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October 7, 2011


The Labor of Love

by drivingfarce

As I climbed into my beloved BMW E30, the guilt trip began before the journey started.  It happens every time I walk past.  Rarely does it escalate into anything more than a slight nag, but occasionally we’ll have it out.
“Why are you ignoring me?”

“Ignore you?!  How can you even suggest that?”

“I don’t feel loved.”

“I drive you.  I wash you.  I completely rebuilt your suspension.  AND interior!  I just flushed your brakes.  I changed all of your fluids.  I even put Swepco in your gearbox and Amsoil in your differential, for crying out loud!”*

“I know.  And I appreciate all of your work.”

“So why do you say I’m ignoring you?”

“When was the last time you touched me?”

I pause and try to remember.  It has been too long…far too long.  When I wash it, I take it to the local car wash.  It is not that I’m lazy; it’s just that my home has the water pressure equal to that of an elderly man at a rest stop urinal.  I attempt to justify my choice by using the foaming brush, but it never gets the car as clean as washing it with a bucket and sponge.  The intimacy is gone.

Like any relationship, the one with a car requires constant work to keep it healthy.  I was discussing a particularly strange troubleshooting effort with a friend recently.  (With his car, not his girlfriend.)  During this session of bouncing ideas around, he made a remarkable statement.  “I need to learn to love this car.  I’m willing to commit to it.”

It caught me off guard.  This car that we were speaking of hasn’t exactly led the easiest life.  It isn’t abused, but it isn’t pampered or garaged either.  It is just used like an appliance, like so many other cars on the road.  He continued, “Where do you recommend I start to ‘get to know’ my car?”

I gave him two simple suggestions on how this relationship could deepen.  Wash your car–BY HAND.  Then wax your car–BY HAND.  There is something rather special that happens when you drag the coiled hose off of the hook in the garage and fill a bucket with suds and water.  Firstly, you invest a great deal of time in washing a car by hand.  It is not just a 3 minute job.  When you invest time in something, you tend to look after it and care for it more.  You don’t want to see any harm come to it.  You begin thinking of the car as more of an asset and less of a liability.

Another benefit to washing by hand is the closeness that you have to the paint.  This proximity allows one to notice things that would otherwise go unnoticed.  Paint chips, door dings, beginnings of rust, and fading trim–that would normally be passed over–become noticeable eyesores.  Your hands have to pass over these flaws twice with every wash—once with the sponge, again with the chamois.  You commence thinking beyond prevention of future blemishes and onto cures for the current maladies.

The tenderness and care go even deeper when the waxing process begins.  I can never just “throw a coat of wax on” anything.  In fact, that phrase just baffles me.  However, I won’t criticize anyone for using an economy wax and doing it quickly, because any wax is better than none.  But for me, it is a deeply involving process that starts with the wash cycle and ends about 5 hours later.

After a thorough cleaning I break out the clay bar and clean the paint.  It’s the automotive equivalent of a deep pore cleanse.  Once the paint is clean I polish it with a 3-step process, buffing with a terry cloth between each compound change.  After what seems to be 16 hours of buffing, and when I am sure the paint cannot get any smoother, I finally begin to lay down some wax.  With the wax I generally stop at two or three coats, as anything more would just be over-the-top and ridiculous.

There is something special that happens when you apply wax to paint.  The surface transforms.  It goes from a slightly rough, chalky texture to that of smooth silk.  Your hands are rewarded for their toil with a deep gleam and a slick surface. Gravity makes itself known again as towels placed on the hood slide off. Your eyes are also given a treat when you drive the car in the next rainfall.  Small, equal droplets of water bead evenly across the hood, forming hurried streams as the speed increases.  It is a very satisfying sight.

This investment of time and energy can also be extended to the mechanical side of things.  Changing your own oil (well, the car’s) and checking tire pressures aren’t so much drudgery when you are protecting your investment of love.  Your knowledge grows.  Terms like “cupping” and “oilpan” don’t sound too foreign anymore.  Your confidence grows, too, and soon you begin to do jobs that you never thought you were capable of.  (Not long after starting these projects I realized that I, in fact, am not qualified to complete them. Still, I persevere and get through them.)  It just takes time and energy to make this relationship of man and machine work.

As I look over my car I see the little things that I should have taken care of months ago.  The one section of front headliner is peeling back just a bit.  The weather stripping on the driver’s door should be replaced.  A couple of row elements in the rear defroster grid have failed and should be touched up for continuity.  The chrome trim that I had blacked out could use a re-spray on some surfaces.  These little jobs won’t take long to complete, but add them together and I am looking at a full Saturday dedicated to nothing more than fixing things that no one will ever notice but me.  But I suppose that is the point.

* For those not gear lube-minded, lavishing a car with Swepco or Amsoil lubricants is a lot like giving a girlfriend silver and gold jewelry; and not much less expensive.  (The last gallon of Swepco I purchased was over $75)  In my experience, the reward is greater when putting the money into the car.

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