According to my mechanic, that burning smell emanating from my car’s vents was caused by an oil leak near the camshaft synchronizing sensor underneath the right side of the engine. Unfortunately I had no idea what he was talking about. He lost me at camshaft.
I’m sure I’m not alone. In high school, our guidance counselors reminded us that getting into the best colleges meant taking the most academically rigorous courses—advanced placement English, calculus, history, etc., plus studying a foreign language to near fluency. Those vocational-technical classes offered in carpentry, plumbing, and automotive repair? Perish the thought.
It’s only gotten worse: As Andrew Ferguson writes in Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, “Native-born high school kids, my son’s peers, were getting internships at investment banks and brokerage houses. . . . They were already laying pipe for their subsequent careers and, more immediately, for college applications. . . . And childhood now was a matter of setting life goals and arranging your activities in pursuit of them.” Sadly, learning about cars is not a life goal. But it should be.
Although advanced placement classes can be enlightening (and obviously burnish a high school transcript), they can lack in practicality. Having taken AP biology, I can’t tell you the last time my knowledge of the citric acid cycle came in handy. It certainly wasn’t of any help as I stood in front of my mechanic waiting for him to tally the estimate for parts and labor.
Instead, I nodded attentively, as if I knew the difference between a camshaft and a crankshaft. On a previous trip to the garage to replace a broken coil, the mechanic informed me the part had just arrived. “Oh, you mean this thing?” I asked, lifting up a screw on his desk. “Uh, no,” he said. “I mean the box below,” which was about the size of half my leg. In other words, who am I to question the claim that oil was leaking near the camshaft?
Who I am not is my old high school classmate Steve Palombi. A total gearhead, Steve loved talking about cars and especially about torque. In fact, some of our classmates would teasingly yell to him “Torque!” in the hallways. I called Steve last week and asked if he remembered that. Very matter-of-factly, Steve explained, “Torque is the amount of force needed to move an object. It’s much more important than horsepower.” When someone boasts about a car’s 300-horsepower engine, he shoots back, “You know what? How much torque do you have, pal?”
Steve said his love for cars and all things mechanical began in childhood. His late father, an elevator mechanic, allowed him to help out in the garage. After high school, Steve went to community college and earned an automotive degree (he currently works for the Otis Elevator Company). If at all possible, Steve avoids having someone else fix his cars and, I presume, has saved himself tens of thousands of dollars in auto repairs. When I told him my car is a 2001 Volkswagen Passat, he groaned, “Oh, man, VWs have tons of ground issues.” When I explained my car’s oil leak near the camshaft, all he could say was, “Oof. That hurts just you telling me.”
Steve, meanwhile, is in the midst of changing his window regulator and recently installed a bolt-on supercharger to his car. While listening to my old classmate elaborate on the problems of today’s increasingly computerized car systems—though he still prefers fuel injection over carburetors—I couldn’t help but think how useful it would have been to have taken an automotive repair class along with some of those courses in AP biology, history, and English (although I did write a killer essay on The Color Purple).
Don’t get me wrong, I can check my oil and even change a tire. But it would have been nice to have learned the basics of an engine (even Queen Elizabeth II was a truck mechanic in her youth). Much to my embarrassment, my 7-year-old son, who has a passion for all things mechanical, had to ask his mother how a stick shift works. I just never got around to start.
But, as they say, it’s never too late to learn. “It’s a great way to bond with your kid,” Steve added. Plus it would make me more useful in times of crisis. Which reminds me: In The Disaster Diaries: One Man’s Quest to Learn Everything Necessary to Survive the Apocalypse, author Sam Sheridan writes that the most important people to have around you during a national emergency are a doctor, a farmer, and a mechanic. I couldn’t resist asking the author, “What about writers?” Sheridan said he asked his physician the same question. The doctor laughed at him and replied, “We won’t need writers!”