Driving you to drink

It used to be a given what cars were reliable and which ones you’d come to expect a great driving experience from, but paid a premium in expensive maintenance for the privilege.

One of my first jobs was as a gas station attendant for a local Gulf station. I know, I know…you’re thinking I’m old, but I just like to consider myself “mature,” as most who know me would agree I’m not growing up any time soon, if ever.

Anyhow, people used to drive up to the pumps on the island, I would greet them and usually hear “fill ‘er up” in response. I would offer to check the oil if they didn’t already ask, too.

Before I was working at the Gulf station, a friend of mind got me a job pumping gas at a BP station. This was just a gas-only station with no repair facilities on site. But, the owner of this station also owned the Gulf and he had me move over to the Gulf station to work—which was closer to my home and also was a full service garage with mechanics on site. It was very cool for a youngster like me to be hanging around with, and more importantly, making friends, with mechanics.

There were three, actually, four mechanics at the Gulf—a seasoned mechanic (who was stolen from a neighboring Shell station competitor), his son (who was decent, but still making his bones compared to his dad), a quirky Navy vet master mechanic (nicknamed “Detroit” for obvious reasons) who would get the big truck engine rebuild jobs and the Greek owner, who was a master mechanic himself, but didn’t typically get involved in the day-to-day jobs unless tight scheduling necessitated him helping out.

This was mid, late seventies, and I remember being at the Gulf, listening to the radio plugged in atop the soda machine just outside the station office’s steel framed glass front door, Aug. 16, 1977, when Elvis died. It was one of those events you always remember where you were, kind of things. I had also just graduated high school a couple of months earlier and remembered thinking this was a time of transition. During these last few years I had learned a lot about cars and also made friends with mechanics—good folks to be friends with.

Those days of full serve gas stations are long gone. During that era of automotive development, many of us worked on our vehicles in driveways on any given weekend. Provided you knew what you were doing, many repairs could be done without benefit of specialized computer diagnostic equipment like we need today. Detroit, who very much knew what he was doing, would come over to our house.

He got to know the family well, and would hang out and work on mom or dad’s car if something was running poorly. He was able to pop the hood, tinker with the carburetor, hand adjust a few things, and like magic, the car wasn’t missing or idling rough any longer—saving us an expensive trip to the shop. Sometimes we would drive to the local auto parts store and pick up what was needed. He’d install it and we were good to go. Generally speaking, cars were easier for the average person to work on back then, and even easier if you were friends with a mechanic.

As cars became more technologically advanced, the do-it-yourself, in your driveway weekend repair guys began to fall by the wayside. We had to bring our vehicles to the shop for “diagnosis.”

“Is the patient on life support?”

Depending on what you drive, it very well could be. More likely, you, yourself (after receiving the repair estimate costs), would be.

Today we pump our own gas but that’s usually it when it comes to doing car “work.” I’m typically the only one looking under the hood as I fill up my car at the pump. I know we’ll never go back to attendants greeting you with a friendly hello and offering to check the basics under the hood, not to mention, catching something that might cause you problems in the not too distant future, if not taken care of; but it sure would be a nice option to have still.

In this economy, we drive many miles with defective vehicles only to experience sticker shock that a repair to our vehicle brings, once we take it to the cleaners, I mean, shop. Ignorance may be bliss, but when it comes to our cars, it can be quite expensive.

I never became a mechanic or pretended to know how to do anything beyond oil, fluid changes and changing out spark plugs, air and fuel filters. But, many times, this was enough to get you by for extended periods of time, and depending on the car, was pretty much all the maintenance necessary, save for the occasional flat tire that required plugging in the shop.

Mass marketing by the automotive industry has remained constant in our popular culture—then, and now. Those shiny new cars sure look great in the TV, web and print advertisements. They cater to our sensibilities and tastes. We end up buying new cars not because we want or need them, however, but because we can’t avoid them. Madison Avenue drills, drills and drills some more into our heads what it is we should buy, and we submissively purchase that new status symbol with nary a thought as to future, long-term expense or inconvenience.

Although quality of automotive build is relative, you can be pretty sure there will never be vehicles that are completely maintenance free—although some engineers might argue we already possess that cost prohibitive technology.

Instead, we will continue to be driven to drink (the Kool-Aid) in the name of the modern driving experience, as we make repeated trips to the dealership for mysterious rattles, check engine lights or rough-running idles that only they can solve (if you’re lucky), time and time again.

Fill ‘er up?



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