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The great Greek hero Theseus sailed to Crete to slay the Minotaur. Upon his safe return, his ship was preserved as a memorial. By ancient accounts, it was preserved for centuries, though the wear of wind and water began to rot the ship at its moorings. The citizens of Athens replaced the planks of the deck, the mast, the rigging, even the pieces of the hull as time ravaged the old vessel. This led philosophers to ponder a question: was the ship still the one Theseus sailed, even though nothing remained of the original vessel but its shape and memory?
I recently purchased a 1973 Corvette in Blue-Green, and the legend came sharply to mind as I probed its workings. I’m not sure how original this car is, much less how original it will be. I knew its previous owner had replaced the engine and the exhaust system, re-plumbed the radiator, rebuilt the steering mechanism, and replaced all of the shocks and springs in the rear end. He also replaced the differential cover, which — on this car — also holds up the rear leaf spring. But that was only the beginning.
I think that every buyer of an old car starts out thinking “Hey, I’ll just replace a few worn out items and be OK. Hmm… a few hoses here and there, fix that loose trim panel, work on those squeaks…” We’re good at telling ourselves little lies as we peruse the parts catalogs. The first item I ordered was a replacement adjustment knob for the clock in the dash.
Lies we tell ourselves… I had owned the car only eight hours when the first problem struck. As I gassed up, a man in a brand new 2014 Vette of identical color drove by, waved, and complimented my color choice. My chest swelling with pride, I got back in and prepared to rev-up. The engine would not start.
A car like this always attracts attention, but embarrassingly more so when it fails to run. I had several offers to help jump the battery and the first Samaritan soon pulled alongside and popped his hood. After attaching the jumper cables to his car, I clipped black-to-black, and orange-to-orange on my battery. Sparks flew. I knew that shouldn’t happen but — in my growing embarrassment — I didn’t realize the implication until after I’d tried to crank the engine a few more times and the other car had driven off. I then re-checked my battery cables and noticed something odd: the orange wire was hooked to ground, while the black wire was hooked to hot. The tow truck driver, when he arrived, also noted this.
So, ten hours after I bought the thing, it returned home a flatbed tow truck; it left the same way the following morning for a local garage. The alternator had failed, and this was right before what promised to be a weekend of perfect driving weather. I picked the car up on a Tuesday.
I drove then to work without issue, but a belt broke in the right-front tire on the way home. On Friday, I took it to a tire shop and had four new tires put on it. That weekend, I pulled the exhaust pipes to swap out the mufflers with something that wouldn’t give me tintinitis, only to find that the last owner had welded the “slip in” mufflers in place, so I had to replace the exhaust pipes too. Driveable at last!
Till the brakes gave out on Monday.
The brake line to the (again) the right-front had ruptured. I made the first of many trips to the auto parts store for brake parts. At home, I pulled the wheels and tried to swap out the rubber brake lines. They had corroded in place so badly that I broke the steel brake line. Thus began a month-long saga where I worked upstream throughout the brake system, eventually replacing or rebuilding almost everything.
As I spent so much time under the car, I created a growing wish list of other items to replace. The big-ticket one is the frame itself. I’d checked it before purchasing the car, but a steady rain of rusty dust on my face during the repairs has forced me to reevaluate.
Along the way I have made a number of other small repairs — replacing rusty bolts, dismantling systems to swap out old parts — and now I wonder: by the time I am done with this car, how much of the original will really be left?
If I replaced the frame, would the car still be vintage? The engine is new, the wheels are new, the brakes are new, the wiring will all eventually be new, and I plan to replace most of the dash gauges, including the clock. In the end, what will be left of the original? Perhaps the fiberglass body panels alone will remain, holding the shape in memory of what once was. Will the car still be “vintage” in any meaningful sense? I think I shall name the car Paradox, in honor of Theseus’s ship
Relatedly, my family visited the USS Constitution — the world’s oldest floating commissioned warship — in Boston this summer. I asked one of her crew how much remained from her 1790s construction. He said maybe 20% of the original timbers remained; the rest was of the ship was newer.
Similarly, on the USS Niagara, in Erie, Pennsylvania, some wood from Perry’s real flagship was re-used to make doors for the officers’ cabins. Everything else (including the diesel engine) is newer.Published in