The Garage of Dreams

On the Road on Foot; Nightmares Under the Hood

Paris:- Thursday, 11. July 1996:- One time, I really thought I was starting a new career, so I went out and bought a new car on credit. When it was 367 days old, a non-brand-name garage mechanic told me it had no compression in one cylinder - a fact which had escaped the notice of the factory-approved shop that had serviced the car during the guarantee period - of 365 days. I have never risked buying another new car.

Instead, I have had a variety of clunkers, rusted tin-cans; but even some good cars. Well, they were good until I had put new motors in them and then the name-brand guarantee-garage destroyed them.

I have the impression that the French do not trust any garage operator - there are a lot of especially bad jokes about them of the 'gallows-humor' variety - which is, in itself, sort of a French specialty - but what can you do? If you can't fix the wretched thing yourself, you have to find somebody to do it.

My latest rattle-can was bought under duress. Its predecessor wasn't worth putting new brakes on and it was headed straight to the knackers - and I needed wheels fast.

Almost immediately, on a dark dim November day I spotted this dirty piece of junk with a 'for sale' sign on it in a local parking lot. With my nose 30 centimetres from its unwashed paint, it almost looked like a Cinderella under the muck, and it was an ordinary French car - cheaper parts! - garages within hiking distances - in fact, the seller was a mechanic in the local garage. I went over there and the keys-lady said it was a good car and the garage owner said it was a good car, so I was not surprised when the mechanic-owner told me it was a good car - just a little too big for the commute to work at the garage.

Under the dirty hood, the motor was shiney and clean and tidy. Behind the one-spoke steering wheel, after it pumped itself up from its sleeping position, the thing leaped into sudden motion - power steering! - the motor was a bit erratic at low revs - fuel injection, easy to fix! - and the 'hydopneumatique' suspension - the is a 'French' car - was pretty floaty; but all in all, it seemed like a good deal and I bought the thing - on credit.

After two passes in the car-wash a good paint job was revealed and not too many parking-lot dents. Big bumps in the road make one of the two glove-boxes fly open like an air-brake, and the overhead console thing falls down sometimes, but the ABS and the power windows work, as does the roof port-hole. You can put it in fifth gear, turn the revs up to 3000 and point it at Spain and it goes there with no fuss and comes back the same way.

But the low-speed stutter bothered me. Under 3000 rpm it hiccuped. Since you can't run at 130 kph around town I took it to a carb-ignition-injection specialist and this guy has a beautiful garage, everything just so - like in a hospital operating room - and within walking distance. After several tune-ups his opinion was that the motor had a manufacturing defect in it. He sent me to another garage, where they do heavy-duty stuff, to get a clutch put in - and that garage guy thought the motor was strong, and could be fixed.

The first guy fixes cars with an electronic stethoscope and the second, with dirty fingernails and muscle. The first could not do the job, so I confided to operation to the second. Well. It took a long time. I had to walk a long ways, often. It cost a fortune - but less than a new car - and the next-to-last time I got it back, the speedo didn't work anymore.

garage1.jpg (15k)

garage2.jpg (14k)

This garage is in a former sawmill or furniture factory that was built in stages, and down a slight slope so it has different floors, and it is in a street no more than four metres wide, in an old town near here. One of the mechanics there has an eternal cigarette in his mouth - I don't know if it is lit - and the other looks too young to drive.

In the mornings when I leave the bucket in, the boss looks just like anybody else on holidays; when I come back in the afternoon - on foot - the boss looks like he has wrestled 17 2CV motors out of their graves; you can not even see if he has fingernails.

The whole garage - my godfather had one too; covered a whole city block - looks like there is no such word as pollution in the dictionary. It is... funky. You would think nobody in their right mind would take a car to this place - not even to be wrecked.

It reminds me of those tractor garages they have out in the countryside in Spain - the places where they make parts from scrap metal because farmers can't wait the shipping time - or the part is so old that its not made any longer. I am not making this up - I had a part made from a scribble done on the inside sleeve of an empty cigarette pack; in two hours from start to finish to installed and on the road headed south again.

Where was I? Yeah, my heap. At about the quarter or a price of the cheapest, tiniest new car, it finally runs good. I can wash it again to make be feel really good while I ride around at less than 130 with the roof hole open, and if I could just get the radio decoded I could listen to the five-speaker stereo radio too, and life would be perfect.

spider.jpg (14k) So, what's the little roadster in the photo? I don't know. It was parked in the place du Palace Bourbon behind the Assembly National on Friday. If my car only has one windshield wiper, this one has no windshield at all and no roof - a funny little French car with a Renault badge on it and 'Spider' written on the back, just behind the crossways motor.

[TG -- The Renault Spider is also available in a race-track version, and the "Spider Cup" races take place before all European Formula One Grand Prix events.]

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