Unprompted: Of Old Cars and Dipsticks 

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When I was young, about 312 years ago, there were only two things that seemed important: cars and sex. I didn’t know much about either but decided to concentrate on cars because that was at least possible.

As fate would have it a friend of mine who’d just lost his job at the local gas station had a 1940 Ford coupe for sale. That would leave my friend without transportation but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t going anywhere anyway.

I gathered my farthings earned from mowing grass and washing windows and came up with most of the $150 needed to buy the Ford. Dad loaned me the rest knowing full well I would never pay it back.

What extra coinage I found went for car maintenance, such as purchasing chrome head bolt caps, one at a time. The flat-head V-8 seemed to run better with chrome head bolt caps. I should have changed the oil but I really wanted something flashy.

It was a time that most of you don’t know about because you weren’t here, or perhaps you were in petri dishes. Anyway, the routine included driving up to a gas station where a neatly prepared service guy with a bow tie and a cap with the Texaco star on it, or a shell, or a tiger, hastened to greet the car that just arrived with an offer to “fill ’er up,” wash the windshield and check the oil.

I never got the chance to “fill ’er up,” because I never had enough money to do it, but I knew that the Ford would let me down if I didn’t keep oil in ’er, so I let the guy check the oil. Wouldn’t you know, it seemed to always be a quart low. Some years later I discovered why. The guy in the bow tie was trained to pull out the dipstick, wipe it off, re-insert it then withdraw it, and walk around to the side window to show the stupid driver that the vehicle was indeed a quart low. I didn’t realize that when the guy in the bow tie put the stick back in to check the level he only put it in part way … so it was guaranteed to be a quart low. I bought a lot of oil I did not need. But the chrome head bolt caps looked wonderful.

What a difference 312 years can make. The men who used to provide service at the gas station are dead in most states, Connecticut not included. Everywhere else you and I are charged with filling our own gas tanks, wiping our own windshields and checking our own oil. Then it becomes complicated.

My current car, by no means new, has no dipstick. After I bought it I looked for an hour trying to find it and then in desperation read the owner’s manual. Sure ’nuff, there is no dipstick. The thing on the dash will tell me if I need oil, gas, air in my tires, or whether my next-door neighbor is hitting on my wife. Further investigation revealed that my car has no spare tire either. It has what they call run-flat tires, which means that if they go flat the car will still run. You would know this only if you were watching the dash instead of tweeting.

I love cars and appreciate the progress through the years. While it’s a bit disheartening to look for parts at RadioShack, the cars are much better than ever before. (Oops. Forget RadioShack. It’s apparently joined the dipsticks.) I appreciate old cars, vintage vehicles that when restored cost 10 times as much as they did new. But I don’t want one. They simply aren’t as good as what we have now. There is more mechanical brilliance in the 14 million used cars sitting on Midlothian Turnpike than could have been imagined when 1940 Fords were made.

If I’d kept that ’40 Ford it would sell now for twice what my dipstickless car cost. Three times, perhaps. If I ever find one I’ll buy it and park it in the garage. I’d like to look at it. Don’t want to drive it, I just want to look at it, appreciate how far we’ve come, and worry about the younger generation that doesn’t understand dipsticks. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.



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