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Hooniverse Bookshelf: Memoirs Of A Hack Mechanic

Bradley Brownell September 26, 2014 Reviews, Wrenching Tips 10 Comments

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I just finished reading this book, and I can tell you, dear reader, that this book belongs on your bookshelf. Don’t dawdle, get a copy today, this afternoon, right now! When I read, I don’t often pick up a memoir, as I tend to find the stories of other people’s lives somewhat unexciting. This time, though, the book came highly recommended from a friend who’s opinion I trust greatly. I was in Ohio to attend this friend’s wedding as a member of the wedding party, and as thanks for showing up, the book was thrust into my hands. I’d finished my previous book on the plane ride from west to east anyhow, and needed something to read on the way back to Nevada. Why not give it a shot? This friend of mine is a BMW fanatic of the first degree, and while I have great respect for the brand, I’ve never owned one, and don’t really aspire to (exempting a few models; E30 M3, E28 M5, E9 3.0 CSL, 2002 Turbo, M1, and surprisingly the new i8). As such, I was expecting a book that panders to Bimmerphiles and I might not relate to as closely. Boy was I ever wrong.

After consuming all 410 pages of the book, the thing that sticks out to me is “this guy gets it”. He’s a real hoon, and one of the most die-hard car guys I’ve ever even heard about. His fixation is BMWs, more specifically vintage, more specifically BMW 2002s, more specifically BMW 2002s with round tail lights, more specifically BMW 2002s with round tail lights and fuel injection. That said, he remains a relatable generic car guy with an interest in old Volkswagens, a specific Porsche 911 Targa, problematic Brit cars, and even the occasional domestic car. His memoirs read like the familiar story of many of our lives. There’s the treachery of youth tales that make us all think “How did I survive adolescence?”, there are the coming of age tales that inspire, there are the garage tales that we know all to well, there are busted knuckles, rusty cars, lengthy (and costly) restorations, and there are plenty of driving tales. More important than any of that, though, is the connection that Mr. Siegel makes to people THROUGH cars. We’ve all done that, and we continue to do that. The cars are really just an interesting conduit to meet even more interesting people.

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The writing style of this memoir is fantastically colloquial, making it seem like you’re just sitting around the garage with Rob, swapping car tales and drinking a cold Sam Adams or two. The stories are entertaining, the cars keep your interest, and there’s even some “actual useful stuff” in there like tool buying guides, car buying guides, a guide to getting a non-starter running again, unsticking “the stuckness”, an introduction to A/C repair, and a bit about tracking down rattly bits and clunky chunks. For the most part, hoons who have been wrenching for years will be pretty familiar with a lot of the concepts held within, but the reality of it is that there might be something we don’t know, and if we do know it, we could always use some reassurance from a fellow car guy that we’re right. You can learn the difference between a bad kludge and a sensible one. You can read *several* examples of why it’s best to not work on other people’s cars. You can learn the joys of ‘Siegel’s seven car rule’. Any way you look at it, this book is entertaining, touches on a lot of the major aspects of life as a car guy, and might help you (or a loved one) understand your car desires just a little more. The underlying theme of the book is “Why do car guys love cars?”, and while I’m not convinced Siegel came up with a definitive answer, he did come up with about 30 different possibilities.

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In the end, this is a book that I really relate to. Siegel’s tribulations with his earliest car, a Triumph GT6+ revive in me memories of the first car I paid money for, a particularly stupid purchase, a 1976 Triumph TR-7. His stories of packing up everything into a Volkswagen Van and striking out from the East Coast to temporarily settle down in Texas remind me quite closely of my struggles moving from Michigan to Atlanta, GA in a rusty Ford Aspire with no 4th gear and no back window (I really need to tell that story some day). Hack Mechanic, while nominally about cars, is really more about life in general. While I don’t have the years of experience that Siegel has, his book allows me to sort of look back on my life through perhaps wiser eyes. Hmmm, maybe I need to get started on a memoir…

To paraphrase Mr. Siegel, that’s enough couch time for now.

The major takeaway here is that you need to pick up a copy of this book, and it deserves a permanent place on your shelf. It’s kept my attention for two solid weeks, and if I’m honest, put me behind on a lot of writing work I needed to get done. It was just too entertaining to put down. I really enjoy reading, personally, but it has been a LONG time since I’ve been this enthralled by a non-fiction book. There was one point, late in the book, where the connection between father and son, through the mutually shared experience of a car, actually brought tears to my eyes. This may or may not have been a direct result of the adult beverages I’d been consuming at the time, but I digress…

An interesting footnote, Bentley Publishing has now released my two personal favorite books, with the other being Mark Donohue’s “The Unfair Advantage”.

Second footnote, the Rob Siegel discussed here is a long-time writer for the BMW club’s Roundel magazine, not the Robert Siegel that co-hosts NPR’s All Things Considered with Audie Cornish.

[The single photo of Warp 9, Siegel’s E9, were taken when Jay Ramey and Kamil Kaluski met Mr. Siegel at a German car meet. All other photos sourced from Bentley Publishing.]

  • Felis_Concolor

    Thanks for the recommendation; I'll check it out.

    The therapeutic nature of fixing a vehicle is definitely something I identify with, especially for the quirkier vehicles I have encountered. Realigning a 7 foot long throttle rod followed by blindly routing a 12 foot choke cable (to be trimmed down once it's properly secured) resulted in a feeling of overarching triumph which was rapidly tempered with the knowledge I'd need to figure out how to realign 18" of steel bushing through which the choke/mixture cable was threaded and secure it into position, the better to survive the next 30 years without need for further fiddling.

    And I still keep the old, worn out cable assembly around as it has a mid-point zerk fitting which is the sort of vintage parts gold you just can't find in shops these days.

  • I didn't even read this article yet (but I will). Book is ordered.

    • BradleyBrownell

      I'm glad you trust my judgement well enough to do such a thing.

      You won't be disappointed.

  • nanoop

    This is just telling me again that I should cease struggling with my other problems and go back to the garage..

  • dropgate

    Back when I was a BMW CCA member, he wrote a column every month for Roundel, the club magazine. He still might. It was always the first thing I read.

  • craymor

    Link to buy the book on amazon so hooniverse gets a few pennys?

  • lilpoindexter

    Send him to my house… my '88 528e is difficult to start when hot.

  • Rover_1

    A seven car rule? I can buy more cars!

    Oh wait, I already have eight.

    Stupid rule.

    Oh wait, again, on paper two are owned by my mum. I can buy another car!

    Good rule!

  • Van_Sarockin

    Sounds a whole lot better than Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Which was also about a BMW, oddly.

    • BradleyBrownell

      He does mention 'Zen' a number of times in this book. He also references John Muir's "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive" a few times.

      All three are pretty mandatory reading for a gearhead.