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At least one of these tools is very expensive. (Peter Cheney)
At least one of these tools is very expensive. (Peter Cheney)

Road Rush

Let's hope my wife doesn't read this story Add to ...

The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. All right then: I’m Peter Cheney, and I’m a Gear-A-Holic. I am powerless over machinery.

I looked around my workshop a while ago and realized that I have probably spent the equivalent of several university educations on cars, racing gear, mechanics tools, metalworking equipment, hang gliders, model helicopters and a full-size, two-passenger airplane that is, at least for now, a collection of partly-built aluminum components that my wife doesn’t know the actual price of. (Or at least I hope.)

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Being a Gear-A-Holic isn’t easy. Deception is your mantra. You pay cash. You hide the bank statements. My airplane kit (which consists of only the tail, so far) is out in the garage, with the most expensive-looking parts hidden away in a process that is probably not unlike the one that Keith Richards once used to conceal his drug stash. (If my wife realized that the little silver device in the top drawer of my toolbox is actually a pneumatic aircraft rivet squeezer that cost over $700, there could be some trouble.)

Such is the life of the Gear-A-Holic.

Since you are reading the automotive section, there is some chance that you are a fellow mechanical junkie who has spent the price of a Toronto home on machinery that depreciates faster than a Greek government bond. What can you do? Mechanical things, especially fast and beautiful ones, call us to the rocks of financial ruin. As the great car writer Peter Egan once wrote: “Road racing makes heroin addiction seem like a vague wish for something salty.”

I got my first fix when I was nine, when I hustled up a job as a drug store delivery boy so I could buy a set of Italian caliper brakes for my bike. Then came go-karts, downhill skis, and a slot car racing set that eventually filled my parents’ basement and forced me to get a paper route to support my growing habit.

When I was a teenager, some of my buddies spent their money on concert tickets, bags of weed and blotters of windowpane acid. I went broke buying engine parts, tools, and model airplane kits so big I had to build them on the dining room table. (My mother wasn’t so happy when I dripped epoxy glue on her freshly-waxed mahogany.)

Then came motorcycle racing, the crack cocaine of motor sports (the thrill is short-lived, the supplies are expensive, and you want to do it again and again.) I spent endless days (and endless money) on track time and bikes, and filled my room with photographic shrines of my favourite machines.

For the Gear-A-Holic, mechanical things are not mere devices. Instead they are sacred objects and philosophical expressions. I once bought a set of Weber carburetors that cost me nearly a month’s wages and kept them on my bedroom shelf for weeks – they were so beautiful that I didn’t want to install them in my car.

In my twenties, my gear addiction led me into a long, account-draining quest for the perfect VW Beetle. I spent a small fortune on everything from high-performance camshafts to Porsche brakes and custom-machined engine cases. Sodium-filled exhaust valves made heroin look cheap, but I had to have them.

Then I got married to a woman who couldn’t care less about machinery. I tried to quit my gear habit, cold-turkey style. I walked past machine shops and car dealers without going in. I didn’t buy a single tool or mechanical device. I had to be strong.

Then I cracked. Early one morning, I headed over to a street on the other side of town that was lined with import garages and waited for the Snap-On tool truck to show up. (Snap-On trucks are the rolling drug dens of the tool world.)

Inside were glittering trays of polished wrenches and ratchet handles that spun with the silky smoothness of expensive English fly-casting reels. I bought a new torque wrench, some self-aligning thread taps, and a set of stainless steel feeler gauges. I may as well have plunged a smack-filled needle into my arm.

As I entered my thirties, I realized that my machinery addiction had cost me serious money (exactly how much, I didn’t really want to know.)

One of my friends owned three houses, and spent half his time on the phone with his broker. He once told me how much he had in his RRSP – about five times as much as I did. My friend advised me to sell my tools, my hang gliders and my motorcycle, then put the money into an investment fund he’d been researching. I bought a new glider instead.

After that came an ultra-light plane, more car parts, and some really good bicycles (one titanium, two carbon fibre) (which I spent several years tweaking and perfecting at considerable cost.)

Then there were the specialized tools needed for my airplane kit – more than $5,000 worth of riveters, burnishers and high-speed air drills (and a new air compressor to power them all.)

The Cheneys, surrounded by evidence of Peter's addiction to tools.

If it weren’t for my wife’s moderating influence, things would could have been worse – she stopped me from me buying a Caterham Seven (a tiny English sports car with no doors) and a Ducati (an Italian motorcycle that needed expensive valve adjustments every time it was ridden around the block.)

In the 12-Step program, you ask for the help of a higher power. In my case, it’s my wife, but she can only do so much.

This week, I decided to take stock. On the Debit side of my life’s ledger was an endless series of equipment purchases (as binges went, this was up there with Keith Richard’s alcohol and drug tab since 1965 or so.) But then there was the Credit side: I paid my way through journalism school with the money I made working as a Porsche-VW mechanic. I wrote a book about hang gliding that has been selling for more than 20 years.

And now my full-time job is telling stories about machinery and personal adventure. What if there had been no adventures? No machines? Equipment has drained my bank account since I was a boy, yet it has also enriched me in ways that I am only beginning to understand. My friend with the three houses and the fat RRSP died before he was 50.

But I’m still here, at least for now. And I still love machinery. I’m hankering to rebuild my garage, buy a sports car, and spend the next few years altering it to suit my vision. Yes, the addiction continues.

But I’m okay with it now. As soccer great George Best once said: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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