Gus Wilson was the best auto mechanic ever.
He learned his trade young, opening the Model Garage sometime before July of 1925, at a time when the Model T was still the new car in Ford showrooms. From then until his well-earned retirement in December of 1970, Gus Wilson was the man who could diagnose any automotive ailment, fix any car, any truck, and always do it with a wry smile and patient good humor.
Gus retired before the advent of on-board computers and diagnostic trouble codes. But he would have mastered them easily. Gus’s greatest gift was his innate ability to analyze problems logically. Understanding how systems worked and interacted, he would eliminate each possible cause until the actual source of the problem was isolated. Modern service manuals articulate that same approach in the diagnostic trees published for each trouble code.
The stories of Gus Wilson’s adventures in automotive mechanics appeared each month in Popular Science magazine. Some of the best were collected in two paperback books, Gus Wilson’s Model Garage, published in 1963, and Tales of a Master Mechanic, published in 1972. The stories were written by “Martin Bunn,” the pen name used by at least five different authors over almost five decades. Gus’s personality mellowed over the years, becoming less gruff and more approachable. But his character as the ultimate automobile mechanic – the one who could always find the problem that evaded others and fix it – transcended the authors. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, to call a mechanic a “real Gus Wilson” was to render the ultimate accolade.
By now, if you’re not already there, it is time to admit that Gus Wilson was a fictional character, as was his assistant, Stan Hicks, the tightwad regular customer Silas Barnstable, and the others who patronized Gus’s business, the Model Garage. Gus Wilson lived in a time when being an automobile mechanic was a respected occupation and independent repair garages were important businesses in the community. The Model Garage was much like many other small repair shops – gas pumps in front, two service bays and a small office. It was in a city, never actually named or placed, like many smaller cities in the nation: growing and prospering, yet still a small town where the people knew each other, reputation and honesty mattered, and hard work paid off in the end.
Beyond chronicling Gus Wilson’s automotive adventures, these stories described an America that had standards and character, and optimism. Implicit in these stories is an unflagging belief that problems have solutions, that hard work leads to success, that one’s word is his bond, and that the occasional dishonest person does not change the fundamental character of people as good folks who can be trusted to do the right thing. The setting is one that appears in many literary works of the 1930’s through 1950’s describing New England, such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the novels of James Gould Cozzens, but without any undercurrent of cynicism. It is a type of community that many people in the United States still enjoy, while many others remember it with nostalgia and a vague sense of loss.
Though Popular Science, like all magazines, enticed readers with splashy feature articles prominently teased in full color on the cover, many subscribers first opened a new issue to the back of the magazine. That’s where the latest Gus Wilson story, along with illustrations by Ray Quigley, would be found. Along with the pleasure of reading each lively mystery of automotive diagnostics – mysteries that baffled others, but which master mechanic Gus Wilson solved at the end – the reader received an education. There was something to be learned, both from the solution and from the logical way Gus isolated it.
If this format seems familiar, perhaps it is because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle adopted the same approach in his tales about another deductive genius, this one operating in London a bit before automobiles were invented. Gus Wilson was the Sherlock Holmes of automobile mechanics. Like Watson’s chronicles of Holmes’ cases, the authors of the Gus Wilson stories did not cheat. All the clues were there, as accessible to the reader as they had been to Gus, and to those characters in the story who’d failed to find the cause. That was the essential charm of the Gus Wilson stories. You didn’t just read them. You matched wits with Gus. With every issue of Popular Science, there came a new opportunity to see if you could diagnose the month’s automotive conundrum before Gus did.
Usually, you didn’t. But you learned from the master, as you read what he did. Even if you didn’t realize it at the time.
In January of 1959, Gus helped a rookie police officer with a misfiring police cruiser. Every time the officer tried to chase a speeding car, the police cruiser would suddenly start bucking uncontrollably. The officer would have to abandon the chase. The cruiser had been checked and double-checked and nothing found wrong. But the problem remained. Gus found the cause: “crossfire.” Taking a ride with the officer, he spotted the issue as soon as the next chase began. The spark plug wires were running too closely to each other. When engine speed increased, current travelling through one wire induced voltage in an adjacent wire, also triggering that wire’s spark plug and causing misfiring. Gus moved the wires further apart and the misfire was gone.
That might seem simple and even obvious. But, there was a lesson in that story that stuck with me for forty-five years, when Gus helped me diagnose the misfiring Cadillac.
I was able to diagnose and replace its defective coil pack on my own. But the engine – an early Northstar V-8 with spark plug wires running parallel to each other along the valve cover – now had a different misfire. I remembered that Gus Wilson story. Sure enough, where the wires were positioned in the looms was critical. I solved that misfire just as Gus had done. I’m not sure I’d have hit that answer so quickly if I hadn’t read “Gus Rescues a Rookie.”
The Gus Wilson stories, in retrospect, sometimes even foreshadowed the future.
In “Gus Licks a Weighty Problem,” published in May of 1960, the diagnostic challenge was a car – a mid-fifties Buick Roadmaster, judging from the accompanying Ray Quigley illustration – that always started for Mrs. Allen, but sometimes refused to start for Mr. Allen. The character of Mrs. Allen was obviously based on Gracie Allen, of Burns and Allen fame, and exhibited the same talent for illogical logic. Mrs. Allen wanted stronger springs installed on the driver’s side of the car. As she saw it, the intermittent no-start began to occur when her husband started gaining weight. Her first solution was to put him on a diet. But she arrived at a mechanical solution, as well. Since the car always started for her and she was lighter than her husband, she reasoned that stronger springs on the driver’s side should insure the car would always start for him.
Weight was the problem, but not Mr. Allen’s weight. Mr. Allen’s car keys were on a ring with many other keys, making a very heavy, weighty key ring that pulled downward on the ignition key. Over time, the weight had worn the ignition switch. Mrs. Allen’s single key did not have enough weight to push apart the interior components of the switch, but the heavy ring of keys Mr. Allen used exerted enough downward force to prevent the switch from making contact when turned.
Gus replaced the ignition switch. Mr. Allen was released from the diet, and Gus once again had solved the problem that baffled all others.
Forty-five years later, in 2005, General Motors sent dealers a service bulletin advising that a defect could occur in the Chevrolet Cobalt when “the driver is short and has a large and/or heavy key chain.” The bulletin advised the dealer to “question the customer thoroughly to determine if this may be the cause” of the ignition turning off without apparent driver input and suggested the customer remove “unessential items from their key chain.”
In 1960, the consequences of a defective ignition switch were a car that wouldn’t start or stalled in traffic. It would be another year before the Wisconsin became the first state to require seat belts in new cars; thirteen years before the airbags would first be offered in a new car (the 1973 Oldsmobile Toronado, as an option). Federal regulation of automotive safety was essentially non-existent. Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that would birth the modern class action lawsuit were still six years in the future.
By 2005, it was a different automotive world. The federal government now regulated the automobile industry automotive safety through rules issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Automobile manufacturers were required to report safety defects and recall automobiles to correct those defects. Failure to make those reports was now a crime.
The problem of an ignition switch that could not stand up to the effects of a heavy ring of keys, however, remained. The specifics of the problem were slightly different in 2005. The Cobalt’s switch could be rotated with very little torque, so a heavy key ring could inadvertently pull the switch from “on” to “off” if the keys were bumped. In 2005, the consequences also were potentially more severe: a switch that was turned to “off” would not only stop the engine, ending power steering assistance and making the car more difficult to control, but would also disable the air bags.
Events began with that 2005 service bulletin ultimately resulted in General Motors recalling thirty million vehicles around the world, paying a $900 million penalty as part of a criminal deferred prosecution agreement, and establishing a $600 million compensation fund for those injured and the heirs of those killed when air bags failed to deploy. The number of deaths resulting from the defect is still debated.
Gus could be a hero, too. When a fire broke out at the local lumberyard, the Fire Chief called Gus to the scene in “Gus Plays with Fire.” A tank truck filled with gasoline was immobile inside the burning lumber yard, engine dead. The only angle from which it could be towed was blocked by fire. If not moved, the truck would explode when the fire reached it – with dire consequences to the adjacent homes. The only way to get it out is to drive it out. It is up to Gus Wilson to get it started before the inferno reaches it.
Gus gets it started, just in time. He repairs the rubbing block on the arm of the breaker points with a piece of lead from a pencil. In the process, he works backward from the absence of spark at the plugs to locate the issue – the exact diagnostic process that anyone should use to isolate a no start issue, even today. The truck is moved. The neighborhood is saved.
For Gus’s thirtieth anniversary, the Mayor and the city gave Gus a parade – as befits one of the community’s leading citizens. It was a hot July day and during the parade the mayor’s car suffers a breakdown. Gus, with the entire community watching in the blazing sun, must get it running again.
You know he does it.
Gus Wilson was the best auto mechanic ever.
Gus Wilson may be retired, but he is not gone. Gus is available online at a delightful website that features every Gus Wilson story, along with the illustrations that accompanied the stories, artistic gems in their own right.
Just visit the website Gus Wilson’s Model Garage.
You have one advantage that readers did not have when these stories were first published.
You don’t have to wait a month to read the next one.