Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Matters Mechanical

My first car was a clapped-out Mini. It had lowered suspension and alloy wheels, and was a strange shade of orange. I made all my mistakes in that car, after passing my test and being officially allowed out on the roads to play with the other hooligans. (He Who Does Everything Around Here believes that I’m still a hooligan behind the wheel, but I beg to differ.) The good thing was that, being so small, I could mess up the parking and there would always be room around me, no matter what the angle (and I did leave a note for the owner of that car that wasn’t quite as far over as I thought). 

She served her purpose – she kept me out of the rain, carried my shopping, and did the school run. She changed my life. I called her Edna the Inebriate Mini, and I was very fond of her, right up until the day I was preparing her for an MOT. It seemed to me that if you presented a clean, well-cared-for looking car, it would do a lot better than an obvious heap of junk, so I washed her and polished her, and hoovered her out – and sucked up half the floor panel on the driver’s side. 

Edna had to go to a new home, where a young man learned to weld on her. I’m not sure what he did, but she ended up being called Barney, and came to a final stop nose-down in a ditch. 

I was reminded of this the other day when I read a story about two retired farmers (though that seems to be a contradiction in terms); brothers – you only had to look at the nose – who fifty years ago put their work horse out to pasture and bought a tractor. 

Fifty years ago means 1963. Carnaby Street, The Beatles, The Mini, the E-type Jaguar; and in this part of France, people farming with horsepower. 

Their new tractor was a revelation. They could do everything the horse had done, at twice the speed. They could use it for forestry, for ploughing, for harvesting. It revolutionised their lives: and they respected it, as they had their horse. After all, without it, and without the horse, they may as well be back in the Middle Ages. 

For fifty years that machine worked their farm, whatever the weather. It had no cab, so it was still fairly brutal work at times, in heat and rain and cold, but it provided the muscle, and they were grateful. 

So much so, that they have celebrated its half-centenary by giving it an overhaul. It’s been repainted, its engine sorted out, everything made to be just as it was when it left the factory – to the tune of some 20,000 euros. 

They wanted to give back something for all those years of loyal service. 

Our sheep-farming neighbour down south had to replace his ancient Czech Zetor tractor (bought in the distant past for 700 francs) that had carried his logs from woodland to farm and then to us, and all the feed for his sheep, and the million and one other things he had used it for (to the point where his doctor told him to get off and walk for the sake of his health. He climbed onto his daughter’s bicycle instead). He went for another old machine, because it would do what he wanted. He didn’t want to pay for a cab and a soft seat and suspension, or shiny green paint: he just wanted an engine to pull and carry. 

The value of a thing isn’t just in the monetary worth; it lies in its ability to do what you need it to do. When times are hard, maybe that’s something we should rediscover.  Forget built-in obsolescence: bring back the repair man and the spare parts stockist. A bad workman may blame his tools, but a good one will respect them.  If he respects them highly, maybe he’ll buy them a 50th birthday present.

©lms 2013


  1. I love tractors! The really great thing about a tractor is that strange gadget at the back - the PTO, the power take-off which will drive all your various farm machinery, making the tractor a small factory on wheels. "Forget built in obsolescence," you say. Yes, indeed. Years ago I worked in the spares division of a major tractor manufacturer - we guaranteed to supply spares for twenty years after a model had gone out of production.

    1. France is the place for you, then, Robert! Most of the garages round here do tractor repairs as well as cars. Some of the oldest models still in action can be found, usually in front of us, on the roads, chugging along at a snail's pace.
      Now, why can't washing machine manufacturers be like tractor makers?

  2. I couldn't agree more - if it ain't broke, keep it. The OH and I bought a bargain of a car - a Honda Civic 15 years old, driven 1000 miles a YEAR by a careful old lady, with MOT certificates every year. It offended the OH's sense of machismo, but the garage man persuaded him to stay faithful, We gave it to No 2 daughter when we left UK and it might still be going if her husband hadn't driven it into a wall,

    1. Like Edna/Barney (though I think the sex change was too much for her, poor old girl!) I hate that phrase, BER - Beyond Economical Repair - which is what our mechanic said about her. Ah well, she's gone to the great Mini Adventure in the sky!

  3. I used to drive a Zetor. Mine must have been more modern than your neighbour's though as it had a cab, padded seat and was painted red. I don't recall much in the way of suspension.

  4. Patsy, his was a sort of dry red; the seat was once padded, now in holes, and as for suspension - what would you want that for? Yours must have been the upmarket version!