Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 20, 2009


A curious silence fell on the Prairie gas station as everyone turned to take in the ignominious spectacle of my departure. The fan belt of my dirt-encrusted ‘81 Honda Civic screamed like a dying loon while the car lurched forward erratically to the beat of misfiring cylinders. Confounded so far in my cross-Canada trek by the newly-purchased vehicles worrying tendency to weave back and forth at highway speeds, the mystery had just been solved by a helpful gas station attendant who pointed out that two of my tires were nearly flat, while a third was over-inflated. I marveled at how straight the car drove after fixing that.


I was 23 years old and knew nothing of cars. And yet, as difficult as it may have been for the people at that gas station to believe, I was destined within a few short months to attain the hallowed ranks of the Car Guy.


This was my first car, bought for $350 in Vancouver and, a one week insurance permit taped to the back window, my inspired, low-budget solution to how to move myself and all my worldly belongings to Ottawa.


Two weeks earlier the only descriptive detail I could muster for most cars was its colour.

Then I started scanning the classifieds for deals and discovered the dizzying diversity of auto-taxonomy.


I finally settled on the Civic for no better reason than it was the cheapest thing I could find that still achieved forward motion. Its previous owner actually talked me down on the price – I was willing to pay $400, but he insisted he only take $350.


I would soon find out why. As my mid-December dash across the continent unfolded, my new car revealed the following idiosyncrasies:


– It had no oomph (I believe thats the right term). I had to take the mountain passes geared down to second, with the gas pedal held to the floor – while the tractor trailers sped by outside.


– The windshield washer fluid didnt work; being able to see where I was going was a forgotten luxury on salty, slushy highways. Stopping to throw snow across the windshield wasnt efficient, but it did keep me from driving off cliffs.


– The concept of idling was lost on my car. It only knew go and stop. Like a shark, the engine would sputter and die if my speed dipped below about 10 km/h. If I spotted a red light in the distance, I would begin an elaborate process of pre-emptive braking, gearing down, pulling out the manual choke, and pumping the gas while in neutral, hoping to wait the light out.


– A voracious appetite for motor oil was not one of my cars more endearing qualities. Whenever I stopped for gas, Id throw another litre of the viscous fluid down its bottomless gullet.


– While the Honda Civic has a reputation for getting great gas mileage, mine seemed a Winnebago in disguise. Its hunger for oil was matched only by its consumption of gasoline. I later discovered that I had driven most of the way across North America with the parking brake seized in the engaged position – not a feature recommended for fuel efficiency.       


My cars previous owner had, of course, neglected to mention any of thesepeculiarities – just as I had failed to imagine them. The one problem he had warned me about was that the tape deck didnt work. This turned out to be one of the few things that did actually work – that is, until the speakers fizzled out.


But these were all mere inconveniences. The point was, I was still moving forward. Besides, the challenges presented by my new car were not wholly unpleasant. In the first budding of the latent Car Guy within me, I discovered the deep satisfaction of making on-road repairs. With a Swiss Army knife and a bit of tubing bought at a hardware store, I managed to patch up the windshield washer system. I felt so proud of this achievement, contentedly spraying the glass whenever the slightest blemish obscured my perfect visibility, that I nearly forgot about the myriad of other problems plaguing my vehicle. 


As I sped through the home stretch of a never-ending Ontario, I felt like I was racing my own fatigue, trying to stay ahead of the advancing exhaustion of five days on the road. But I was also aware of another mounting weariness: that of my car. I imagined the clock was ticking on its tenuous hold on functionality. I had to make it to Ottawa before it died. Sometime during the last long night I made a silent pact with my car: get me home, and I promise to fix you up.


I arrived in Ottawa fifteen hours later.


While Ottawa shivered and slipped through the ice storm, I took advantage of the mild temperature to begin my dissection of that mysterious, twisted organ of metal under my cars hood. My guide into this abyss was a book I found at the library, How To Keep Your Honda Alive. It was a godsend. Written by a couple of Californian ex-hippies, it betrayed a loving adoration for the Civic – product of the 70s energy crisis, a Japanese paradigm shift, it was born of an age of elegant simplicity, even permitting someone like me to become an initiate to its secrets. Suddenly, my old beater of a car took on a new beauty. Beneath the rust and grease and dirt shone a dream, an ideal, that longed to be released again to its former glory. I would release it.


I attacked the engine with wrenches and WD40. Mountains of labeled zip-lock bags containing slimy, blackened bits of metal piled up behind me. Blindly adhering to some ancient, genetic programming, I soon found myself drinking beer as I peered into the dark guts of my monster. Beer, I found, was an essential tool in the loosening of stubborn nuts, which is what I spent most of my time doing. While oil lubricated the threads of bolts, beer lubricated the wheels of patience necessary to cope with the frustration of seemingly immovable hardware. Like some scientist in a B movie drinking his own concoction, my former personality was gradually consumed from within by the impostor. The Car Guy was now strutting freely through my psyche.


But my new identity still yearned for external validation. Beyond the practical necessity of procuring supplies at junkyards and parts dealers, the Car Guy thrilled in these interactions with its kin. Like a university French student venturing for the first time into a Parisian café, the Car Guy was eager to show that it spoke the same language as these priests of mechanized horsepower.


The consummation of the Car Guys mercurial rise came one afternoon at the Honda dealership parts window. I was picking up a new head gasket, a symbol that the engine was now nearly reassembled. Instead of the usual detached indifference, the guy behind the counter actually joked good-naturedly with me. As I walked out the door, the gasket clutched under my arm, I realized that he had recognized me, that I had become a regular. More importantly, he had recognized me not as a car-neophyte, not as another ignorant consumer, but as a peer, an equal. This offhand exchange of banter had been my baptism into the fold. My journey was complete. I was one of the guys – a Car Guy.   

Punlished in the Ottawa Citizen, August 10, 2003


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