It's the holiday season and the close to the year, which typically makes me all reflective, ponderous and whimsical like. So at my desk today I thought about what makes me a gear head.
What made all of you a Jalop, Oppo or gearhead? Is it in your blood? Did you learn from someone close? Or is it a passion that grew over time? Growing up in southeast Michigan, with a UAW card carrying GM employee as a father with a '58 Impala, who had a UAW card carrying Ford employee as a father, I'd like to claim that it is in my blood, but looking back on it, I'm not so sure that's why I am so passionate about cars.
From a very young age I would help my father in the garage on the project de jour, fixing the outboard motor on his bass boat, or replacing the alternator on an uncle's car. At 3 and 4 years old I was my dad's gopher for tools, rags, and his ever present junkyard companion, but more on that later. Even though I spent lots of time in the garage, I was equally at home in the kitchen with my mother. Say what you want about gender roles and stereotypes, my mother chose to be a stay at home mother for the first 6-7 years of my life and I am very thankful for that. I used to help my mother cook dinner and bake on a regular basis, I still love whipping up a batch of brownies almost as much as adjusting rocker arms.
Sure, like most boys I got Matchbox cars and HotWheels ramp sets, but my favorite toys at that time were my Bigfoot trucks. Like most young boys (and some grown adult men) I thought monster trucks were the coolest damn things in the world. My dad would record the monster truck events (pre-monster jam branding) that aired early in the morning on TNN: The Nashville Network (now SpikeTV) for me to watch on Sundays. Then the coolest thing of all time happened on my 5th birthday, I got my own Bigfoot, sure it was only about two feet tall and was powered by a 12v electric motor but I drove it so much that I wore through the plastic tires. I even had a second one, painted white like my second favorite monster truck No Problem! which was styled after a white Ford Bronco. But I can't even say that that it was these electric powered mini-monster trucks, or their real life counterparts that pushed me on the path to becoming a petrolhead.
I still have the belief that given enough time, my father can fix anything. I have seen him fix everything from TV's to grandfather clocks, furniture that was chewed up by our dog, a busted weed whacker, and even a car, or twenty. My father is a very creative man; out of high school he had a full-ride scholarship to the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. A full-ride that he would walk away from to as he puts it "Chase women and fast cars" luckily the chase ended when he met my mother. In the modern corporate would, we would say my father has creative problem solving skills. Not to say my father never jimmy rigged anything, but 95% of his work was done properly, if not with the creative use of something we had laying around. My father is the king of finding something old busted and decrepit and making it like new again. The level of creativity and problem solving that I watched as young boy, translated directly to new favorite toys, Legos.
Christmas of '92 rolled around and my father bought me a giant Lego Technic kit. Previously the most complex Lego design I had made was a spaceship, or maybe a sports car with a simple wagon axle. My world had just changed. Now I could build things that actually did stuff. Remember what I said about junkyards? My father could hardly take me anymore, aside from wanting to watch the cars get crushed; now I wanted to take pieces from everything to build something greater.
Then something terrible happened: We moved to the middle of nowhere, my father took the night shift, and when coupled by his long commute, we hardly saw each other. I started playing more Nintendo and later Sega Genesis. My newfound love for technology was starting to win out over the mechanical wonders Legos and Cars provided. As I got older the distance between my father and I grew, he is very much an analog man; I was growing into a digital teen. There were arguments and fights, I spent an ungodly amount of time on the family PC, and later my own. By the time I was 15, the relationship between my father and I had deteriorated to the point where he was only the bad guy, to harp on my behavior, my grades, or make me do work around the house, mother coddled me as mothers are oft to do and made excuses for my poor performance.
In the country, most 16 year olds get their own car, usually its nothing fancy; a hand-me-down from mom or dad's long commute: A million mile beast of a claptrap designed when Regan was still in office with the purpose of carting your ass all over the county, but mostly to and from school. First, I wanted a truck, something practical, good on gas with four wheel drive. A Ranger or S-10, My neighbor had a 92 for sale, two grand, cash. Then my father saw something up the road that caught his eye: An 86 Monte Carlo Super Sport. My father had an 85 model year that he purchased new, up until that point the only new car he ever owned, which was later a given to my older sister who ran it into the ground, and seized the motor. My dad suggested the Monte Carlo to me, I would technically be 16 and half by the time I got my license due to drivers training dates. It was for sale for $1500, he talked the seller down to $1300. I had my first car.
Unlike my dad's old model, this one had the engine control harness hacked to bits and a standard HEI distributor and non-computer controlled carb were bolted on. It leaked oil like a sieve, which would lead to the 305's demise.
Yep. Mr. Small Block Chevy ran his car out of oil and spun the bearings. This is why I am the king of spun bearings.
So after about two months on the road, I parked it, with a blown engine. And there it sat until the summer of my junior year. My dad told me we would rebuild the motor and get it all one color. The nose was the grey-blue and the rest of the car was black. He said we would swap the 305 with a 350, because building a 350 doesn't any more than building a 305. He gave me $3000 cash. At that time I had never seen so much cash before.
Then we started planning, we blew through the $3000 on the motor a 10.5-1 compression 355, but we still needed to paint the car. We decided that simple gloss black wasn't catchy enough so we designed some rally stripes for it. When all was said and done my dad had spent about 10 grand more and our relationship was strong as it ever was. I was back to into the cult of cars, with the coolest car in the high school parking lot my senior year.
When I went to college my roommate was also a car guy, from the world's biggest shithole, Columbus Ohio. He was an import/tuner guy with a brand new Dodge Neon SRT-4. Through him I gained appreciation of things that weren't made in the land of free and the home of the brave. His dad was a BMW guy with a '99 M Roadster and a 760i. Later my roommate would get an A4 Quattro and a WRX STI. Completely different from what I was used to, but effective in their own right.
Ten years after restoring my car I still have it. It shows signs of use and abuse, but I still love it. I have plans for it, and plans for other projects as well. It took my dad's creative problem solving and the ability to create with Legos that makes me want to build something all my own. Those two things made me the Oppo I am today. I critique the design of almost every automobile I see sometimes, but not often, silently. I know that I could do a better job. I suppose this is a bit of arrogance on my part, thinking I know what makes a good car good, when I'm not an engineer myself.
Why didn't I become an engineer? I can't do math. not one bit, not at all and despite my father's full ride art scholarship, I can't draw either. So this relegates to me automotive forums and Jalopnik, wrenching and designing what I can in my own garage. Honestly, I think I am happier not being part of the process. If I had to compromise the design in my head because of cost, NVH or a focus group, I think I'd start to hate my creation. Its the same reason why I hate factory perfect restorations. all cars have flaws, why not fix the flaws and make it your own? Why build something less good, than it could be if you know better? I think that question sums up my position on damned near everything and why I started writing my Why Your Car Sucks Articles. (Which I am seriously delinquent in writing a new one, because reasons)
You've heard my story. Now share yours. What made you?