A Car Story

by R. Passov

By the time my father left to do some time, everything of any value had been pawned. What remained were a few stale cigars which led to a serious vomiting fit, and an old Craftsman tool box. If anything entered our small flat, and if it wasn’t a cat or a dog, I’d drag that tool box out from the bottom of a closet.

Not long after my father went away, my paternal grandmother talked the manager of a gas station into giving me a job. For a dollar a day, every now and then I was sent for a tool. Once, a mechanic let me watch as he adjusted the valves on a running engine. The pushrods, he explained, sat on the lifters, one each for intake and exhaust valve. The rocker arms sat on the pushrods. With a valve cover off, the inner workings were exposed: Eight rocker arms, running in a precise rhythm, moving so fast they looked still. 

From experience I learned an engine, if you treat it well, gives rise to a faith your care will be rewarded.

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I treated Jerry’s car well. I had left the trade. He stayed in, becoming a dealer to folks such as Tom Petty. Right up until he got arrested and needed bail money, he was enjoying himself. 

After he got arrested, he came by my flat with a straightforward ask: I should buy his car and pay what he had paid for it new – $2,400. By then, my last year of high school, I was driving the station wagon that belonged to the local liquor store, delivering vodka to old ladies, making just enough to eat. But he didn’t come for my wages. Jerry came for whatever I had left of the life, claiming it in principal, as if saying since it was ill gotten it belonged to him as much as me and he needed it.

So I bought his car, a few years old by then – a 1974 metallic-gold, VW Sun Bug with license plates that read A D Do. In addition to selling coke, which landed him in jail, Jerry also sold Angel Dust. So much Dust he had vanity license plates that played on the name of a plumbing company then running ads on TV.  

Everyone liked Jerry, liked getting dope from him, liked getting high with him. He was small, gently volatile and like Robin Williams, launched into monologues with no idea where he was headed. Watching him search for a landing was addictive.

On the other hand, folks weren’t sure about me. Weren’t sure I should be able to get a new life, scot-free. I made the trade because it was the smart thing to do. I bought Jerry’s car and, before he surrendered to do his ten years, he went around saying I was a standup guy. As a result, I was left alone.

Well, not entirely. After Jerry had been in a few years, his brother came by and said Jerry wanted his plates back.

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I nursed that car, learned to listen so that if the slightest part was too tight or too loose, I knew it and could deal with it. Everything I did to that car was done by a factory-issued screw driver with a shaft that could be flipped from flathead to phillips, a feeler gauge and a wrench. 

When the valves were too quite I’d let the car cool, pop their covers, held tight by a piece of bent metal that could be leveraged free with that screwdriver. Once off, I’d peal the cork seals free and replace them with new ones which I could buy for 25 cents. 

The distributor cap, no longer found on cars, popped free of two side clips, revealing the rotor, also extinct. A wrench, held fast to the crank pulley, easily created enough torque to advance the crankshaft which started a procession, opening and closing first the intake then the exhaust valve of each cylinder.  The movement was a backwards progression through the cylinders – 1 4 3 2.  Each half turn pulled a piston down its cylinder, creating a vacuum that sucked gas from the carburetor, where if you had adjusted it correctly, the right amount of air was added. 

In a running engine, while a rising piston compresses fuel, the rotor, spinning under the distributor cap, aligns with a lead, closing a circuit, sparking the fuel to combustion. Ahead in the firing order, another piston rises, forcing exhaust through the exhaust valve, into the manifold then through the tailpipe.

I listened to that car. Listened to it and felt it, especially once I realized that while I did right buying that car, there was no way out of the trade. I was a boy trying to get to another life, so broke he couldn’t stand the bid ask spread on his car so he spent ten years driving it, ten years pampering the clutch, ten years adjusting those valves, hoping that small, overworked engine would not end its life.  

That day came but not until after I got into UCLA, and after I had let that bug, on Mulholland Dr, high above the San Fernando Valley, drift in a turn. The lady in the station wagon, when she saw me sliding through the corner, slowed keeping herself in the turn long enough for our bumpers to lock, thereby stopping me from sliding over the cliff. 

I ran to her window. The accident was the gift that averted tragedy. Not having words for what I was feeling, when I came abreast of her face I laughed. My inarticulate release of tension was her clockwork orange moment.

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A few years back, at a flea market in upstate New York, I came across the 1963 edition of Motor’s Auto Repair Manuel – 1323 pages of ‘specifications,’ ’service procedures’ and illustrations for every US manufactured car made between 1955 and 1963. It’s a serious book. 

Be especially particular when inspecting the top surface of the inner wall of the bowl around the vacuum piston package. A poor seal at this location may contribute to a “cutting out” on turns complaint. 

To aid in diagnosing the cause of the complaint the carburetor should be carefully removed from the engine without draining the fuel from the bowl. 

…a magnet moved through the fuel in the bowl will pick up and identify any iron oxide dust that may have caused intake needle and seal leakage.

Motor’s Auto Repair Manual 

The needs of machines machines offer opportunities to mix knowledge with experience into a craft that gathers elements of ritual to be handed down, or passed on. 

Mr. Karsten passed something on. A big, powerful German, he ran an auto repair shop walking distance from my high school, spending his days between two open garage bays, nursing Porches and VW’s back to health. Twenty four dollars for a tune up was a lot of money back then but I was a hostage: My VW had to last until I finished college. Anything else meant ruin.  

There was a group of boys in the Valley that liked to take cars that didn’t belong to them. A favorite place to hunt was the parking lot for pilots and stewards at the LA airport. It could be a while before an owner knew their car was gone. One of those boys took a Porsche 912 to Mr. Karsten for engine work and a new clutch. A handful of us knew who that boy was and that he took the car off Mr. Karsten’s lot without paying. 

Of course Mr. Karsten knew what we knew and could have went looking for the thief. There were other shops in the Valley, run by small men competing for the same customers and there was no doubt about how any of them would have gone about getting that car back. But Mr. Karsten just took it, bigger than any of us, wiping grease off those menacing hands, speaking slowly in stilted German-accented English as if an affectation reminded him to be gentle.

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All ignition systems work off of the same principals – a battery supplies current; ignition wiring carries that current to units within the system; an ignition switch controls the circuit; an ignition coil increases the voltage delivered to the spark plugs; a distributor distributes the current to each cylinder; spark plugs ignite the fuel in each cylinder.

Motor’s Auto Repair Manual

When I told him I was going to college and broke, Mr. Karsten shared the finer points of a tune-up, even how a small piece of sand paper could extend the life of spark plugs. 

If I had bored out my cylinders to make room for larger pistons and installed a four barrel Holly carburetor, then Mr. Karsten said I’d likely need a timing light to insure my distributor was sending charge ahead of the cylinder filling with fuel. Since I had neither the funds or desire for such modifications, I could set timing by hand-turning the crank pulley until a notch aligned with a timing mark scratched into the crankcase of the engine. My VW ran for ten years, without needing a valve job or a new clutch.

The normal color of points should be a light grey…  Black contact surfaces are usually caused by oil vapor or grease from the cam… while if blue, the cause is usually excessive heating due to improper alignment…

If the contacts develop a creator or depression on one point and a high spot of metal on the other, the cause is an electrolytic action transferring metal from one contact to the other. This can be the result of some unusual operation of the vehicle. A slow speed driver in city traffic or door-to-door delivery vehicles will be one extreme and high speed long distance driving would be the other extreme.

Motor’s Auto Repair Manual

I traveled a far distance on simple but hard-to-extract wisdom. On the very last day that I would live in LA, my Sun Bug died. I called Mr. Karsten and told him what garage it had been towed to. He bought it from me for $500, a good deal for both of us.

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The middle dial on most dashboards – the tachometer – measures RPMs (revolutions per minute.) In one minute of idling, a 4 cylinder engine rotates its crankshaft about 1,200 times, driving four pistons through a cycle (technically, through half a cycle in a ‘four-stroke’ engine), 600 times compressing fuel into an explosion, 600 times forcing exhaust through the manifold.

To drive a machine asks something of you and is best done with a feel for it’s center of mass as well as for the engine. I suppose we’ll get an analogous feel for electric cars, or perhaps not. Perhaps EVs will turn driving into what, in such a short time, commercial air travel has become – something so unimaginably far from its beginnings.

I’m not nostalgic for engine work. Nor am I nostalgic for internal combustion engines. But, I miss the opportunity to diagnose and then heal something comprised of moving parts. That experience is going extinct.