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The joy of tinkering – Michael Lamm interviews himself about being an auto mechanic

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Michael Lamm replaces an external aluminum water manifold on his 1948 Jaguar Mk IV. The old one was internally blocked with corrosion. In 2006, thanks to the internet, he found a new one in South Africa. Photos by and courtesy of the author.

Michael: Hi, Mike…is it all right if I call you Mike?

Michael: Sure, if it’s okay to call you Mike, too.


M: Fine, let’s do that. Now Mike, you say you’re an automobile mechanic. Is that accurate?

M: Well, I very much like to work on cars. I do work on cars, mostly my own. Sometimes I even fix something. I guess you could call me an advanced tinkerer—an amateur auto mechanic.


M: By amateur, you mean you don’t get paid.

M: That’s true, but in a way I do get paid, because if I didn’t fix my cars myself, someone else would have to—a professional mechanic—and I’d have to pay him. Or her. But yeah, I guess I’m an amateur, strictly speaking. In my case, amateur also means I’m slow compared to an honest-to-goodness mechanic. Professionals get paid not just for their expertise but also for their time, and  professional mechanics try to beat “the book.” The book is Alldata or something similar—guides that lay out how long it ought to take to do a specific job. Professionals get paid by the amount of time the book says the procedure should take, not by how long it actually takes, so a good mechanic will try to beat the published time. And most do. But because I work on my own cars for pleasure, I’m almost never in a hurry. Sometimes I even drag out a procedure just because I’m having fun doing it.

In 1991, Lamm overhauled the engine in his 1951 Hudson Hornet.

M: How long have you been working on cars? When did you start—and how did you learn?

M: I started out of necessity when I got my first car, a 1931 Hudson. That was in 1950, when I was 14. I couldn’t afford to have a real mechanic work on the Hudson, so I began doing the little, easy things myself. And I also started working at a couple of after-school jobs, one at Joe Machner’s filling station and the other at Miller’s Garage. This was in La Feria, the little Texas town where I grew up.


M: And did the other people at those jobs help you learn how to work on cars?

M: Oh yes. My boss at the garage, Guy Miller, sort of took me under his wing. I remember the first thing he had me do was wire-brush the carbon out of a Studebaker head. He laid the head upside down on a workbench, and I cleaned out the combustion chambers with a wire brush on the end of an electric drill. Next, he had me lap the valves of that same car. And after that, I got involved in all sorts of things.


M: So Mr. Miller was a good teacher.

M: Guy Miller was a very patient, thoughtful teacher. About a week after I started working for him, he handed me an edition of Dykes Automobile and Gasoline Engine Encyclopedia. That’s a wonderful book. It not only had practical instruction, like how to change the bands in a Model T transmission, but it also explained the theory—the Zen—of  how engines and cars work. For example, it explained the difference between four-cycle and two-cycle engines, what a carburetor does, how an ignition system works, differential, steering, brakes…basically everything you need to know about the mechanical aspects of a simple car.

When he was a teenager, his boss, Guy Miller, lent him a Dyke’s auto encyclopedia, a wonderful learning tool. Lamm currently owns a 1914 and a 1920 edition.

M: And did you work just on your Hudson?

M: Oh no, because once I started making money, I began buying and selling cars. These were in addition to my Hudson. One of the first cars I bought was a 1929 Model A Ford roadster. And I quickly discovered that Model A’s are probably the best teaching tools for a beginning mechanic to work on. I think Henry Ford designed the Model A to be easy to fix—a real boon to budding mechanics like me.


M: You mentioned Zen. Any other lessons along that line?

M: I think tenacity has a lot to do with being a successful auto mechanic. Guy Miller encouraged me to do the easy things first, so when I got to the hard parts, I had so much time and effort invested in the repair that I’d stick with it. Miller said, in essence, never give up—keep on fighting. It’s you against the machine, he’d say, and you can’t let the machine win.


M: Do you find modern cars a lot harder to work on?

M: Harder, yes, but not impossible. I’m currently working on my 2000 Porsche Boxster S and my son’s 2000 Mercedes SL 500. They’re not totally modern, but for me they’re new technology.

It’s handy to have a lift on the premises. Lamm bought this one in 1977. It’s shown here with his Porsche 928.

M: Has this newer technology presented problems?

M: Not especially. Whenever I get a newer car—new to me—the first thing I do is order the shop manual. That’s always a huge help. Another big help is the internet, particularly Google and YouTube. I’ll give you an example: When I started working on my son’s Mercedes, the horns didn’t work. I’d push the horn button on the steering wheel; no sound. So I ran a hot wire to the horns themselves, and they worked fine. I figured, okay, it’s either the horn button or the wiring from the steering wheel to the horns themselves.


M: And which was it?

M: Neither. The Mercedes has what’s called a clockspring—a sensor underneath the steering wheel that compares the steering angle with the direction and speed of the car itself. Suppose, for example, that you’re on a wet, slippery road, and you want to make a sharp right turn but the car keeps going straight. The clockspring plus accelerometers at the car’s four corners sense the difference, and a computer algorithm applies the brakes on individual wheels, using the antilock braking system, to bring the steering angle and car’s direction back into sync.

With the considerable help of his friend David Miller, Lamm overhauled the V-8 in his 1973 Pantera.

M: But what does that have to do with the horns?

M: Current to the horns flows through the spiral wires inside the clockspring. If those wires are broken, which they were on my son’s Mercedes, the horns won’t work. So basically I had to buy a new clockspring and install it, which I did.


M: So did you consult with Google and YouTube beforehand?

M: Oh yes. And YouTube was especially helpful. There were four short videos posted by people who’d changed their Mercedes clocksprings. In this case, none of the four gave a solid explanation of how to swap out the clockspring, but in watching all four, I understood what I had to do. YouTube is a fantastic resource. Today, there’s almost no repair—and this isn’t just for cars—that’s not posted, often in several versions. YouTube is absolutely amazing; tremendously helpful.


M: Do you need high-tech tools to work on modern cars?

M: I’ve had an OBD-II code reader for several years, and that helps a lot. This is my second Boxster, and when I bought it about a year ago, every light on the instrument panel was lit up—check engine, brake wear sensor, spoiler alert, etc. I’m proud to say that I managed to diagnose and fix everything, and currently it all works great. The repairs weren’t really that hard. The Boxster is not an easy car to work on, but it is doable. The Mercedes is more complicated and more tightly packaged, if that’s imaginable. It’s a very pleasant car to drive but not at all cooperative when it comes to repairs or even minor fixes.

Lamm bought his first Boxster in 2008. It’s shown here in 2013, when Lamm blew debris out of the radiators and installed a new set of horns.

M: Any secrets you’d care to share about working on cars?

M: One very important thing: You have to know how to swear. Swearing’s important, because if you get frustrated—and you will—you need to blow off steam. It’s not a good idea to throw hammers at the car, but it’s all right to swear at it in the most serious and emotional way.


M: Did Mr. Miller teach you how to swear?

M: No, no, no. I had lots of teachers for that. In the 1950s, swearing (we called it cussing back then) wasn’t nearly so popular as it is today. We teenagers really didn’t cuss much and almost never used the F-word. And we never, ever swore in front of a girl or a woman. Women, of course, didn’t swear at all—at least not in public. Today, I hear the F-word constantly from both sexes. No one thinks much about it. But yes, cussing is a normal part of working on a car, and I think it does a lot of good. In the battle of me-against-it, cussing lets the car know where you stand, and it takes away some of the frustration you feel during certain tense operations, like a rusted bolt not coming loose or the water pump hiding behind the the radiator…like that. Those repairs call for swearing of the loudest, clearest sort.

Here Lamm works on his son Jay’s 2000 Mercedes SL 500—as challenging a car as Michael has ever had the pleasure of dealing with.

M: Do you use other support aids besides swearing?

M: Oh yes. I think it’s even more important to have classical music playing whenever I’m working on a car. Actually make that baroque music—Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti, Purcell, Telemann—happy, cheerful, uptempo music. But Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…those provide good support, too. It’s very pleasant to be working on a car on a nice, sunny day, dressed in my rattiest, oiliest old clothes, listening to a baroque harpsichord concerto, say, and having all the right tools. It doesn’t get much better than that.


M: Well, thank you, Mike. Very illuminating. Care to make any final observations?

M: Yes, I would. When you get to be my age, nearly 83, and you’re fortunate enough to still be able to twist a wrench, you will feel your efforts the next day and maybe for a few days beyond that. Every muscle you used while working on a car will remind you that it went out of its way to allow you to lean over a fender or reach behind a seat or crane your neck underneath a dashboard. You’ll have sore muscles, but it’ll be a pleasant soreness. It’s the soreness of a happy warrior who’s been in battle and, win or lose, it’s been a fun fight.