Those Who Have Gone Before
There’s a saying in hiking (for those not familiar with hiking, it’s like four-wheeling, but using your feet): “Take only memories. Leave only footprints.” It’s a charming idea and good words to live by in the field. Ditto the doctor’s guiding principle of “first, do no harm.” Seems like a smart place to start.
If only mechanics would do the same. Every used car I’ve ever worked on carries evidence of someone else’s previous murderous techniques. Welded-together bolts, duct-taped-together vacuum systems, mixes of interesting international thread pitches, silicone used as a fastener … I’ve seen it all.
Working on these cars is a kind of Heinrich Schliemann archeological excavation of the lost city of Troy, where you’re digging past all these previous layers of buildings upon buildings to get to the things you really want to get to, which in our story isn’t the Mask of Agamemnon but the oil level pressure sender on the left flank of a V12 engine. All along the way you get to marvel at all the layers built on top of the base layer, and stand incredulous at the evils committed before you. Or at least wonder how the manifold hasn’t blown itself clean off already given that it is held on by only two remaining studs.
Occasionally, however, there are wonderful exceptions. And those are the cars we all look for. A “completely original” “unrestored” “barn find” “time warp” car, when actually what it claims to be, is wonderful to work on. Its condition reflects only the way that it was engineered from the factory plus the effects of wear and time. It’s a car that hasn’t had any mechanic boyfriends before you to mess it up and cause it not to trust you.
And so to the real reason I’m writing: I’m recommissioning my father’s Jaguar.
By early 1972 I was less than a year old, and my parents were already divorced. They had been married for ten years but at age 30 it seems my father wasn’t really prepared for the responsibilities of family life. So my mother took me and a Dodge pickup with a camper and left the rest behind. Sounds like a country and western song, but I’ve seen pictures and it was a badass pickup. I would’ve taken it too.
My father then took the robin’s egg blue Series 1 XJ6 to the Jaguar dealer and traded it on a brand new red-on-black V12 E-Type roadster with a manual transmission. A very good car for a newly-single doctor in a small town and, ironically, my mother’s deam car.
I never had any contact with my father until I drove my own $500 1966 MGB down to meet him in 1992 when I was 21, then again briefly when I was 23, and then we fell out of touch again forever. We shared a love of cars – that much I knew – but beyond that I knew very little of him. And by the time I first met him, unbeknownst to me, the E-Type was recently laid up in his garage on axle stands with some problem. The last registration tag was for 1990.
In 2011 he died unexpectedly, without a will. This meant that his estate was governed by laws that meant I received a share. I’d never received anything from him before, but this posthumous gift was certainly helpful.
In the workout of the estate, the executor asked if I would like the Jag. Apparently my father had told his last wife that “If anything ever happens to me, Andrew should get this car.” Of course normally I would jump at a one-owner E-Type, but the combination of preferring cash at that point and the emotional shoal of taking possession of the car that my father had bought immediately after divorcing my beloved mother meant that I regretfully passed. My five half-brothers, whom I also barely knew, sorted out the Jag amongst the many cars (mostly charming semi-derelict 1970s American monsters) between them, and I took the cash.
Fast forward to earlier this year and two of the brothers had taken the Jag and cleaned it up, but were stumped at going any further with it. Whether a function of not having the time, expertise, or finances to get it up and running, they asked if I wanted to buy it. After much teeth-gnashing and spousal support, I did, and this is where the archeology begins.
I didn’t really know my father at all, but when I first went to see the car in his widow’s garage, my heart sank, and I felt an immediate connection to him. Because parked outside of the bay that held the E-Type was a rusted-out late-70s XJ12 sedan with a destroyed interior. Now, no car guy buys that car for the car itself. He buys it for what it can contribute to the project car. And the only thing that XJ12 could contribute was the engine. If I had an E-Type with a serious engine problem I would try to buy a cheap sedan with the same motor to offer up vital organs. I presumed that’s what my father – a man who surely understood both organ donations and project cars – had done. And it meant I was in for a world of hurt, where “hurt” includes dropping actual V12 engines on your toes.
Nevertheless, I bought it, picked it up, and then began getting my hands dirty on a car that, it appears, has never been worked on by anyone but my late estranged father, and me. In fact, with 49,000 miles on the clock, fully worn brake pads, filthy air filters, original green brake fluid, and lead plugs in the dashpot screws, it looks to me like it’s never been worked on by anyone at all.
Except it has. The right flank of the engine compartment has been taken apart. The clutch master cylinder is empty. And while a new battery brings all the electrics to life, it won’t turn over on the key. What I like to call forensic mechanic work now commences. Think of it like CSI, but the crime scene is an old car. And the perp was my dad.
Somewhere in my head, those car commercials play. You know the ones: a father and his son look lovingly at their project car while, in the foreground, and artfully-displayed oil filter box sits, reflecting all the bonding and machisimo and happiness that cross-generational mechanical work implies.
But I’m doing this one solo. And, worryingly, I don’t have an XJ12 donor car in the driveway.