“The best or nothing!” Gottlieb Daimler, a German engineer and industrialist from the 1920s, is credited with coining this phrase. Herr Daimler was a co-founder of a company that would one day become Mercedes-Benz, now renowned for the quality of its automobiles, and which, fittingly, adopted his mantra as its company motto.
Coincidentally, my father was also an engineer. An industrial engineer, at that. Thus he, too, appreciated well-designed and well-built products. However, being half-Scot, he tended to be pretty tight with a greenback. Thus, he sometimes seemed to be torn between paying a premium for merchandise of quality and saving a buck or two on the cheaper model. It was not uncommon for his Scottish heritage to prevail in such matters.
I am of the mind that the reason Dad seldom seemed to worry much about the quality of at least some of the mechanical equipment he would acquire from time to time was perhaps because he knew he could fix pretty much anything. Therefore, there was little reason to worry whether something were to break down. And, predictably, it was a family tradition for Dad to spend no small amount of his free time, well, fixing all manner of stuff.
The members of his immediate family remember vividly the many occasions when he would be variously tearing apart and rebuilding the dishwasher (Mom loved that dishwasher), overhauling the engine of the family sedan, and jerry-rigging/retro-fitting various rusty, antique pieces of farm equipment, which were Â originally designed to be pulled by a horse, insisting they also be functional when pulled by a tractor, the latter of which he had earlier acquired for a song since it ran hardly at all before he bought and repaired it. And on and on.
But not all of these repair projects went as well as planned. In fact, as a child, I think I learned more cuss words while observing my dad rebuild Mom’s beloved dishwasher (for the third time) than I did while serving in the military, which is no small feat.
But times have changed: We now live in the “Bic” consumer era. Simply put, when your pen runs out of ink, you throw it in the trash and buy a new one. In fact, most of the various electronic devices I have acquired over the years have come stamped with ominous warnings of the near certainty of serious injury or death if I were to attempt even so much as to open the case in which its innards are kept. Not that there is any way to get in there without a hammer, such as was the case with a certain Sony stereo turntable I once possessed that had ceased to operate. Unable to figure out how to take it apart without destroying it, I shipped it off to a Sony repair center (hey, it was barely fifteen years old). I got it back about two weeks later with a note: “Buy a new one you cheap schmuck!” or something to that effect.
I remember years ago when even my father was stymied by one of these “throw-away” products. In this case, it was in the form of an inexpensive, plastic film camera I had purchased at the drug store. The camera seemed to have frozen up for some reason, so, one day when I found Dad seated in his recliner enjoying the morning newspaper, I interrupted his reading to see if he thought the camera might be fixable. As I had anticipated, his curiosity was piqued (he was always interested in learning about how things work). He placed the newspaper in his lap and I handed him the camera. Without a word, he eyed it for a few seconds and then retrieved a small screwdriver from the drawer of his end table. As I watched in silence, he tilted his head back to better afford the use of his bifocals and started tinkering around with it, poking it here and there, looking for a soft spot, I guess. All was quiet for a bit as he turned it this way and that, trying to figure out how to get to the insides. Then he stuck the tip of his screwdriver in what was no more than a hairline sliver of a seam along one side and gave it a little twist. The camera exploded like a miniature bomb, sending countless springs, dials, lenses, film and unidentifiable plastic parts flying throughout the room. “Nope, can’t be fixed,” he said. He handed the empty casing back to me and picked up his newspaper.
And what about automobiles? On any given summer afternoon in “the good old days,” I and many other young men of my generation prided ourselves on our ability to provide routine maintenance of our vehicles, typically while they were parked in a driveway under the shade of an overhanging elm tree. However, the ubiquitous use of computers in automobiles in these more modern times has now dispatched the “shade tree mechanic” to the dustbin along with buggy whips and MS-DOS. In fact, when I bought my most recent new car, I popped open the hood to see what was under there. What I found was that the manufacturer had installed a thick, black plastic cover over the entire engine, which seemed to cry out, “Don’t even think about it!” And it’s not even a Mercedes.
As a result of all this progress, considerations of quality are now paramount since there are few, if any, repair shops for most of the consumer products we buy. Thus we find ourselves going to CarFax, Consumer Reports or the Amazon.com product ratings in hopes of reducing the likelihood of experiencing a bad case of buyer’s remorse following our next purchase. In any event, if my dad were still with us, I have no doubt he would have found a way to get that black cover off of my car’s engine without it blowing up.