Herb Benham

Thursday, Jan 30 2014 05:33 PM

HERB BENHAM: This mechanic's fateful moment of truth

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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By Herb Benham

A car sits for six years in the desert and it's either a car commercial testimonial or a tow-it-right-to-the-junkyard. A couple weeks ago, a friend and I drove to Goldfield, Nev., to rescue a blue 1992 Toyota Tercel that belonged to his late father. Goldfield is 296 miles from Bakersfield and can be reached through Death Valley and all its dry winter glory or Big Pine and the 4,000-year-old Bristlecone Pine Forest. We chose Big Pine and brought back a bowl of pitch-filled pine cones as a souvenir.

The car has 75,517 original miles on it. For a Toyota, that's like new. "Original miles" sounds like "true freshman." It used to be there wasn't any other kind.

With a car that old, you wonder whether the odometer has flipped over, but this one had a zero in front of the "7," indicating that it hadn't.

A Tercel is built like a cottontail resting on its back paws. If this cottontail wasn't a sitting duck and had some oomph, Harry had offered it to our son Thomas. Next to a motorcycle or one of those circus cars for the clowns, a Tercel is perfect for a town like Berkeley. Humble, not showy and gets 300 miles to the gallon.

The Bluebook on a 1992 Tercel is zero. That fits in with most of the cars I drive. Until they measure soul, legacy and character, I won't move the needle.

Take my 1991 Chevy truck. The Bluebook is probably higher on my pressure washer. However, the truck is right for hauling stuff to the dump, taking the dogs to the river and parking it in the pristine driveway -- where it can leak oil -- of my father-in-law.

"This is basic transportation," Harry said.

Yes, it is. However, basic transportation has its charms for those of us who specialize in previously loved cars.

We towed it to my house, took off the chains and straps on the front wheels, and pushed it against the curb.

I hooked the jumper cables from the Honda to the Tercel. I started the Honda, let the cars talk to one another for about 20 minutes and then I put the key in the Tercel.

It turned over and started.

I unhooked the cables and drove the Tercel around the block. It stalled, and the power went off about 100 yards from the house. I pushed it back to the house, something I am not unfamiliar with, given the vintage cars I drive. The car was light enough to both push and steer.

"Buy a new battery," said mechanic John.

I did. A Bosch from Pep Boys with a 60-month warranty. Sixty months is fitting for a 21-year-old-car that has waited six years for some human kindness.

I pulled the old battery and put in the new one. The Tercel started again and stayed started.

I drove to Sam's house two blocks away.

"Dad, you're almost a mechanic," he said.

That's right, son. Listen to that baby purr. I might as well be a certified factory mechanic.

The upholstery is tattered from years of being in the sun. The floor carpets are matted with dog hair. The car has a funny smell to it.

I bought four lint rollers at the dollar store and a nylon brush to loosen the dog hair.

I've scrubbed the windows twice, inside and out, and pressure washed the engine, which looks almost new.

This is enormously satisfying. Bluebook doesn't measure satisfaction, but Herb's Bluebook does and it makes this car invaluable. Cars can have souls and this one is good.

Thomas may be in luck. It's been five years since he's had a car. When you've been on foot, there is nothing basic about basic transportation.

These are the opinions of Herb Benham and not necessarily The Californian's.

Email: hbenham@bakersfield.com.

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