Motorhead Nation

 

“The Americans, as a race, are the foremost mechanics in the world. America, as a nation, has the greatest ability for mass production of machines. It therefore behooves us to devise methods of war which exploit our inherent superiority. We must fight the war by machines on the ground, and in the air, to the maximum of our ability.” — War As I Knew It by General George S. Patton

I was never a motorhead. My first car was a pale blue Volkswagen Beetle, an air-cooled minimalist contraption that invited — and needed — tinkering. I never did more than change the oil, replace a broken throttle cable (with a too-stout length of piano wire that would sometimes bind at inopportune moments), and fiddle with the 8-track player. I built my first computer before Wozniak built his Apple, but I don’t know a lick about cars.

In The Second World Wars, his wide-ranging and eye-opening account of World War II, Victor Davis Hanson has this to say about the young American men who mobilized to fight:

The Army of 1941 was also the first in which millions of Americans had grown familiar with first- and second-generation internal-combustion engines, from tractors and delivery trucks to cars and motorcycles. No generation of men in their twenties before or since has been more adept at mechanics, or mechanics that could at least be mastered by shade-tree apprentices.

A few decades ago, young men fiddled with cars. They souped them up, tore them down, tricked them out, raced them, kept them running. They understood timing and compression, displacement and gear ratios. They knew about torque and where to find it on the power curve.

They were engineers, whether they spent their days stocking shelves or selling insurance or tilling the fields or working on an assembly line. They were engineers dealing with reality in the way only engineers do: by pushing it as far as they could, knowing full well that reality would push back — and hard — the moment the tinkerer overstepped his bounds and asked of metal what metal refused to give.

The great distinction between the liberal arts and the engineering disciplines is that bridges fail. Gravity doesn’t grade on a curve; the Young’s modulus of a steel girder isn’t concerned about your ethnicity, politics, or feelings. Things work or they don’t, and your tricked out Buick does the standing quarter mile in just as long as it takes, no more or less, and everybody knows it. Mechanical failure cannot be hid long: in engineering, the truth will out.

Think of the perspective this must have given the men of the early 20th century, this experience with inflexible nature, this acquiescence to reality. Is it any wonder that their generation worked so hard, built so much, and complained so little?

My children grew up on a farm, and I credit that experience — the animal care and the fence mending and the wood splitting and the backwards hardness of it all — for much of their strength and resilience today. I think there are too few opportunities now for young men to run up against walls, and to learn when all the compromising must be on their end because playing chicken with the universe is a sure-fire way to lose. I think the modern world yields too much, is too amenable to persuasion, and we grow soft in response.

I’m nostalgic for the motorheads, for the young men being just as crazy and reckless as metal and friction and pressure would let them be, while always knowing they had only themselves to blame when the head gasket blew.

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There are 12 comments.

  1. David Foster Member

    “The great distinction between the liberal arts and the engineering disciplines is that bridges fail. Gravity doesn’t grade on a curve; the Young’s modulus of a steel girder isn’t concerned about your ethnicity, politics, or feelings. Things work or they don’t, and your tricked out Buick does the standing quarter mile in just as long as it takes, no more or less, and everybody knows it. Mechanical failure cannot be hid long: in engineering, the truth will out.”

    There is much truth in this. To some extent, electronics experimentation or learning computer programming (real programming, not just keyboarding and runnings apps) can have the same effect, although the added spice of potential danger is missing.

    • #1
    • November 25, 2017, at 2:58 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. cdor Member

    Nice post Henry. There’s a lot to be nostalgic for today. Yet even so, there’s so much to appreciate–so much in which to be in awe. It’s the digital age now and there’s no going back. You want to know what’s wrong with your Volkswagen? Plug it in to a computer.

    • #2
    • November 25, 2017, at 3:05 PM PDT
    • Like
  3. Clavius Thatcher

    As you say, reality always wins in physical engineering. With so much of our world run by software engineering, I fear this connection to reality is being lost. In software, you really can do anything given sufficient time and effort. Movies and TV are filled with software-generated reality that isn’t real.

    I fear this fluidity of software weakens our commitment to reality. Too many are willing to believe a computer model is reality when it is just software and never has to face to rigor that real, physical engineering requires.

    • #3
    • November 25, 2017, at 3:08 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Slow on the uptake Thatcher

    David Foster (View Comment):
    although the added spice of potential danger is missing.

    You never saw my Dean of Computer Science come boiling out of his office when some graduate student screwed up.

    • #4
    • November 25, 2017, at 3:46 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  5. OkieSailor Member

    Where will we get the men to fight for our future? My concern is only assuaged because we have need of fewer due to modern armaments. Still, we need more than military men. We need strong fathers who are willing to do whatever it takes to care for and provide for their families. And strong women who will nurture both hearth and home. We aren’t coming up to the task, I’m afraid. Still, I have enough faith in our people, based on their history of rising to the occasion time after time, to believe Americans will find a way. We, or rather the coming generation, may have to go through the crucible, but I believe they will come out stronger on the other side. Can and will they do so again? No one can say for sure. All civilizations eventually recede and fall but I don’t believe America’s time is over, it may be just beginning. I think this way because the strength of our nation is built on the character of the common man (man in the older sense of mankind). And that is the strongest foundation a nation can have.

    • #5
    • November 25, 2017, at 5:38 PM PDT
    • Like
  6. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher

    cdor (View Comment):
    Nice post Henry. There’s a lot to be nostalgic for today. Yet even so, there’s so much to appreciate–so much in which to be in awe. It’s the digital age now and there’s no going back. You want to know what’s wrong with your Volkswagen? Plug it in to a computer.

    Not Henry’s vintage of Volkswagen…. Those were so unsophisticated they could operate thru a EMP burst. The only thing that I work on that are even more basic are aircraft engines, because when they have a glitch you cannot exactly pull over.

    As one of those dinosaur engineers who can still maintain and tinker with my small fleet of internal combustion engines, I have a real fear that wheels that move society are going to come to a grinding halt in another half generation. The combination of lack of interest by the youth, and the auto manufactures making increasingly difficult to even work on their products, we are increasing becoming technologically clueless.

    I suspect we won’t need to go anywhere because they will all be lying in Barca loungers with a set of VR goggles on and living in a fantasy world provided curtesy of the internet.

    • #6
    • November 25, 2017, at 6:34 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  7. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    I believe we are part of an eternal tradition. I suspect that 100 years ago there were a bunch of older people complaining about the young men of the day. “Those kids these days, they’re all excited about these dang Model T’s and they don’t know a thing about how to take care of a horse or mule. They probably don’t even know the difference between a horse and a mule!”

    I’m sure a few hundred years ago there were Indian elders complaining about the young men who wanted to ride horses, rather than walk. A hundred years from now people will be complaining that these young whippersnappers (because that word will never go out of style) are experts at using laser screwdrivers and have no appreciation for a good sonic screwdriver.

    • #7
    • November 26, 2017, at 8:39 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Unsk Member

    Whadayamean Henry?

    The striking disconnect from reality hasn’t hurt our youngun’s a bit as can be seen in this video:

    A Millennial job interview from @TheDanielBrea on Vimeo.

    • #8
    • November 26, 2017, at 9:30 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I believe we are part of an eternal tradition. I suspect that 100 years ago there were a bunch of older people complaining about the young men of the day. “Those kids these days, they’re all excited about these dang Model T’s and they don’t know a thing about how to take care of a horse or mule. They probably don’t even know the difference between a horse and a mule!”

    I’m sure a few hundred years ago there were Indian elders complaining about the young men who wanted to ride horses, rather than walk. A hundred years from now people will be complaining that these young whippersnappers (because that word will never go out of style) are experts at using laser screwdrivers and have no appreciation for a good sonic screwdriver.

    Randy, you could be right — and that’s something we curmudgeons have to try to remember to take into account.

    But, however comforting it is for a conservative like me to imagine that things never change, things do change, and some changes have serious consequences.

    • #9
    • November 26, 2017, at 9:44 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. PHCheese Member

    My three three middle aged children, 47, 43 and 41 hire and supervise Millennials. They spent an hilarious 15 minutes around he Thanksgiving table telling me stories of the misadventures involving Millennials. The stories were side splitting. However it got quiet when I reminded them that I had similar but different stories to tell about their generation.

    • #10
    • November 26, 2017, at 9:59 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. JoelB Member

    Henry Racette:

    Think of the perspective this must have given the men of the early 20th century, this experience with inflexible nature, this acquiescence to reality. Is it any wonder that their generation worked so hard, built so much, and complained so little?

    My children grew up on a farm, and I credit that experience — the animal care and the fence mending and the wood splitting and the backwards hardness of it all — for much of their strength and resilience today. I think there are too few opportunities now for young men to run up against walls, and to learn when all the compromising must be on their end because playing chicken with the universe is a sure-fire way to lose. I think the modern world yields too much, is too amenable to persuasion, and we grow soft in response.

    Well said Henry. I have long thought that there was something about working with the hands that instilled a sort of common sense and wisdom. I think there is much to be explored in this that modern education has missed.

    • #11
    • November 27, 2017, at 6:03 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Hartmann von Aue Member

    Thanks. My dad was a motorhead, and taught me to do everything I needed to do on my 1972 Plymouth Duster, including rebuild the transmission linkage using just my hands and a screwdriver (which I then had to do in real world conditions one afternoon on the way home from the movies). Alas, I gave up my motorhead ways in college and have not returned to them since.

    My nephew tells me that the company he works for looks for new talent that grew up on farms. They have the work effort and the resilience that the new grads from suburban backgrounds don’t.

    • #12
    • November 27, 2017, at 7:03 AM PDT
    • 1 like