Physics teachers drive newer cars

21st February 1997 at 00:00
I've made a bit of a mistake on the Triumph Spitfire front. Around a year ago I bought a couple of cars, one a total wreck but with plenty of useable spares on it and another to restore. I've never been one for naming cars but this latter vehicle's SMB number plate suggested "Steele's Magic Bus" to me.

It proved to be an apt tag. The first day I set about working on it, the car rapidly began to disappear. I soon learnt the first law of old cars: it is always worse than it looks. Surface rust was revealed to be serious structural corrosion as the convertible grew more and more to resemble a series of irregular holes weakly bonded by ever-thinning strands of metal.

Several months later I admitted to myself that I had jumped in too quickly and advertised both cars for sale, the intention being to wait until I could afford something better. The advert brought a call from a guy called Brian who wanted to cannibalise the "for spares" Spitfire to make his own rebuild more straightforward. He arrived one Sunday with his student pal Jamie and the three of us set about the machine with an array of spanners and sockets. Empty sockets appeared where lights had been. Wiring was hauled out like entrails. Chassis legs were picked clean and suspension arms separated to the rasp of the ratchet's teeth . . . sorry, is anyone having their dinner while reading this?

Throughout all this we blethered away. Brian's conversation veered towards the problems of sticking a slant four Dolomite Sprint engine into a Spitfire frame. Jamie talked more generally and had some interesting things to say. He was a diagnosed dyslexic and reckoned that an above average number of his engineering student colleagues were, too. This, he claimed, was because those suffering from the disorder often had a better spatial awareness. I do not know whether this was conjecture or whether he was quoting a piece of research but I would be delighted to know if it is true.

Jamie lamented the fact that he was the only one with a toolbox. According to him, the others returned every day from university to play computer games. He thought this was a pretty bad situation. I had to agree him on two fronts. First, though I have had little experience of computer games since Breakout on the Sinclair Spectrum, I cannot imagine one that would be more fun to play than taking even the wimpiest Honda moped through a series of bends on a country road.

Second, though engineering is about much more than working on cars, can there be a better way to learn about strengths, structures, ergonomics and even aesthetics? What sterile products we will have if those designing them have no interest, no passion for their work.

Maybe this is the sort of engineer we have had in Britain to date: not well paid and with a low sub-professional status. But perhaps the reason we have produced so many distinguished innovators and designers is that those who did become engineers did so because they liked it.

Let Brian have the last word with a comment that brings all this a bit closer to home. Though I do not hold with "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach", I have sometimes felt that I took the soft option by doing theoretical rather than applied physics. "So you're a physics teacher," said Brian, unwittingly setting himself up to twang a nerve. "I didn't think they were into things like old cars."

Gregor Steele is currently looking for a sound Triumph Herald convertible.

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