Men and the art of car-wheel maintenance

An Irishman’s Diary: When in doubt, try kicking the tyre

Sat, May 18, 2013, 01:01

When I was serving my apprenticeship as a man, many years ago, I must have missed the bit that covered car mechanics. The result has been a lifetime of shame, feelings of inadequacy, and the regular need for simulation strategies to cover my ignorance.

An important coping mechanism, whenever I’m exposed to a mechanic or car salesman, is to kick tyres. This is meant to suggest deep, non-verbal thought. But you usually need to offer some verbal communication too. And the key thing to remember here, I’ve found, is that cars are always female.

Sometimes I’ll offer a bit of prepared information to a mechanic, like, “She’s been a bit hard on oil lately”. This hints at familiarity with the engine, so long as I don’t get drawn into conversation. Any time that threatens to happen, I bite my lip and kick tyres again.

The feelings of inadequacy come to a head every few years when, as happened again this week, I get a flat tyre in a public place. The latest puncture, like all the previous ones, occurred at a moment of maximum inconvenience, when I was in a hurry elsewhere.

But it was also in a densely populated part of Dublin – the Coombe. My only break was that it happened during school hours. Otherwise I would subsequently have been guaranteed an audience of waggish street urchins.

I know how to change a wheel, as it happens. I also know, however, that with any given wheel, there is a big chance of a problem arising, for which my textbook knowledge and basic equipment will be useless.

Once it was a “lock-nut” and a missing key. More often it’s nuts in general, tightened by machine, and now immovable. Even if four of the five come off easily, in my bitter experience, there’s almost always a rogue nut that holds out.

So it was with a sinking heart that I opened the boot, unsure even if there was a spare tyre and a jack in there. A proper man would know, I reminded myself, because he would be in the habit of rotating his own tyres frequently, to maximise the car’s performance.

Indeed, on a website I occasionally check for advice – The Art of Manliness, it’s called – there is a lively discussion of this subject, with strong opinions on such sub-topics as whether you should mount your car on breeze blocks during the operation. Some contributors raise quibbling objections, eg that the car may slip off and kill you. But for the more hardline men, this would be considered a good way to die.

Anyway, I found my spare tyre and jack, and the rest – all impeccably stored away, because the last time any of them were touched was during a car service. Then, still fretful, I set about my task, slowly jacking up the wheel before, as usual, remembering that I shouldn’t have jacked it up until all the nuts were loose, and so having to jack it down again.

Later, in time-honoured fashion, four nuts loosened without a struggle. For the fifth, I had to stand on the wheel-wrench, and then perform part of Riverdance on it. I was nearly giving up when, suddenly, the nut did. And a feeling of premature triumph arose within me as I re-jacked the wheel.

Then, with sickening inevitability, came the problem – the nut-free wheel refused to budge. I pushed and pulled it until sweat blinded me. But nothing worked. It was as if there was an invisible nut, or a whole set of them, still holding the wheel in place. I studied the problem from every angle, clueless. I was stumped.

The only consolation, again, was that I didn’t have a running commentary along the lines of, “I think you lost one of your nuts, mister”. Even so, it was humiliation once again. White flag unfolded, I was about to ring the motor rescue number. Then a car pulled in.

The driver’s name, I learned later, was Damien. And not only was he a good samaritan, he was an even better mechanic. He worked in security now “out at the airport”. Before that he had served seven years in a garage. And surveying the wheel, he diagnosed the problem. “There’s a trick to this,” he said.

The trick, it turned out, was to kick the tyre (who would have guessed?). First he backed up to it, like a horse. Then he back-heeled violently, also horse-like, whereupon the wheel wobbled and fell off. “They get rusted into place sometimes,” he explained.

While he was at it, he finished the job. After which, I thanked him profusely. “I won’t shake hands,” I apologised, displaying my blackened palms. But his were black too by then, so we shook hands anyway. “I’ll know the next time,” I said, and I hope I will. For now, my apprenticeship continues.