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How To Help A Kid Into The Hobby

by Bob Hagin

May 7, 2001

I was a high school auto shop teacher for over 20 years until I retired, and while it wasn't the way I started my lifelong career in the auto world (I was a mechanic for 20 years prior to that), it was the longest single job I've ever had. I was there long enough to have the children of ex-students come through my program, telling me that their dads (and sometimes their mothers) had told them to make sure to take my class.

Over the years, it began to bother me that teen-agers became more and more isolated from the auto world as new cars became very complex and electronically-controlled. In earlier times, 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 usually don't have the time or the know-how. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) give lip-service to youth programs, but I've found them to be media devices for their own public images. Although the Explorer Scouts have a commitment to give their members real life experiences through their programs, when I retired in 1995, I was reportedly the only Explorer Scout leader in the country whose post was dedicated to the automobile as a hobby or avocation. I was lucky enough to have helpful parents as assistants.

There's 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. Future car hobbyists will buy or subscribe to "buff" magazines that cover hot-rods, pickups and other "glamour" machines, and mechanical "centerfolds" will cover their bedroom walls. They'll eventually stumble onto someone in the neighborhood whose idea of a fun weekend is working on some sort of veteran car 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 may somehow acquire a small gasoline engine (usually from a neighbor's discarded lawn mower) and dismantle it with household tools and an instruction book from the local library. That's how I got started.

A satisfactory set of tools is the most expensive and most frustrating part of the program. 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 or her automotive infatuation may be 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 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 finding an ad in a local shopper or classified section of a newspaper or searching local streets for a suitable vehicle. Recently I spotted a vintage Toyota pickup truck that was in the "freebie" section of our local newspaper. Obviously, the price was right and according to the donor, all the parts were there. It may never see the street again but it would have made a marvelous learning tool for a beginner - simple to the extreme and easy to push - just in case.

Adult 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 and 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 more than 50 years ago.