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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Art of Resurrection

To know how a car works and how to repair it is to liberate oneself from an endless cycle of consumption.

Several months ago, in April 2022, I sat in the driver’s seat of my then new car and felt the strongest, most utterly gripping boredom, so intense it was only a shade brighter than depression. I love driving—the gentle rumble of the engine, the smooth click of a perfect gear shift, the racing excitement of going just slightly faster than you should around a tight corner. Driving is one of the few things that has regularly pulled me from depressive episodes or distracted me from some looming specter of my life. Going to college, breakups, my parents’ divorce, the immense anxiety of my existence, a stressful home life and the deterioration of the direction I had always considered my life would take—it all weighs on my mind, almost constantly. Beyond the driving, my ability to repair, maintain, and restore my vehicles has proven to be a kind of catharsis. For every skinned knuckle, burned arm, bloody head, every oil drop on my shirt, every grease stain on my face, and every compounding impact to an already bruised ego, for every time I came away hurting and sore, I felt even more pride and satisfaction in knowing that every time the motor turned over and roared to life, it was because of my own work, my own blood, sweat, and copious tears. But my new car, for all of its uses and qualities, was simply lacking. It offered me no satisfaction in driving, and even less in my ability to maintain it and to call it my own.

It was a good car, but it operated in a bland, even mundane, way. It performed every action I asked of it without complaint, without grumbling, without emotion, without any sort of personality. It was smart enough to tell me all of its ailments. A flashing exclamation point would show me a low tire. A phone notification would tell me my doors were unlocked. A gentle blue light would show it wasn’t quite warm enough to turn the heat on. But if I so much as put a wrench to the car, it would fall to pieces, and there would be nothing I could do to fix it due to its sheer complexity. Even the prospect of an oil change daunted me so much—not because I felt I couldn’t do it, but because I felt that the intricate web of sensors, safeties, and machinery would not accept my tinkering. I felt obligated to take it to the dealership for the oil change, an action which goes against my core nature. 

Cars today will tell us when the oil is too old or too worn, too little or too much in quantity, as well as a flurry of other regular maintenance items such as tire life, tire pressure, tread condition, air filters, intake filters, fuel filters, when they were changed, when they should be changed, how clogged they are. The abundance of information should, in theory, make our own maintenance practices easier, but even an oil change seems more difficult than it should be. 

Such is the nature of our modern goods and economy. Our most used, most needed belongings are designed to be disposable, single-use items which cannot be maintained or repaired. The proprietary nature of many items also makes repairs expensive. That which is meant to last can no longer be repaired by the bygone “shade-tree mechanic.” It must be repaired by special technique, under secret rituals, by only those who have been ordained with the sacred knowledge of repair. 

This was not always the case. There was a time when repair manuals were abundant in the world and offered step-by-step instructions to the novice mechanic for any and all repairs they might find themselves making in their garage, in their backyard, or, as many of us have experienced, in the parking lot or on the side of a busy highway in the middle of the night with only a dim flashlight and some barely adequate hand tools to see us home. Chief among these was the fabled Haynes manual, famous for its claim that every manual written was “based on a stripdown and rebuild,” so that the reader would know how to do any necessary repair. The Haynes was essential for anyone who wanted to do anything more than an oil change to their cars.

It was with this sentiment in mind that, in May of this year, I decided to take a dramatic gamble. Recent life events had prompted me to make changes. But mostly I was driven to act by the overwhelming feeling of existential dread looming above me, which was mixed with a tinge of end-of-the-world doomsday prepper paranoia brought on by global events.

My criteria were simple. My next car had to be useful, capable of going anywhere, and, above all else, entirely repairable by me. For better or for worse, I let my eccentricity get the best of me and within days I had taken my relatively new car, which I have dubbed in my memory as “the Disposable,” back to the dealer in order to benefit from staggeringly high used car prices, and had set off to bring home a 60-year-old Land Rover.

The humble Land Rover in its various forms from Series I through to the powerful Defender had captured the hearts and imagination of people around the globe. Everyone from dictators and humanitarian relief agencies to mercenaries and missionaries had seen the benefits of this robust utilitarian vehicle with its no-nonsense, go-anywhere capabilities.

Ben Fogle, Land Rover: The Story of the
Car that Conquered the World

I set out looking for it, combing through pages and pages of online listings, Craigslist ads, and car auctions. I finally found it on a Facebook Marketplace post. It looks nearly identical to every other Land Rover made between 1947 and 1983. It’s tall and boxy, and in the right lighting it takes on an almost cartoonishly simple appearance, like a child’s doodle of their dream car. This one in particular is the station wagon variant. It’s long and has four doors, and, as its original ads boast, is capable of seating 12 people. It shows its age. The almost steel blue paint is thin and bare in many places. The axles and springs are rusted horribly. The houndstooth seats are probably several shades darker than they originally were.

The immortal / photo by andrew messick

And the once white wheels are now slightly gray highlighted with elements of rust. It is quite narrow but tall, which makes sharp turns an adventure and parking garages mazes of anxiety. When parked, it towers over the rest of its peers like a basketball star among devoted 6th-grade fans. The effect is magnified by the low ceilings of the Whole Foods parking garage.

The hood flips all the way back against the windshield, giving easy access to the oversimple and basic motor. Under the windshield are two small flaps, which I call my “air-conditioning.” They can be opened to varying degrees to allow an uninterrupted stream of air to blow directly onto your face, making 95-degree days slightly more bearable. In the middle of what passes for the dashboard is a single panel with a few switches and gauges, and a speedometer that insists I’m going significantly faster than my fellow motorists think.

The seats pretend to be adjustable, but they refuse to slide forward, and often slide back on their own. This is an issue mainly because the incline of the seats is governed solely by a shared steel bar that sits behind them. Lifting the passenger seat cushion up reveals a cleverly hidden tool box, which I discovered to be filled with spare parts, some obviously used. No mouse nests, though. Lifting the driver’s seat shows nothing, which is a mild disappointment after seeing the treasures of the passenger’s seat, but is nothing compared to lifting the center arm console, which reveals, of all things, the transmission, driveshaft, and a gaping hole to the road below.

The rear seats have now been folded up to make space for the spare tire, the carrier for which was given to me without some critical parts. There is a pretense of ventilation in the form of oval shaped vents in the roof, but they fail to open and are more likely to let in bees than to cool the cockpit. The rear bench seats face inward, and on paper should hold an additional six people, three per bench, but the close quarters restrict us to perhaps two or three. This is all hypothetical, of course, as there are no seat belts and I refuse to let anyone ride in that thing without being buckled in.

The doors do not fit quite right, partly due to ill-fitting rubber gaskets fitted by a previous owner, partly due to the flexing of the body over the last 60 years. They have to be slammed, hard, and on occasion do pop open when going down the road. No matter. The latches catch the door and after the fifth or sixth time, it becomes less of a panic and more of a minor annoyance as the door stays mostly closed but now rattles with the rest of the truck. The windows do not roll up or down but rather slide forward and back, and if you feel adventurous they can be picked up and out of the door entirely, but only on the front doors. The rear doors stay as one piece. I sometimes like to imagine the Land Rover with roof off, windshield folded down, front windows removed, but rear windows, load space windows, and rear door all still perfectly in place.

Every time I step in, the springs creak and the body groans. It sounds put out, like a gentle beast awakened from a pleasant slumber to perform its stated duties, which it does with the casual ease of one that has performed the same task time and time again—but also with a guttural rumble of a protest that it would really prefer to be dozing again. I have to settle in just right, make sure all is just so, carefully take it out of whatever gear has been supporting the failing parking brake in keeping the truck in one place, and only then can I proceed with starting it.

From the beginning, the Land Rover, which for the purposes of this article I have privately begun to call “the Immortal,” has been a plague of occasional misfortune. To retrieve the car, I had to borrow a pickup and trailer from my employer to drive two hours to the city where the Land Rover was—only to discover the wheel hub of the trailer was busted. The ensuing odyssey entailed eight hours of driving, fetching and swapping and dropping and swapping trailers, unloading the Land Rover in the midst of an unfortunate downpour in pitch black darkness, and an impromptu driving lesson with a right-hand drive vehicle in a busy gas station parking lot, the only redeeming part of which was that I did not have to struggle learning how to double-clutch an unsynchronized transmission because I never went fast enough to leave first gear. I learned later, but it is an immense learning curve.

On the first day of driving it, I was obliged to drive the right-hand drive monstrosity over a towering bridge that spans a five-mile wide bay against oncoming traffic. I later found that the fuel tank was split and leaking. The dashboard lights only come on when you pull the bottom edge of the panel just so. The windshield wipers operate independently and must be turned on individually; their best feature is that they have an option for hand operation, which is necessary at all times as the motors themselves are largely useless. On one particular outing, the Immortal Land Rover came up dead in the midst of a wildlife reservation. A quick stop to view an osprey nest led to several polite inquiries from many passing patrons as I leant into the engine trying to tinker quietly so as not to disturb the birds for what ended up being a loose battery cable. I was on another adventure just to have dinner with my brother when the throttle cable snapped and the poor beast sluggishly drifted off onto the shoulder. A rope running through the dashboard to the throttle, tugged as needed, solved the issue temporarily. Aside from a restless right foot looking for the gas pedal, it was as if nothing had happened.

In short, my experimental and brash effort to buck and break the Circle of the Disposable with the resurrection of the Beast-Immortal has proven tenuous, stressful, and taxing. It has vexed me; I discovered the leaking fuel tank in May, and as of writing this almost six months later, I still have not gotten around to replacing it. I have been through three different throttle cables. The roof continues to leak, and I have found no fewer than three mouse nests hidden in the dashboard, under the rear bench seats, and tangled in the radio wires. I’m sure there are others hiding. 

And yet, it has been gratifying. It has been fulfilling. It is everything I had expected and wanted. Setting out, I knew this would be difficult. I knew it would be a headache, and I knew that more than once I’d have to rely on a friendly tow truck in the middle of the night, which has happened at least once so far. At any moment, the Immortal could decide, rightfully so, to lie down and call it a day. 

Relying on an elderly vehicle of dubious integrity is a gamble, one I’m incredibly lucky to afford. Immortal won’t stop. I tinker, I make it better, I maintain it, and perhaps it feels some sense of duty as it continues to start on the first try and doesn’t stop until I ask it to (usually).

In spite of the many trials and tribulations involved in owning this vehicle, I obtain immeasurable gratification from its presence in my life. This thing—this slow, lumbering piece of antiquity, this archaic hindrance to staying within the speed limit—has brought me more satisfaction than any flashy new car possibly could. There is an indescribable joy I experience when I pull the choke, press the starter button, and give a slight tap on the gas. It grumbles and sputters before it smooths into a low and even rumble. I make sure everything is straight. I press the clutch and push it gently into first, which may or may not grind slightly, but inevitably it clicks in and roars gently away, off on some new adventure.

But even more than that, the gratification I feel comes from the fact that it is mine, that I own it fully. Not just monetarily, but in the sense of owning the responsibility for it. Every repair I make, every change, every improvement, every oil change, every ding and dent, they are mine. New seats, rebuilt carburetor, eventual fuel tank replacement, paint job—every single thing I do to it is mine, and fully, truly, solely mine.

This, to me, is the crux of the issue. The new car, which was Disposable, was just a machine. Granted, it was a reliable, thoroughly trustworthy machine, but one lacking all soul, all sense of uniqueness. So mundane it blended into the parking lot, it had perfected the art of invisibility through being completely identical to everything around it. In its stability, in its reliability and dependability, it ceases to excite, and so it must inevitably be passed along for the next best thing, the next thrill, the next source of gratification from continual consumption.

New cars give a strong sense of security. It’s new! Surely, by that logic, it must be infallible. No harm can come from a car when that “new car smell” still persists. There is, of course, a good deal of truth to that, barring the infrequent, though still pervasive, concept of the lemon. But warranties expire, parts break down, and like any car with a hint of age in it, the once-new car starts to lose its gleam. As of 2012, Kelley Blue Book shows that new car ownership lasts just under six years, while for used cars it’s just over four years. Other, newer cars start to look more and more enticing, and as the pay-off amount drifts lower, we find ourselves weighing how much more per month we can afford to pay in order to get that new, “better” car. Or, even worse, we become trapped in the cycle of the lease, which requires us to pay indefinitely for a car we’ll never truly call our own.

This in itself is a fine argument for public transportation. Personal vehicles are slowly strangling our cities. They clog the arteries that enable our escape to a more scenic rural paradise and congest the routes which enable us to move about freely at any given time. Having grown up in an area where you had to have a family car in order to get to town for groceries, I have long considered personal vehicles to be a supplemental asset to public transportation, a way of getting to the train station or the airport when there is no bus to take you, a way of getting you closer to civilization where public transportation options would be more readily available. 

The issue is not cars themselves, but the way that our entire society has been built around them, especially in the United States. Cars can be works of art that evoke strong emotional responses, sometimes in their rawest form, whereas highways, traffic lights, brake lights, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and blaring car horns are all banes of the car-centric society we have created. Cars come alive on quiet back roads and twisting seaside scenic byways, where they are no longer just machines but extensions of the driver and a platform upon which experiences and memories are built. No one remembers (fondly) being stuck on the highway, but many will remember the thrill of the landscape developing before them as they crest a hill to see the ocean, a redwood forest, or mountains stretching out before them in quiet, natural bliss.

Unfortunate as the American public transportation system is, and as horrific as its highway infrastructure can be, still the personal car remains the only viable option for most communities. Thus the issue of use and sell, of constantly buying with the intent of replacing, continues to persist. The obvious solution is to buy used, but this still does not remedy the immediate issue of sustaining the practice. Once purchased, the car must inevitably be repaired and maintained, which returns, once again, to the premise of self-repairs, of the “shade-tree mechanic.”

illustration by Nick Sirotich

Understandably, mechanical skills elude many of us. It is perhaps a failure of our education system. The local mechanic and their vocation hang on a thread. Every passing year, more and more close up shop as car owners are forced to find those dealerships that can offer those proprietary repairs. Some of these require the entire removal of the engine to replace what was once an easily replaceable part, while others even necessitate a unique computer in order to digitally assign basic parts to specific cars. But to own a car that requires only basic maintenance, something that one can do by themselves, to utilize that local corner mechanic, who may even be a staple of your community, to know your belongings beyond simply turning them on and using them, is to liberate oneself from the endless cycle of consumption.

This logic can be applied to more than just cars. The subject of this article was very nearly a typewriter I once owned, a vintage Smith-Corona that I ended up giving to a friend. Why buy a computer to type this article? Why buy the next thing when there is something which already exists and which takes no more resources than those that have already been invested in it, something with character, with soul, with history and a story behind it? The possibilities are endless for what one might restore and reuse. Much of our modern way of life revolves around experiencing greater comfort or luxury. But there is value in discomfort, and reward in overcoming it. That reward comes harder with each passing day. Supply chains make it difficult to obtain parts or find an affordable old car that you can also work on. The Haynes manual publishers and authors have now seen fit to auction off its vast collection of cars and to cease publication because modern cars simply cannot be fixed by their owners and interest in restoring or maintaining old cars has greatly diminished. But a modern economy based on endless production and consumption is unsustainable. In the end, there is infinite value in preserving your own things, in truly owning them, and in the psychological value of separating yourself as fully as possible from the parasitic business model of larger corporations.

The Land Rover, the Beast-Immortal, lacks value in an economy of new. It leaks when it rains. The “new car smell” passed from it decades ago. The factory optional heater—a drum of roughly coffee-can proportions with two small gates that either defogs your windshield or blows out a weak breath of lukewarm air onto your legs—achieves warmth that is only slightly better than freezing. Yet I would rather feel a waft of lukewarm air on my skin than pay a monthly subscription for seat heaters. Which would you prefer?

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