March 2022


Car sick

By Robert Skinner
When the satisfaction of being your own mechanic turns to the unease of driving a car you have put together yourself

When the car was delivered, Melbourne was in lockdown again. Or still. I was busy having another one of the world’s most boring dreams. One night I’d dreamt that I was asleep, but in slightly cleaner sheets. (They weren’t; I checked.)

The premier, Dan Andrews, had just closed playgrounds across the city, to punish everyone for an engagement party that had breached health orders south of the river. Politically, it was hard to know what to hope for: the state government was all stick and no carrot; the Opposition couldn’t even find the donkey. But promises had been made regarding the lifting of lockdown, and I was getting vaccinated twice a week to try to bring the state numbers up.

As soon as the 5-kilometre travel limit was removed I planned to start driving. And when I hit sand (it was a four-wheel drive) I planned to keep going.

That was as far as I’d considered; it was not a time for dreaming big. One night, my housemate Kyrié dreamt that she’d bought a jar of chilli paste for the house. The next morning, she opened the fridge and discovered, with horror, that she had. “Man, my brain’s not even imagining things anymore, it’s just remembering the highlights from yesterday.”

Different cars have different personalities. My friend Bede had a 1992 Toyota Corolla that had been rusting in a corner of his yard for more than a year. When he had to move house, we set aside two days to get it up and running again. To our disappointment, all we had to do was fill the radiator from a garden hose, turn the key, and the car roared back to life. It took off down the laneway trailing fairy lights. True, it wasn’t much of a stopper, but it was a goer. That car might forget your name, might forget everything else, but it would never forget how to drive.

This car was a 2003 Mazda Bravo. When the delivery driver reversed it off the truck, it blew huge clouds of smoke. Even once he was safely out and handing over the keys and paperwork, he kept glancing back at it, as you might in the company of a troublesome horse.

I shook out the mats, then began making small repairs that were in the realm of my mechanical knowledge: fixing the headlights, changing the glow plugs. Mechanical work is such a relief from creative work. At the end of a day, something is either fixed or it’s not. You don’t stand there looking at a gearbox thinking, Yes, but is it me?

I found I could while away hours at some small task, like a man digging his way through a prison wall with a spoon. I spent a whole evening with a torch and a telescopic magnet trying to extricate a bolt from the engine bay. True, it wouldn’t have needed doing if I hadn’t dropped it down there myself three days earlier, but try telling that to my sense of satisfaction.

On a good day, I would describe its colour as bronze. On a bad day, beige. It was not love at first sight, as it had been with Bede’s Corolla. More like a wary cohabitation. I couldn’t get a proper read on it. It was like a song coming through with too much static. Maybe because I hadn’t seen it in its natural habitat – it should have been bouncing along a bush track, not rotting away in lockdown like the rest of us. Maybe also because it still had the previous owner’s greasy fingerprints on it. And it had started making clunking noises.

(The car, for its part, had probably felt me fiddling amateurishly with its driveshaft and wasn’t sold on me, either.)

Sometimes you’re too close to something to properly tell. My friend Alex lived nearby. He sent me an excited text: Is that your 4WD out the front?!? Then he sent the photo. It was my housemate Lucas’s, a Troop Carrier.

No mate, mine’s the brown one directly behind it. You walked past like it was chopped liver.

One morning, Kyrié and I drove into town for PCR tests. She told me that when she was younger, she had blown a head gasket in her car and tried to ignore it and keep driving, even as smoke poured from the engine and people (mostly men of a certain age, who were often accused of treating their bodies in the same way) yelled at her to Pull over! Pull over!

“Did you make it?”

“Yeah! Well, sort of. I drove it to the dealership and traded it in for a bicycle.”

We made it, too. The tests came back negative. We were, it turned out, merely hungover and depressed.

Some people bang on about how lockdowns provide an opportunity for “reflection”. That may have been true of the first one, but by the time the fifth and sixth lockdowns rolled over us, there was nothing left to reflect on. So you would end up deconstructing yourself, or unravelling, and I wasn’t about to try that again, so I learnt to deconstruct the car instead.

My repairs became increasingly ambitious, to the point where the car was so often in pieces that I rarely got to drive it. It was my hope that if I changed every part myself, I might finally understand it.

Then suddenly, and somewhat inconveniently, lockdown was lifted. I was expected back in Adelaide.

Removing a driveshaft days before you’re due to arrive in Adelaide does not, I admit, sound like the behaviour of someone who really wants to go to Adelaide. But I did want to. (I think.) The closer I got to departure, the more disarray the car and I were in. It turns out any idiot can take out a driveshaft. The hard part is getting it back in.

A single bolt, like a well-placed bureaucrat, can ruin everything. It was possibly the least consequential bolt in the whole car, but it was stuck and it had ground everything to a halt. Like a demented king, I stayed up late obsessing about it and ordering things online, so that the next day the streets were filled with delivery vans racing around the city trying to bring me various tools pertaining to the removal of this bolt.

By the time I drilled it out (and replaced the u-joints and re-installed the driveshaft), there was no time to take the car for a proper test drive. I loaded it up and headed towards Adelaide.

I have described the zen-like satisfaction of fixing things: of taking them apart, cleaning the components and laying them carefully aside for future reassembly. But there is also the distinctly un-zen-like experience of driving in something you have put together yourself. It all makes perfect sense when you’re disassembling it. It’s only once you’re on the main road that you realise you were in no way qualified to put it back together again.

I edged the car up to 60 kilometres an hour, and it still seemed okay. I turned onto the highway and approached 80, clenched against the expectation of a driveshaft spinning out of control and crashing through the underside of the car. I pushed it towards 90 and all of a sudden I could smell something like burning toast. Oh God, what’s wrong now? But it was just me, having a series of tiny strokes from the stress.

People in Melbourne had long since given up on the idea of emerging from lockdowns like butterflies from a chrysalis. When I was in high school, my friend’s mum rescued some battery hens and released them into a huge and beautiful yard. They were so daunted by all that space that they ran straight over to the fence, sat down and stuck their necks through the wire. We were more like those chickens.

When I got to Adelaide, I couldn’t think of anything to do other than hang out at my parents’ house and take the car apart again, in preparation for the drive back to Melbourne.

This time I had my dad to help. Together, we tried to solve what seemed like a simple problem: the 4WD-mode light kept coming on when it shouldn’t and turning off when it should. But the deeper we dug, the more baffled we became.

“No wonder you can’t discern the car’s true spirit,” said my dad. “It’s all… mucked up inside.”

We began running tests. I crawled around under the car, plugging and unplugging things, while my dad called out the readings from the multimeter.

“You should be writing this down,” he said.

It wasn’t necessary: I had developed highly sophisticated mnemonic techniques for this sort of thing. But sometimes it’s easier to humour your parents. So, we ran tests, and I made a big show of recording the results in a notebook.

The next day, my dad had taken apart the module that controlled the 4WD/2WD system and was testing it on his bench.

“What reading did we get on the indicator switch?” he asked.

Who could possibly know such a thing?

“We tested it yesterday.”

We did? I flicked through my notes. “Indicator switch… indicator switch…” Aha! “Yeah – it works.”

“What was the reading?”

“Um…” I held the notebook closer. “It just says ‘Indicator switch’ and then a big tick.”

The more I learnt about cars – this one in particular – the more I’d discover about the character of the previous owner (and/or the previous owner’s mechanic), and the depths of their nitwittery. Sometimes it bordered on vandalism. Normally, when you look underneath a newly purchased car and find a recently installed part you think, Great! I won’t need to replace that for a while… But with this car it was always, Oh God, what’ve they done now?

There were parts installed without seals, wires going to nowhere, glow plugs snapped off in the engine head. It appeared that when they couldn’t get something working (which was most of the time) they had a tendency to… well, I won’t go into the mechanics of it, but it was in the same spirit as a former housemate who, when the bowls of half-eaten porridge in her room started developing mould, tried to solve the problem by covering them in Glad Wrap.

It was with equal parts relief and dismay to realise I was not the worst thing to have happened to this car.

The repair manual and the wiring diagrams kept talking about an RFW switch, which was integral to the whole thing and which we couldn’t find anywhere.

Then, one night, I jerked awake. Like a good detective, I had begun to understand the mind of my adversary. I crept outside with a torch and discovered that, after trying and failing to get the switching system working, the previous owner had screwed a radio over the top of it. I unscrewed the radio, and nestled underneath it was the switch, with the letters RFW. I was triumphant and outraged, began sputtering. “You just… you just don’t treat a car like that. Have some respect!”

What had gone wrong? I used to be like young Kyrié, driving along with a smoking head gasket. Now I was one of the concerned citizens trying to flag her down.

There was still one job to do (not counting the long list of other jobs that I was trying not to think about): I had to change out a warning light on the dash. Decades ago, my dad had gone bush with a 1969 Toyota LandCruiser (in the back seat of which I remember bouncing around as a kid). It was designed so that you could take the whole thing apart with a 14-millimetre spanner. There was so much room, he said, that you could practically stand in the engine bay while you were working on it.

Fast forward a few years, and, judging by the repair manual, changing a light in this car’s dashboard looked like it was going to take about six hours. I would have to take off all the trim, remove the stereo system, disassemble the steering wheel…

I was so philosophically opposed to the job that I was beset with a great weariness. I could barely hold the spanner. My dad came in and found me catatonic on the couch.

“You have to disassemble the steering wheel?” he said. “What a load of bullshit.”

He disappeared into his shed and came back 20 minutes later with an LED bulb that he’d rigged up.

“Here you go,” he said, “when this is on, your wheels are locked.”

After hugging my parents goodbye, I turned onto the highway – that long stretch of road connecting my family to my friends.

I came down from the Adelaide Hills in a long sweeping curve. The car was loaded with tools. As long as one of three very specific things went wrong, then I would be able to fix it, but for now it was running beautifully. The borders had lifted and a trickle of traffic was coming from the other direction. The roads were open. And shrunken dreams could spread out once again across the plains.

Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner was born and raised on the Adelaide Plains. He is now based in Melbourne.

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