Carbon-and-valve, hold the camera

Ghost of an early service stationLately, I’ve been contemplating the merits of replacing my Grand Cherokee. She’s 13 years old, which is a long time for dogs and cars. The decision is more complicated than when I bought my first car.

When I was a youth, the maintenance schedule for our family chariot included a “carbon and valve” job. Charlie Bates’ garage did not have a lift to hoist the car up. Instead, a pit was dug into the floor; you drove the car over the pit and climbed down underneath it.

Out back was where used oil and cleaning solvent was dumped on the blackened ground. We didn’t know then what we know now about dumping that stuff into the water supply. At home, Dad taught me to change the car’s oil, dumping the old stuff on our dirt driveway. We just considered it poor-man’s asphalt.

Mr. Bates disassembled the entire motor and poured some Coca-Cola in the oil pan, and probably a few other components, to loosen the crud. He ground out the carbon from the cylinders and valve seats – left over from gasoline that had not completely burned. The engine was almost like new when he put it back together.

Later, I learned an easier way to clean the engine: fill the tank with High-Test gasoline and take the car out for a high-speed run now and then to “burn out” the carbon. One needed to use caution, however. Driving fast enough to accomplish a good engine cleaning was likely to result in a fast driving award, courtesy of the local police department, with a significant fee levied for the judge’s time.

The first car I actually owned was an English Ford convertible of indeterminate provenance. I don’t remember what I paid, but it wasn’t much. It was small and light, which was good because reverse gear did not work. I had to open the door and push with my foot to back up.

Then I had a $50, 1954 Ford station wagon. It burned more oil than gasoline, and the rear hatch did not lock. I spent a couple hours one night cavorting on the dunes with the young woman who, for the next 30 years, partnered with me in various endeavors, including two offspring. But that night, we got back to the Ford to discover someone had removed all my surf fishing gear.

Eventually, I was able to buy a new car – a 1969 Volvo P1800S. Although its $5,000 price tag and four-speed on-the-floor shifter put it in the “expensive sports car” category, leather covered seats were its only nod to fancy accoutrements.

I loved that car, but life and kids conspired to demand something more practical. The only car I loved as much as the P1800 has been a Jeep Grand Cherokee that has carried me around the past 10 years or so. But she has been signaling her weariness, so a few days ago I cast my eye on another – a Grand Cherokee Limited. (Limited means, when it was new, its purchase was limited to people who didn’t have to ask the price.)

I could start it without actually going out in the winter cold. It has GPS so I would not become lost, and a rear-pointing camera so I could see who is about to ram the trailer hitch. The computer on my desk has fewer buttons. But the gal vying for my attention has a strong V8 motor to make consideration worthy.

She’s pretty, she won’t need a carbon and valve job, and she demurely promises treats I never dreamed could be provided in one body. But will she prove too much for a guy who remembers when a like-new engine meant simply a carbon-and-valve job.

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