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Opinion: Keep your friends close and your mechanics closer

Published 16 August 2016

I passed my driving test in 1994, which was an interesting time for the car industry. It was, very much, the dawn of the electronic era, as cars moved away from being simple and easy to maintain towards being ever more electronically controlled and ECU-reliant.

They were interesting times, and possibly the last days in which young people were positively encouraged to learn the true art of car maintenance. As a 16-year old, I learned how engines worked courtesy of a knowledgeable neighbour and a donated Austin Allegro. It wasn’t the most auspicious start to a motoring career, but it was sufficient enough for me to learn the ropes.

I’d love to say I’ve developed those skills further, but the truth of the matter is, I haven’t. I learned the basics – how to change oil, coolant, spark plugs, brake pads, filters, and also the dark art of how to apply chicken wire and body filler to hoodwink the local MoT tester, although the latter is not a skill worth bragging about.

When it came to the heavier jobs, though, I’d call in support from Brian and Peter, our Triumph Stag-owning next door neighbour and the Land Rover nut across the road.  Indeed, I didn’t really need to call on them, for if ever they saw my car with its bonnet up, they’d naturally migrate. For men of a certain age and era, an open bonnet had a curious form of magnetism. Indeed, it still does…

And that meant I’d give things a go myself, but probably get stuck halfway through. That was fine when I had friendly neighbours to call up on, both of whom were walking Haynes Manuals, but a bit more of a challenge when I moved 150 miles away from home, and started to drive newer (albeit still late-in-their-life) vehicles.

It was on one such occasion, when I’d stupidly immobilised my Rover 825 Coupe in 2005, that I met Tony. He lived down the road from me, and was immediately magnetised by its open bonnet as he trundled past in his Citroen C15 van. Having established the fault was a little more serious than first suspected (it was the main ECU control module, unique to the Coupe, and I had some searching to do just to find the part) he immediately solved my short term transport problems by lending me the C15, which, bearing in mind he’d known me for 15 minutes, was rather trusting of him.

I ended up selling the Rover as spares or repairs and buying the van, as it seemed the simplest option – though moving from the Sterling’s opulent Bentley-like cabin and silky V6 to the vinyl seats, glacial acceleration and agricultural gearchange of the C15 was something only a committed car enthusiast could do.

Tony has been by my side ever since, through thick and thin. Helping with jobs as trivial as holding the rear lamp lens of my Volvo 740 in place so I could glue it properly round the edges, through to changing the entire front axle assembly on my wife’s Discovery. All for a stupidly inexpensive outlay. He takes my cars for MoTs when I don’t have time, and he passes on much of the wisdom he’s acquired in the 30-odd years he’s been on the planet longer than I have, both car related, and towards life in general.

The one thing he hates going near, though, is my Land Rover Defender. It is, in his eyes, a hateful thing. And that’s fine, because we all have different tastes. Luckily, I have a friendly solution in place, again as a result of serendipity. It fell in my lap thanks to the impromptu failure of the aforementioned Discovery’s steering arm, 12 miles from home.

While waiting for the fourth emergency service to turn up with a flatbed (this wasn’t a cable-tie repair!), I popped the bonnet up for no other reason than to show other impatient motorists that I had broken down, and had not just parked ignorantly. And yet again, the bonnet had that magnetic pull, as from nowhere a blue Discovery with flashing beacons on it pulled up on the verge.

Behind the wheel was Dean, a local mobile mechanic and Land Rover nut. Two days later, with the Discovery returned to my house on a flatbed and a used steering arm sourced from a local breaker, Dean was putting it back on the road in exchange for an extremely moderate amount of cash. As he did the job, we chatted about my Defender, and how the witchcraft within its transmission handbrake was beyond my comprehension, but it was definitely binding. Oh, and the alternator wasn’t charging properly and I had a leaking swivel seal.

All trivial stuff, which he’d mended for me by the following weekend, all for less than the cost of getting a Vauxhall Corsa serviced by a main dealer.

So, if you like to tinker but don’t trust yourself, here’s the golden rule. Keep your friends close, and your mechanics even closer. Or if all else fails, just pop your bonnet, and wait for them to appear…

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