Noise Vibration and Harshness

Mechanic in Training: My Son Caught the Car Bug After All

The prospects did not always look good.

Some of you may remember my sweet firstborn son, Ike, from the time when he was nine and got his seven-year-old sister, Ellie, banned for life from the online game “Club Penguin.” That was because he directed her penguin to approach another child’s and, instead of having it extend the expected friendly greeting, had it tell the stranger’s penguin to go [commit an anatomically impossible act with] itself. Those were the days.

Later on, it emerged Ike did not share his dad’s enthusiasm for automobiles. “That’d be fine for me,” he would say, pointing to a banged-up 11-year-old Mitsubishi Mirage we’d driven past. It led me to wonder whether he was playing his parents in some kind of indecipherable, long-range grift, or if he truly didn’t care about cars. That he didn’t get his driver’s license for more than six months after passing the 16th birthday that legally entitled him to one suggested the latter. And I was OK with this, really. The automobile as we know it is soon to be a relic of a time not all will remember fondly; maybe this indifference was a jarring example of a species preparing itself for transport by autonomous pod.

Eventually, though, Ike started driving, and within a few months, his enthusiasm for cars wasn’t just kindled; it was a five-alarm blaze. Suddenly, he was memorizing historical details I never knew, with first-rate automotive identification skills and strong yet reasonable opinions. Seemingly overnight, he’d learned to bore on like a veteran car journalist assessing every iteration of BMW’s 5 Series just as easily as he might expound on Land Rover Stage 1 V8s (1979-85) or MG Magnettes he’d known and loved.

In his spare time, Ike would recommission a cheap Alfa Romeo GTV6, then trade up for a Lancia Fulvia coupe, which he’d shed in another swap, netting a Fulvia Berlina and a Miata. Yet somehow he managed while also working summers to graduate from a fine university magna cum laude. The dean wrote to suggest Ike apply for some fancy fellowships. I reminded my son that no one had invited me to apply for anything when I was in school, though I, too, was on a dean’s list. Just not for anything academic.

But Ike didn’t want to go back to school. He’d studied too hard for too long. He didn’t want to sit in front of a computer anymore. He wanted to work with his hands.

So today, on the eve of his 25th birthday, we find him entering a second year’s apprenticeship to Joe Curto, North America’s premier rebuilder of SU carburetors. These are the famous “Union” carburettors (British spelling) of the “constant depression” variety designed by Herbert Skinner and built from 1904 through the present. They’re thought by many to cause constant depression in owners of cars so equipped (mostly British marques, with the occasional Volvo thrown in), but in my experience they’re not bad at all, especially compared to the alternatives, some of which Curto’s shop also works on.

Ike’s understanding of carburetor theory and engine tuning has since left my own in the dust; speaking of which, he has also taken over a dusty garage I rent and started buying and fixing cars in it during off hours. Right now he’s working on his faded Porsche 944 S2, yesterday diagnosing relay failure and thereby solving its dead fan problem. Color me impressed­—just the sort of mishap that sends me racing to call for a tow.

Ike’s tastes are eccentric in a way few besides a close family member—someone like me, for instance—might understand. To put it out there short and sharp, he also now owns two Peugeots (an early Euro 505 with a groovy tweed interior and a 405 Mi16) and, in addition to his Lancia, my old RHD Austin Mini Metro, two running Rovers, a parts TC, and a $700 Explorer with 300,000 miles, plus 2000TC engines, transaxles, and sundry parts too numerous to count, and a tired V-8 from a P6B. He’s putting a 1954 MG TF, a friend’s inheritance, back on the road after a 40-year layup while helping some lawyer upstate get his TC running. And that’s ignoring the Miata—sold but being stored for a new owner. Oh, also the 195,000-mile Audi A6 Avant Ike got in return for car shopping advice.

“Son,” I’m about to say to him, often, “you’ve given your life and wealth over to cars; have you considered the alternatives?” Then I think, I’m kidding, right? It’s my own damned fault. Obviously. But, hey, it’s a life, it’s what I did, and I’m still here. I’m really proud of my son. I just feel bad because, but for me, he’d know better than to mess with Rovers and Peugeots.