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The last roundup for my ’98 Mustang . . . and a lot more


The "Cash for Clunkers" legislation, which provides the owner of an unwanted gas guzzler with a rebate of between $3,500 and $4,500 on a new car, depending on the improvement in gas mileage over their old vehicle, probably won't be implemented until September.

Some scrap processors that operate shredders see it as a positive for their recycling business, and steelmakers will benefit from increased demand for steel to make new vehicles and the abundance of shredded scrap when the clunkers are ripped apart. Similar laws have provided a stimulus to automakers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and are seen as a market-driven way to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The "Cash for Clunkers" law appeals to my selfish motives. I drive a 1998 Ford Mustang, and while the mileage is low—less than 85,000—it is more than 10 years old.

Today, many of us have come to expect more years of service and mileage from our cars. It is not unusual to see used car ads offering a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry with 125,000 miles on it; in the old days, even the rusted hulks in auto graveyards rarely had that much mileage.

The new law stipulates that the gas guzzlers must be scrapped. In other words, our lawmakers don't want to see any fuel-inefficient sport utility vehicles (SUVs) back on the road after they have ponied up $4,500 of our tax money. They want us tooling around in 30-mile-per-gallon sedans. No complaint from me about that. We hopefully will have cleaner air to breathe and reduce our dependence on imported oil.

But this is not the complete win-win situation that those in Washington foresee. Some will be left on the side of the road as old car owners take advantage of the rebate program.

Auto recyclers—once better known as junkyards or wreckers—are one group that comes to mind because the whole car has to be scrapped under the "Cash for Clunkers" law—it can't be picked apart. And there are others left out as well, including those who would have a tough time making monthly payments on a new car, regardless of the $4,500 chit from Uncle Sam, because their earnings are too low or their credit rating discourages lenders.

Yet another group are the do-it-yourself or "shade tree" auto mechanics, a group near and dear to my heart since I have been a full-fledged member of the group for several decades.

I have my late father to blame for this. He was a machinist and a toolmaker by trade, but his hobby was cars. Not too old, though. He was not interested in restoring a 1936 Lincoln or a LaSalle. No, he preferred those that were dead or near death and could be bought for about $20. Twice he bought cars with cracked engine blocks. Most would regard such defects as fatal, but not my father—they were challenges. One he had welded. The other, a 1953 Ford hardtop with a V-8 engine, had only a hairline crack between the piston wall and the valve—not enough to wreck the motor or leak water and antifreeze. It just had a rough idle once the engine was at operating temperature. With the radio volume high enough you hardly noticed it.

Most of the time we had at least one junker sitting in the driveway, sometimes as many as three. When there was work to be done on them, he was the supervisor and I and one or two of my teenage pals were the workers.

I learned a lot about cars from that experience—not enough to make me pursue a career in the auto industry, but enough to make me believe that no matter how badly a car was running, there was a part that could be replaced or something that could be adjusted to keep it roadworthy.

I've rarely owned a car that was less than 10 years old. My daughters often complained that I bought cars that were on the way to the junkyard. One such treasure was a 1980 Ford Pinto station wagon whose dark green paint had worn away on the hood and the roof. To them it was daddy's "tie-dyed car."

There were no mint-condition restorations en route to a classic car show, although I have owned a few that could have been included in that group had they been in better condition or had I devoted more time and money to their upkeep. My aim was simply to keep them running.

Cars were a lot more fun in those days. Working on them and making them run smoother felt like an accomplishment. From my father and others of his generation I learned that you only need the right combination of three things to get a car started—spark, battery and fuel. If you had a car with a dead battery and it was equipped with a stick shift, get it rolling up to about 5 or 10 mph, pop the clutch and it would soon be running. If the distributor points were the problem, reset them using a match book cover as a feeler gauge.

Cars today are a lot more complex and it takes a lot of training and several thousands of dollars of electronic equipment to diagnose what's wrong. We no longer have that sense of control over our cars that we once had, and that's a problem not only for those of us who used to enjoy tinkering with them .?.?. it also seems to be a problem for those who make cars.

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