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An Attempt At Do-It-Yourself Car Repair Goes Awry, And Takes A Surprising Turn


Exactly 40 years ago today, this program aired a story of a holiday miracle of sorts. It's the personal story of a man who tried to fix a car and how that broken car transformed into something else. NPR's Art Silverman narrated his story of self-discovery then and is back with this follow-up.

ART SILVERMAN, BYLINE: In 1979, my car stopped doing all the things that a car is supposed to do, like moving. It was never a very good car. It was a little, green Fiat I bought for cheap. When it quit on me, my friend Larry Massett chronicled my attempt to get back on the road, starting with my trip to the repair shop called European Motors.


SILVERMAN: My car, the Fiat. Yes. You said it's about - to do this job just now, you said something like five...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: About 400, $450. You know, it's hard to estimate exactly by the penny.

SILVERMAN: My plan is to fix my own car, and I've never done that before.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You cannot do - you have to have knowledge about cars. I'm sure you never changed the timing belt even.

SILVERMAN: I haven't changed the oil.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Even if you do the job, one thing will take good time, second parts, and after a while if you hear problem with the rinks, you don't have car again.

SILVERMAN: For now, can I pick up the key? Thank you very much.


SILVERMAN: What the man in the repair shop doesn't know is I'm going to beat him in his own game. I'm all set. A friend of mine is going to meet me once a week, and we're going to work on my car till it's fixed. All my life, I've been pushed around by these car experts. It's never been the money. It's been the humiliation. But now, at last, I'm going to do it myself.


SILVERMAN: Today's November 26 or so. What I picture is by close to Christmas time, you and I, in this car with a bottle of champagne, riding by European Motors, honking the horn, maybe picking up that guy at the counter, asking if he wants a ride anywhere - anything we could get for you. You know, we're just riding around in my car. That's what I'm thinking of as I look at the motor now. I have a flashlight here. We can try to find the motor. Ready? I'm going to open up the motor compartment now. I think that's the first thing we should do.

LARRY MASSETT: It seems there's nothing in there but a tire.

SILVERMAN: That's why I've had trouble doing work on it myself because everything is just packed in here, like, tightly. I have to get this spare tire out of the front. It's - the engine just doesn't look right. It doesn't look like it wants to come apart. You know what I mean? There's no place it - kind of lift here to remove. I see something that doesn't go anywhere. Wouldn't it be great if they overlooked the fact that this hose does not connect to anything.

MASSETT: I think that's an overflow.

SILVERMAN: Oh, that's the kind of thing I'm going to be looking for.


SILVERMAN: December 3 - I encounter the first real problem. The hood of the Fiat is in the way, and the hood won't come off. It seems to be stuck. Grab it with the pliers, and push. Get it on the other side, and pull.


SILVERMAN: I have a set of randomly chosen bits, but the only one that's missing is the one that I need. I mean, they make it without the one you need. Well, I'm going to try...


SILVERMAN: December 17 - having failed to remove the hood, we begin the far more complicated task of taking apart the carburetor. I've sought advice. I've read books, and I'm ready for anything.

Here's what I've done today. I've loosened this. You could see that's loosened. OK, but it still doesn't want to give. I mean, I really was pulling on it. It should just pop right up.


SILVERMAN: December 24 - I've been working on the car now for almost a month, and it's obvious that something is terribly wrong. The carburetor won't budge. Books don't help me. Nothing helps. I'm not learning anything.

OK, again I'm looking for the Phillips screwdriver.


SILVERMAN: Why is it that there's always dogs barking when you do anything in your garage?


SILVERMAN: Just as things are looking hopeless, I remember there's a kid named Billy who lives down the block. He's 16 years old, and he likes to fool around with machines. Suddenly, I have a solution.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I said come in.

SILVERMAN: Oh, hi. Is Billy here? I'm coming because I have the car that I wanted to give him. It's kind of a complicated story. If I was given a car at that age, I might have known a lot more now, and it might not be such a big thing. And I was just - just about his age is when I stopped caring about cars. It's been a big mistake. There's no going back now. I'm just too old to do it. So maybe he'll have a better chance in life than I did. That's really what I'm hoping, that he'll get that advantage that some of us never had. You Billy?

BILLY: Yeah. You're Art?


BILLY: Nice to meet you.

SILVERMAN: I'm the one with a car that doesn't run. Tell me you know a little about cars.

BILLY: Not seriously, not really. But I'm willing to try.

SILVERMAN: I've got the time this week to work on it. (Inaudible) Take you to a friend's house...


SILVERMAN: As I walk over to the car with Billy and his friends, I feel, along with the heartache and disappointment, a great sense of satisfaction, a warm glow.

Take it away, Billy.

While everyone else was out buying expensive Christmas presents, I made my own. With my own two hands, I've made a used car and given it to a deserving child. I did it myself, and that's my New Year's resolution. Next year, I'm going to do everything myself.


SILVERMAN: Well, for these last 40 years, I wondered how my gift affected that young man. Did he manage to fix the Fiat and drive it for years and years and grow up to be a car mechanic? I didn't keep in touch with Billy, but this year, I vowed to track him down. And I did. He grew up and calls himself Bill now.

BILLY: We managed to get the timing belt on. It needed a new timing belt, and along the way, we discovered that the valves were bent. So we needed to take the engine apart, and we didn't appreciate that once you have the engine apart, if it rains, it rusts solid. And then we ended up with a frozen engine block. And the car, we worked on in a friend's driveway. And after a year and a half, his mother told us that we could no longer keep it there. So we sent it to our third friend's driveway, where we continued to work on it until we all left for college. And then when he came home from college, he discovered that his parents had sent it to the junkyard.

SILVERMAN: Billy, did you become a car mechanic in the end?

BILLY: I didn't become a car mechanic. I went to medical school and went into medical research, developing new treatments for a variety of diseases, including cancer.

SILVERMAN: That was easier than fixing my car.

BILLY: Maybe not easier, but it was a natural path for me to follow. And it's been really great fun.

SILVERMAN: I feel like I've contributed a little bit to bettering the human race. Makes me very happy.

BILLY: Thank you for the remarkable Christmas gift.

SILVERMAN: Thank you, Billy. You know, I thought you'd have potential as a car mechanic. I shouldn't be too disappointed though. I guess this other career of yours worked out OK.

KELLY: Amazing. That was the one and only Art Silverman, our colleague. The original story was produced by Larry Massett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Art Silverman has been with NPR since 1978. He came to NPR after working for six years at a daily newspaper in Claremont, New Hampshire.