Richard Hammond on: hands-on engineering
The likes of James May often condemn the current generation as inadequate, clean-fingered PC geeks incapable of changing a plug, let alone making anything from scratch. Rubbish. The spirit of ingenuity and practical engineering is alive and well. Perhaps not in me and maybe not in you, but certainly in places.
Now, please do not laugh. I am restoring my 1956 Series 1 Land Rover. Myself. I have mentioned my restoration of it in these pages before, but the project rather ground to a halt when I discovered it was fitted with the rear chassis crossmember from a later car. No big deal, but the crossmember had to be changed with the rear body in place because every old Land Rover is differently sized and shaped, and, rather than rely on engineering diagrams, which will be wrong, it's considered best to leave the rear tub on as a datum point to weld the new piece in place in the right position.
My mate Hadrian, an engineer, came over with all the required kit for the operation, including the new lump of chassis. His stated intention was to pull up a chair and work his way through a giant sack of popcorn while I provided the entertainment by burning the workshop to the ground and blinding myself as I learned how to weld. Good plan.
Thing is, it's really tricky, welding. Especially in fiddly, difficult-to-get-at spots, like under a Series 1 Landie in a barn. Eventually, Hadrian's mechanical sympathy overcame his cruelty, and he couldn't resist stepping in, taking the welder from my shaking hand and dashing off the job with the panache and precision of a brain surgeon in a dinner jacket.
The following day, I drove with my daughter to a vintage car rally in a nearby village. Again, do not laugh. I also have a vintage car, a 1933 Sunbeam 25. This is very, very old, and making it go is incredibly complicated, but we trundled up nonetheless, and the car was parked among a crowd of similarly aged old knackers for the local populace to wander among and variously admire or snigger at.
Then, a friend of mine, Dave, cropped up. He had driven there in an original Morgan 3Wheeler. This is a thing so fiendishly complex to operate it has eight or nine levers sprouting around the steering wheel like some sort of chromed sea urchin. It demands that the driver understand not only the function of each and every hidden, oily part, but is also aware of the chemical composition of them at an atomic level.
I realised that this depth of knowledge was shared by everyone I met. The owner's handbook for my Sunbeam features the sort of day-to-day maintenance a person was expected to know in order to drive to work. Such as how to grind in the valves, change an axle or rebuild the crankshaft. Surely, then, times have changed, and no one can be found now with even a fraction of such knowledge. Rubbish. There are millions of them. Everyone I spoke to could tell from the briefest listen to an engine exactly what was up with it, could talk about leaning it out a bit or advancing the ignition a fraction to get it to run better. I thought I knew a bit about cars, but it turns out I'm an idiot.
Dave's brother Ewan builds engines for original Morgan 3Wheelers, from scratch. Lumps of metal go into his workshop, are turned and milled and other stuff happens, and then come out as beautiful, functioning engines. It's like magic. I could no more do that than I could operate on my own spine. But the fact is Ewan can, and Dave probably could, as, I suspect, could half of the several hundred people I met that day.
There may be fewer of these people about than there were at a time when at any moment your car could suddenly crap its innards all over the A1's unmade surface, but the skills are still there, being handed from one to another in a real, analogue way, like folk songs or talking. Perhaps the only knock-on will be that these skills - and the people who possess them - will appreciate in value as their numbers dwindle, and, very soon, the only folk able to afford to run cars more than 10 years old will be the very souls who understand them. I think it's natural selection or some such thing. Either way, I've got a very big handbook to read, so next time I can understand at least one, tiny thing said between them.
This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine