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Unless they get run over by one, many drivers will never see the underside of a car. These people are the topsiders, who belong to a group that can afford to get the dirty work done for them. Someone else will weld the broken frame, drain the contaminated oil and bloody their knuckles on the seized axle nuts.

Then there is the automotive underclass. These are the drivers who do their own repairs not as a lifestyle choice, but out of sheer desperation. They live out on the financial and mechanical edge, in a parallel universe of recycled fan belts and curbside overhauls.

I thought of this as I cruised through the burnt-out streets of Detroit a while back. Out in front of a run-down house was a guy in a grease-stained jacket, lying on the road beneath a rusted Chrysler that was supported on stacked cinder blocks. Not the safest setup, but I could tell that he didn't have the money for anything better.

I stopped to see what he was up to. The Chrysler's cylinder head was sitting on the lawn. So were the wheels. "Head gasket blew, and the brakes are gone," the driver told me. He was about to take the bus to a junkyard across town, hoping to find a gasket and a pair of front disks for $25, which was all he had until his next paycheck.

Hard times.

I thought back to my own days of low-buck car repair. They started when I was a teenager, trying to keep a car on the road with the money made from after-school jobs. When a muffler blew out, I didn't have the cash for a replacement, so I cut up sheet metal from an old chimney liner, wrapped it around the ruined muffler, and cinched it all down with hose clamps. (It didn't work very well, but the price was right.)

New air cleaners were expensive, so I took my old ones to a garage and blew them out with compressed air. I didn't see this as a major hardship – one of my friends collected used engine oil and strained it through a chamois. "Looks great!" he enthused, amazed at his ingenuity. (It didn't look great, but I kept my mouth shut.)

Things got better in my twenties, when I took time off university to work as a mechanic in a Vancouver shop. I got parts wholesale, so my cars were treated to fresh spark plugs and filters on a regular basis, and I bought brand-new components instead of scavenging through wreckers' yards. I had a full set of Snap-On tools and a heated shop with all the amenities. Car-repair wise, I was living high on the hog.

It didn't last.

A couple of years later, I quit the garage so I could go to journalism school, and was soon broke again, sinking back into the auto-repair underclass. I couldn't afford parts, and I didn't have a workshop. It was back to the junkyards. When the clutch went on my Beetle, I had to find a used pressure plate and disc and do the repair in an unheated garage next to the Atlantic in the depths of a brutal winter.

When a thief smashed out a rear window, I covered it with duct tape. The repair was supposed to be temporary, but the duct tape remained for nearly two years, disintegrating in the sun. I checked my brake shoes constantly, taking them down to the last millimeter. When my heater broke, it stayed that way.

I tried to see the glass as half-full by comparing my car to others who had it worse – like my cousin Ed, who repaired the snapped-off shifter on his pickup truck by clamping a pair of Vise-Grip pliers to the stub. This was the latest in a long string of questionable fixes – when the floors rusted out on his old Datsun, Ed covered the holes with flattened cardboard boxes (his dog fell through once after the cardboard got soaked in a rainstorm.)

After I graduated from journalism school and got a real job, I had the money to keep my cars properly repaired again. I could even afford to pay others to fix them. This felt weird at first, but I was sick of working on dirt and cold concrete floors. After a few years, I was a full-fledged topsider – my hands were clean, and my most heavily used tool was a credit card.

My cars were in good shape, but something was missing. I remembered the days when working on cars was a matter of survival – like the time I spent most of the night fixing my Volvo's master cylinder in the driveway of a rented house in Burnaby, racing to finish so I could make it to work and not get fired. By dawn, my car was working again, and I'd done it for less than $20 – instead of replacing the leaking cylinder, I'd honed it out with an electric drill and installed fresh rubber seals.

I felt alive then, and connected with my car. Staying clean and paying others to fix my machines felt alienating and dependent.

I remembered the magic days of Grade Six, when my favourite teacher read my class a book called Little House In The Big Woods. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, it was the story of a pioneer family who set out into new territory: they had to build their own house and feed themselves with the crops and livestock they raised. If something broke, they had to fix it – there were no repair people to help them. Their courage and independence had been an inspiration.

I started fixing my own car again. It felt good.

I can afford the new parts now, and it feels good to put in fresh filters and top-of-the-line oil. But I'm constantly reminded of the times when I had almost nothing.

One day, my wife and I drove through an Ohio neighbourhood where jobs had been disappearing for years. The state of the economy was written in the car repairs – crushed fenders sprayed with gray primer, bumpers lashed on with wire and mufflers patched with pieces of tin can. Soon after, we were passed on the highway by a car that seemed to be held together by sheets of plastic and duct tape.

I laughed, but I'd been there myself.

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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive


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