old armed with a half-rusty socket set, a carpenter’s hammer, and curiosity. Only taken apart, never reassembled. 

Those magazine tests might have been background noise, but the line between noise and subliminal messaging is thin. For a young person who was yet to slide into the driver’s seat, those driving impressions, quarter-mile times, and 0-to-60-mph stats defined performance. Instrumented testing is a fascinating process that requires a well-prepared car and a good driver who won’t hesitate to flog the devil out of said vehicle. To achieve the impressive numbers—a 0-to-60 run, as an example—the driver must launch the car mercilessly with near-total disregard for the life or wellbeing of the driveline components. That driver has to have zero mechanical sympathy. None.

2021 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 front action
Zoom in, and you’ll see the eyes of a panicked man thinking of how fragile carbon fiber wheels are. Andrew Trahan

That’s not me. It never was.

When the kind lady behind the DMV counter handed over the still-warm slip of paper granting me legal access to the Kansas highways and byways, it only made sense that my travel was done with great care for my white Ford Ranger pickup. As the operator of a machine, I was also its caretaker. It was right around this time that racing and high-performance driving entered my worldview, and it didn’t take long for me to observe the sports’ seemingly endless appetites for broken parts and cars. My desire to drive fast and do burnouts faded when I thought about piston speed and valve control.

That mindset was reinforced while sitting in the class rooms and working in the shop at McPherson College, where I earned my bachelor of science in automotive restoration. I sold that beloved 2004 Ford Ranger, deciding instead to keep a 1992 Toyota pickup alive as long as possible. Luckily, that mission only required oil changes and a mid-winter, parking-lot rebuild of the rear axle after the pinion bearings turned to shrapnel. That 22RE engine and five-speed manual transmission did everything I asked of them, from hauling motorcycles to a night of test-and-tune drag racing. I still think if I had the stones to sidestep the clutch on that starting line I would have snuck into the 17-second range. The thought of harm done to clutch and rear axle was too much, though. I couldn’t do that to them.

Kyle with Healey engine and trans
Kyle Smith

That’s a feeling some have and some don’t. For humans to put themselves in the “shoes” of a literal cog in a machine is patently absurd, yet that is how my mind works. Sympathy is defined as a feeling of pity or sorrow for the suffering or distress of another. Mechanical sympathy requires more than maintenance. It’s doing the mental work to understand how the machine works best and then basing your care and feeding on that. How do the parts interact? What is the best way to treat this both living but also inanimate object? This column will explore the ways we interact with machines, both in upkeep and use, and how those stir the soul.

A while back, one of my superiors here at Hagerty asked where I saw myself in five years. After thinking for a moment, I realized my truth: I’m here to do fun things and tell good stories. That’s what this column will be. Let’s take an adventure week-by-week. I’m excited about this one. Hope you are too.

Sabrina Hyde
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    Kyle, I’ve always enjoyed your stuff on this site and have felt a certain affinity with your journey even though I’m far senior to you.
    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment on mechanical sympathy. I’ve always felt that if I broke it, I was going to have to fix it and that it was better to carefully maintain the machines than to be always correcting/fixing my blunders. Ridiculous to say I realize, but I have always thought that the machines appreciated it as well and as a result always gave their best performance.

    Good luck on your latest endeavor with this column!

    Thanks Cam! I really excited about this and have some fun stories to share and know there are plenty more that will spiral out of some upcoming adventures. Thanks for following along.

    the progression of a mechanic
    1) actually getting it apart (including that thing that just won’t come loose)
    2) getting it apart without breaking any of the hardware
    3) getting it back together again
    4) getting it back together again and having it work
    5) getting it back together again and it works better than when you started

    I have to agree with your concept of sympathy. I started out as an abuser of my vehicles. Went through a lot of vehicles early. Once I got married I realized I couldn’t operate my vehicles in this manner for a number of reasons. One was that I wanted my vehicles to last. I now own a 2015 Jetta TDI hitting 250,000 kms. only had to do oil changes and brakes. I also own a 2006 Jeep TJ. Oil and brakes again with the exception of a rear diff because I was towing while running on non-synthetic diff fluid. Didn’t read the owners manual. Love your articles.

    Looking forward to the articles but I will say the community aspect is harder to feel with the new silly setup we have now. Bring back the forums or a better forum!

    The nuts and bolts of things is where I’m most comfortable so I’ll be right with you on these Kyle….And Gary Bechtold and I agree. This “update” is three steps backwards that no one asked for.

    I’d give likes to Gary Bechtold and Tinkerah if that was a thing…

    Kyle’s stuff has always been interesting, one factor being the personal trueness of the anecdotes being shared. Plus Kyle writes about tools and garages.

    It’s no coincidence that many of the previous articles had interesting forum discussions to go with them. Hardest part with this new set up will be trying to find the article (easily) when it isn’t on the top page.

    I’m right on board with Gary Bechtold, Tinkerah, and snailish when it comes to disappointment with what we’re now using – but then again, it wasn’t our decision, and we’re STILL using it, so guess our indignation isn’t going to influence anyone regarding changes. As they say, “it is what it is”.
    I’m also tuned in to what Kyle is saying and what some responders are echoing. But I’m confused. It’s been a popular thing recently to say, “go for it – it’s only a car”, which seems to be an opposing view to the sympathy/empathy (thanks, Mr. Miller) stance. Many folks (including myself, often) say” it’s only a car – what can be broken can be fixed – DRIVE!” and so on. And so I get mixed feeling here. Driving isn’t just coddling your vehicle so expensive or hard-to-find parts don’t break. Yes, there’s a fine line between Grandma-driving and FLOG ‘ER!!! But if all we’re doing is feeling sorry if we might put a little extra stress on a gear or shaft or chain or something, we might as well all be Schwinns – or at best, Priuses.
    If it’s just about money and time, as someone remarked, that makes us drive more carefully, then it’s not sympathy/empathy – it’s economics.
    I’m not professing “drive it like ya stole it”, exactly, but cars are steel and glass and rubber and whatever-that-stuff-is-in-the interior-that-gives-us-the-new-car-smell. We may love ’em. We may feel a kinship with ’em. But should we feel sorry for them because we mash the throttle or brake pedal or make a tire squeal like a piggie? I don’t think I’m signing on to that… 😋

    Nice article, Kyle. Decades ago, I tried a little motocross racing. I never was very good. But, I was always better when I rode MY race, not my competitors’. When I raced my competitors, I crashed a lot! When I raced my race, 75% of the people I passed crashed ahead of me making it easier for me to pass!

    I suppose smooth driving/riding is better on equipment and egos!

    If Hagerty brings back some previous comment format, perhaps they can arrange it so members can actually sign-in. I found it annoying that my keen perceptions and razor-like wit often did not see the light of day. Readers of this comment section need me. Just saying.

    Interesting thoughts on personality traits… I’m with you since I spend my life restoring stuff I don’t want to see broken but my business partner is definitely of the “let’s see what it will do” type. Although, I will occasionally take one of my RZ350’s out to clear out the pipes. BTW, cool that you went to McPherson. I talked with them a few years ago about teaching there but nothing even materialized. It’s a great program, though.

    What you are describing is mechanical empathy, not sympathy. Sympathy is sharing a sorrow whereas empathy is sharing a feeling. You feel the stress on your machines; that’s empathy. I look forward to more of your columns.

    perhaps you have struck on my lifelong conundrum with “flogging” cars… In all my years I’ve not seen this voiced in an article. Since I had to fix them and (gasp) pay for the parts I really didn’t like to break my cars.. still don’t.

    If you really appreciate these pieces-of-automotive-history, then we are just caretakers until the next ones come along.

    we have a lot in common. Kansas guy, Just had the drivetrain out of my MGB for a clutch. many old motorcycles. when I was a kid,(in the 70s) I flogged a never ending line of old GTO’s and 442’s- but by about the age of 25, I too became one who saw the light and began to take care of my machinery. wish I had started earlier. And like the previous poster, Ive never seen this expressed before in printed car circles. Great article!

    By Jove! Right on Kyle! I second the motion from Rustle. My first ‘real car’ was a used race car. I didn’t know enough to know better, so I bought it. My buddy, a tech school grad, got a good chuckle. He told me you can learn how to fix it, or you can junk it. I learned to fix it under his tutelage. Every mechanical part in between the license plates. Once it’s your parts $$ and your labor a ‘mechanical respect & limit appreciation’ is permanently achieved.

    Enjoyed your story, I never really looked at us as being caretakers, it is the truth. You have the biggest two and a half car garage I’ve seen to date. I love your taste of mixed vehicles. I’ll be eighty next month, and always enjoyed my hobby since I was 15, over 80 cars to date and still going, from Model A’s to Carreras, Honda Scramblers to Bonneville TT’s. Some required working in our New York snowed in driveway to our current heated tight 2 car garage. Patience with tight space requires planning, especially if major work is required, one must be left out and covered. Always looking for a new project, thinking about a right hand drive next. Keep it going Kyle!
    All the best,
    Oak’sGarage (instagram)

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