I don’t talk to machines

No sane, rational sentient human tries to hold a conversation with inanimate objects.

I’m not talking about the occasional times when you grunt “Take that!” as you wrest a sticking gate from its latch, or murmur “Good job” as you fit 27 cubic feet of Costco largess into 21 cubic feet of cargo area. I’m talking about the Mark Fidrychs of the world, who addressed a baseball as if its little ears actually cared what he was saying. Or the occasional savant who stands on Battery Street having an earnest discussion with a lamp post. No, these are not the sort of people you and I are likely to share a beer with.

Unless they happen to own vehicles with internal combustion engines made by the British or Italians. In that case not only are conversations held, but entire discussions take place, much like the celebrated stereotypical marital discourse in which one spouse does all the talking and the other resembles the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, maybe that’s unfair because the monolith at least imparted useful knowledge when it was touched. Long ago, in the case of a 1965 MGB, all I learned when I touched the rusted cold steel of the exhaust header was that it was rusty. And cold. And the bolts which fastened it to the engine’s head yielded as much to my socket wrench as a raging bull in Italy’s San Fermin slows in the face of harsh language.

It was not bad enough I could not reach the bolts from the top of the car, and had to jack it up and place it on floor stands to get clearance to slide under it. It was not bad enough the reason for doing this at all was that it had blown a head gasket, which meant removing everything in the engine bay above the water pump. Including those two glorious SU carburetors, whose slightly nasal honk under acceleration were the oboe in the symphony of the engine, and whose removal from said engine meant an entire Sunday afternoon would be spent balancing the dual intakes until they didn’t sound like two 95-year-old emphysemic men.

No, it had to be bad because the bolts under the manifold under the car were tucked between the steering rack and the feed/return tubes for the interior heater, with just enough space between the firewall and the fender for the vales between my knuckles to fill with grease and dirt. And blood, which flowed every time I thought the socket had a grip and gave it a twist, only to have it fly off sending my fist into Cold Rusty or Firewall, with a shower of grit into my eyes and nose. It was at those times I’d deliver a long string of first-person invective at the car. I’d accuse the bolt of trying to be a tough guy. I’d tell the header its mother was a sewer pipe and its dad was pig iron. I growled that a bucket of bolts was more useful and better arranged than the piece of automotive art taking precious space in my garage.

I thought about that MGB as I worked to replaced the battery in my Ducati motorcycle. Nobody in the world does a better job of hiding the unsexy bits than the Italians. Brakes, wheels, mirrors – these are treated as high fashion accessories on Italian machinery. The side view mirrors on the 1986 Ferrari Testarossa were copied by everyone from Toyota to Freightliner, for crying out loud. But when it comes to something useful, like a battery? It couldn’t be in a more modest location if it were placed by Queen Victoria herself. The battery is at the bottommost part of the frame, tucked behind a bolted clamp and nestled inside a rubber sleeve fitted to an aluminum box.


Getting to that wondrously secluded spot took two evenings, most of which were spent on one silly little bolt. No less than nine screws of three different types hold the fairing to the frame on the 1098, placed near the intersection of every angle on that contorted sheet of plastic. Most are anchored to another piece of bodywork, meaning the screw is fastened by a rubber nut with a metal insert. And on the bottom of the fairing was the Goldilocks bolt. Not too strong, not too weak, holding on tightly enough not to release the fairing and loosely enough so each turn of the driver caused the entire damn thing to rotate in its hole. There was just enough room on the inside of the (dirty greasy) fairing to slip the jaws of a pair of pliers around the nut, but not enough to squeeze the jaws shut.

Cursing out anything Italian is pretty much pointless – see the reference to the bull above. Any people who drink wine all morning and then run down narrow streets ahead of a pack of longhorns in the afternoon for fun will pretty much yawn at this American’s frustration with a single bolt on a single motorcycle in a warm garage with TV. In fact, forget I said anything. Really. I mean, it’s a pleasure to work on such a marvel of engineering. I am deeply honored. The motorcycle, she is like Gina Lollobrigida in her sense of style and beauty. But of course dear Italia, you made only one Gina. This beautiful Ducati is one of a few,  and deigns to grace my humble…oh. Would you look at that. The fairing came off.

Not bad for a second date.

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