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I dug out my owner's manual and started from scratch

AS a kid I knew every kind of car made in the US and Europe. I eagerly read books detailing the rise and fall of different manufacturers. Finding out, for example, that the Glas Goggomobil -- a German subcompact or ``bubble car'' -- had been discontinued in 1966 was almost as sad as discovering one of my favorite TV shows had been canceled. In high school I followed auto racing and delighted in the triumphs of such drivers as Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti. I liked racing so much that I drove the family Datsun 510 wagon a little faster than my parents might have wished. I immersed myself in such magazines as Road & Track, and Motoring News, which came from England.

Yet, when I went to buy my first car with my best friend, the first thing I did was slam the door of an old Volkswagen 411. Then I kicked the tires. He looked at me with his mouth open in surprise.

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The truth came out. I didn't know a thing about the mechanical side of cars. I could tell you how many Lotus Euro-pas or Corvettes were made each year, point to the approximate location of their engines, or offer self-assured opinions on their styling. But once under a hood, I didn't know a fuel pump from an alternator. I even admitted that I had never changed a flat tire.

Eventually, I bought a car for $500. It was a Datsun 510, like my parents', except it was a sedan, four years older, and considerably beat-up -- what some people might call a junker.

I loved that Datsun as I probably would have loved any first car. That fascination gave me the patience I needed to learn how to fix it by trial and error -- and it always provided ample opportunity for such activities.

Lack of money also helped me. My parents took their car to the dealer at the first sign of trouble, while I dug out my owner's manual and started from scratch. I spent long hours underneath and leaning over my car fiddling with things that would have taken a mechanic one-tenth the time.

When I needed help, I went to backyard mechanics who charged less than commercial rates. They possessed one other advantage: No waiting room or drive home was provided while work was done, so I was able to watch and ask lots of questions.

Over the years I went to backyard mechanics less frequently and did more work myself. My mechanical know-how, though, remained highly specialized. I was good on things that often broke down on the Datsun 510, but things that had never broken down before always sent me back for long consultations with my frayed owner's manual. As for everything in the world that was not in my Datsun (leaky faucets, ceilings that need painting, misfiring Chevrolet V-8 engines, etc.), I was still hopeless.

An incident soon occurred, however, that gave me new hope in my mechanical ability. Not long ago, I ran out of my apartment, cutting through the back-yard to my car. I was late to work. Directly in my path was an upturned bicycle. The kid who lives upstairs was laboring over it, jiggling the gear chain, which would not stay in place. I could not avoid stopping to talk to him.

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``The gears don't hold,'' he said. I warned him about my very limited mechanical ability and wondered if he had mistakenly concluded from the number of hours I spent underneath my car that I was mechanically inclined. Then I saw a steel bar whose shape didn't fit with the things around it. I hardly thought it worth mentioning -- I couldn't imagine that such a minor detail would cause such a major problem.

He, however, hadn't noticed it, and thanked me for pointing it out. I wished him well and hoped my observation would not lead to more damage.

A moment later, as I impatiently waited for the engine to warm up, he pedaled by. He smiled at me, gave the thumbs-up sign, and took off in a burst of enthusiasm up the street.

The steel bar had kept the chain in place. I was astonished. My drive to work was very pleasant that morning. I felt like a person who had suddenly learned the secrets of the universe. I even thought of myself as someone who could casually say, ``Yes, I'm something of a mechanic.''

Until, of course, something breaks down on my car that hasn't broken down before.

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