I’m in a bit of an automotive funk lately.
I’ve mused about similar topics before, but lately I feel very down on the current and future state of the car. The feel, the fun, and the personality all seem to be gone from the kinds of cars normal people buy. I find it hard to identify with what I see and feel in the showrooms. They feel more like appliances, less like appendages.
My current Civic (a ’14 LX 5-speed) is a perfect example. It is a very good car, but it is the most boring thing I’ve ever driven on a regular basis. I’ve done some little things in an attempt to improve that (a sway bar, some exterior modifications, etc.), but honestly, it doesn’t matter how much sugar you put on shredded wheat cereal — it still tastes like sweetened cardboard. It used to be that when you bought a cheap Civic, what made it inexpensive also made it good. Somehow it was more real, more tangible. It sounds weird to say, but they’ve made it too good.
The balm for my irritated sensibilities, once again, is my trusty old Volvo. It spent the winter in the garage, in part because I didn’t want to clear snow from two cars during the messy season, but mostly because it was past due for a timing belt and I didn’t want to do the job in the cold. When March rolled around, though, I jumped in.
There are certainly more ideal spaces in which to do a complicated job: mine is a one-car garage in a townhouse row, so it is small to begin with. The side walls are further lined with tools, spare parts and many things I don’t have room for inside (we don’t have a basement), so the space is, to put it charitably, tight. The lights also aren’t ideally positioned, so it is really hard to see what one is doing when under the hood. To top things off, the weather cooled to a tepid 45 degrees on my chosen weekend. I probably could have waited for a better time, but where would the fun be in that?
I had to remind myself of that question when, 7 hours later, it still wasn’t back together. I struggled throughout the day with all the usual older car issues: stubborn stuck-on gasket material, tight bolts, and old rubber hoses. All of that I expected. What really got me frustrated was the cam gears. Even with a special tool to keep them from moving, they popped forward every time I tried to put the belt on. When I finally thought it was all aligned, I rotated the engine by hand twice, only to find the crank half a tooth in front of the cams.
Every muscle ached from working on the cold concrete floor and I knew that I was wound so tight that eventually impatience would lead me to do something imprudent. So with some reluctance I shut off the light and left it alone. I came back a few days later and, with a renewed sense of patience (and, if I’m honest, after watching quite a few YouTube videos on the subject), I attacked it anew. The gears still gave me a fight, but eventually everything lined up.
I drove that Volvo like it was made of hand-blown glass for the next two days, checking for leaks after every trip to the store and treating the gas pedal like a delicate flower petal. When the time came for my wife and I to take a road trip to my alma mater about a week later, I was confident, but a little nervous.
I needn’t have been. The car was great and, on the way back, I finally allowed myself to feel a sense of satisfaction. Somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike we passed a Porsche Panamera and it occurred to me that, at that moment, I would rather be in that 18-year-old Volvo 850 than pretty much any other car — even a much newer, high-priced, high-performance tourer. I genuinely felt like I was in the better car.
That moment brought in to focus the answer to a question that I asked in a previous article — one that has plagued me for the last several years, really — what does it take for me to love a car? Turns out the answer is pretty simple: a car I love is a car in which I see a bit of myself. Right now there is more of me in that Volvo than any car I’ve ever owned.
It sounds cliché, but there really are few things more satisfying than a job well-done, especially if the job is challenging. If you’re reading this article, on this site, chances are you have a few automotive projects in the back of your mind. Go do them. Working through a physical problem will help to clear your head. Working on a car just makes you feel better.