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Running repairs

Steve Snodgrass

We have a habit of keeping our cars for a long time, until repairs get too expensive. I have a natural affinity for old cars, having owned and repaired a lot of them. They may have a few mechanical problems, but until computers were introduced, there was nothing that could not be understood and easily fixed. Now the smallest problem, like a stuck window or a warning light, requires a visit to the dealer with his expensive diagnostic machinery.

Old cars and old people have certain things in common. We are mechanically and stylistically out of date, and should probably be scrapped, but we keep going. We may be close to our maximum designed mileage, but we can still be fixed.

The problem, with senior citizens and senior cars is that repairs don’t improve our image. People buy new cars because of their design, and the flashy brand name that (they imagine) will attract the admiration of people with simple minds. But cars these days are all much the same mechanically, with different bodywork designs arranged on essentially identical platforms. I could imagine, and sometimes do, that my ordinary sedan is a Lamborghini in disguise. People are no different. The basic design of the human body is always and everywhere the same. If you want people to admire it you have to drape your commonplace platform with expensive designer stuff.

In the universal competition for social prestige, it’s appearance that matters. If I gave my old car a brand-new engine she would still look exactly like an old car. If I had a heart transplant, my outer appearance would be completely unimproved. This makes it hard to justify the expenditure or the effort. There’s nothing for people to see and admire, no status advantage.

I just spent time in a hospital for some minor repairs — nothing as important as a new engine or gearbox. I hesitated for a long time before deciding to invest in this invisible patch-up job. The cost-benefit equation seemed all wrong. But my wife was kind enough to say that I was worth one more trip to the repair shop.

In the process I experienced very much what the old car goes through down at the local garage: intensive testing to find the problem, tentative diagnosis, the search for spare parts, covert consultation of the manual in the back room and finally being rolled into the repair bay. I must say I was treated carefully by the professional staff, who were much cleaner, better looking and more caring than your average motor mechanics.

You can argue, and I often do, that at some point repairs to an old car become uneconomical and ridiculous, and it’s the same with people. On the other hand, new cars are expensive, as are new babies. There’s something to be said for extending the life of an old clunker, as long as it’s useful for something.

Also — and this occurred to me only later, after the anesthetic wore off — an elderly car that is carefully maintained and regularly patched up for many years eventually undergoes a transformation. By sheer survival, just because it is so dated inside and out, it becomes a classic. Other drivers admire it in the street, and its value goes way up. I’m hoping that my time will come.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.