British Car Ownership

By Dr. Rusty Bentley, AKA George E. Giese

When do you own your car? No, I don’t mean just in the legal sense or the mere physical act of possession, but as an enthusiast, when do you really feel that your wheels are yours?

As a former car salesman, I recognized that for many people the process of “owning” begins (or ends) with the initial test drive. I could tell whether or not the prospect had bought the car (at least in his or her mind) at the conclusion of the drive—if she quickly hands the key back, powerfully thrusting it away, she does not want that car. But if she moves the key and slowly curls it into his hand, even if just for a moment, she’s signaled that she has bought the car in her mind and is ready to possess it.

But what about us, the car people, motorheads, gear freaks, the just plain nuts? Ownership of our wheels goes beyond a decision to buy, beyond even the visualization of the image the car projects. Just when does psychic ownership begin? For some, perhaps ownership begins once the purchase papers are signed, the down payment is made and physical delivery is made. For others, maybe it really begins once the loan is paid off. For myself, neither event marks true ownership in my mind, in my psyche, when I finally say and feel, “This car is mine; it belongs to me.”

For me to truly own a car, I’ve got to take it apart, repair it and put it back together! I have to explore the mechanical aspects and gain an intimacy with the machinery to know that I understand how it works, how it can break and how to fix it because I’ve done it! Those nuts and bolts and sheet metal become mine by blood, sweat and four-letter words.

A number of years ago I looked under the hood of a ’59 Mercedes-Benz 220S that I was considering buying. Understand that I grew up with simple cast-iron pushrod four-cylinder Morris Minors, Bugeye Sprites and Fiat 600s, so the sight of that complex engine compartment with its six-cylinder overhead cam engine wearing twin two barrel carburetors and daunting vacuum brake servo quite intimidated me! I just could not own that car—it was beyond my mechanical comprehension and talent.

Several years later I did buy another 1959 2205, but only after first owning a much simpler four-cylinder 1962 Mercedes 190 that I was comfortable learning to maintain and repair. The experience removed my fear of OHC engines and led to my overcoming the fear of greater than four-cylinders.

So, the first thing I did when I bought my first 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220S was to take it apart! Over the next several months I rebuilt the engine, replaced the clutch, overhauled the shift linkage, replaced the king pins and rebuilt the brakes. Heck, I even replaced every single light bulb in the car, including the instrument cluster bulbs. When it was done, I knew I owned that car—there was nothing it could do to me that I couldn’t fix! I was the owner and master and it was my chattel.

For the last three years I have owned—that is, had physical possession and legal title to—a 1938 Rolls-Royce. I’ve driven the car extensively and enjoyed it much. But it never really felt like it was mine. Even though I paid for it, and paid more for it than any other car I’ve had, and put more miles on it in the last three years than the previous owners had put on it in the 20 preceding, I never really owned it in my mind—it seemed to own me and had become my master.

You see, it never broke, never failed, never needed anything more than routine maintenance and attention. Sure, I did an ignition tune-up, adjusted the valves and regularly replaced all the fluids, but I never really got into it, I never took it apart!

It wasn’t really a major failure, not like when my Mercedes 190 chucked a valve guide and I had to replace the head, nor like when my Bugeye Sprite threw a rod and I had to rebuild it in my parents’ driveway, nor when my Simca dropped transaxle parts all over the Ventura freeway and my dad had to tow me home over 50 miles at the end of a rope.

No, it was not that catastrophic a failure, but it took me two whole days to fix and that got me good and acquainted with the mechanical side of my Rolls-Royce. It was a gasket, an exhaust gasket between the head and manifold that blew, resulting in the most horrible sounding exhaust leak, most undignified, most un-Rolls-Royce like.

And if you dismiss a manifold gasket job as minor or inconsequential, well then, you’ve never faced 56 years of rust and corrosion on British Whitworth hardware, and you’ve certainly never attacked the manifold bolts hidden down below the carburetor where you can only just sort of see ’em and you’ve got to use three different Whitworth wrenches, each with a just slightly different angle to the flats because you can only turn those bolts 1/16 of a turn with each wrench in succession!

Yeah, that sucker challenged me, tried to beat me (almost did) but I won. I’m no longer afraid of the inevitable clutch job, valve grind or whatever! I drive that old Rolls-Royce now and I own it.

Today my garage contains only three cars: the Rolls, yet another ’59 Mercedes 220S and my wife’s Dodge Caravan. It’s her car. Even though my name is shown jointly on the title, I can only change oil and filters on that car. I’ll never own it, never feel that it is mine and that I am its master. It is just an appliance, but for my wife, she bought it the first time she squeezed that key into her hand on the dealer’s lot.


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