The Apprentice

by Rick Kopec (8/19/09)

If you’re a car guy, it’s hard to say when you first became aware of the pleasure that mechanical things bring. It’s a little different for everyone, and all I have to explain it are my own experiences, but they’re probably as good as anyone else’s. The time frame which helps to explain my perspective is that I am a baby boomer. I was born in 1947, a couple of years after my old man returned from WWII in Europe. He worked in a factory and eventually became a skilled tool-and-die maker. He was always handy around the house. Actually, it was a low-income apartment first, but we moved into the suburbs when I was five, onto our own quarter-acre plot. Two bedrooms with an unfinished attic and a one-car garage. The old man surrounded it all with a stonewall on two sides and a line of thick shrubs on the other two. Good fences make good neighbors.

My earliest toys were trucks, tractors and a steam shovel. I couldn’t even pronounce the name but I have a picture of myself sitting on the top of this oversized toy, manipulating the boom and scoop with my arms out in front of me. I’m told there was a housing project going up across the street and I would either sit on the front stoop or watch out the window every day as the heavy equipment moved the earth to make construction possible. Graders and dump trucks, bucket-loaders and bulldozers. I can still recall the straight-up exhaust belching thick, black diesel smoke and the little flat cap on top of the pipe, flapping as pulses of exhaust made it jump. My first book was “The Big Book of Earth Moving Equipment.” It was an over-sized picture book and each page carried a color illustration of something I learned to identify by sight: a dump truck, a steamroller, a gooseneck trailer.

There were always tools in our garage and when I got a little older I would watch the old man fixing things or building things. It seemed like there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. I learned what a screwdriver was and how it was used; the difference between a claw hammer and a ball peen hammer. How open-end wrenches were sized and how each one only fit a certain nut and bolt. When he wasn’t around I would take things apart, under the guise of “fixing” them, but as I recall, he was the one who had to put them back together. I was intrigued by how things worked; gears, axle shafts, nuts and bolts held my interest for hours. He rarely threw anything away and there was a large wooden box in the garage full of all kinds of parts and pieces; orphan components from things that could not be made to work but which were too good to throw away and might be useful in the future. This was a toy box that fascinated me for hours on end. I have one in my garage today.

I remember playing with Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs. I had an Erector Set (although it was never the big one). And Lionel trains. It was a starter set with a pathetically small, square, black transformer that would overheat after a couple of hours, start smoking, and fill the living room with an acrid smell. The old man would quietly step in, unplug it, and put it outside on the back porch to cool off. The huge, top-of-the-line transformer with two big orange levers was always a Sears catalog dream that was never realized.

The old man wasn’t a car enthusiast by any stretch. To him, a car as a method of transportation and if you took good care of it you wouldn’t have to walk. The tools in the garage were used on the car—but only to keep it running smoothly. Modifications and aftermarket parts were heresy. His philosophy was, “If it didn’t come on the car when it was made, you don’t need it.” This would lead to an all out war when I turned 16 and finally got my first car. There were early indications of trouble brewing when I began using his tools to modify my bicycle. The straight pipe I installed on the lawnmower’s exhaust in place of the muffler caused some trouble when the neighbors complained. But they were mere skirmishes compared to the “Battle of the Tachometer.” More about that some other time.

My uncle Russ, my mother’s sister’s husband, was a car guy. He was the real deal. You could see his fingerprints because he always had grease in the whorls and crevasses. And under his fingernails. It seemed like every time I saw him he was driving something different. And he could fix them all. He had to, because I never saw him with a new car. Heck we didn’t get a new car until 1962. It was a Mercury Meteor four-door stick-six, Pacific Blue (which I later discovered was the same as Ford’s Guardsman Blue). I was 13 and it would eventually be the car I used to get my license. Russ had two daughters and if any father deserved a boy it was he. He had boats, motorcycles and the first riding lawnmower I ever drove. At one point he showed up with at our house with a go-kart. I used any excuse I could think of to spend time with him and as I got a little older (into my early teens) we became constant companions. I became the son he never had. He took me to car shows, drag races, sports car races, gymkhanas and autocrosses. We went to Bridgehampton and slept in his car. He eventually traded something for an Austin Healey bug-eye Sprite that soon sported a homemade roll bar, a Weber carburetor and a raspy exhaust. His brother owned a Corvette and they belonged to the same sports car club. It seemed like there was something going on just about every other weekend. When there was, we were there.

Russ had a never-ending supply of car magazines. He read everything from the small Custom Rodder and “Spotlight” magazines to Hot Rod and Car Craft, Sports Car Graphic, Motor Trend, Road & Track and Car and Driver. He read them all, every month, with Popular Mechanix and Popular Science thrown in for good measure. I thought Gus’ “Model Garage” was real. Of course, all of these magazines would eventually float downstream to me. I read them all, cover to cover, and my bedroom looked like the Collier Brothers’ apartment because I wasn’t able to toss any of them away.

Hanging around other car guys couldn’t have seemed more natural. All of Russ’ friends had neat cars and stories that could fill an evening. They were all older and as an apprentice, I quickly learned to shut up and listen. And not to voice an opinion on matters I knew very little about (column shift vs. floor shift; lightweight imported sports cars vs. heavier American V8s; drag racing vs. road racing; carburetors vs. fuel injection). This was the time to stand on the sidelines, listen and learn. It was an education not available in school. More than anything, I wanted to be taken seriously. Ok, make that to have my license and be taken seriously.

These older guys seemed to have it all. They had large toolboxes overflowing with sockets, power bars and all types and sizes of wrenches. And they were covered with speed decals. They were like a world traveler’s steamer trunk or suitcases, which were plastered with decals representing the places he had visited. Their garages were like museums full of parts: spare parts, extra parts, broken parts; things that didn’t work, wouldn’t work or never worked. And there was a story behind each one. There were stacks of wheels and tires. The walls were covered with shop memorabilia: old license plates, calendars, posters, pit passes, stickers, and photographs with curled corners. Everything was hung, nailed, stapled, taped or glued at random. There was no organization or thought given to placement, and it looked cool. “Maybe someday I’ll have a garage like this…” I would think. There was a lesson there: if you have to try to be cool, you’re not. Think Steve McQueen.

There is a rhythm to life that is not always obvious. In your 20s you lust after things. A cool car—maybe a Cobra or a street rod; a big chest of tools; a loud Harley or a speedboat. You can't afford any of these things and you are aware of yourself watching enviously, as those 40-somethings and 50-somethings with all the toys appear to be having all the fun—without half trying. If you’re lucky and you’ve been a good apprentice, going for things without being asked and generally being agreeable, you sometimes get invited along on road trips. Maybe it’s a weekend at the races. Did you ever notice how most older vintage racers have at least one young guy on their crew who is not a relative? He’s the apprentice and he’ll gladly pay his own way to be there. But if he’s a good apprentice his expenses will be taken care of. It’s one of those “pay forward” deals. Your older mentor picks up your tab and you repay it by picking up the tab for the apprentice who hooks up with you 20 years down the road.

In your 30s, you start accumulating some of the stuff that is so important. A roller cabinet under your tool chest. A project motorcycle is rolled into the garage. Valve covers show up hanging from nails in the rafters. It comes to you a little at a time. The place doesn’t fill up overnight but it’s the beginning. You start building your empire of possessions.

In your 40s you really start gathering the toys and an understanding wife is an asset. The quality improves; lots of chrome and cast aluminum, and shelves to put the stuff on. You now have room to put everything: multiple garages... outbuildings... a storage garage. Downstairs is a playroom with all the bells and whistles; maybe a pool table, a juke box, a big flat screen and stuff all over the walls. And lots of autographs. Maybe there’s a tow vehicle and an enclosed trailer outside. And a motorcycle and two or a boat—or at least a wave runner. You’ve worked hard and done well and you’re starting to feel the rhythm. And an apprentice has found you. He’s a nice guy; very likeable and easy to get along with. It doesn’t hurt that he looks up to you.

You’ve sailed into your 50s and you have amassed most of the "stuff" you thought you needed. It doesn’t get any better. But you begin to get a peek at the downside. The more successful you’ve become and the more stuff you’ve accumulated, the steeper the downside. One day it begins to dawn on you that your hobbies are a lot of work. It may be neat to have five cars but riding herd over them is a chore nobody told you about. You have to keep them all registered and insured. And they have to be maintained. You have to keep them secure and they have to be exercised. That usually means moving them around because if you have five cars, rarely do you have five doors. It dawns on you that you've become the equivalent of a yard-boy at your own dealership. You have gradually become a slave to your possessions.

When you enter your 60s you start divesting. Unloading. Selling off. If it comes to it, giving some stuff away that you know, deep down, you’ll never really use. You’ll notice that no one equal to your age or older will take anything from you. They're too smart to accept even the good stuff because they are also trying to divest themselves of their own possessions. This is a good time to find your apprentice.

If you still consider yourself a car guy by the time you reach 70, you’re probably down to two cars: a new one that is a daily driver and another new one as your hobby car—maybe a new Ford GT or an ‘08 GT500KR. Something with a warranty that you can drop off at the dealer and let them handle a problem because working on your own cars just isn’t fun anymore… even if you could understand their computer systems. You go the big auctions—Scottsdale or Monterey—not to buy but to watch others experience the thrill of the hunt. Not too many seventy year-olds are buying musclecars or sports cars at this point in their lives. They’ve already been there and done that.

You’ve cleaned out your garage and most of that stuff that used to cover the walls in your playroom—the posters, pictures, original artwork and those sculptures you just couldn’t live without—are gone. And you know what? You're happier than you’ve ever been. Now you have the time to do the things you never had time for. You can go to a swap meet or auction without once wondering if you are about to pay more than something is worth, or where you will put it when you get it home. You have the freedom to enjoy your hobby without any of the downsides. Why didn’t you realize this twenty years ago?

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