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Complicated Cars Put A Dent In An Old Father-Son Ritual


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. We've been talking about boys men and masculinity this summer. Hearing about what it means to be a man, what movies make men cry and what possessions make men feel like men. Today - cars, they've long been one of the most important symbols of manhood in the U.S. and learning how to fix them was once an important rite of passage. But automobiles are now less central to the lives of young people. And that's changing the relationships men have with cars. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I've learned this trick as a radio reporter to warm people up. I ask them about their first car. They open right up, especially dudes. For Harold Tennen it was a 1964 Lincoln Continental convertible he bought when he was 18-years-old.

HAROLD TENNEN: I just love the fact that you could put five people in the backseat three people in the front seat. It glid like a cloud as you drive on the highway. It just floats. I just love the way the car drove.

GLINTON: I met Tennen in beautiful, downtown Burbank at the Burbank Downtown Classic Car Show. He got rid of that 1964 Continental and always regretted it. A few years ago, he bought a 1965 and lovingly restored it. It was featured in the HBO series "Entourage" and it's one of the most beautiful cars I've seen in person.

TENNEN: There's no plastic in this car. This is steel. There's 5,000 pounds of rolling steel in this car. There's leather, there's wood, there's aluminum.

GLINTON: Now when you get on the highway to talk to men who are passionate about cars as Tennen is, the first stop is dad. Tennen's father was a mechanic and he first started working on cars when he was nine or ten at his dad's shop. Tennen says, it was through cars that he and his generation learned about manhood.

TENNEN: The car was another vehicle that allowed fathers to act like a man, be in a manly state and try to teach his son to be a man and be responsible and be accountable.

JASON BIELARZ: Auto-repair today, it's 1,000 percent different than it was years ago.

GLINTON: OK. This guy should know, he's made a living fixing cars.

BIELARZ: My name is James Bielarz. I'm the owner, president of Nortown Automotive.

GLINTON: Bielarz started working at a local shop in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood when he was eight. He's 72 now. He's a Chicago guy's Chicago guy - born, raised, works, married, goes to church in about a four block radius. And from those four blocks he's seen the world change. And one of the biggest changes - the car business.

BIELARZ: The difference in a car then, everything was dirty. Now my people come in with clean uniforms, they're done at the end of the day with clean uniforms because everything today's electronic.

GLINTON: On the tour around the shop Bielarz shows how state-of-the-art car repair is now, like this special lift he designed to keep low-riding cars from scraping the ground.

BIELARZ: Here's a car that normally rubs on the ground. Now watch this. See that? Normally you would have to go up, pump it up, scrape the bottom and everything - that's perfect, it's leveled, it's absolutely leveled with the ground.

GLINTON: For Bielarz, fixing cars is a family affair. His whole family works at the shop. He was insistent that I mentioned that his daughters learned car repair and one was in a NASCAR pit crew. But he thought it was especially important for his son to learn.

BIELARZ: When I built the shop he was 9-years-old. When he was 12 I was teaching him how to drive the pickup truck in here. And he grew up, in summer he would come to work with me and he would grew up on my side.

GLINTON: For Bielarz, fixing cars was a part of teaching his children about adulthood, responsibility, even his Catholic faith. Showing them how to work on cars was being a man and being a good example. He says, he didn't have to tell us kids very much.

BIELARZ: I didn't have to tell them to do it, they saw it. They saw what I had done and they just followed along. And they saw how they grew up, how I treated their mother like a queen up to the day she passed away and they know that this is the way to do it.

GLINTON: One of the people that has followed in Bielarz's footsteps is George Clos, that's his son-in-law, who manages one of the shops. He says, it's much harder for a kid to get into cars in the same way he did. And it's even hard to change the oil.

GEORGE CLOS: Most cars don't have dipsticks anymore. You can't drink a six-pack with your friends and change the oil in front of your house.

GLINTON: Clos, who grew up in Michigan, learned to fix cars from his father, his mother and especially his stepfather.

CLOS: As a matter of fact he bought me my first car. He bought a '68 and a '67 Ford Mustang. One had a wrecked rear end and one had a wrecked front end and I had to take and swap the parts on it and make a car and get it painted and all that stuff. That was my first car.

GLINTON: Clos says, he got to develop a relationship with his parents that he might not have if it hadn't been for fixing cars.

CLOS: I learned to have confidence in building it. I learned that my dad or my step-dad could give me advice and could give me direction.

GLINTON: Clos said, he figured if his step-dad knew how to fix a complicated car problem he might know how to fix some other problem in the rest of his life. Well, learning to communicate with your father via cars was very typical, says Ronald Levant, who studies the psychology of men and masculinity at the University of Akron. His first car was a 1941 Ford that he rebuilt with a '48 Mercury engine and a Lincoln transmission. He says, we've come to idealize the image of a father and son mechanic team working together.

RONALD LEVANT: Let's say, you know, they're working on a car out in the driveway there, you know, the hood is up, it's a hot day, right? They both got their shirts off, you know, they're each are kind of bending over one fender looking into the hood there.

GLINTON: Levant says, the image is so fundamental, it's so masculine and American that it conjures up deep, deep feelings.

LEVANT: You know, you walk out and you see that and you feel in your heart they love each other.

GLINTON: OK. So as heartwarming as that image is, Levant says, it's actually sort of sad. The difference between that image and the reality today is...

LEVANT: You don't need it. The affection is obvious. That was so poignant back then because it took place in a context in which the father never probably said to his son, I love you son, or kissed him, or hugged him.

GLINTON: Levant says, dads today are much more hands-on. They're just much more emotionally involved with their children. George Clos, the mechanic, says, it's not practical or necessary for a father to teach his kids about cars.

CLOS: I teach a class for Boy Scouts on car maintenance and I tell them that, you know, the best thing to do is to learn to read the owner's menu and to join AAA.

GLINTON: That's advice he'd give to any father who wanted to bond with his son over cars. Clos says, leave the cars to the experts and just tell your son you love them. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.

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