Unsafe At Any Speed
August 5th, 2014

Life was so much simpler in olden days. As a teenager, I drove around in a 1950 Mercury that by contemporary standards would be considered a death trap. However, I never crashed into anything, never skidded off Dead Man’s Curve, never stalled on the railroad tracks and foolishly ran back to retrieve a class ring. I never had an accident of any kind, and why? Because I’m what’s known as a safe driver.

Auto accidents are terrible. The toll on humankind is horrific. Which is why, about the same time as I was learning to drive, the state division of public safety came up with something called the annual “safety inspection.” So did they go after the main cause of auto accidents, which is the proverbial “loose nut behind the wheel?” Nope. They went after cars. If cars could only be made safer, then surely fewer people would die on our roads.

My Mercury never underwent a safety inspection. Why? Well, I was pretty sure it would never pass, and whatever might be found in need of fixing would cost more to fix than I could afford. So, I turned to a friend whose father happened to own the local Dodge dealership. I asked Steve if there was anything he enjoyed doing but couldn’t do because it’s against the law.

“Drinking,” he said. “I enjoy drinking, but it’s hard to buy booze because I’m underage.”

It so happens I’m pretty good at forging identification cards. I printed up a nice one for Steve, who in turn told me to leave my Mercury unlocked that night. Come the dawn, there was a nice new “Inspection Passed” sticker on my windshield. Whoopee! The inspection sticker fairy had come!

But those were the old days, and things have gotten a lot more complicated since. Today, one needs more than just a sticker on the windshield. In order to register a car, it must first pass both a safety inspection and emissions test. The service stations that offer said tests are electronically connected to the Division of Motor Vehicles, so it does no good to just forge the paperwork.

My current ride is a 1973 Volkswagen bus, which by contemporary standards would be considered a death trap. I’ve owned it for 41 years and have driven 230,000 miles without a single accident. How? Because I’m STILL what’s known as a safe driver.

Recently, I tried arguing my case with an auto inspector who had stamped my safety inspection application REJECTED. Why? I wondered. Isn’t it obvious, just looking at my VW bus, that it’s not a menace on the highway? And what about ME? I have an impeccable driving record. I don’t drink and drive; I don’t do drugs, I don’t speed, I don’t tailgate, I don’t even own a smart phone.

“But your windshield washer doesn’t work,” he said. “I’m sorry, but the state has really been cracking down on that.”

Windshield washer? I’d forgotten that my bus has a windshield washer. It stopped working thirty years ago; ever since, I’ve cleaned my windshield with what is known as a wet rag. It’s a skill I learned many years ago when I worked as a service station attendant—back when gassing up came with a free windshield wipe, engine oil level and tire pressure check. I also checked to see if the taillights and headlamps were working, and sometimes I’d just stand there, chin in hand, squinting dubiously. The boss claimed it was a good way to sell shock absorbers—and often as not, it worked!

Because I’ve worked at a gas station, I’m savvy about how gas station operators make money. They make money not by selling gas but by making repairs, and what better way to bring in a customer than to announce that his car is unsafe to drive—and in fact unlawful to drive without the requisite safety inspection?

In the case of my Volkswagen bus, the station operator didn’t offer to fix my windshield washer. For one thing, he has no idea how it works; for another, he still collects $45, whether my vehicle passes inspection or not.

I was given fifteen days to have the “problem” fixed. Sadly, that’s not easy. All the old Volkswagen mechanics I’ve known have either gone out of business or died. Dealerships? None of the mechanics there are old enough to know how to work on a 41-year-old air-cooled Volkswagen bus.

So I hauled out the service manual, and I went online. Turns out, no vintage Volkswagen bus in the entire world has a functioning windshield washer. Why? Because the design, same as the alleged cabin heat function, is faulty. What you do is pressurize a holding tank behind the kick panel and beneath the dashboard. You pressurize it with an air compressor, and then when you pull a lever on the steering column, water squirts from two tiny nozzles situated below the wipers. Said nozzles are usually clogged, so I reamed them out with a needle. I then recharged the holding tank and pulled the lever. Voila! The left hand side nozzle squirted some water onto the windshield. Not so the right hand side, so I increased the tank pressure by twenty pounds over the recommended 42psi. Kablooie! Now neither nozzle squirted.

It took me forever to locate the break, and before I found it, my poor Volkswagen was in pieces. All I could hear when I pulled the lever was a hissing from somewhere underneath the dashboard. So I filled the holding tank to the brim with water and pulled the lever. Water cascaded down from underneath the dash, directly onto and into the fuse box! So typical of German engineering. They can build an engine that runs for 41 years, and a windshield washer guaranteed to fail in weeks—and when it does, it short circuits the entire electrical system.

To make a long story short, after hours and hours of frantic fiddling and much cursing, I finally got the left hand nozzle to squirt. I immediately drove to the inspection station and hailed the mechanic. I pulled the lever and three drops sputtered out.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You’ve passed inspection!”

Great. So now I can look forward to still another year of happy motoring in my vintage Volkswagen bus. That is, until this time next year. I’m guessing next time around the sticking point will have something to do with the heater/defroster.

Anyone who has ever driven an air-cooled VW bus in the wintertime knows whereof I speak. There’s a reason Doctor Jack Kevorkian chose a 1968 Volkswagen bus as a mobile death clinic. It’s the perfect vehicle! Just drive your patient around the streets of Detroit in December until he gradually freezes to death. You’ll know the patient has expired when the last tiny clear patch on the windshield ices over.

Hickison Summit
-Richard Menzies