Book Review: It Came with Oil

I recently purchased an old British car, a 1960 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite. You can check the car out on its own blog here. It's nothing fancy, just a fun convertible sports car to take out for a Sunday drive. It's small, it doesn't go fast, Sprites were Austin-Healey's budget sports car, they didn't even put in windows, or a trunk.

Lil Red, 1960 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite

However, the Sprite is just a blast to drive maybe because it is so basic, no power steering, no power brakes, low to the road, and without windows or a roof, going 40mph feels like 80mph!

The thing is with old British sports cars, is they need TLC. Mine has already broke down and I needed my wife to tow me home. It drips oil constantly, my mechanic who got it back running after it broke down said "only worry when it stops dripping oil".

Even with all its foibles and flaws, or is it because of them, the Sprite is a car that you just have love. Plus the Bugeye and its distinct smile, it's hard to drive and not smile along.

In an attempt to understand the love of the faulty British car, I came across this book It Came with Oil: An Adventure into the art of British car repair by Alan Cowan. The author tells of his adventures driving classic British cars on various road trips—with all the subsequent side-of-the-road repairs—as well as tales from his British repair shop. The mechanic tells all.

His stories are wonderful, funny, and contain the same easy going attitude that is required owning a British car. I'm not sure why, but breaking down in the desert becomes a nostalgic event, that in this day in age would not really be tolerated if it happened in a new car.

It hearkens back to a time when everyone wasn't in such a hurry trying to get somewhere, and remembering half the fun is in the journey itself. Even if it means you're stranded overnight and have to sleep in your car.

Work Habits

Beyond the stories in his book, my biggest takeaway was Cowan's work habits and attitude running his shop. The pride in doing a great job and doing it right is something that can apply to any craftsmen; including myself who writes software for a living.

  • Properly lay out tools. Don't put them in a spot that closing the hood will dent it. Use a cart, layout your tools and parts before hand. As you work, place them back on the cart, as you replace parts, return them to the cart. Afterwards you can refer to the cart, see what tools were used, any extra parts that came off, did not go on, and so on.
  • Don't be careless. If you drop a nut, you find it. If you lose a part, you find it. Count them in, count them out. You don't want a lost part ending up somewhere that it can cause even more damage. Take the time to do it right, the first time. Slow is fast.
  • Plan out your tasks. Don't rush into doing something, have a game plan, think it out ahead. One example, a quick drilling a new hole ended up going right into the battery—in a hurry and didn't what was on the other side of where I was drilling.
  • Use the right tool. Take the extra few seconds to get the right tool, it will save you more time using the right size screwdriver, then trying to remove a stripped bolt.

Always quality control your own work

  • Don't assume it works, confirm it—start the engine, see oil pressure goes up.
  • Never finger-tighten and walk away, you'll forget and think everything is on tight; guess what will come off down the road. Tighten and torque, all in one operation.
  • Pressurize and re-inspect, think about what you just did and inspect, confirm, check it all over.


With regards to work habits, Cowan's view is give it your 100% effort when doing a job, be thoughtful and considerate of what you are doing. I think applies to fixing cars, to writing software, or whatever it is you may do.

The book itself was quite enjoyable, but possible because I've already been afflicted to British cars. As to why we love them, I'm still not sure, it might just require driving one to experience for yourself.

May I suggest Bring a Trailer … be careful, it's a dangerous site.