As hopeless battles go, you've got Little Big Horn and the Charge of the Light Brigade. But if you want to witness true, crushing defeat, look no further than Mother Nature vs. The Car.
I thought of this the other day as I examined the plugged ventilation system of our Honda Accord, only to discover that its ducts have turned into a mobile grow-op, filled with thrusting green shoots and poisonous-looking mushrooms shaped like miniature human ears.
The culprit was the tree that overhangs our Accord's parking spot, dropping an endless load of twigs, leaves and weird-looking seed pods that seem to be as fertile as Octo-mom herself, bursting with new life the moment they land on our car. The leaves and blossoms, meanwhile, work their way down into the Accord's nooks and crannies, where they decompose and turn into rich, dark compost. Hence the mushrooms.
The Accord's gradual return to the earth is just the latest round in my long, losing fight to protect my cars from the elements. I want my machines to remain shining and new. But Mother Nature has other plans. She drops her seed pods. She sows her rust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
As I see it, you can approach the natural world as a hippie, or as an engineer. The hippie operates in the Thoreau tradition, accepting and celebrating nature's inherent messiness. The engineer takes Mother Nature on, devising complex machines and ways of protecting them – engineers believe in materials engineering, fatigue analysis and non-corrosive material research.
In my heart I'm an engineer, and yet my faith is slipping. As a young man, I actually believed that it was possible to protect a machine from the elements, if you just tried hard enough. I polished my cars with UV-resistant wax. I undercoated them religiously. I cut out rust spots, then primed and painted the repairs. I was a janitor in the Aegean Stables.
Nature soon showed me who was boss. In 1984, I was forced to leave my new VW Jetta at my parent's farm in Nova Scotia so I could start a new job in Toronto. To protect it while I was gone, I made a custom-shaped car cover with my mother's industrial sewing machine. The outer skin of the cover was a weatherproof plastic, and the inside was lined with soft cotton that wouldn't scratch the Jetta's carefully-waxed finish.
I returned six weeks later to a cruel surprise. A tree had peppered my Jetta with acidic sap. The sap had eaten through my cover's plastic skin and penetrated the cotton inner liner, fusing the cover to the car – each little drop of sap acted like a spot weld. And there were thousands of them. When I pulled the cover off, it was ripping away a Band-Aid that had grown into a scabbed-over wound – much of the Jetta's finish came away with it.
Car cover, zero. Mother Nature, one.
There are two ways for a car owner to deal with the ravages of nature – fight or succumb. I am currently pursuing a two-pronged approach. With our old Accord, I have more or less succumbed, accepting that the elements (and my kids) will gradually destroy it. Its last wax job was several years ago.
But I am still trying to protect my new Lotus. I've had it for a couple of months now, and it's the most beautiful and expensive car I've ever owned. I keep it in my garage. I wash and wax it obsessively. The front end is covered with 3M Chip Guard (a clear plastic film that protects the finish).
But I'm up against forces far greater than myself. I have a couple of small rock chips already, and then there are the insects. I evicted a spider who tried to set up house in my engine compartment, and the front bumper now has a faint mark from a bee that collided with my car on the race track at more than 240 km/h. I know the bee's loss was greater than mine, but I still cringe at the corrosive body fluids that were driven into the pristine skin of my Lotus.
Trying to protect a car from the elements is a process not unlike the embalming of an Egyptian pharaoh, involving strange tools and costly ointments. I have spent a small fortune on microfiber cleaning cloths, English leather balms and resin-infused synthetic waxes. Last week, I bought a tiny canister of race-grade anti-seize compound that cost $60. This is applied to the bolts that hold my Lotus's wheels, to prevent rust from welding them permanently into place (as nature intended).
Unlike our Honda, the Lotus is parked in a garage. But not even a solid-concrete building can guarantee that nature will be kept at bay. Consider the tragic story of my friend who left his prized sports car in a locked garage for the winter so it it wouldn't be ruined by road salt. His car was carefully prepared for its long respite. To preserve the tires and springs, he jacked the car up and set it on aluminum track stands. He waxed the car, anointed the interior with Armor All, and sheathed the body with a soft cotton cover. Thinking it would promote airflow, he decided to leave the windows down. His car was like Tutankhamen, preserved in its silent tomb.
That spring, he returned to find his car destroyed. A family of raccoons had made their way into the garage, and decided the car was the perfect nest. They clawed off the cover, climbed inside, and used his car's interior as a bedroom, dining room and outhouse for the next three months.
What can you do?
The smart choice is to yield, of course. But there is a part of me that still enjoys the battle. I have just ordered a new cover for my Lotus to keep the dust off, and I stock my garage with costly car-cleaning products and paint preservatives (I realize that they're the automotive equivalent of the ridiculous anti-aging creams that women spend their fortunes on, but for my Lotus, only the best will do).
And yet, I know that I can't win. Almost every morning, I ride through Kensington Market, where I pass the Garden Car – an old Ford Taurus that has been turned into a planter. The interior and the engine compartment are filled with earth that has given birth to dense green plants. Looking at it makes me think of the Edgar Allen Poe story where he described his fear of being buried alive, and "the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm."
In the end, nature will win. Our cars will all be Garden Cars. In the meantime, I'm off to buy some new carnauba wax.
Peter Cheney's photo gallery this week looks at the cars of an automotive design legend. Click here to see it: In pictures: The cars of Sergio Pininfarina
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Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/