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Sunday, October 17, 2010

The case of the missing bumper

By Dick Hirsch

I’m not as fussy about cars as are some people. I have a nice car and I enjoy driving it. I say that at the start so you understand I am not complaining. On the road, the ride is very comfortable. The visibility is excellent, as is the overall performance. The car has many buttons and a couple of areas with those small screens that sometimes transmit informative messages. I like the car well enough to consider claiming that it has all the features necessary to satisfy the most knowledgeable and demanding driver.

But I cannot say that because there is one missing part.

It has no bumpers.

I’m talking about those chrome steel front and rear bumpers that were standard on all the cars until the mid-’70s. Current models of some trucks, SUVs and a few other specialized vehicles still have the chrome bumpers. Don‘t they send a positive message of strength and resilience?

The chances are that your car, like mine, has attachments that are bumpers in name only. They are sleek and attractive, coordinating well with the overall silhouette of the car. But they are plastic. They break easily. They scuff. Yes, underneath there is a steel construction that conforms to national automotive safety standards. That, in reality, is the bumper, an ungainly but sturdy apparatus, disguised by the bumper cover. The exposed plastic bumper is easily scratched and virtually impossible to paint.

My last chrome bumpers were on a ‘75 Mercedes. Yes, a Mercedes, but before you jump to conclusions, let me explain. It was 10 years old when I bought it, low mileage, no rust, a white hardtop with red leather seats, the kind of car that, even in its golden years, was an attraction. And it had those gorgeous chrome bumpers.

I still remember the time when I had just parked at the curb when a discerning gentleman approached me and said: “Sir, that is one beautiful car.” I accepted the compliment as graciously as possible. He then responded: “I’m a little short, could you help me out with a couple of bucks for a cup of coffee?” Of course I was happy to oblige.

Back to the bumpers. That car is long gone and it is probably winning blue ribbons in car shows in Florida. Out of curiosity, I wondered about the cost of replacing the front bumper. If I still owned it and it needed one, some research disclosed one could be had for $1,395 plus shipping and installation.

Yes, bumpers were never cheap. But they were an enduring item. The bumps and thumps that scar today’s bumpers wouldn’t mar the beauty of a real bumper. In all my years of driving, I had some bashed fenders, smashed trunks and crashed doors, but I never once replaced a bumper. If a driver happened to bump something at low speed, it just bounced off. There was no damage. Sometimes a bumper might have to be re-chromed in order to restore its original brilliance. In contrast, a few months ago another driver banged the rear end of my wife’s car. It was a minor accident, but replacing the scratched bumper cover cost over $400.

Whenever I had the occasional dings, dents or worse, I would gravitate to a small shop owned and operated by a masterful body repairman named Marty Loibl. He did most of the work himself but he always had an assistant or two around to help. Marty died years ago, but it has always been my hope that some of his assistants learned the trade by watching a true artist and are at work somewhere repairing cars.

“Ve should fix dat bumper,” Marty would often say, pointing to an insignificant scratch that had started to rust. “Ve send it out to be re-chromed. It don’t take long and it don’t cost much but da car looks brand new.”

Marty had a guttural manner of speech, probably a reflection of his Germanic roots. He was a man of immense skill and even greater dignity. If he had any fault that I recall it was his persistence, his insistence on having a clientele with pristine bumpers. Even when the major repair involved some other part of the car’s body, far removed from the bumpers, he would examine the bumpers as would a scientist peering through a microscope.

He only wanted the best for my car and me, but I resisted his suggestions---except once. He was pleased. When the job was finished he observed: “Looks good, don’t it? Like new.” It did.



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