The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): The Hot Rod

A drive out to Langley was the longest trip Dorrit and I would undertake so far. Trips on motorways are easier than driving in the downtown core, but present their own challenges. I was taught to always check oil and water levels along with tire pressures before undertaking long journeys. I was still learning the “feel” of Dorrit and like most small cars designed and built over two decades ago, motorway cruising was not on the top of the design brief. Despite this fact and after all the necessary checks were complete, I hit the road early on a Saturday to meet my friend Rob at his mother’s house for a manly hang out session with his hot rod.

The drive out was around 45 minutes and I have to admit that it felt like a real adventure. I was travelling further outside of Vancouver than I had ever gone before. Like the starship Enterprise exploring the vast expanse beyond Federation space, Dorrit and I were now approaching the “frontier” of Langley. The car handled the drive well as I kept the speed steady at a manageable 100 kph. (60 mph).

Rob and I had met a few years ago through a leadership program run by Landmark Worldwide. He was a car guy and knew I had a love for cars. Like most people, he misunderstood my peculiar passion for cars. My enthusiasm is rooted more in the ideology and branding of cars than in their oily bits. I can talk about BMWs, Porsches and MINIs until the cows come home. I know their histories and internal designations but ask me to fix one and I’m left dumb founded. I remember when I was writing my dissertation on the first-generation BMW MINI, I was in awe of the fact that they were designing this little hatchback with a sophisticated multi-link rear axle. This was an expensive decision and compromised the MINI’s packaging by eating into its already tiny trunk (boot). But this made me fall in love with the car. It was a signal of intent, tangible proof that BMW meant business when they claimed that their MINI would handle like no other small car. I used this fact to support my argument that BMW was correct to highlight the MINI’s sporty characteristics rather than trying to be a revolutionary city car like the contemporary Audi A2. Yet, I had never seen this component and only had a basic understanding of how it worked. Those details, to me at least were not important. That is in contrast to Rob. He was fascinated by the mechanical details and I was about to find myself in a shed loaded with tools, battery chargers and propane tanks. A world that I was unfamiliar with and slightly fearful of.

Rob’s father had bought this hot rod as a project car and after his death, he had left it to him to continue the restoration. I was here to help him strip the car’s independent front suspension. It was a cold morning and we heated the shed with a wood stove. The place reminded me of my childhood in my uncle’s workshop. That smell of oil, rubber and petrol. The hot rod sat motionless under a work pit. We had to move it and hit our first snag of the day when it refused to start. Funnily, I had bought a small battery jump starter that I had in my “Dorrit travel bag”. I told Rob I could jump start the car and he gave me a mocking look when I pulled out the admittedly small device. He asked me if I had used it before t which I said “no” and that there was no time like the present. He attached the jump cables and we waited to see if it would work. To both our surprise after a few tick overs, the car roared into life. It was loud as hell as the small V8 was exposed and I could see all the belts pulling and whooshing around. I was on my guard. I had visions of catching hands or fingers in this engine and having them ripped right off!

After we moved the car, Rob asked me to remove the battery and connect it to the battery charger he had sitting over by the power tools. I hate going near car batteries having been warned as a child that if you remove them incorrectly, that they would explode in your face. As an adult, I know that is highly unlikely to happen, but there is always a niggling doubt. If this one did explode medical help was miles away and I would be scarred for life! My male pride trumped my fear and I went to work disconnecting the battery being especially careful not to let the cables come into contact with any metal. I didn’t want to get electrocuted either. But, I drew the line at hooking the battery up to the charger as I had no idea how to do that and Rob got his first inclination that I may be less handy around cars than he may have thought.

Next came stripping the suspension. Rob being more honest than myself said he had never done this before and we were going to figure it out. I nodded silently. Old, cold struts tend to be stiff and removing the brakes and their calipers was proving tricky. After a few attempts with tools failed, Rob went for the heat in the form of a propane tank and heater nozzle. Like batteries, I feared tanks of propane for their ability to explode. I figured if it did blow up, we were too close to ever know what had just happened. Rob began heating the nuts around the brake caliper and they began to glow red. He asked me to hold the nozzle and passed it to me before I had time to object. I held it tentatively trying to look relaxed as he applied brute force to the brake, pulling it free. We did the same to the other brake and continued to strip the suspension fully.

Despite what I have written about fear, explosions and electrocution, I was actually having a lot of fun. I was getting to see how cars work and getting my hands dirty in the process. I have to give Rob credit for his willingness to experiment and try to figure all these things out as he went. There was no pressure to get the job finished and it was more like we were playing a game together. It reminded me of my childhood when I would play with Legos and see what I could build. As a result, the time flew by and before I knew it four hours had passed and I was in Dorrit driving back to Vancouver. This gave me time to reflect on the day and I was proud of myself. I had faced some pretty big fears and though I didn't fully conquer them, nothing exploded! More than that, it was nice to finally see Rob's hot rod and take part in the process of car restoration. Truthfully, I envied him because he gets to keep this car as part of his father’s legacy and I could see how that brought him a lot of joy.

Despite our differing passions around cars, it was this hot rod that brought us together and made the day happen and it further reinforces my belief that cars are more than just transport.


Next Month: Dead Stop Dorrit