It’s interesting how I found myself this morning: sitting in a thick pile of dust, coveralls on, dust mask on, a few drops of sweat on my forehead as I worked away at a patch of polyester filler on the diesel westy I’m restoring.
Its completely mindless work, without any romance whatsoever. I’m not building a boat out of wood, or making a hand-carved table. I’m using modern materials to disguise the inevitable dent that all of these vans seem to get on their sliding doors. I’m working with a long carbon chain petrochemical (which, come to think of it, is not all that different from wood (cellulose), which is made of linked glucose molecules, which themselves are ring-shaped carbon chains). But a bodyman doesn’t get the love and respect as that a carver of wood gets; he’s too utilitarian, too prosaic. And we only seek them out after something bad happens. They are the dentist of the craftsman world.
Still, I was enjoying myself. There is something fine about taking anything that is damaged and making it whole again, through careful, repetitive motions. First you have to flatten the metal as best you can with dolly and hammer. Then you mix up the plastic and spread it over the wounded metal before the filler hardens, trying to replicate the original body curve.
Once it kicks off you take a long sureform and shave away a layer to get it closer to the proper contour. Once it fully hardens you sand it using successively finer grits, each grit designed to remove the scratches left by it’s coarser kin. Usually I finish off with something around 600 grit, by which time the plastic is smooth as glass and once painted, undetectable from the surrounding body metal.
There are no shortcuts and only one right way. It takes (me) quite a long time. Often I have to add more layers of filler and start the process over again because I can still see a bit of a dip or hollow in just the right light.
It’s certainly humble work, and I guess that’s part of its charm for me. Ten years of advanced education and I’m sanding plastic. There’s utterly no pretence here, its just labour, but there’s a soothing quality to it, and it sure has taught me patience. There was a time not all that long ago when I could not have done this kind of work as I simply wasn’t patient enough. I didn’t like that aspect of my personality, but it was part of who I was. I would rush it and it would look like shit.
There’s a kind of penitent quality to the work as well. We all go through life full of ourselves, and I’ve been no different, but spending hours sanding the side of a van sure can put you in your place, can teach you that you aren’t all that special.
There’s also the reassuring part that after all this repetition is over and I shoot on a new coat of paint, it will go from a sad, ugly duckling to a lovely vehicle that people will enjoy camping with their families. Compared to what’s produced in the market now, these little campers themselves are humble little beasts.
And that’s the rub for me: what is on the market now is too big and too expensive to buy and to operate for a lot of people. And I’m a huge fan of repairing and reworking and reusing rather than tossing away and buying new. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of contemporary consumer habits, for all our talk of recycling. We are wary of making do with old, or god forbid, learning the skills to maintain things ourselves.
While getting some machine shop work done at a local shop, I talked with the machinist and he showed me what auto manufacturers are producing these days. What the consumer sees are very fancy, handy, and complex vehicles that do everything for the driver but gas themselves up. And some contemporary designs are visually stunning.
But what’s under the hood is appalling. The machinist showed me aluminium heads with castings as thin as cardboard and almost as fragile, intended to save on weight and materials. Much of what is coming out now is not designed to be repaired, unlike older designs. Time was if you overheated your engine, you milled the head and put in a new head gasket. Not cheap, but still a reasonable expense.
Not anymore. With many of these new, thin heads, they warp so badly they have to be tossed rather than repaired. A guy recently paid over $4,000.00 for a new head for a Mini because it couldn’t be repaired after overheating.
And manufacturers are no longer producing the parts needed to repair major engine components. A guy recently nicked a valve (likely through overrevving) in his newer Dodge Viper. The valve was bent and the valve guide was broken, which is a small repair. Sure the head has to come off and that’s not cheap, but pressing in a new guide and installing a new valve is only a few minutes of shop time. But Dodge won’t supply valves or guides or any of those typical head parts that have been around since cars first made it on the road, so the entire head has to be replaced. This is a V-10 engine so look to pay many thousands for a new head.
Older vehicles were simpler, had much fewer components, and could be repaired just about forever rather than sending to the crusher. I handed down my 91 Acura Integra to my son, and by the time he was done with it, it had 430,000 km on it, with only a few breakdowns over its life. He’s currently driving a ’76 Mercedes 300D that’s a total beater (I bought it for the veggie oil system and it cost me $300), but it starts every time and gets him where he needs to go.
Part of this complexity is due to the refinements needed to make an inherently simple but inefficient design (the internal combustion engine) more fuel efficient. But what I’ve noticed is that demands for power rather than efficiency is what’s really pushing things. Many, many models produced today offer over 200hp for fairly small cars, rather than getting by with with a fuel-sipping 3 cylinder with 90hp. The early 80′s VW Westfalias, at over 3500 lbs, had only 65hp!
It takes a lot of sophisticated technology to get massive power (and reasonable fuel mileage) out of today’s engines, but parts for that technology won’t be around in twenty years, and the high engineering and complexity means they simply won’t last. Today’s vehicles will never have the earlier kind of longevity or reparability, by professional tech or backyard mechanic.
There’s a lot of ugly hiding under those new, fantastic designs, and I will never again buy a new car.