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Sophisticated Side

28 May 2002

By David Rubie

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I remember as a kid staring in wonder at the collection of motley parts hanging from the walls of both grandfathers' sheds. These were the kinds of grandfathers who saved old head gaskets, manky tires, ancient fan belts for long forgotten vehicles and old wheels that didn't fit anything any more.

There's an impossible romance in staring at those dusty remains as a kid. Between both families they probably had enough parts stored away to build a 1950's era sedan (although there'd be Morris, Chevrolet and Holden wheels at the corners, a Vauxhall steering wheel, Ford tractor cylinder head, old fruit trailer chassis and a half horse power water pump engine).

They didn't save anything practical or useful. This was why it got dusty in the garage, of course. Anything useful was used.

My mother's father, being a farmer, was loath to throw away anything (including a head gasket for a 1950's Chevrolet "only used a bit"), knew where to find things he had put away 20 years before, and could seemingly fix any catastrophically broken thing. Vehicles were, of course, somewhat simpler forty years ago. My father's father (still alive) was not as mechanically minded, but even he routinely changed his own oil and replaced water pumps, as did every man in his street.

A quick survey of my own street reveals me to be the only one with a greasy garage floor and my own overalls. And it's with some consternation that I find my own shed starting to pile up with a comparable level of garbage to that of my forebears. Hair is sprouting from my nose, eyebrows and ears, the whiskers are heading toward a touch of white and the junk collector gene has kicked in. I think it's old age.

Here's a taste of what my poor children will have to sort through when I'm gone...

They're going to find boxes of bits for cars I no longer own. A pristine MX-5 oil filter, greasy workshop manuals for various makes of Ford, Saab and Mazda. Untold boxes of bits for Alfas: a complete 2 litre engine, back springs, a rusty door, a centre console and heater. Besides the engine, it's just junk begging for the scrap yard but I can't bring myself to throw away a functional heater, or springs that were discarded for being too soft rather than being sagged. Next to the springs is a small collection of FM/AM tape decks of uncertain vintage. The radios are old enough to still have shafts rather than being DIN sized, some of them are still working enough to cheer up a cold garage through a pair of perforated 6 inch dual cone speakers. The mechanical tuning mechanisms are too ingenious to discard (especially the spring loaded self seeking ones). Somehow, digital tuners don't have the same satisfying action even if they are infinitely more efficient. Next to the radios is a set of wheels with marginal tyres. Not bald tyres; just nearly bald. Still almost useful in fact.

I also have a pile of broken things. A melted Alfetta grille (victim of an under bonnet fire in my car before I owned it). A motley set of headlamps pulled from wrecks in the search of a decent set of Carello's (the impossible quest). I have the grille and headlights arranged, art style, into half a car. Next to that is a piston, complete with rings and scuff marks and too ovalised to use again, but too pretty to toss. Some bent valves that look like the work of Salvador Dali (not the lesser known Chainius Snappio-Bastardo). I tried to turn some of it into funky, car related paperweights but explaining to every passer by why I had bent valves on my desk was just too much.

The paperweights sit on top of a selection of second hand books that are slightly too smelly for the house. G.N. Georgano's Encyclopedia of Sportscars, Grand Marques (co-authored by the fabulous George Bishop) and a very dodgy Porsche history that puts forward the 928 as the greatest car ever made. In 1982, it probably was.

I have the inevitable "junk box". Here is collected every spare fastener, bolt, nut, crimp connector and screw that fell off the motley crew of my vehicles. It's here that I find myself fishing around for spare nuts and bolts and inevitably find nothing useful, even though the level of junk rises with each passing year. It doesn't help that the entry criteria for the junk box is just that. Strange, incompatible threads, stripped threads, half used crimps and short bits of wire make up the majority of the contents. The practical side of me is convinced that tipping the whole lot into the rubbish bin would be a step forward, but every now and again I fish out something I need (usually after cutting myself on something I don't), so it lives on.

The best stuff is, of course, the stuff made of pure dreams. Sitting, waiting for some funds are a Toyota SC-12 supercharger and two Dellorto kits for turning normal DCOE carburettors into their turbo/supercharged equivalents. Yes folks, back in the dark ages they used to "blow through" carburettors - and you can still buy the bits. The parts themselves are of a surprisingly small number. Two sets of throttle spindle seals and a couple of float bowl covers that take hoses instead of venting to the atmosphere (plus some rubber gaskets). Lotus used this setup on the Esprit for many years. All this particular dream requires is a new pulley and a bracket for the supercharger. Oh, and some means of huffing the charge into the carbs. I suppose duct-taping the air filter housing together wouldn't hold enough pressure (a pity). Of course, there's nowhere for it to fit under the bonnet of the Alfetta without relocating the fuel pump and spacing the air conditioner pulley out. When you start adding it up, it's probably about $1000... which explains why I haven't done it yet. Suggestions on a cheap plenum chamber that fits a pair of side draught carburettors appreciated.

Still, Alfa's pre war reputation was built on supercharged cars and the cast alloy webbing on the Toyota 'charger is almost a perfect match for the Alfa block, so it's a project begging to be completed. Hey, maybe I can squeeze an intercooler behind those headlights and route the air intake to the back of the bonnet'll detonate and probably melt a piston about half way down the driveway. Or maybe it'll go like the clappers and I'll stuff it into a tree trying too hard when the back wheels break free in a hellish display of brute, top fueller dragster power. I said I was dreaming, didn't I?

Beyond the useless-but-functional, broken and dreamer stuff is the depressing pile. The depressing pile is the pile of Alfa Spider panels that I have collected over the past year in a bid to waste every spare cent I have. To make them extra depressing, every one has a price stencilled on the back, so I can pick them up, one by one, and rub the ever deeper furrow in my forehead. Apparently the car will be available next week (like it was last week and the week before), leaving me wondering whether I will pick it up or quietly set fire to it while nobody is looking (um, Mr Insurance, of course I wouldn't do that. Honest). Hopefully the depressing pile will disappear before I shuffle off to the garage in the sky, but at the rate this particular car is going, you never know.

What are the kids going to think, sorting through all this junk? Besides the obvious ("Yes, the old man was a nut. A grumpy, hairy nut"), I can only relate it back to my own experience. As a car loving kid I thought a dusty pile of old junk from long departed vehicles was the stuff of wonder. I loved sorting through that garbage. I'm not entirely happy about giving up useful space for things I'll never use, but in a funny way every piece of it makes my own garage a more familiar place and reminds me of the people from whom I inherited this car madness. It might be necessary after all.

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