Recently, Nick Caruso, an Associate Editor at Gear Patrol in NY, published an article about the bespoke cars produced by the English company, Aston Martin. Titled Visual Proof That Aston Martin Makes “The Most Beautiful Cars In The World,” the article supports that position, in part, by citing that of the 80,000 or so cars the company has built in the last 104 years, roughly 95% of them can still be accounted for. Also, interesting is that 80,000 cars is about what Toyota produces in 2 days.
I think that time has proven that there will, likely, always be a market for the “most” something of everything, regardless of cost or difficulty obtaining one. Also likely, is that we (you and I) will not typically be in that market, but rather bystanders, agape at the excesses of speed, cost, beauty, elegance, etc., but appreciative, which is more than you can say about most of the rest of the great unwashed.
What frustrates me most is that, despite the ever increasing number of people on this planet, fewer and fewer items are genuinely “made by hand,” and the skills necessary to do so are being lost. Even in my field of passion, hand built bicycles, the understanding of metallurgy, low temperature fillet brazing, lug filing, frame geometry, metal memory, resilience, and flexibility, effect of taper and wall thickness of tubing, fork rake and how and where to introduce the curve at the tips, and ten thousand more minute points of understanding are all embodied by a skilled steel frame builder and transferred into his work with every step. But, who is left that wants to devote a lifetime to learning and perfecting that art when at best he can turn out 12-15 complete bikes a year each costing $5-10K, when the masses want carbon fiber, which, thanks to the “advances” of technology can now be had for as low as $1200? Sure, Chris Kvale sells every beautifully crafted steel frame bike he can make, and the waiting list is still growing. I’ll bet that Aston Martin can too, because, like I said, there will always be a market. But when the aged and slowing Mr. Kvale slowly tapers his output to zero, who will take up the reins? Of course, there are some classic frame builders still in their prime who will continue the craft, on some level, for a long time to come, but, like the cars of Aston Martin, their rarefied output will be considered equal parts art alongside the technology, and their products much more collectible than practical. For the most of us, our transportation, whether two wheeled or four, will likely pop out of a mold on demand, be used for a limited period and end up on Craigslist for $50 someday.
Then, people like me, who lack the ability to “create” will, instead, look for opportunities to apply their skills to “re-create” a few of the examples of merit, used and discarded, but hiding some spark of provenance. Whether because they are made of chrome-moly steel, or because they embody some unique engineering trait or design that was before its time, or because they were a flash in the pan attempt at reinventing the wheel, each holds some personal significance to me, and hence I derive joy from erasing their blemishes and returning them to their intended original purpose.
The satisfaction derived from watching the reaction of people who realize I’m riding a “brand-new” 45 year old bicycle, or that a $50 tag-sale-find looks and rides better than their newly purchase “carbon” and won’t shatter if accidentally dropped is priceless. Better yet, is their slow realization that every bike I ride has a huge part of me, the rider, invested in it, unlike their mount, upon which they are perched more as an accessory than an investor. My bikes glide down the road as a product of my hands and eyes and accumulated years of experience and skill, theirs because they wrote a check and someone pushed a button and the molding machine baked another cookie. That’s why I fix stuff. Because the dog rescued from the shelter is more precious, more loved and appreciated, and more “alive” than one purchased from the puppy mill.
When I purchased the two Diamond Back Avail bikes, it was blatantly obvious that if I didn’t break out that $100 bill for the pair, their next stop was the dump or maybe Goodwill. As I was looking them over, the woman said, “You know that I lowered the price on Craigslist this morning to $50 each, right?” As if to say, “Please take them out of my garage and save me having to make a trip to the dump.” I kid you not, they are the lowest mileage best riding bikes I own, and my first choice when I want to jump on something for a quick morning ride. But, each has two “index” shifters integrated into the brake handles, that individually contain dozens of tiny springs and sprags, levers and plates and friction washers, that were all hopelessly gummed together by a concretion of 20-year-old solidified grease. Each required over an hour of careful teasing and prizing apart, complete with left-hand-threaded locknuts, miniscule “C” clips (Jeezus clips), and spring loaded parts that threatened to fly away with enough force to reach escape velocity. Any one of those parts, either lost or broken in the process would have rendered the whole assembly useless, as spare parts are made of unobtanium. No wonder she considered the bikes “dead.” Who would you get to resurrect that mess?
Each time I flick one of those thumb shifters, indicated by a nearly silent click, the chain jumps instantly and reliably and flawlessly onto the next sprocket of the gear cluster, thanks to the revolutionary (at the time) Shimano invention of Hyperglide chains and sprockets, and dispenses a wheelbarrow load of personal satisfaction along with the acceleration. I DID that. I made what time had turned to scrap metal into mechanical perfection again, and returned it to its original design intent. You can’t get that from writing a check, or from driving a Hyundai, or from eating a BigMac. That’s why 95% of Aston Martin cars still exist after 100 years.