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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

April 4, 1997

I've been retired from teaching high school auto shop for a couple of years now, but I still haven't totally removed the profession from my mind. I have fond memories of the students of my past.

As an auto shop teacher, it bothered me that over the years teen-agers became more and more remote from the auto world as new cars became very complex and electronically-controlled. In earlier days, prior to getting his driver's license, a young guy would buy or be given a "beater" of some kind and spend a year or more fixing it up, usually under the supervision of a male adult family member. That's how my own sons developed and honed their own youthful mechanical skills.

But things have changed. Often there's no one in the family with enough proficiency in mechanical things to guide the auto neophyte. Single mothers may want to help a willing son to get into the hobby, but she usually doesn't have the time or the know-how. Organizations like the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) give lip-service to their so-called youth programs, but I've found them to be media devices for their own public images. Even the Explorer Scouts have no interest in perpetuating the hobby through a comprehensive program.

But there is a way to satisfy a teen-ager's request to get in on the auto hobby, but it takes some planning if it's not already an ongoing family tradition. It requires interest on the part of the youth, a comprehensive set of tools, work space (preferably under cover and large enough to house a small car on a long-term basis), a small "beater," and constant monitoring.

Determining the amount of interest is relatively easy. A future car hobbiest will usually seek out someone in the neighborhood whose idea of a fun weekend is working on his '68 Chevrolet Impala SS and the youngster will make himself a nuisance until he's allowed to hang around and help. Lacking a car to work on, the beginner will somehow acquire a small gasoline engine (usually from a neighbor's discarded lawn mower) and dismantle it with household tools. That's how I got started.

A satisfactory set of tools is the most expensive and most frustrating part of the equation. Birthday and Christmas presents are the usual means of getting a kid into his own set of wrenches, screwdrivers, sockets and other implements of dismantlement. Drop a hint or two early in the year and if the recipient doesn't snap at the suggestion, go back to square one, since his automotive infatuation is just a passing fancy and may soon be replaced by a couch-potato interest in big-time wrestling or members of the opposite sex. In an upcoming feature we'll discuss tool selection.

The work space is usually a portion of the family garage and this takes some sacrifice and spatial planning on the part of other members of the family. It can also take the form of an on-site shed or, as it was in the case of a close friend, the garage of an understanding grandmother. If the kid is serious and determined, he'll find a place.

The next item on the list is finding a suitable cadaver. It can be as easy as placing an ad in a local shopper or classified section of a newspaper or searching local streets for a suitable vehicle. A block from my house a vintage Toyota Corolla is parked on the street with expired license plates and a half-inch of dust on the windshield. I have not doubt that the owner (traceable through the license plate number) would be happy to pass it on to any recipient who would get the derelict out of the unhappy owner's name. Two cautionary comments here: pick a car that's small, whole (don't bother with one that has parts missing), and towable. And make sure that the donor has an ownership certificate that shows him or her as legal owner and that the certificate is signed off correctly. It's a simple matter to surrender the plates to the department of motor vehicles, obtain a receipt and have the car re-registered if and when it runs again. In the case of my son Andy, it was a '64 Datsun 410 sedan that took up residence in our yard for a year.

Monitoring is the most time consuming and least appreciated part of the youthful automotive renovation process. Most kids resist cleaning up their rooms and the same can happen in the case of a project vehicle. Tools have to be put away after each session while used oil, "stale" gasoline and other petroleum-based liquids have to be contained in discarded milk cartons or plastic bleach bottles and taken to the local household hazardous waste material collection location. It's not just a "nice" thing to do. It's the law.

If it all goes well and the student has followed the shop manual you bought him for his particular car, in a year or so he'll be rewarded with an engine that runs. When it initially coughs and starts, he'll have one of life's most exciting first-experiences. I'm sure of this because it happened to me exactly 50 years ago.