Thursday, April 26, 2012
My parents never bought a new car during their entire 20-year stay in the US. It wasn’t that they lacked the money—they didn’t—or that my mother was not envious of the luxury models driven by some of her friends—she was. They stuck to second-hand vehicles because, (1) what her friends often drove were new Mercedes, and, having fought in and survived the war, neither she nor my father would ever buy a German car (and not so secretly savaged those French people who did), and (2) my father was by and large a luddite. He believed in simplicity, in things that could be fixed with pliers, a screwdriver and if need be, a hammer.
As such, he insisted on manual windows, doors that did not lock electronically, radios with dials and no pushbuttons, and manual transmission, though he gave in on the latter when they bought a third-hand Lincoln. He was also willing to admit that power steering might prove useful when trying to parallel park a two-ton automobile, but he didn’t like it.
His philosophy was simple: the more there is to break, the more will break. He didn’t trust gadgetry and was fanatically opposed to planned obsolescence, which he found offensive to man and God. Things should work, he believed, and when they didn’t they should be repaired quickly and economically.
I remember that one day my mother drove her friends around in the Buick he normally took to work. The car was fitted with a small electrical motor that moved the front seat forward and backward to accommodate the driver. My mother adjusted the seat to fit her, and the motor died with the seat inches away from the steering column. There it stayed. No amount of coaxing would budge it, and my father, who in the States had developed somewhat of a paunch, could no longer fit in his own car. He sold it, and the name Buick was never mentioned in our household again.
When I bought my first automobile, a two-year-old Austin America, the first thing my father looked for was what could break. He could only find fault in the two-speed windshield wipers which, of course, ceased working within a month.
I wonder what he would think of the current times, where the technology we’ve embraced is unfixable and largely disposable.
The newer cars my friends buy boast power everything, are cell phone- and iPod-ready. They have 20-CD-players and stereo controls that will befuddle a sound engineer. One friend has a fax machine in the front and two DVD players in the back, one for each kid. He had a flat recently and didn’t know his expensive SUV had a spare tire.
I recently threw out an old but perfectly good television set not because it was broken but because I finally gave in to the siren song of HDTV, Blue Ray and multiple speakers. I am the first to admit that the change between old and new is startling, but to rid myself of something operable that a decade ago cost $300 still bothers me. Sets like that now go for $25 at the Salvation Army…
What’s also sad is the demise of the tinkerer, the guy down the street who could tune your ride, change the tubes on your crackly radio, fix the washing machine and install chains on your rear wheels in a matter of minutes. Can any one, seriously, fix an ailing smart phone or tune his own car today? I recently peeked under the good of a five-year-old import. The engine was under a plastic shroud to protect the gadgetry, effectively preventing its owner from doing the most routine maintenance.
Like my father, I’ve never bought or owned a new car. Of the three I have, the newest dates from 1989. I can, and do, work on it. I like it that way. And I’m a little worried about my new fat-screen, high definition, internet- and Netflix-ready, Surround Sound-capable, 87,000 channel television. I’m pretty sure no one I know could fix it if it broke.