Rembering Wild Bill
September 25th, 2010

This morning’s newspaper brings the sad news that my old friend Bill Madsen has passed away. Back in the day when my motor pool included a 1966 Ford Thunderbird and a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass, Bill was my mechanic. At first I had no idea why people called him “Wild” Bill; he seemed tame enough to me.

Asking around, I learned that Madsen had once been a famous race car driver, a legend on the CAMRA supermodified circuit. In his later years he mostly stayed in the garage, although from time to time he’d accept a gig as a movie stunt driver. That is, until the day he pushed a $130,000 Ferrari Testarossa well beyond its design limits.

When it came to repairing big block Detroit engines, nobody in town could hold a spanner wrench to Bill Madsen. Only thing was, you had to abide by the house rules.

Madsen’s garage had no service manager and no customer lounge, so what you did was stand in a corner of the repair bay until you caught his attention, which might take quite a while. As you stood there, you took care not to make any noise—not if you got hit in the head by a flying bolt or burned by a stray spark from the cutting torch, not even if his big black Labrador sank its teeth into your ankle. See, Bill was his own diagnostic tool, and hated to be interrupted when he was thinking. Once he was done thinking—and only then—he’d acknowledge your presence.

I remember once I took my motorcycle to his shop in hopes of getting a safety inspection. As usual, I spent the first ten minutes just standing there mute as a wooden cigar store Indian. By and by a fellow roared up astride a big Harley, showering the shop with pea gravel as he braked to a stop.

“Hey, Bill!” he shouted. “How’s about you inspect my bike?”

Long pause. Then Bill answered, “I’m sorry. I’m not authorized to inspect motorcycles.”

Disappointed, the Harley guy roared off. I was climbing onto my own bike when Bill asked where I was going.

“I need to get my motorcycle inspected,” I answered. “I didn’t realize you weren’t authorized.”

“Here.” Bill handed me a signed and stamped inspection certificate. Evidently, I had passed the inspection!

On another occasion a widow lady friend of mine who owned a Mustang (go figure) asked if I could find someone who could figure out why her car wouldn’t shift. “I’m afraid the transmission might be shot,” she said.

I drove the Mustang in low gear to Wild Bill’s and waited the obligatory fifteen minutes while sparks and stray nuts and bolts flew about my head and his dog gnawed merrily at my leg. Finally, Bill came over and asked what was up with the Ford product.

“Automatic transmission won’t shift,” I said. “I’m wondering if maybe it needs an overhaul.”

Bill lifted the hood, looked the engine over, scratched his bewhiskered chin. Then he reached down and fiddled with something. Voila! The Mustang was fixed!

“Vacuum hose had worked loose,” he explained. “No charge.”

I tried to force a fistful of dollars on him, but he wouldn’t accept it.

“I would really appreciate it if you would take something,” I said. “You know, my friend was about to take her car to a transmission specialist. She was afraid it was going to cost her a thousand dollars.”

“If she had taken it to a transmission specialist,” said Bill, “it WOULD have cost her a thousand dollars.”

Since Wild Bill went out of the car repair business, life has been hell around here. I had to sell the Cutlass because nobody knew how to fix it, and I gave the T-bird to a nephew because it was a rolling death trap that would never in a hundred million years ever pass a hands-on safety inspection. Nowadays whenever I take my car to be serviced, it’s no longer necessary to don a Nomex shirt and get a rabies shot. I don’t need to wear a hardhat. There’s a gourmet coffee dispenser and a table spread with complimentary pastries in the customer lounge, and free limo service should I need a ride home. And a doctor on call, in case I should suffer a coronary when I see the bill.

-Richard Menzies