This is the best pay-it-forward story ever
In my first book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, I wrote about the taxonomy of a hobby. That is, if you find some hobby where there’s a physical object, an activity, and a social component, and you’re attracted to all three, you wind up getting sucked in, and the hobby becomes a passion. This is obviously the case with me (and almost certainly you) with cars, but it holds for most hobbies.
For example, my wife is an avid quilter, and all the things I do with cars have their counterpart in the quilting world. One of the wonderful things that comes from being part of a community of people with a shared passion is the sense of human connection. We tend to inherently trust people who love the same things that we love. This often translates into a near-automatic sense of kindness and generosity. Obviously that can happen without the shared interest (and the world would be a far better place if that happened more often), but if you’re into vintage cars, and like working on them, and you see one broken down by the side of the road, of course you’re going to stop and help.
It’s a beautiful thing to be either the giver or the receiver of this kind of automotive grace. The fine tradition is to “pay it forward”—that is, if someone helps you and doesn’t charge you for it, you then help someone else. When this happens, no matter which end of it you’re on, you can almost feel yourself putting your oars into the spiritual water that keeps the world, or at least our little corner of it, going ‘round.
In 2019, I was at the BMW event “The Vintage” in Hot Springs, North Carolina, a tiny little town up in the mountains about 50 miles north of Asheville, when a man approached me. “Something went wrong with my car as I was heading down the last set of switchbacks,” he said. “I heard something go whump-whump-whump-whump-WHACK, then saw black pieces trailing away behind me in the rear-view mirror. I asked around, and people said that you and your friend Paul Wegweiser are apparently the people to ask about field fixes.” He apologetically said, “I found you first.”
What he was describing was the textbook symptom of the giubo (pronounced “GWEE-bo”) going bad. It’s the rubber donut connecting the transmission output flange to the driveshaft input flange, a common wear-and-tear part on vintage BMWs. I lay down next to his car on the grassy field where 600 vintage BMWs had assembled in Hot Springs, stretched my arm up as far as it would go, and laid my fingers on the giubo. Sure enough, I could feel that there was a piece missing.
I had a spare giubo with me, and told the gentleman that I’d replace his if he found a shady place with a cement floor—that is, for safety reasons, I wasn’t going to jack up the car and crawl under it on grass or dirt. Plus, it was beastly hot out, and a car can easily tip off jacks and stands if they sink into asphalt. At the end of the day, he circled back with me and said that he found a local Porsche guy who lived less than a mile away and said he had a small barn with a cement floor we could work in. So we babied his car over to the Porsche guy’s barn and I began to have at it.
Replacing a giubo isn’t terribly difficult, but the eight nuts holding the bolts to the two flanges are 17mm nylocs, so once they’re loosened, they don’t just spin off; you have to keep wrenching down the entire extent of the threads. That, combined with the need to raise the rear wheels to turn the giubo to access the bolts at the top, the need to rotate the nuts and bolts only on the metal flange and not against the rubber (which means using a wrench and not a ratchet), and the heat in the garage, made it slow going. From wheels-up to wheels-down and done, it was a couple of hot sweaty hours. But I got it done.
The owner was extremely grateful. He tried to pay both me and the guy whose barn we were in. But then the barn owner—a man of few words—said something to the guy. It was terse, direct, and beautiful:
“It’s called ‘pay it forward.’ This is how it’s done. Next time, you help somebody.”
The car owner nodded and put away his wallet. We all shook hands, knowing we’d left this world a slightly better place.
Of course, just because I fix cars doesn’t mean that I’m always on the giving end of “pay it forward.” While driving home with friends from The Vintage the previous year in my 1979 BMW 635CSi, I heard some alarming noise from under the hood, stopped, and found that the cooling fan had shed one of its blades.
I made some phone calls to try and find another fan. Unfortunately, although the car’s M30 inline six-cylinder engine was used in BMWs from 1968 through 1995, there were three different configurations of water pumps, fan clutches, pulleys, and fans, and only the most recent configuration is readily available. So, to fix mine in a timely fashion, I needed to replace not just the fan but everything it attached to. (It’s not as if I had those parts with me either.)
Fortunately, my friend Luther contacted me saying that he was about a hundred miles north of my current location and had all the parts needed for the conversion. With one of the fan blades missing, the fan felt badly unbalanced, and I worried that it could self-destruct and pierce the radiator, so I removed the fan entirely. As long as I was driving on the highway at speed, there would be plenty of airflow, but if I got caught in traffic, I risked overheating the engine and cracking the head. I did a quick hack with the electric condenser fan (the one in front of the radiator for the air conditioning) to allow me to run it without the A/C on to provide some additional air flow to the radiator, but when I tested it while parked, the temperature rose alarmingly. Still, I didn’t have much choice, so I went for it. Fortunately I hit almost no traffic.
When I arrived at Luther’s, he had all the parts laid out for me. More than that, he noticed something I’d missed—my coolant expansion tank was cracked. Amazingly, he had a spare one of those as well.
A few hours of work later, I was on my way with a rebuilt cooling system. I remind all my road trip companions of this whenever we travel—that I am as likely to be the beneficiary of pay-it-forward as the provider.
But really, those two pay-it-forward examples are just the pre-amble. Without them, you’d think I’m trying to write a column merely by printing someone else’s email (below). Here’s the real story …
In early March, I received the kind of email that makes you glad you’ve lived your life a certain way. It is reproduced verbatim below.
Hi, Rob. I don’t expect you to remember me, but you saved my butt on the side of the road near BC [Boston College] about 35 years ago.
I was driving my ’76 2002 outside of Cleveland Circle when the engine cut out. I pulled over, opened my hood and started trying to diagnose the issue. I realized fairly quickly that this was not likely to be a “side of the road” kind of repair, and I began to wonder what to do next. I was a broke college student before cell phone ubiquity, so simply calling AAA and waiting for a tow was not an option.
You pulled over a few minutes into my pondering. You got out of your Bavaria, approached me and asked what was going on. I described the symptoms and what I had tried so far. You took a look, had me crank the engine, and almost immediately said I needed a fuel pump. It was near dusk on a weekend, so finding a fuel pump for a ’76 2002 would be really challenging, aside from the fact that I was dead on the side of the road.
Amazingly, you said you actually had a spare fuel pump at your place and offered to swap that one in. You drove me to your home (I believe in Allston/Brighton), got the pump and some tools, and we drove back to my stranded car. You then helped me remove the faulty one and install the replacement. With a quick turn of the oblong key, my car came back to life.
I thanked you up and down and asked what I could do to repay you. You wrote your address on a piece of paper, and said if I could replace your spare fuel pump, we’d be square.
A few days later, I got a new fuel pump and planned to drop that off the following weekend. Then I couldn’t find the piece of paper with your address. I kept the fuel pump in my trunk, and whenever I was in the Allston/Brighton area I’d try to replay the drive to your house in my memory to try and find it. Never found it.
Fast forward all these years and I was looking for an independent BMW shop for repairs to my 2012 X3. Yes, I’ve been a BMW owner consistently since 1985. I went to the BMW CCA website—which I haven’t been to in years—hoping to find a recommendation. In my browsing, I found a post you wrote and immediately recognized your name and photo after all these years. A quick additional search brought me to your website.
So, first of all, thank you for your kindness to a stranded college kid a long time ago. There are many people I’ve helped on the side of the road in the years since, and your example factored into many of these interactions.
Regrettably, my ’76 2002 is long gone, along with the fuel pump still in the trunk. I’d be glad to send you another one if you still want, and most of all I wanted to again thank you for a random act of kindness many years ago. Your act may have had a small impact in the universe, but the ripples remain to this day.
All the best,
No, I did not ask Mr. Mahoney to send me a fuel pump. I rather love the idea that the one that he bought to give to me, and put in the trunk of his now-departed 2002, is still running around in the world, waiting to help someone else.
Oars in the water. Pay it forward. Keep our corner of the world spinning.
Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.
Bro’s being bro’s. I will always attempt to help someone stranded as long as it’s safe.
I agree that this sort of thinking should prevail even among those without shared hobbies/passions, but hey, ya gotta start somewhere! I too have been on both ends of paying it forward, and I know exactly what Rob is expressing – and I like the “oars in spiritual waters” term for it. Finally, I’m glad to have learned what a guibo is, but I doubt I’ll be carrying a spare one around with me… 😁
This is the Way. Zot ha-Torah. Sometimes I wonder if we run old our bangers partly because we know we will break down and need to ask for, and offer, help…
With all respect, as a contraction of “giunto”, the Italian word for “joint”, and inventors name, (Antonio) Boschi, the term “giubo” is pronounced “JYU-bow”. It would have to be spelled “guibo” to arrive at a pronunciation of “GWEE-bo”.
I searched for many years to learn that when I was young, but with the intertubes it’s now easily available.
In the BMW Car Club of America, the 50-year-long tradition is to spell it properly (“guibo”), but to pronounce it “GWEE-bo,” if only because it’s funnier, and because “GEE-bo” and “JEW-bo” sound overly pedantic. Or, it can always just be called a “flex disc,” and the whole matter avoided entirely.
SMH. Please proof-read what you posted And, again with all respect, neither”GEE-bo” or “JEW-bo”, while sounding pedantic, are correct. Need that “y” sound from the “i”. It grates on the ear without it.
And it’s not a disc, is it? A donut, maybe.
I have always known them as “doughnuts”.
I’ll have a Cinnamon Cider old-fashioned, thank you.
…and the bolts that hold it on are called “gozintahs”!
Rob, I discovered some time back that it’s pronounced “Jewbo.” Can’t remember where.
That’s a good story. Love the email back.
Thanks for being you, Rob. Great story. Made my day.
Great story Rob. I’ve been on both sides, and it does feel good either way.
The movie “Pay it Forward” starring Haley Joel Osment was one of the most moving movies I have ever seen and since that day I have never received, or asked for, any means of payment for anybody that I have helped out of a jam. Back in the mid sixties an old high school and Army friend of mine came to stay with us for a one week holiday and after about 3 days asked me if he could borrow my VW Kombi bus to go downtown as it was blocking his car in the driveway. I said sure thing and off he went. Next day I went out to the VW and immediately noticed that my 4 very worn tyres had been replaced with 4 very new tyres. I asked my friend what was the story and he told me that he knew we were battling to survive but had still offered his family holiday accommodation and this was his way of paying for it. About 35 years later the film Pay it Forward came out and it really stuck with me so much so that two years ago my friend developed cancer and dementia, couldn’t earn any money as he was still working part time as a gopher for his daughter, and he and his wife were suffering. Remembering how he had helped me out many years earlier it was now my time so the wife and I have been sending them money on a regular basis for the last two years in order to help them in their time of need. He died three months ago and we are arranging for his wife, my wife’s greatest friend of 65 years, to visit us and stay for as long as she wants, at our expense. Not bragging in any way, just doing what the movie said to me, returning the favour. Thanks Winston and Jennifer.
If you own a vintage car and drive it beyond your own city limits, you quickly learn about the “kindness of strangers” and “pay it forward.” I don’t carry that supply of strategic spares for my 2002 in my trunk just for my own use…
Great story, you gotta love car guys!
I have the good fortune of help my friend Rob Davenport race his dad’s Alfa GTV in vintage races around the country. It is common among vintage racers to share parts, tools, knowledge, labor, whatever you need. Just ask…
Having joined the BMW Car Club in 1964, I’ve experienced the Rob’s of the world countless times. I’m glad he’s shining a light on something I find fairly common. Oars in….
My battery was drained after a day at Infineon Raceway. As I coasted into a gas station in Vallejo, I saw a lowered and blacked out lime green metallic Caddy that could give me a boost. I walked over to the driver’s window and the driver rolled down the window. I asked if he could jump the battery. He gave me the WTH are you asking me look, but popped the hood after some assurance that I could do the thing correctly. Six guys got out of the car and watched as I connected the cables. 10 minutes later I was on the road again only to have the car die again after the merge onto I-80. I was pushing the car down the highway at a jogging pace (when I was much younger), when a triple car trailer stopped and loaded my car. He was a fellow driver at Infineon that day and took me all the way home. Much thanks!
I have limped home with a 2 blade fan after having cut away a third blade opposite from a missing blade a broken 4 blade fan.
Years ago I met a woman at a carwash that owned the same year (1967) Continental as I did. She was the original owner and it was almost pristine. I gave her my card and said I could consult for her if the car needed anything. I ended up managing a total restoration for her. A couple of years later I got a frantic call – they were going to use the car for her daughter’s wedding and they discovered a red puddle when they backed it out of the garage. I said I’d be over (from my Bank job) at lunch. I arrived, asked her for some cardboard to lie on and got underneath in my three piece suit. I discovered a loose clamp on the power steering line and as I was working heard a car pull up. The driver (the other daughter) got out and I saw her feet end up next to my legs. I poked my head out and said “hi, I’m your Mom’s mechanic”. The look on her face was priceless.
THAT is freaking awesome.