In praise of the pros who are fluent in the language of mechanics

| 10 Dec 2012

At school, I was a bit of a whizz with languages. It's something to do with the way your synapses link, I reckon – either you get it or you don't.

If you are lucky enough to be a bit of a natural, you are able to 'think' in the language that you are trying to learn, rather than constantly having to make a mental translation before you speak.

Unfortunately, there is one dialect in which, try as I might, I just can't get past primary level: the language of the automobile.

I don't mean that I'm useless with a spanner - given a decent workshop manual and sufficient time I can usually navigate my way through a problem, particularly if it's one that involves removing a broken bit and replacing it with a new part.No, I'm talking about the ability to think in mechanics, that invaluable skill that permits the truly fluent to diagnose a fault by following the engineering processes in their heads, often without even seeing the car.

Yes, to a certain extent it can be learnt through experience, and more practised grease monkeys are often the most accomplished speakers, but there's no doubt that true fluency is God-given.Take the C&SC team: I may have scraped a GCSE (sorry, O-level) pass in the language of diagnostics while several of my colleagues achieved a decent grade at A-level, but the only one of us who speaks mechanics like a native is Mr Port.

Which is why his presence often gives the rest of us the confidence to take on a job that we might have previously been afraid of tackling, even if we knew deep down that we probably could do it ourselves with enough time and patience.This week there was the perfect example: an electrical fault that was causing the starter circuit to be permanently live on my MGB had me stumped and the car in dry dock.

Come the weekend, Port needed some emergency wheels, so I offered the B if he could get it (or rather stop it) running.

He simply disabled the starter circuit and started the car directly off the fusebox, then over the weekend somehow managed to fathom that the root cause was a failed diode in the handbrake warning light system – which happens to share the same circuit. I'm not sure I would ever have worked that out...

There is no doubt that the finest motoring linguist I know, however, is my mate Tim Smith. Citroën mechanic by day, fourth emergency service to his friends by night, Tim is completely immersed in the world of automotive engineering.

Mechanical maladies are his meat and drink, electrical conundrums mere entertainment.

It doesn't matter what the car is, he'll always have a stab at fixing it – and succeed.

I love watching him work, too: I hope he won't mind me saying it, but he has a special face that he puts on when trying to solve a problem.

His brow furrows deeply, he goes very quiet, and he sets to the car like a dervish, pulling and prodding, testing and tweaking.

After a short period of irritability, he'll suddenly cheer up, hum a little and cock his head to one side – and you know it's fixed.

There will still be the inevitable self-deprecation: "Try that, it's probably no better but you never know…"

And of course it's sorted. But then, I already knew that would happen from the moment he put on his protective gloves.