Yesterday was my day off, and by “day off” I of course mean, “day in which I work my ass off sans remuneration”. No doubt this’ll strike a chord with those of you who also have older houses with plenty of, uh, character.
It was a day no thumbs would die by accidental hammer-blow: there was work to be done on the car, and they don’t call me “Spanner” McAleer just because I’m a bit of idiot. Actually, maybe they do – well anyway, to arms!
Nothing too complicated, you understand, merely a double down-pipe swap. On an automotive scale, compared to Murilee’s Impala Saga, this is about as difficult as putting on a hat.
BC’s emissions testing requirements – which have been just about to get cancelled for going on over a decade now – are a bit strict about not fiddling with your factory exhaust system. One does not simply drive into Mordor in a 300+ hp Subie and hope to renew one’s insurance. So, back to stock, and then back to not-stock.
To be honest, I’m a bit excited, and also slightly nervous. Perhaps you’ve met my co-worker, Mr. Frank Ulrich Bartholomew Arthur Richard Murphy? Whenever I get my toolbox out, he gets his toolbox out too, and sure enough one of the five 14mm bolts holding the bell-housing onto the turbo turns out to be a cast-iron bitch.
Therein lieth the challenge. Doubly so because this is not some project car that I can leave lying open on the operating table. We’re a single car family – hence the Swiss Army Knife of a WRX wagon – and the patient needs to have its intestines shoved back in, be sewn up and be back ready to ferry my wife to work upon the morrow. The clock is ticking, let’s go.
Like all would-be mechanics, I served an apprenticeship in my youth, starting with holding the trouble-light. Remember that? It was probably the first useful thing you could do for Dad, then followed by passing him wrenches and – in my case – any of a selection of hammers and mallets, the largest of which we referred to as Excalibur. As in, “It’s stuck. Hand me Excalibur.”
We did a lot of work together, Dad and I, and before you get too invested in some bucolic scene of father and son labouring side-by-side in near-telepathic harmony, I should point out that these were British cars. If ever there were experts at creating dissent between two Irishmen, it’d be the Brits.
“Will ye for f—‘s sake hold the God-damned humpy hoor steady, ye spastic God-scoursed eejit!” “I am!” “No you’re God-damned not, ye great clatter of bollocks. Quit flapping yer hole and pay some f—ing attention!”
It was, I imagine, a lot like asking two R-rated Captain Haddocks try to co-operate at neurosurgery. Even today I can cram the equivalent of four Roddy Doyle novels of invective into a single sentence.
Under the Subaru, more cursing.
Why is it that even if you protectively shut your eyes while turning a bolt underneath a car, the small shower of rust only falls when you open them? And why must there always be one fastener that can’t be reached unless you lay your bare forearm directly on some sizzling portion of exhaust header? These are not problems that the average crossword enthusiast or jigsaw-puzzlist has to endure.
And yet, it wouldn’t be the same without them. It’s a whole different world underneath a car once you get the skid-plate off; who among us has not marvelled at the complexity while resting your arms after a half-hour struggle with some stubborn bolt? Particularly true if you’ve ever been underneath an ’80s turbocharged car: vacuum lines designed by M.C. Escher, fashioned by Gordias Knot, assembled by Biff Pinhole.
You don’t see much of this in a more modern car. Pop the hood on a Nissan Maxima, and the swathes of plastic cladding might as well be labelled, “Here be dragons. Hands off!”
There was a time when knowing the basics of mechanical repair was just a matter of course. When you could lift the hood and identify all the major components, diagnose, and repair them in your driveway.
That time is fading, near gone. Once, we all did our own oil-changes. Now, half the cars on the road have improperly inflated tires. As in every facet of our lives, we know less and less about more and more.
The complexity of the machines we rely on for transportation approaches Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That which we do not understand, we cannot appreciate. That which we do not appreciate, we do not love.
And so, in the not-too-distant future, perhaps an end for this irrational fascination with what’s essentially an extremely dangerous appliance. To the fella that thinks a manifold is some kind of origami instruction, how do you explain attributing a soul to a three-thousand-pound amalgam of steel, glass and rubber?
For now though, the Subaru is back together, with a little more of myself invested in her – I’m speaking literally here: skinned most of my knuckles. Changed the oil too, while I was at it, and I’d swear she was running better. Happier even?
We’re lucky, you and I. We were born in the late Cretaceous period, but in a time when it’s still okay to love these wheeled leviathans. Even when the metaphorical asteroid hits, we’ll be able to keep a few pet dinosaurs on the road as projects, or classics, or memorabilia.
I come inside and place my ruined, dirty hands on my wife’s belly, and feel my unborn child kick. What will she – or he – know of cars? Will she share her father’s obsession?
One thing’s for sure: we probably won’t tell her mother about the cursing lessons.