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The way it used to be: The engine compartment of an early-1960's Ford Falcon shows how accessible and easy to understand cars used to be. In the 1960's and 1970's. do-it-yourself mehanics abounded. (Peter Cheney for The Globe and Mail)
The way it used to be: The engine compartment of an early-1960's Ford Falcon shows how accessible and easy to understand cars used to be. In the 1960's and 1970's. do-it-yourself mehanics abounded. (Peter Cheney for The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

The death of do-it-yourself Add to ...

For a guy who grew up rebuilding cars in his parent's garage, it was a bit of a shock to find out that Audi once made a vehicle with a hood that didn't open. What kind of sacrilege was this?

And yet I wasn't really surprised - the sealed hood had a certain historical inevitability to it. Like reality TV, Sarah Palin, and the exportation of jobs to China, it's a sign of the times. Most drivers don't even check the oil any more. So why open the hood?

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With the Europe-only A2 model that was on the market from 1999 to 2005, Audi just took things to their logical conclusion. Want to check the alternator belt tension? Forget it. How about a jump-start? Forget that, too. What about the time-honored tradition of lifting the hood and contemplating the engine? Nope. Access denied.

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This part really stung. For a car nut, an engine compartment is like a shrine. We stare at the motor as a penitent gazes upon the statue of a saint. The physical object itself means little. What matters is the miracle that it represents - an internal-combustion engine is a self-contained mechanical cosmos, a symphony of spinning metal parts that capture the energy of an explosion to carry us down the road.

But the A2's engine was sealed off like the Pope's Vatican chambers, accessible only to the anointed. No gazing allowed. You could dismiss the A2's hood as a minor technical detail. But it's more than that. The sealed hood is a sign of the times.

We have been gradually disconnected from mechanical reality. We use devices without being required to understand them - and that has profound implications for us all. I don't know anybody who works on their own car any more. Even though I used to be a professional mechanic, I rarely do it myself. It's partly due to time pressure. But it's also because today's cars call for expensive diagnostic equipment that no home mechanic can afford.

Modern cars are also less needy. If necessary, my family Honda will run for years without a tune-up. (Its fuel and ignition systems self-adjust. So do the hydraulic valve lifters). But I grew up with cars that couldn't live without me. Like my beloved VW Beetles - left to their own devices, their ignition timing drifted, their cylinders heads loosened, and their valves slipped out of adjustment, clattering like cheap castanets.

We have been gradually disconnected from mechanical reality. We use devices without being required to understand them

It was up to me to set things right. I'd wake up early on Saturday, break out my Snap-On wrenches, and minister to my little car. I snugged the heads down with a torque wrench, adjusted the valves, then changed the spark plugs, studying the old ones for signs of trouble (white ash meant a lean mixture, black meant too rich, an even brown indicated that all was well). I set the ignition with a timing light, an act that always struck me as magical - under the white pulse of the strobe, the spinning fan pulley stood still, its timing mark revealed.

The test drive was a celebration - my car no longer clattered, coughed, or pulled to one side. It hummed, and it went straight. And I did it myself. When I was a teenager, my dad taught me how to change the engine oil on our Mercury Comet. We drained the oil into a pan and ran our fingers through it, studying its colour and its constituency. More than once, we found trouble - metal shavings spoke of a bad crank bearing. Streaks of coolant gave away a failing head gasket.

Knowing how to fix a car used to mean something. In university, I studied the classics. My abiding memory was of Odysseus returning home to slay the suitors who had invaded his house. To me, overhauling an engine was a less dramatic version of the same process - I had driven out the forces of mechanical disorder.

So how could I imagine that the golden age of the home mechanic was approaching its end?

When I was in my teens, almost every high school had an auto shop. By the time I was in my late twenties, that had started to change, thanks to budgetary pressures and academic streaming. Today, they have been eradicated - with few exceptions, they are found only in trade schools, which are seen as dumping grounds for kids who aren't smart enough for university.

I wonder what Leonardo da Vinci would have thought?

A while back, I walked through Northern Secondary, a huge Toronto school that was built about 80 years ago. It was still a busy operation, with thousands of students, and the air of a well-worn castle. But one part of it had gone dark - the industrial arts wing. A teacher who had set up new auto and welding shops back in the 1960s gave me a sobering tour of his dismantled empire - cobwebs gathered over a collection of rusted machinery.

There was no money for the shop program. None of the kids wanted to take auto repair or welding any more. Why would they? The age of do-it-yourself had been dismantled. The mechanic had been relegated to the role of repairman, the guy who toiled in a grease pit so rich people could drive somewhere without thinking about how their car worked.

I called up Pete Brock, a legendary car designer who now lives in Redmond, Wash. (He designed the Shelby Cobra coupe and helped shape the original Corvette Stingray) "No one wants to make stuff themselves any more," Brock said. "Everything's virtual. You do things on a computer screen, not in metal."

If ever there was a renaissance man, it is Brock, whose career has been defined by a combination of mechanical ingenuity, artistry and an intellectual appreciation of machinery. Among Brock's accomplishments are the creation of a famous auto racing team, helping Carroll Shelby beat Ferrari at Le Mans, and designing a series of gliders that reshaped the world of ultralight aviation. Now Brock designs and builds racing accessories at a new company he founded with his wife. Generations of car nuts consider him a guru.

To Brock, a good machine is the elegant, real-world expression of an idea, not just something to be used and cast aside when it breaks. Machines are philosophies, expressed in metal.

Brock sees the closed car hoods and the darkened school shops as an omen. "We used to make stuff, and we were the best in the world at it," he said. "Now they do everything in China, and we have all these kids staring at computer screens. It's the greatest loss we've ever had."


A hockey dad’s last ride

April 25, 2010. After years of being a hockey dad, Globe auto writer Peter Cheney has driven his son Wil to the rink for the last time. (J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)
After 14 years, Peter Cheney faces a future that doesn't include rinks

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive


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