My relationship with my father runs through cycles of tentative delicacy and stony silence. “Dear Old Dad” (as he refers to himself) has a history of conflating love with money. That my father paid for my college tuition in full—to me, is a tremendously generous gift—not an alternative emotional connection. I didn’t need my dad to pay for college; it was a privilege. What I needed from Dear Old Dad was a bond, life advice, validation, and acceptance. Like many men, showing affection and love is hard for him. It was easier to just write a check.
But he found one way, one tiny, gentle way to extend the branch, albeit timidly, and bridge our paternal chasm. It was with handmade gifts, always car inspired, that would come, not at holidays or birthdays, but at the discretion of his artistic whim. These gifts always had a way of marking life’s milestones, not just because they measured time, but because they were often bestowed at an opportune moment, like the announcement of a new job.
My earliest childhood memories are of my parents’ cars. Photos of me from the ages of three to five at the annual town carnival with my face painted, or at an Easter Egg hunt with my mom, or at the beach digging up sand in a striped bathing suit prove I went to these places and did these things. But I don’t remember them. What I remember was getting to these places, the car rides to and from each playdate, school day, or outing.
I remember “sitting” (crammed) in the “backseats” of 911s, riding backwards in the “way back” of our Volvo station wagon, turning over cassette tapes, and weird velvet-like upholstery. Manual control buttons, cranking windows, and staring in awe at the engine when the hood was popped.
My automotive awareness began at birth, when I didn’t understand—I imagine—why I wasn’t the one driving us home from the hospital. My childhood was full of attending hot rod shows in Danbury, CT, and Porsche rallies in upstate New York with my dad (both of which I hated) and Take Your Daughter To Work (Dealership) Day. Driving lessons started at the mature age of 3, my favorite father daughter activity. So, it was a surprise to no one that after regularly getting kicked out of the local BMW dealer with my best friend, Jason, for shameless tire kicking, I would go into the automotive industry. After college, I was aimless, jobless, and naturally drawn to the Craigslist ad for Receptionist needed—Lexus of Greenwich, $12/hour. Thus began my career.
On the day I interviewed, wearing the watch my father had given me when I graduated high school, a gift to him from The New York Times upon his retirement, I walked into the main entrance. Once I was an employee, I began coming in through the shop every day. Walking in that first morning of work, I was giddy with the thought of walking through the service department, my service department. I had made it! A job, a real job, in automotive. I was flooded with the whoopwhoop! whoopwhoop! sound of the air compressor; the cacophony of smells from oil, orange soap, gas, tires, and tools; the bright lights. This 20-bay shop validated every smell or sound that wafted out of my dad’s 2-car home garage, as if to say this is the smell of dad.
While I took on my new role answering phones for the Lexus dealer, my father was just settling into his retirement in South Carolina. He dabbled with a number of projects, like briefly running a local newspaper of his own, and a freelance photography business. We often communicated in car: photos via email or text of cool cars, usually Porsches, or articles he came across on anything that had to do with Japanese imports. And while our conversations were painfully superficial, they floated our relationship forward.
From Lexus, I meandered around other automotive dealerships, finally landing in a low-volume-high-gross Infiniti dealer that still didn’t have an internet department in 2009. They were tired of getting clobbered by neighboring stores (me) stealing their internet deals and I was eager to build something that would drive revenue. By 2012, I got my “big break” with a job at NNA at their US HQ in Franklin, TN as a Sales Ops Analyst.
To celebrate this accomplishment, my father gave me a picture frame made from an upcycled chrome side view mirror affixed to a board with an Infiniti emblem glued on it. In the frame, was a picture of the reflection of my dog, Mason, in the side mirror of the Infiniti G37x I was driving. It wasn’t a watch, or a clock, but it had that meta feeling of infinite mirrors that reminds me how memories are nested within each other like a doll.
I struggled tremendously at Nissan that year. I was completely out of my element in the corporate culture. I was used to the brassy “car guys” I worked for at the dealerships (like the used car manager who was “connected” and when he lent me his car to pick up lunch one day, I was legitimately scared that the propane tank rumbling around in the trunk might’ve been a person). I was used to cursing and being on my feet all day long, running on the adrenaline of making shit happen. I was not used to sitting quietly in my cubicle running excel macros and being “appropriate.” The “training” I received usually was the result of pity from seasoned colleagues, and often, sexual harassment. Though he never offered advice, my dad bought a Nissan outboard motor for his boat as a way—I think—of saying he stood by me.
In 2013, I went to FCA as an Area Manager for Service & Parts DE/Philly and later the DC Metro Market. This was my first foray into the aftersales world, and I was excited to learn about service and parts, as I considered myself an expert on the front of house. Service & Parts is the grittier, less sexy side of the business, but arguably the most lucrative and I wanted to make money, advance my learning, and be in an environment that felt more at home: dealerships. Since I didn’t see him often, (I moved more than a man on the run), I missed the smell of dad and aftersales is where I found it again. To commemorate the promotions I earned at FCA, my dad sent me a clock he made from the chrome hubcap of a Plymouth and a few peeled off emblems from BMWs and a Ford Escape, both cars I had once owned.
The peak of my father’s professional career came in the 90’s when he worked for The New York Times as the manager of the Automotive Advertising Department. A seasoned advertising professional with a young family, he was calling on car dealerships much the same way I, myself, would after he retired and it was my turn to come up in the world. While at FCA, my dad had taken up a retirement job at his friend’s junkyard, photographing and selling used car parts on eBay. I reveled in the irony of this cycle-of-life symbolism happening in real time. After hanging up with a dealer selling Katzkin leather seat upgrades, my dad would call and say, “I just pulled the most gorgeous leather seats out of a totaled Grand Cherokee,” or, “You guys make the best wheels.” As I was pushing dealers to overfill their shelves with new seasonal parts and accessories, my father was cycling them out on the other side. With his Plymouth clock, it was as if he said, “I see your cycle of life metaphor, and I raise you time.”
In 2018, I went to Mercedes-Benz in a very similar aftersales role with the Sprinter division in the West Region, and my father sent me another clock. This one was a blue painted Mercedes-Benz hubcap with a Mercedes “E” standing in for twelve o’clock, another V6, and an upside down “L,” as in iL, for the seven.
In April, I left Mercedes and the automotive industry altogether to pursue a career as a writer. It was like my father didn’t know what to do with that. He didn’t send me anything. And due to other mitigating circumstances, our relationship is in that stony silence phase it sometimes enters. But my clocks remain on the wall to remind me how precious and fleeting time is, how unspoken words are dangerously effective in all the wrong ways, and that a father’s love sometimes can go only as far as you can drive.
They say time is money but really, it’s not. If we ever go broke, time is all we got. –J. Cole “Mr. Nice Watch”
How to Make Your Own Hubcap Clock:
When people say the word “junkyard,” it comes with a negative connotation of trash and scrap, but to my father it is a wonder yard. It is where he finds his artistic inspiration. And: his supplies! When he came upon a beautiful part, like a chrome hubcap, for example, he saw it as a clock. And where the clock was missing numbers, he found them on model and trim emblems, prying them off of totaled vehicles that no longer needed their marque. But you don’t need to work at a junkyard to find these treasures. You can find them all over the internet, or even your own garage.
- Find a quality hubcap, preferably chrome (not a plastic cover like they make today.) Something like this.
- Drill a small hole in the middle using a power drill.
- Stick your numbers or letters on there using hot glue, or if you’re a car person, you probably have epoxy lying around your workshop. DIY it or buy them online. You can literally use anything here, but if you really want to keep it auto related, your best bet is to contact junkyards near you (or anywhere because, mail) and ask them for emblems that they might not necessarily sell without a request. If you don’t know who to call, contact your favorite dealership Parts Department or Garage and ask them where they order hard to find, obsolete parts.
- Install a clock making kit. They come in all different shapes, styles, and colors. You can find them at craft stores or here on Amazon.
- Add a battery and set the time (or don’t, I don’t like mine to tick because it’s in my office. Tick, tock, tick, tock, you’re past deadline, tick, tock… you’re going to die one day, tick, tock…)
Rachael Workman is a writer with stories appearing on thedrive.com and on her blog earthlykitchen.com. A former service & parts rep for automakers including Nissan, Fiat Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, she lives with her husband and three footed dog, Rosie, in Maryland.