Peter Shelton

Change oil, change consciousness

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on April 21, 2010

I’m lying on my back underneath the old Saab. Pulling on a wrench. Unscrewing the oil plug. Watching the silky-black oil drain into the pan. I’m doing this right now. Tweeting you in real time, pressing the keys with slightly greasy fingers.

Not. Of course not. In fact, I learned long ago that lying under the car on a calm spring morning, changing the oil and oil filter, is as close to being purely Zen, purely in the moment (as opposed to commenting on it) as one can get.

I learned this from a man named John Muir, who was, yes, a direct descendant of the eponymous naturalist and champion of Yosemite, the long-bearded romantic who called the Sierra “the range of light.”

In 1969 John Muir the Younger, a long-haired aerospace engineer who “dropped out” to a garage in Taos, New Mexico, wrote How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. And since I was the proud owner of a 1969 VW bus, and a complete mechanical novice, I bought the book. (It is still in print by the way, the most successful self-published book in history with over 2 million copies sold.)

Muir showed me, with considerable help from cartoonist/illustrator Peter Aschwanden, what a simple thing my VW’s four-cylinder, air-cooled, 65 horsepower engine really was. Do the basic maintenance, he wrote, do it religiously, by hand yourself, with care, and your little Volkswagen engine will last at least 100,000 miles. Then it will die. But you need only a clean garage floor, a couple of uninterrupted days, a few new parts and his book, and you can rebuild it good as new for another 100,000 miles.

This actually happened to me, and to my bus, Tortuga. Though I’m not sure I could have pulled off the engine rebuild by myself. I had help from a smart young friend of my dad’s, a man who had absorbed “the idiot’s guide” (as it was affectionately known) as intended, as a book of practical philosophy.

Muir saw taking care of your car as a metaphor for life. Get comfortable, he advised. Settle in with the tools you’ll need where you can feel them. Put something supportive under your head. If you bark your knuckles, and you will, wait before screaming an obscenity. Breathe. Think of the skin sacrificed as an offering. Pick up the tool and try again.

On Muir’s advice, I changed the oil—still do—every 2,500 miles. (He actually recommended every 3,000 miles, but I never write these things down and the odometer math is foolproof when the key numbers are always fives and zeroes.) I also did tune-ups and valve adjustments on Tortuga, though that particular avenue of pleasure has been denied me on our newer, more complicated cars. With the VW, it was blessedly simple. All of the tools I needed fit nicely in a coffee can: a screw driver, a few open-end wrenches, the lovely, fan-like steel strips used to measure clearances: spark plug gaps and the gap between the distributor points, the valve adjustment tolerances—which at .006 inches, cannot be measured any way other than by feel.

By all means, feel, Muir said. “Talk to the car,” Muir said. “Then shut up and listen.” After a tune-up, I’d start Tortuga and listen for a certain smooth hum accompanied by a delicate clicking of the valves. (Muir also recommended warming the engine up just a bit before starting out. Not long, just enough to get the oil fully circulating, get the oil pressure up—about the time it took him to roll a joint and light it.)

“Use all of your receptive senses,” Muir wrote, “and when you find out what [your car] needs, seek the operation out and perform it with love.” He also said—and I believe his sentiment was devoid of self parody—that your car “has karma equal to your desire to keep it alive.” Very 1960s, I know. But, well, that’s my era, too. (I’ve changed the oil on Footsie, our current Saab, 120 times since 1997. And she’s going on 305,000 miles.)

Makes me want to read John Muir’s 1973 follow-up book The Velvet Monkey Wrench, which I just learned about on the Internet, a distraction Muir couldn’t have imagined, since he died in 1977. This book is not about working on our cars but rather Muir’s attempt to “lay out this structure, the basics of a completely new establishment.” He believed, apparently, that we could fix our society, too—with humor, with love, and a little WD-40.


2 Responses

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  1. mary ann dismant said, on April 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Peter, Never thought I’d like an article on “Changing Oil…” You never cease to amaze me. You really care for those things that are yours. Liked being in the moment so much that I sent for an Aspencat loan (Ouray Library’s Consortium) lof Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (sadly lacking in my past reading). Thanks.
    Mary Ann

  2. L-Tyrosine Side Effects said, on November 18, 2010 at 2:24 am

    oil change needs to be done as often as possible to maintain the good performance of any kind of machinery ‘:*

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