Let’s say you’re a masochist, looking to maximize your suffering. You could become finance minister of Greece. You could marry Lindsay Lohan. Or you could become a mechanic who specializes in old English cars.
Like my friend Nigel. (This isn’t his actual name – we’ll get to that in a minute.) But first, a quick overview of his mechanical empire. Nigel works out of a small, overstuffed garage in downtown Toronto. The walls are lined with teetering shelves, well-worn tools and parts for cars that went out of production decades ago. In the corner is a partially assembled 1969 Jaguar XK-E that awaits the next stage of a lengthy restoration.
Nigel’s shop is near my house, but its precise location must remain secret, along with his name. (It isn’t Nigel, but it should be, given his undying love for the British car.) He doesn’t want publicity, because that would bring new customers.
“I’ve got my hands full,” he says. “I can’t handle any more.”
Each of the cars that Nigel works on is an all-consuming project. He deals with sclerotic Healeys and rusted-out Rolls Royces. He tracks mysterious electrical demons that course through the archaic wiring looms of pre-war Jaguars. The vehicles in his shop are his English Patients. And his ward is full. So he operates below the radar. Nigel doesn’t have a cellphone, e-mail or a website. His shop is in a back alley, behind an unmarked door.
Working on old English cars calls for a special kind of mechanic. Nigel may spend months tracking down parts for a car built when Winston Churchill was prime minister. And even if a part is available, there is no guarantee that it will fit, since old English cars were often built with processes little different than those used by blacksmiths who pounded out armour for the Knights of the Round Table.
Bolting a new body panel on to a modern Porsche or Chevrolet can be done in an hour or so. On a 1950s Jaguar or Austin Healey, that same job might take a week.
“You have to reshape every panel,” says Nigel. “Everything is done the old way.”
Stepping into Nigel’s shop transports you back to a time when England ruled the world of automotive design. In the decades following the Second World War, the country was an automotive Silicon Valley. Colin Chapman founded Lotus cars in a stable, and went on to win seven Formula One championships. Jaguar designer Malcolm Sayer penned the stunning XK-E, which was declared “the most beautiful car ever made” by no less than Enzo Ferrari.
By the late 1970s, England’s glorious run was coming to an end. Its car industry was crippled by outdated design, ruinous labour relations and substandard manufacturing quality that made its products a standing joke. (Lucas, the British company that supplied electrical components to the country’s car manufacturers, was known as “Prince of Darkness.”)
But for those who lived through it, the golden age of the English car has an abiding hold. And Nigel is among the faithful. His personal favourite is Jaguar, the brand he fell in love with back in 1955, when he was a 10-year-old boy. “I saw a Jag, and that was it,” he says. “It was perfect.”
At 19, he bought a used XK-140 and took it to university, where he participated in student protests and worked on social justice causes. At 23, he landed a job as an apprentice mechanic at a Toronto Jaguar dealership and worked his way up. He’s 67 now, and he’s still working on the cars he fell in love with so long ago.
He’s been writing an essay that explains his affection for the brand: “Our Jaguars become a part of who we are and what we do,” he wrote. “To admire such beauty and perfection can only come from a belief in the ideal.”
A belief in the ideal is often needed when working on old Jaguars. Even the most mundane job can turn into an epic project. Replacing the back brakes on an E-type Jaguar, for example, demands that the entire rear suspension be removed, a job that takes six to seven hours if all goes well (at $94 per hour.)
Unfortunately, things rarely go well when you delve into the rear cavities of an aging Jaguar. The suspension arms may be frozen in place by rust. The hydraulic hoses may be rotted out. Some bygone mechanic may have butchered a component or welded a steel member into place instead of bolting it.
Fixing these problems involves a process not unlike the restoration of a centuries-old British estate or a heart operation on an aging member of the House of Lords. And so it’s hardly surprising that a six-hour brake job often degenerates into a week-long odyssey that can run to more than $2,500 (not including parts, taxes and shop supplies).
Nigel’s brand of mechanical repair is nothing like the cut-and-dried process that goes on at a modern car dealership.
“Anyone can fix a new car,” says Nigel. “You just take one part out and put in another one. This is completely different. There’s a lot that you have to know. And you have to be a patient person.”
Repairing the cars in Nigel’s shop calls for skills that include (but are not limited to) electronics, welding, metal-shaping, upholstery, painting, plating, geometry and physics. (An understanding of psychiatry can come in handy as well.)
Modern cars use digitally controlled fuel and ignition systems that automatically adjust to changing conditions. But old Jaguars are purely analog machines. The ignition spark must be adjusted to arrive at the correct moment. Their banks of carburetors must be tuned and synchronized like the pipes of a cathedral organ. Wire wheel spokes must be tweaked and tensioned like harp strings to keep them running true.
The complications can be infernal. But triumphing over the forces of automotive anarchy is what makes Nigel love working on English cars: “You have to get the car right,” he says. “When you do a Jaguar properly, there’s real satisfaction. It’s art.”
Back in the 1970s, I worked as a mechanic myself, specializing in VW and Porsche. I rarely worked on English cars, but when I did, I realized that I was dealing with an entirely different approach to automotive design and manufacture. English cars had a lot of hand craftsmanship in them – workers shaped many of the parts, so that no two were truly identical. I didn’t see this as a good thing. (I liked my cars to have parts that fit.)
Digital technology has changed the world of car manufacturing forever. Today, even small-volume manufacturers can produce precise parts, and cars that are symmetrical from left to right. (Don’t laugh – in the 1960s, cars were essentially works of sculpture, with dimensions that often varied wildly from side to side, and from one car to the next.)
Modern cars (even English ones) have a consistency and accuracy that the classics could never hope for. Although this is generally desirable, it does entail a certain loss – it’s hard to discern a human touch as you study the inner workings of a new Ford Focus or Honda Civic.
And so Nigel works on in his tiny shop, dealing with the frustrations and complexities of the old machines that he has loved for so long. When I visit him, I am always reminded of what I learned about Plato back in university – that physical things are merely representations of universal ideas that we carry with us.
When I saw him last week, Nigel told me how he sees a Jaguar: “A Jaguar’s beauty isn’t just on the outside,” he said. “When you take it apart, the beauty continues. It’s expressed in every detail. The engine, the suspension, the brakes – everything. A Jaguar is beautiful in every regard.”
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