My existential dilemma
“Hey look, kids! There’s Big Ben, and there’s Parliament!”
I keep running into this one.
20-plus years ago, I walked into a Jeep-Eagle dealership to order a TJ. I drove home in a DSM. The rest, as they say, is history.
I bought a brand new car with less than 10 miles on it—and I got 142,000 miles out of it before I had any significant mechanical issues (blown head gasket, still drivable). The only problems that car ever gave me were caused by either my own incompetence or lack of diligence.
A decade later, I discovered rally racing was within my reach and I went all-in. I bought a Galant VR4 to build into my own rally car. I volunteered as pit crew, crew chief, team manager, road block, radio road block, start and finish timing control for friends competing or organizing races. I was even elected press liaison for the regional sanctioning body—a full two years before even starting GBXM.
Another decade later, the would-be rally car project is long gone.
I miss Daisy.
But as much as I’d love to have her back—or just about any clean, 2Gb DSM, for that matter—I know that ship has sailed. They either need a total restoration or just had one done. And even then, experience tells me there’s no escaping the never ending litany of repairs.
I miss rally.
But I haven’t really cared about the sport since Makinen, McRae, Sainz, et al., were in the fight. The last decade has shown me it’s far more fun to race with friends than watch whatever scraps air around NASCAR reality bullshit in the middle of the night.
I miss my Galants. Both of them. I miss Rocinante. But if I’m honest, I remember 195/2000 was a neglected trailer park car with a twice-salvaged title that always had something wrong with it. 464/1000 wasn’t much better, with an obviously washed title, extensive unibody repairs, and a truly shitty paint job. Rocinante was equal parts old British sports car and Uncle Buck’s Mercury—with epic crawler gears, of course.
What if I’m not really a gearhead?
Have you ever found yourself in that situation? I know I have. Several times in the last 10 years.
When we first start playing with cars, we don’t even know how much we don’t know. Those first few projects—be they headlight bulb replacements, or cold air intake installs, or changing the oil—can be terrifying. We don’t yet understand what could go wrong, and so we fear the worst—even if the worst is merely a short-lived headlight bulb.
Over time, we get to the other end of the spectrum. We don’t even think about the things we know anymore. We just get in there and do it, knowing we can handle any surprises—because they wouldn’t actually surprise us.
No, at the far end of the spectrum, playing with cars becomes a never-ending chain of opportunity costs. It’s not so much can you fix it or can you afford to fix it, as it is what else would you rather be doing with that time or money.
Mods are fun. Maintenance is meh. Repairs suck.
It’s a lot of fun building a race car. It’s a lot of fun upgrading things for maximum performance and then feeling those gains in the old “Butt Dyno”. But endlessly chasing weak links and repairs can quickly sabotage the mission and turn a once happy place into an almost endless reminder of one’s shortcomings.
Reflection > Exploration > Discovery > Action
That’s the bulk of my work-life parallel framework, and I mention it here because, despite applying this thing to so much of my personal and professional life, I completely missed it when it came to my own automotive adventures over the last couple of years.
So here it is: If you’ve spent so much time chasing mechanical issues with your project that you’ve started questioning if you’re even a gearhead anymore, that’s a huge red flag. It’s time to take a step back and reevaluate things.
What would it take to fix everything?
Seriously. Grab a pen and paper and spend 10 minutes writing down everything that needs to be fixed on the damn thing. Put a rough number to what each repair might cost—maybe a price range.
Then go through that list and prioritize things. What’s most important? What else makes the most sense to attack “while you’re in there”? Get a basic game plan in place.
It might be time to cut bait and start over with something else. Sell the project as-is or part it out. Use those funds to scoop up something in better condition.
If you decide to keep pressing on regardless, then come up with a plan to set some cash aside every week. Get $20 cash back at the grocery store, fold it up, and stick it in your sock drawer. If you’re feeling a little flush, stuff $40 in there. It adds up quicker than you think.
That’s what I did. $20 a week until I could fund headwork, seals, gaskets, the works.
Reflecting back on my own experiences in the last decade, I found myself exploring all the reasons why I no longer enjoyed “playing with cars”. It was because I basically bought long-neglected basket case project vehicles—and then didn’t immediately fix everything while I had funds to do so.
My gearhead life had gone from daily driving a base model Eagle Talon with a fully built engine producing almost double the original horsepower, to driving a restored salvage Galant VR4 that had sat dead in a trailer park for three years before I bought it, to driving a second Galant VR4 with a whitewashed title that had been rode hard and put away wet by pretty much every owner before me.
I cut my teeth on that Talon. I made a name for myself with it. To this day, the bulk of my hands-on engine building, high performance experience comes from that little 420A. I paid $15,000 for it back in 1996—and then put another $7,000 into it, mostly under the hood.
I haven’t paid more than $2,500 on a daily driver since—but I’ve easily put another $3,000-$4,000 into each of those—mostly in repairs.
Is it any wonder I was questioning my automotive identity?
I mean, I’m pushing 10 years with Gearbox Magazine. What happens if I just walk away from cars? What else would I do with my life? Read a book?
Simply put, it’s been a full month since I’ve had any trouble with Fezzik at all. I still need to replace the munched axle back exhaust, install skid plates, fix the horn, replace a seatbelt, and do a 4-corner brake job so I can pass the ADOT Level III roadworthiness inspection—and I should get this all done before Mitsubishi Owner Day in three weeks—but I’m kinda looking forward to these projects.
Opportunity cost is still the name of the game—if I’m out in the driveway working on Fez, I’m not inside working on #nlgs18, or chilling in a swimming pool—but it’s a LOT easier to put in the time when you’re not constantly fighting a losing battle.
[ Remind me to find my entire collection of flatbed pictures… ]
If you’re questioning whether or not you’re still a gearhead, it’s time to do some soul searching.
I’d offer you’re still a gearhead, but maybe not with this particular project anymore.
Get your buddies together and let them know why you’re struggling. I bet they come up with some good ideas to help you out. I bet they step up and offer to help you in big ways you never imagined possible—because gearheads always do.
I wrote the first half of this piece back in December. Everything through “What if I’m not a gearhead?” up there. The rest was written last night—after a month without incident with Fezzik after replacing the clapped-out engine.