The nuts and bolts of it Jim Stanford knows cars of all kinds

Published 12:03 am Sunday, February 6, 2011

“Don’t fall in love with a car,” Jim Stanford advises. “They’re just nuts and bolts. They can be replaced.”

Pointing to a few vehicles in his driveway, he said, “They are all for sale. If the price is right, they’ll go.”

He can’t count the number of cars he has owned, he said, but they include just about everything from a Cadillac to a Corvette — “almost every breed of car” — since his first one, a 1952 green Dodge Coupe with loud outside pipes he had when he was in high school.

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Selling cars isn’t his main interest, though. It’s working on them, something he has done most of his 74 years. What was his vocation was also his avocation, for he’s part of a scene vanishing from the American landscape.

He’s a shade‑tree mechanic.

He works on cars and trucks in a shop on the hill near his Jeff Davis Road home. He got started, he said, doing his own repairs, then for friends.

It also began with a good bit of bartering — an engine overhaul for cabinets, a tractor.

His love for engines and what makes them run began when he was about 8, driving a tractor on his grandparents’ farm at Yokena. He taught himself to drive, first pulling a plow and then a cultivator. He became mechanically­ minded “just to keep the plows running.”

He had two uncles, James and George McMillin, who had automotive shops, and by the time he was 15 he was working for them, and about the same time, he worked part time at Allen’s Dairy on Redbone Road servicing their trucks. By the time he graduated from Jett High School, he was ready for a job at LeTourneau in maintenance and as an equipment operator.

From there he went to Westinghouse, where he remained for 42 years and through several company name changes, keeping their lift truck and other equipment running.

Most of his knowledge was gained through OJT — “on the job training” — which was standard for many youths in the 1950s into the 1970s.

At the same time, for 37 years, he was in the Army Reserve where he became familiar with military equipment. He recalls a time at Camp Shelby when they were building an airstrip. The government had bought some Super C dozers from LeTourneau, “an odd piece of machinery to start with, but it functioned.” There was an instructor who had a hard time keeping the equipment running.

“I didn’t say anything,” Jim recalls. “But a buddy of mine spoke up, telling them, ‘You’ve got a man right here who worked for the company that made those and knows all about them,’ so Jim got involved and knew enough of the “do’s and don’t’s” to get the Super C up and running.

Jim grew up in an era when many men did routine maintenance on their vehicles, such as changing oil and filters and plugs and rotating tires. Most cars with 50,000 miles on the odometer needed an overhaul, and at 100,000, the car was shot. But today, he said, if you take care of one it will run for 200,000 miles or more. There’s a pickup in his shop that doesn’t need any major work that has close to 300,000 on it.

Now, he knows kids from 18 to 25 who can’t find the hood latch and know nothing about checking the oil or water — and they’ve been behind the wheel for 100,000 miles.

Most problems, Jim said, can be attributed to the age of the vehicle and the mileage, improper servicing and operator error. Often, he said, people call him and just tell him that the car is broke. The conversation goes something like this:

I say, “Will it crank?”

“No,” they say. So I say, “Will it turn over?”

They say, “What do you mean, turn over?”

“Will the starter turn?” I ask.

“Naw” or “Yeah” or “It just thumps.”

“Well, give me some background. Did the car run hot? Did steam come out from under the hood? Give me an idea where to start.”

Jim said he’s had folks to “drag ’em up here and just dump ’em and say fix it.”

It isn’t worth fixing, Jim said, when the cost of repairs is over two thirds of what the vehicle is worth. That’s when “you should just haul it off, regardless of how nice it looks.”

But it’s not always easy to convince people of that.

He laughed about a conversation he had with a Hispanic resident who brought his car for repairs. In Mexico, Jim said, a car doesn’t wear out — they’ll repair it forever. They’ll buy an old car with 200,000 on it and want to put it back in perfect condition, or take a hundred-dollar car and put a $1,700 motor in it. The man who came to Jim had a car whose body was totally eaten up by salt. The man knew enough English that he understood Jim’s advice, and translated it for a friend, and they both laughed.

The advice? “Sell it, but don’t sell it to a friend.”

Modern technology has turned mechanics into electrical engineers, Jim said, because of the extensive computer equipment needed. Just a simple changing of the size tires will throw off the computers. He keeps up with the technological changes through word of mouth, but the necessary tools and computer programs are numerous and expensive.

He’s worked on some unusual cars — he remembers Eastland Rollison’s Nash Metropolitan which he kept running for years. But the oddest was more recent. It was a Daewoo, a Korean-made vehicle, and when he tried to buy the needed part the response was “Daewoo who?” It was a plastic part in pieces. Jim glued it together, found it was available neither new nor used, so he got a machinist to make him a metal replacement, “So we’re now Daewoo specialists.”

The best car he has ever owned, he said, is the one his wife, Pat, drives, a Hyundai he has had for three years. It’s the dress model, tightly built, has a 100,000-mile bumper‑to‑bumper warranty, and to him it’s the best dollar‑for‑dollar deal. His only expenses have been oil, gas and tires.

He no longer does transmission or engine changes, but he has other talents that have kept him busy. His carpentry skills include the “mother‑in‑law‑wing” on the house.

“I always said if I can see somebody do it, and talk to them, I can do it, too,” he said.

It’s hard to slow down, though he said he doesn’t work when it’s raining. His customers now are into the third generation, so, “Somewhere along the line, I must have gotten something right.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.