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A life-changing gift

11 May 2018

I read a story in today's Stuff about service stations, and how they rob you blind each time you fill up your car, by selling you confectionery, pies,coffee and other impulse-purchase products at highly inflated prices... while you're queuing to pay at the counter.

One of the comments on that story lamented the way that service stations have changed over the years. It remarked that they had stopped at one of those fancy new petrol stations near the Bombay hills on the Auckland motorway and found that they needed a new light-bulb for their trailer lights. Sadly, although the service station stocked a vast array of food items, it had virtually nothing, other than petrol, to offer the car-owner.

Oh my goodness, how times have changed.

I recall with great fondness, every visit that my father would take to the local petrol station so as to fill up the family car.

While the hands on the bowser were spinning around and around like a demented clock, and while the little bell was going "ding ding" at every 9/10ths of a gallon, I'd rush around the side to the "garage". Here, a young lad with an interest in all things mechanical, could watch the one or two mechanics, always dressed in very oily overalls, deep in the bowels of an engine or with only feet poking out from underneath the bodywork.

All around would be engines in various states of disassembly -- because these were the days when your average car engine needed to have its valves ground every 30,000 miles and its rings & bearings done every 60K-70K miles.

Cars were a very expensive purchase back in the 1960s so people tended to hang on to them for much longer and, in doing so, often paid for a full engine "recondition", or perhaps two, before the vehicle was flicked off or relegated to "the wreckers".

There were no fancy diagnostic computers, no operating-theatre-like sterility, bugger all plastic and every car had a good old-fashioned carburetor, none of this fancy fuel injection stuff.

Out the front, by the bowsers, there was an oil dispenser. You put the supplied pouring-tin under the tap for the correct oil rating, pulled a lever and the required amount was dispensed. You could then pour the half-pint, pint or quart of oil into the engine of your car. I notice a total lack of this once-essential dispenser on modern forecourts.

Interestingly enough, it was perhaps an experience at the local garage which kick-started my interest in electronics.

It was a late afternoon and, as usual, I was busy annoying the mechanics out the back while dad filled the car (and old Ford V8) with petrol. One of the mechanics came over to me and thrust a box into my hand.

"Here, you might find this interesting, I think it's broken but you can take it apart if you like" he told me.

Almost before I could thank him, I heard the old flat-head V8 engine burst into life and realised that if I didn't run, I'd be left to walk home -- so I shouted my appreciation of the gift as I sprinted away.

What was in the box?

It was an old and very oily multimeter.

Before we'd even driven half-way home, I'd figured out that by switching to the Ohms range, I could make the needle move by touching the probes together. Twiddling the "ohms adjust" knob would vary the position of the needle.

I was hooked!

I remember that it was only the "amps" range that didn't work on that meter and that this was simply a blown fuse inside.

A small length of fuse-wire was wound around the fuse-holder terminals and she was "all good!".

It's quite amazing how an event like this kickstarted a long and largely productive career and effectively changed one small boy's life.

How sad it is that our modern supermarket-like gas stations are most unlikely to have the same effect on kids of today.

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