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Posts Tagged ‘repairs’

This one’s not about cars. It’s more about bending life into art. Allow me to illustrate:

Soon, yes, and for a time, I am no longer thinking of Grace, but of Maggs. Again. I am sinking into Mavis, tapping with futile distraction at the ABS light, which is taken metaphorically now as a sign always of trouble ahead. And I note, these days, the light is on more often than it is not.

What is Mavis trying to tell me, then? What else could ABS stand for, other than Anti-lock Braking System? Abandon Bull Shit? Yes, that’s promising. Nothing worse than bullshit, is there? All Begins Somewhere? Hmm,… obviously true, but a little too philosophical for me, right now. So, how about: Avoid Bad Sex? The chance would be a fine thing, but actually best avoided completely – the bad, the good, and the mediocre.

From my story: Saving Grace.

Sometimes life imitates art, sometimes life becomes art, or it can be twisted into art. I drive an old car, my protagonist drives the same one and calls it Mavis. This is Mike Garrat, who volunteers at a charity bookshop run by his muse, Margaret (Maggs) Cooper. Throughout the writing of this story, I recall my car was driving me nuts, the ABS warning light coming on then going off again. It’s a common fault on my model of car, once they’re of an age, and is usually the sign of a failing sensor.

ABS means anti-lock braking system, an innovation that prevents the wheels from locking, and therefore skidding, when you hit the brakes hard, so shortening the stopping distance. When the light is on, the brakes still work, but the ABS doesn’t, so you risk coming a cropper in the wet if you slam on at high speed. It’s an MOT failure. So I’d think about taking it to the garage, but then the light would go out, and the car would be fine for weeks, and I’d forget about it, and then it would come on again. I did eventually have it repaired, and it was expensive. I wrote it into the story as a device through which Mavis would caution Mike over the things he was thinking or planning.

I’ve had a good run with mine, but the ABS light came on again this morning so, if I was Mike Garrat – which, fortunately, I am not – I’d be watching my step. Unlike last time, it’s a fairly unambiguous fault, the light staying on all the time. There are four sensors to go at, one for each wheel, but by scanning the engine control unit, you can find out which one’s on the blink. We’re booked in for a repair, and I’m hoping it’s not as expensive as last time. But whatever the cost it’s a lot cheaper than a new car, plus of course mine, ancient as it is, is irreplaceable. And then the longer she’s around, the more she justifies the carbon footprint of her manufacture.

She will eventually bite the dust, of course, and that’ll be a sad day, time to put my open-top roadster days behind me and get a grown up car again. But, like my protagonist, I seem to have conflated the notion of my own mortality with the reliability or otherwise of my car. It’s not a sensible thing to do, and certainly not rational. But threading a willing little roadster over the moors, or the high roads of the Lakes and the Dales on a fine summer’s day is worth all the frustration of ongoing maintenance, and is a dream worth preserving.

Life isn’t art, of course. It’s not an episode from a romantic story, or a movie with a soundtrack. Cars do not talk to people. Neither do the gods talk to people through their cars’ warning lights, any more than they do through other portents, or oracles, unless we choose to let them. So let’s explore the metaphor: Brakes. The brakes won’t work as well as they should. Go easy, then Mike. Not too fast. Don’t push your luck. I was planning a major expense in another area. The car is telling me not to rush into it. Warning duly noted. We’ll park that one for a bit, give it some further thought. I’ve a feeling we were going to do that anyway, but this confirms it. And we’ll also park the car, in the clutter of the garage, while she waits her turn in the workshop.

And since I’m feeling playful, I’m going to spoil Mike Garrat’s story by telling you the ending:

She’s looking a little anxious now, a little unsure of herself, as if her nerve is failing. She’s not ordered anything from the counter. Perhaps it’s just a passing visit, then. Perhaps I should ask her if she’d like something, so I might at least have the pleasure of her company over soup.

Don’t disappear, Maggs. Don’t leave it hanging like this. Let’s work something out.

“Listen,” she says, “I’ve taken that cabin in the Dales for a bit.”

“Cabin?”

You know, Mike. ‘The’ Cabin?

She clarifies: “Our Cabin.”

“Really?” Did she just say ‘our’ cabin?

“I’m going to take some time out, relax, catch up on my reading, you know?”

“Always a good idea to catch up on one’s reading, Maggs. Em,… so,… what exactly are you reading these days? Not another of those dreadful spank busters, I hope?”

She laughs, blushes.”No. Right now I’m reading the Joy of sex.”

“Really?”

“You were right, it’s rather good.”

“Précis it for me. One sentence.”

“Oh,… let me see. Taken in the right spirit, sex can be really good fun.”

“Ha! Nice one.”

“So, speaking of fun,… I thought it might be – well – fun, you know, if you joined me at the cabin, for a bit. Could you,… manage that, do you think?”

“I’m sure I can manage that, yes. “

She sighs, but only I think to cover the tremor in her voice, to steady it. “Lovely.” And then: “I,… I heard you’d built your house at last?”

“Yes. Would you like to see it?”

She nods, dives in, steals my bread roll and takes a bite of it. “Sorry. Starving. I’d like that very much, Mike.”

So, there we are,… a better place to leave it. I’ll be asking her to move in I suppose, eventually, but since we’re still pretending we’re not even in love, that might be a while off. There’s no rush, though, is there? Long game, and all that. But for now,… Cabin, Maggs, Joy of Sex,…

What more could a man ask?

Thanks for listening.

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Hot metal

In Martindale

Scene: An Engineering Industry Training Board Approved Training School, Bolton, some time in the late 1970’s. Scent of cutting oils, and hot metal. Syncopated, rhythmic sound of rotating machinery.

Characters: an occasionally fiery fitting instructor, smelling of pipe tobacco and Johnsons Baby powder, and a reticent seventeen-year-old me.

Action: Mr Mooney is attempting to weld two pieces of steel. I am passing and notice something.

Me, urgently: “Em, Mr Mooney?”

Mr Mooney, dismissive: “Not now, lad, I’m busy.”

Me, more urgently: “But,… Mr Mooney,… Mr Mooney,…”

Mr Mooney, exasperated: “F#ck’s sake, lad, what is it?”

“Your overall’s on fire.”

“What? Oh,…”

Mr Mooney dances, and flaps his arms.

God bless him, Mr Mooney. Skilled as he was in that old-school kind of way, he was never to be trusted around an oxy-acetylene torch. But other than charred overalls, no harm was done, and – albeit indirectly – he taught me much, though not always about Engineering. The Engineering Industry Training Board was a national body that oversaw a year of basic workshop practice for school-leavers – all budding engineers and craftsmen. It’s gone now, and I’ve no idea how the youngsters pick these skills up, though the latter years of my career suggested they were no longer de rigueur for the self-respecting professional who was more likely to be seen plugged into a laptop, attending a virtual meeting, while on the way to another meeting. But if you’ve off-shored your manufacturing, then fair enough, you don’t need what are euphemistically called “vocational skills” any more. Or do you? Well, trying to get my car welded up recently reminds me such skills are indeed still needed, and growing scarce on account of there being no more Mr Mooneys. Of course Mr Mooney would not have been my first choice of welder, for my car, but you know what I mean.

I’ve not spoken about the little blue car for a while. I sense few people are interested in cars, and driving these days. But it’s also partly guilt, I suppose. Cars aren’t a good look when we’re on the cusp of a climate catastrophe, though I would argue my ambitions to keep the old girl going are a valuable offset of the carbon that went in to her manufacture. Also, she takes up a fraction of the room, and the fuel, of an SUV.

Covid has shaken up the makers of microprocessors, which has disrupted deliveries of new cars, which, in tandem with current pressing levels of inflation, has lifted the prices of used cars to improbable levels. So it makes sense to hang on to what you’ve got, and get it fixed when it’s ailing, rather than trading when you get bored with it, unless what you’ve got is a lemon, and we’ve all had one of those. And that’s not an easy call to make.

My little blue car, a 20 year old Mazda MX5, bought second, has turned out to be the cheapest, yet also the best car I’ve ever owned. It’s certainly been no lemon, but they’re prone to rust, especially around the rear sills, and the back wings, and mine’s been needing tidying for a while. A local mechanic was able to make a functional repair of the sills, for MOT purposes, but he admitted anything of a more aesthetic and restorative nature to the bodywork was not really his forte. Unfortunately, he couldn’t name anyone else with the skills who could help. They’ve all gone from round here, he said.

I found an accident repair shop some distance away, and they sounded keen, but then not so keen when they realised welding was what I wanted. Welding like that, they said – meaning fabrication welding – was rare. Most guys doing it had either retired, or gone home, post Brexit.

Go see “So and So”, they suggested. So off I went, even further away, but when I got there the unit he operated from was closed for demolition. So I found another guy, further out, one who restores, among other things, vintage cars, and he said he’d have a go, and lucky I’d called in when I did because he was moving out to somewhere else, even further away.

I’m a little old to be pootling round in an open-top roadster, but there’s much more to the MX5 than meets the eye. If you’re not a motorist, and if you didn’t grow up with cars, you perhaps won’t know what I mean. But cars have a feel to them. They either fit us, or we make do, and mostly we make do because it’s rare to find a car that’s had the time spent on its design, so it’s made to fit how a car’s supposed to fit, and feel when it’s on the road.

I’ve had the little blue car eight years now, longer than I’ve kept any car. I like to walk, but unless I’ve driven out to the start of the walk in the Mazda, the day is not the same. That’s hard to explain, and probably absurd, but it extends the day. You get the walk, but you also get the drive in to a beautiful area, and to top the day off you get the drive back out again. With the top down, you feel the world around you. You smell the air, you hear the birds, and the wind in the trees. There’s talk of this marque becoming a classic, but then they say that about all the old cars. Bottom line, she’s not worth much, but in these strange times, worth keeping going all the same.

So the guy had a good look around her, pronounced her not as bad as I’d feared, explained the repair, the cuts, the welds, the fabrications he’d have to make, the way he’d have to fill certain areas with weld, dress it all back, re-spray, blend,… make it like new. Time he said. It was mostly time and attention to detail. It would cost an arm and a leg, but I was ready for that, and the guy had no scorch marks on his overalls, which further suggested he knew one end of a welding torch from the other. We shook on the deal, which felt odd – the first hand I’ve shaken since the pandemic began. He had gloves on, so I was no risk to him, and I didn’t mind a bit of workshop dirt on my palm. It put me in mind of former times, of Mr Mooney, and the scent of hot metal,…

Thanks for listening.

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accurist 1

It’s above my pay-grade really, this watch, but without me it’s dead. I know its history, and that doesn’t help. Purchased as a twenty first gift by a doting aunt in 1958, it’s seen a man through all the milestones of a long life. But you know how it goes with these old mechanical timepieces? You leave them be if they’re running okay – and it’s been running okay for sixty years – and then they stop.

It could be nothing. A bit of dirt on the escapement. If so, cleaning and oiling will sort it out. The problem is I’m just a tinkerer, some professional skill with machines, but not at this scale. I’ve done watches before, yes, made a hobby of it, so I’m not exactly clueless, but they’re mostly worthless pieces I’ve worked on. The case of this piece is gold, so I’m not expecting a cheap movement inside of it, and I’m right. Hiding, all shy under the balance wheel, the Loupe reveals the distinctive mark of a Swiss ETA.

eta

There are still watchmakers around of course, but they’d want a hundred quid before they’d look at it, those who would even deign to touch it in the first place. I mean an Accurist is a dcent watch, but isn’t exactly an Omega is it?

So the guy was disappointed, hesitated to part with that much money, even though he still clearly valued the watch, would sooner I chanced it, he said, and no blame if I killed it. I mean, after all,… it’s dead already isn’t it?

I enjoy stripping and cleaning old watches, especially the fine oiling and the regulating. It’s a meditation of sorts – the tools, the focus, the dexterity, like Tai Chi in miniature. I’ve years of political stuff to get out my system now after a stunning defeat in the elections, one I don’t see ever being turned around in my lifetime, so I’m turning back to my hobbies for deliverance.

I’ve deleted the news apps from my phone, no longer listen to the BBC. I’ll read a book at lunchtimes at work instead of poring over current affairs online like usual. The new PM can declare nuclear war, the Labour party can appoint whatever bland centerist they like as a leader and I wouldn’t know or care. It’s an over-reaction to a profound disappointment of course, and I’ll get over it, but old watches like this fascinate me, they have character, and history, and this one is easing me back onto my feet.

Except,… I wish it didn’t have to be this particular one because it’s a fine piece and I’m feeling sullied at the moment, lacking confidence. It needs someone more competent.

But what the hell, here goes,…

accurist 3.jpg

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mazda night journey HDR

It doesn’t feel like I’ve had the little blue car for long, but it’s getting on for four years now. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure I’ve had from driving it. I’ve discovered the roads have a sway to them not felt since my motorcycle days, the sunshine is brighter and, top down, the air is a dream of freshness, and all this is to say nothing of the places I’ve discovered with it – especially in the Yorkshire Dales, just a short hop from home, and a place for which the car seems to have been especially built.

For years now the remoter dales have echoed to the burble of its exhaust note, as the little blue car wandered with a tenacious grip and a surprising vigour, given its fifteen years. I’d thought it would last for ever. But then I noticed it was suffering from tin-worm in the back wings, and sills. A previous owner had already patched it, and quite neatly, but the sills are bubbling through again, and I’ve had an advisory on the MOT.

The cost for a decent repair is far in excess of what the car is worth. So at the moment it’s tucked up, looking forward to just one last summer on the road before the breaker’s yard. I couldn’t sell it on without pointing out the work that’s needed, which will surely put any casual buyers off. An enthusiast with a knowledge of welding and body repair might take it on, but at most five hundred quid is what I could, in all fairness, get for it.

Sadly this is the way most old MX5’s go. They are like butterflies, built for warmer, drier climes, not the persistently wet brutality of roads in Northern Europe, nor especially its salt caked winters. Rationally, it makes no sense to invest any more in it. I mean, goodness knows where else the rust might be lurking – the body shop talked of common issues with the forward suspension, further advisories on the MOT and costs in excess of five hundred at some point in the future.

It’s a thing to ponder over winter, and quite sad. She runs well, has only 86,000 on the clock, and might in all other respects have another ten years of pleasure ahead of her, but there we are. All good things must come to an end.

“I’d bite the bullet and get it done, mate,” said the guy in the body shop. “These cars are becoming classics. It’ll be worth it in the long run.”

Nice guy, and an infectious enthusiasm, but he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Oh, I know he’s right, but classic cars are holes in the road you pour your money into. They take all your love and patience, and repay it with an ever more temperamental drift into old age and irritability. But for a short while at least, heaven for me has been a little blue car with a roof you can fold down, and a twist of dales country road warming to dust, under a hot summer sun.

 

 

 

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grumpy at grasmereDave’s presentation is slick, professional, official-looking, but also transparently sham, like Dave’s bling watch. First up the asking price for the Ford Focus Dave is selling is not the actual asking price. I must add £100 in order to cover “administration fees”. This, explains Dave, in a voice that now rings disappointingly dull with rote learning, is for peace of mind. It will yield indemnity against any outstanding finance on the car.

Excuse me? You mean there’s a possibility you may be selling a car that has outstanding finance owing, and to which I will be liable if I buy it? Dave fluffs his next lines, stumbles a little, moves on to another slide:

Unreliable things, cars. They are expensive to repair. Astronomical prices, are charged for every day things like clutches and brakes and cylinder heads. What I need is a warranty. But does the car not come with a warranty, Dave? Is the car likely to be so unreliable I will have need of it? Have you not checked it out in your extensice workshop facilities? Plugged it it into your main-dealer computer what’s-a-ma-gig?

The car comes with a basic and entirely useless three month warranty on engine and gearbox – things that are unlikely to be a problem on a three year old car. This does not inspire much confidence in me. No, what I need, says Dave, is a proper warranty, for which I must add another £500. I do not want this, and tell him so. I tell him I am not interested in any more “extras”.

By now the light is going, the sky clearing further to a cold cobalt. Meanwhile the cars inside the dealership shine beautifully. The sweet, squeaky clean scent of their tyres is exquisite. A sparkly-black Mustang rotates smoothly, soundlessly, on its plinth. This is the higher end of the motor business, and not without its allure. They don’t wear Trilby hats and sheepskin coats in here. They wear nice, business-like suits and learn their patter from highly trained sales-trainers, whose learning in turn is built upon the killer-psychology of Freud.

In a moment, and in spite of my discouragement, Dave will be urging me to have the paintwork of the car protected with a special, armoured gunk – protected against bugs and tree sap. Now, I’ve never had a problem with tree sap. I admit it can be a nuisance, leaving unsightly blobs on the car, but hot water and shampoo generally does the trick in getting rid of it. I wonder if car paint is not what it used to be – I mean if simple washing, or rain will nowadays dissolve it, without resort to this expensive protective coating clap-trap. Dave’s next slide does indeed warn against the perils of tree sap. Protecting against ice-cream on the seats is also, apparently, essential.

By now I have lost track of the extras, but estimate we’re up to about a seven hundred pounds. Do punters so routinely accept such an easy rack up, I wonder, that they should form part of the salesman’s daily patter? I suppose when paying by monthly instalments, on finance, it might not sound like much, an extra twenty quid a month or something, but I am an adherent of Grandma’s Stern Economic Principles – I save up for what I want, and pay cash. To me seven hundred pounds is seven hundred pounds. But punters like me, paying cash, are not that welcome in such high-bling places as this. Why should we be when with a finance deal we’ll pay thousands more for the same car, over the term of the agreement?

And still there is no word on the trade in value for the Astra. I have been at the dealership for an hour now. I’m growing a little tired, and couldn’t care less about the Ford Focus I once fancied any more, have no interest in taking it out for a test-drive as the light bleeds away and we approach rush hour. I am being flim-flammed, polished up for a mug, and I wonder if Dave knows that I know this. Certainly nothing in his patter suggests such a heightened degree of self-awareness. He jabbers on heroically, if still a little woodenly.

Finally, and as if by magic, the trade in value appears on Dave’s computer screen. The offer is £1000. But I have already ascertained from my trusty Autotrader App that £1650 is a fair minimum price. In all good conscience, I mentally deduct £300, knowing a repair on my car is necessary, but Dave and I are still some distance apart. I tell him his offer is too low. So Dave, who is my friend, and doing his best to protect my interests, sets out to tackle his boss again. This takes another ten minutes. More coffee is offered. Refused. The boss comes over.

This is an older guy, late fifties, jowly, crinkly-faced, dark suit, undertaker grey – a mark of his seniority. Certainly, he talks a higher level of tripe than his minion, and at the speed of an auctioneer, talks at me for what feels like an age. I can barely understand his diction – Shakespeare this is not – more Lear possibly, but I have no interest in it, am no longer listening. Instead, I nod politely, wonder if we are heading in the right direction, wish the jowly guy would cut to the quick, because by now I’m seriously wanting a wee. I almost miss the punch-line. Sorry, what was that? The deluge of rapid-fire tripe equates to an extra £50 on the trade in. Did he really think it was worth such an effort? An Oscar nomination perhaps, but £50, please! The insult is accepted, digested. This is business, remember, not personal.

The main-dealer experience is not without its interest, if you’ve the stamina for it – mainly in the observation of unusual human interaction, also the rather unsubtle and amusing psychology of flim-flamming. Perhaps I have become too unplugged over the years to respond normally to this sort of thing, and instead quietly record the absurdities of it in my mental notebook. It may reappear in a future story, whole or part, or maybe just the characters.

But by now I can no longer remember what the Ford Focus I briefly sat in looks or feels like, and I really don’t care. Indeed I feel like I’ve been in prison, subjected to an intense and craftily contrived interrogation. I will be happy if I never see another Fuc*%ng Ford Focus, or a squeaky dealership again.

I shake Dave by the hand, thank him for his time, because it’s business-like and the polite thing to do. Then I walk out into the early evening darkness and freedom. The sky is luminous, beautiful, streaked over by a single orange vapour trail, a planet sits low in the west, a steady white light. A star to guide me home.The Astra starts at the first touch, as it always does. There’s a clatter from the camshafts at low revs while we find our way out of the dealership, but I’m getting used to that now. She warms quickly and settles down to a familiar sedate hum as we motor home, and all without a single warning light on the dash.

In spite of its litany of faults, both past and present I’m feeling it’s still a nice car to drive, this 07 plate Vauxhall Astra, and may be worth hanging onto for a bit longer, even at a venerable 93,000 miles. I just need to bite the bullet and get it fixed. Again.

Never give your car a name. It makes it all the harder to part with.

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