It wasn’t just any old car repair workshop. We dealt with mainly European cars and there were a few Japanese but they were relevant Japanese cars like Ford Sierra Cosworths.
I’ve written about this place before as “a workplace” in the union sense of the word. But I’ve been thinking lately about the cars in that workplace. It’s hard to separate out the cars from their owners so I’m not going to. It’s hard to separate out the business owner from the business too, so maybe I won’t do that either.
This place was sandwiched between a Lutheran Church and some student flats in Wellington. We were never sure what kind of religion went on in the Lutheran Church but they seemed to have money, as one year they decided they were sick of trying to edge the stiffs up the stairs and had some extensions done so it wasn’t quite so awkward at funerals. That was a major to-do and I clearly remember excavations and a small man who looked like Papa Smurf sitting in a Bob Cat with a cage around it digging, digging, and only at the end of the day was he released, possibly back to his retirement village or maybe Hobbiton.
Over the road there was a pizza delivery outfit and the boys had pizza smelling hair and would smoke up their cheap tyres in great figure eights outside the workshop in their CRX hatchbacks or worse, although at the moment I can’t think of a worse model of Honda.
The workshop itself was large and stored many different makes and models. When I began working there I didn’t care about them at all. Who cared about a stupid car? Well I didn’t, but a few things changed my mind.
Sometime into my time there I met an old guy call Ces who owned an old Series One Jaguar – the first to be bought into New Zealand in the early 70s. It must have looked wonderful driving up The Parade – apparently Ces’ wife Ida wore a hat with a white fur trim and white gloves when she drove it.
These people, somehow making it into the 21st century, would still bring the car in for a service. Ces could hardly see over the dash and had since gone deaf and Ida had shrunk to the size of a very small fluffy cat.
I was amazed that these people were still out driving and still driving their Jag. Maybe there was something in cars after all – a sentimentality that I’d overlooked. Well, how can one be sentimental over a Mitsubishi Mirage GLX, one owner? For me it was always just about convenience and getting somewhere, Petone, Lower Hutt, over the Akatarawas, Auckland. Liquor King.
Some clients drove their cars from Auckland just for a service. I couldn’t fathom it – why? It had a lot to do with the Proprietor. As I have said, he was quick, had steely blue eyes and was mightily intelligent. He could read these clients like a book and knew exactly the type of person they were from what they drove.
The Jag drivers were generally older men who complained a lot about Jaguars and yet still kept them, sometimes two of them. They dripped oil everywhere and didn’t start, ever. These guys would have them towed in and stand there shaking their heads in bemusement at this perplexingly expensive marque.
The Alfa drivers were usually architects or designers – always men. Alfas were characterised by horrible cambelt issues or just a casual head gasket job at $4k. They always had dash lights flicking on and off indiscriminately. The windows went down once and stayed down, forever. Nowadays, given the advent of the internet, there are bulletin boards that these poor souls frequent with Avatars called Alfi and Italfa where they can share their dash light conundrums while nursing their cup of Chanui.
Occasionally there was the anomaly of a Rover SD1 or the abomination of the MGB sports car, usually driven by silly old men who ran key cutting shops and went on weekend hill climbs.
The Proprietor knew them all and their kind. He was patient as he extracted great wads of cash because of one oil drip and he and his group of technicians had an incredible personal knowledge of the cars.
As I’ve said previously, some of the clients came and paid for the feeling it gave them. Not stupidly. Just that they so loved their car and so loved to talk about it, look at it, have other people look at it. Some of them were so rare, and some of them so constantly and completely fucked that there was nothing else to do in life but hemorrhage hard earned money on them.
There was so much emotion tied up in cars. There was the Italian restauranteur who was almost Tourette’s level with his swearing – he drove a 2CV. It seemed fitting to fold down the half window and have a good old fashioned swear at a stranger at the lights. There was the McLaren F1, which I learned the insurance premiums made it entirely unattractive for the driver to take the thing beyond his own letterbox. The Aston DB5 being restored for the big film-maker. Such incredible cars.
How can a car be incredible? It is so because of how it makes you feel. It’s like anything. Sometimes dream analysts ask you not to recall the narrative of the dream you had but of the feeling you had when when you woke up. That’s really the easiest way to sum up why these people acted as they did. Hiding invoices from the wives but secretly dying to come back into the workshop.
The pizza boys would handbrake slide to a halt outside and watch as the Proprietor took off in a D Type replica, and they would nod and smoke. On a Friday we’d drink beers and walk around the cars, secretly wishing our lives could enable such opulence.
I once worked in a car workshop. I fell in love with what cars do to people and how they make people feel.
(c) Katherine Stewart 2013
Next time on The Sane Companion: Patrick Swayze films.