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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Review of Auto Mechanics by Kevin L. Borg

In his book Auto mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America, Kevin L. Borg traces the history of the auto mechanic's profession from the early days of chauffeur and blacksmith mechanics to the present day mechanic who works on computer managed vehicles. While Borg for the most part sticks to straight forward historical research, the book itself is not without philosophical insight and questioning. Borg's book is quite obviously fueled by a passion for his subject. It is insightful and a delight to read.

Through Borg's work, we learn the twists and turns of this untold and unknown story, and deeper questions always lie right beneath the surface. For example, why is the skilled auto mechanic viewed as having a low social status, while other trades that require similar knowledge and manual dexterity are viewed as being of higher status? Part of the answer to this question may have its roots in the history of the profession. When automobiles first became popular in the early years of the twentieth century, automobiles were the toys of the wealthy, and the wealthy looked for someone on the model of the "coachman" who had taken care of the stables to likewise take care of the automobile. Thus the chauffeur mechanic was born. This turned out to be a mistake that put a great deal of stress on many an aristocratic head of household as the "chauffeur mechanic" proceeded to disobey the traditional role assigned to him and use his specialized knowledge to his own advantage. As a result, a whole series of events unfolded: legislation was passed, aristocrats began attending YMCA courses to learn about their own cars, etc., etc. Borg does not neglect racial issues in the early days of automobiles as blacks were systematically refused equal training and service, creating a need for them to open their own garages. Nor does Borg neglect the influence of World War II on the industry. If one pays attention, one can see how that first arrogant chauffeur mechanic played his role in the creating a more egalitarian America (as egalitarian as it can be said to be these days).

It was shortly after World War II that hotrodding and NASCAR began to take off in America. While telling the story of Smokey Yunick--a veteran of World War II and famous early NASCAR mechanic--Borg speculates: "Perhaps [the] need for excitement to replace the adrenaline of war helps explain the postwar spike in automobile racing generally." Little gems like this made the book a delight for me to read.

I will leave you with one more gem. Borg quotes sociologists Sennett and Cobb: "One of the saddest encounters we had was with a philosophically minded auto mechanic. A part of him recognizes that he is 'deep,' as his friend puts it; yet he cannot really accept the fact of his intelligence. . . . For, if he is intelligent, why is he a grease monkey? . . . [I]t is less painful [for him] to think he 'isn't much, just part of the woodwork' than to respect his own mind." A little melodramatic, slightly existential, but I'll take it.

1 comment:

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