In ‘Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic,’ Rob Siegel gets to the bottom of men’s car cravings, and how to deal with them.
What do cars and healthy marriages have in common? For writer and car addict Rob Siegel, everything. And, I suppose he should know. He’s just a regular guy who’s owned 50 BMWs over the last three decades—plus 25 other cars, from “family haulers” to zippy Italian exotics, and most recently, a sexy little ’74 Lotus Europa.
Siegel’s love affair with expensive European cars—chasing them down, spending unquantifiable hours in the garage alone with them and finally letting them go, only to fill the void with a new object of desire—could have easily curdled the matrimonial waters. Especially when his idea of a “sane limit” to the number of cars spilling out of his garage at any given time is a loose and generous seven. So what’s this car guy’s secret, besides being married to an angel?
In a very Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sort of a way, Siegel, who describes his age as “55 going on 13” reveals all, in the laugh-inducing pages of his new book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic (a Memoir With Actual Useful Stuff). His wisdom comes from years of getting himself into and out of BMW trouble, and not without a generous spattering of hard-earned mistakes. Blood will be drawn, wrenches will be thrown and the door of a friend’s car will be accidently ripped off. Speigel spares no details at his expense, which is perhaps what makes him so likeable. He comes to Capitola Book Café on Tuesday, Aug. 20.
“Hack,” of course, refers not to shoddy repairs, but to the tech term for a quick, creative way around a problem (Siegel’s a software engineer outside of the garage). And since one of his secrets to preserving a marriage along with a full-blown car addiction is to keep the kids’ tuition money absolutely off limits, he keeps his approach to buying, fixing and selling cool cars as economical as possible.
But while the 421-page book is rich in “actual useful stuff”—tips and solutions for the DIY-er mechanic, marked with a wrench, and advice on raising kids with his Asteroid Theory of Parenting (“any course corrections you make with your children had better occur early on”)—it’s equally rich in the philosophical grease that lubricates the gearhead mind. His humorous, Bill Bryson-esque observations on his own car-obsessed mind will be understood by all car guys (and gals), though they’re rarely articulated so well in writing.
While Siegel is somewhat of a celebrity among BMW lovers—for the past 27 years he’s written “The Hack Mechanic” column in Roundel, the BMW Car Club of America’s monthly publication—he’s only now crossed the threshold into a more mainstream readership, and his book could just as easily fit, oil-stained and well worn, on the windowsill of a garage as it could on the coffee table of the wife or sister of a car guy.
As early as the third chapter, Siegel delves into the ineffable enigma, “Why do men love cars, anyway?” And, well aware of the slippery slope he’s traversing, he admits that there’s something about the process that “really is quite sexual, very much like chasing women.
“Cars are useful to men as objects of passion in a way that’s difficult for women to understand,” continues Siegel, on a recent phone conversation from Boston. “But it’s also healthy and constructive in terms of long-term relationships. It’s maintaining passion within a sane set of boundaries.”
Recently, Siegel attended the Grand Prix Vintage Car expo in Pittsburg, Penn., where the concerned wife of a senior car nut (who had just finished building a 10-car garage) asked him, “Will this ever go away?” No, he answered, it won’t.
“The takeaway message is that if you support him in this, he’ll be faithful to you and he’ll love you forever,” says Siegel.
But it’s not just midlife urges for youth and sexual satisfaction that keep Siegel in endless pursuit of the next great fixer-upper. There is something much more tender about the male brain on cars, coming through first in his attempt to demystify the lure of older cars—“Because owning and driving them is like having lunch with an old friend, quirks and all.”
It’s also the mental zen his garage promises. With his sleeves rolled up and elbows deep in an engine, the analytical left side of his brain can move over and let the right brain take the wheel, he says.
“It’s not only working on cars that provides people with this sense of completion and satisfaction,” says Siegel. “I think that people who love to cook in fact experience a similar thing. In addition to diagnosing and solving a problem from start to finish, you come out of the process with a better running car, and having saved money. The net benefit of all of these things can be pretty powerful stuff.”
Rob Siegel appears at the Capitola Book Cafe on August 20, at 7:30 p.m.