Mr. Fixit

If you need guidance in repairing the clutch in your ’57 Ford pickup, quieting your stuttering Edsel, or locating the lubrication specs for that turn-of-the-last-century Stanley Steamer in the garage, here’s a suggestion: Check out the Minneapolis Public Library. The Central Library downtown is the proud possessor of an automotive manual collection that is second in size only to Detroit’s. Considering that the libraries in that city are in dire financial straits, Minneapolis’ Automotive Manual Collection is probably the most accessible and well maintained on the planet.

Its provenance remains unknown. Suffice it to say, the collection was built slowly at first, in the early decades of the last century, when some librarian with an eye for modernizing decided to obtain both the glove-box manuals and the thicker, more technical repair tomes used by mechanics. The library’s holdings grew as the automobile exerted its presence throughout the country, and ultimately exploded in the car-crazy 1950s. Since then it has been vigilantly maintained. The most recent manuals are about two years old. There is obviously little use for a repair manual for a car under warranty.

On Saturday mornings an influx of patrons, almost exclusively men, queues up before the library opens in order to peruse volumes from the collection. “These guys are here to get answers for the questions that are taking up their weekends,” said Walt Johnson, a Patent and Trademark librarian who oversees the collection. These repair guides are not your typical Chilton manuals, but the same ones dealers and mechanics use. You could dismantle a car, literally from top to bottom, and rebuild it based on the information between the covers of these books. Because they’re expensive, often running more than a hundred dollars apiece, the library’s policy about adding to the collection is utilitarian: It acquires primers for popular models, such as Fords, GMs, and Hondas, while eschewing Maseratis or Hummers. “Those guys,” said Johnson, referring to owners of such exotic vehicles, “can hire people to fix their cars.” The collection also includes the fascinating Parts and Time Guide, which allows you to determine exactly how long it takes to remove and replace any automobile part, thus keeping time-padding mechanics honest.

Surprisingly, the manuals are in outstanding shape. They are crisp and clean—nothing like my dad’s old Chiltons, marred by greasy fingerprints, torn pages, and dog-eared corners. They’re also charming to look at, even for someone who can barely change a tire. The old owner’s manuals are delightfully earnest, thanking the buyer for his or her brilliant decision to purchase, say, the “Finer” DeSoto Six. “We have endeavored by illustration and diagram to make these instructions perfectly clear to everyone,” this manual boasts, and then proceeds to baffle with instructions for the simple act of locking the car door. The guide includes instructions for opening the front windshield with a crank, for cleaning the curtains (!) in the rear of the vehicle, and for using hand signals when turning or stopping, which must have been a joy in the winter. Some of the auto manuals are as small and sober as a Bible tract, with minimal information in an art-deco script. Included are advisements to refrain from driving your new automobile at more than forty miles per hour for the first hundred miles, fifty miles per hour over the next hundred, and no more than sixty miles per hour up to five hundred miles. After that, the sky’s the limit. And every manual before 1970 displays the automaker’s generous ninety-day, four-thousand-mile warranty.

Then there’s the whimsy of the cars themselves: the DeSoto; the Overland Whippet from Toledo; the Hudson Hornet, with its “Weather Eye” climate control system; the Flying Cloud, built by Reo in Lansing, Michigan; the Studebaker, manufactured in the “friendliest factory in the world!”; and my personal favorite, Hupp Motors’ Hupmobile, from the Motor City itself. Paint colors included Juneau gray, Bimini blue, and black. Not Nighthawk Black, like my 2004 Civic, but black. Just black.

Some of the collection’s most intriguing patrons come in to reference repair manuals for ancient tractors, from Fords to International Harvesters. Johnson has observed that the people who are working on old tractors aren’t just collectors, and they aren’t simply being frugal—they have an intense emotional attachment to these machines. He recalled riding an old Ford on his father’s Christmas tree farm. “This was back in the late sixties, when I was nine and ten years old, before all the land was developed up in the area around Big Lake and Zimmerman. I want to say it was a 1948 model, and we used that tractor nonstop from late spring until early winter. A few years ago I came across an old book in the collection that featured old Ford tractors and I got very nostalgic.”

The collection is amazing, really: a trip back in time, a tonic for those longing for the days of choke knobs and whitewall tires, a valuable reference tool for people who need more than Car Talk. For now, it is wintering in a basement at the temporary library, waiting for loving hands to shuttle it across the street to the new Central Library. Come May, when the library reopens, no doubt those Saturday-morning lines of do-it-yourself mechanics will be especially long.—Peter Schilling