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Married to a gearhead: For richer, but mostly poorer

There are probably some excellent reasons for buying a sports car and an ultra-light airplane instead of RRSPs. If you come up with any, please let me know so can try them out on my wife.

As we mark yet another Valentines Day, I realize that an addicted gearhead such as myself is not an ideal husband. For example: our dining room table is not actually available for dining, since I am using it to construct a radio-controlled model glider. Then there's our garage, which can theoretically hold three cars, yet barely fits one thanks to my numerous tools and mechanical projects.

Those projects have included everything from engine rebuilds to a full-sized airplane that I planned to fly around North America with my wife when it was finally finished (it took me more than a year to build the tail alone, and my wife hates flying, but you only live once).

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Had I completed it, the airplane would probably have cost much more than $100,000. From the outset, my wife said we couldn't afford it. I knew she was right, but started building anyway, theorizing that a lottery win could change everything. (I finally sold the project, acknowledging that my wife had been right, but it wasn't easy.)

Every marriage has its own calculus of household power, a give-and-take process that determines what a family's priorities will be, and how its resources will be allocated. Fortunately, my wife is the brains of the outfit, insisting that we invest in a few basics – like our house, which has more than tripled in value since we bought it 20 years ago.

My investment choices have had a decidedly lower rate of return. My sports car is worth about $25,000 less than when I bought it, and my $600 digital torque wrench would be lucky to fetch $225 on Craigslist. You get the picture.

When we recited our marriage vows, my wife had no way of appreciating the true significance of the "for poorer" clause. She has learned the hard way.

Being a gearhead is not unlike being addicted to cocaine, except that you crave cars, aircraft and mechanic's tools instead of plastic bags filled with white powder. And for us, there is no twelve-step program. My pattern began when I was a small boy, building model cars on my desk. Those little plastic cars were the gateway drug in a lifelong vehicle habit.

I have a lot of fellow addicts. My friend Matt rarely owns fewer than a dozen cars, trucks and aircraft at any given moment, and he has a tool collection that spills through three workshops. Another friend, a hardcore collector of vintage Italian cars, had to build a new garage to hold his collection.

Yet another acquaintance has his Visa statements sent to his office instead of home, so his wife won't see how much he spends on tools. This is not uncommon – when I was buying parts for my ultralight plane, I ran to the mailbox each day to grab the bills before my wife saw them.

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Cost is not the only downside of marriage to a dyed-in-the-wool vehicle devotee. You are also forced to deal with foolish adventure and inexplicable discomfort – like last March, when we drove from Toronto to Chattanooga, Tenn., in a convertible Porsche with the top down. As the temperature dropped below -5 C, my wife wrapped herself in an Arctic sleeping bag, looked at all the closed, heated cars around us, and delivered the line that best summed up our trip: "Normal people don't do this."

She was right, of course. Normal people don't drive long trips with the top down in the dead of winter. Nor do they haul an ultralight plane around eastern North America, put Porsche brakes in an old VW Beetle, or rebuild a motorcycle engine in their apartment kitchen.

I am guilty of all these things and more. I am a hopeless, degenerate gearhead. Against all odds, my beautiful, level-headed wife is still with me (although she has questioned my sanity, I believe she is actually proud of my mechanical abilities). And for Valentines Day I have a special present – I'm clearing my glider project off the dining room table – for at least a week.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More

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