The Ghost in the Machine

I always loved automobiles, playing with toy cars as a child, still creating cities and highways for my Matchbox vehicles (I had earth-moving equipment) when I was eleven. I bought my first real car when I was sixteen, a year-old Chevelle Malibu, from my brother. The great thing about real cars is that they can be modified, not necessarily for the better, but fiddled with. Like playing with toy cars.

But real cars couldn’t be thrown in the trash as easily when they broke. I learned that from that Malibu, which spun a main bearing with only thirty-thousand miles on the odometer—no, I didn’t race it or let it run out of oil. It should have been a warning that I wasn’t meant to have cars. It was apparently an unnatural event, me owning something complicated. 

But it was more than that.

 I’ll skip ahead 43 years to events that convinced me once and for all that there is such a thing as emergent sentience in complex mechanical systems. Automobiles meet these criteria for intentional behavior. I’m not claiming they are conscious. 

Did you ever see the movie Christine?


I’ve never bothered giving inanimate objects appellations, other than derogatory names spoken in anger and frustration. Maybe I should have been more personal with them. Perhaps automobiles wouldn’t have been so unkind to me if they’d thought I loved them. I don’t know. 

I toyed with naming the 1974 Toyota Land Cruiser I bought after I retired because some people had monikers for their offroad vehicles. I even used the name Phoenix a couple of times, trying it on. It didn’t work for me. I’ll use it in this story because, to be honest, I need some kind of intervention right now…

I was going to rebuild rather restore the truck because it was missing too many original parts to be brought back to stock condition. A fun project. Make it a reliable rig for running around town and doing some light off-roading, like at trail ride events. The intent was to drive it carefully as repairs were completed, never seeing it unusable for more than a couple of weeks at a time.

That’s not how it worked out.

When I picked up the light-blue Land Cruiser, the top was removed but was available at a later date. (It was being stored in a barn somewhere.) It worked as well as could be expected, however, with all the lights operating and new brakes. Stuff like that. No rust was a big deal in a truck that old. The first upgrade was power assist for the steering because the tread on its MT offroad tires was more than ten-inches and I’m not built like the Hulk. 

When I picked it up from the Toyota dealer who’d installed the brand-new power assist from an early Toyota minitruck, fuel was spewing out of the carburetor, fuel pump, and fuel lines. I mean pouring as in a fire hazard. They never touched any of those components. None of the parts were available new. An electric fuel pump and aftermarket carburetor got me back on the road—for a while.

Then the windshield wiper stopped working. No brake lights. Then no power. The antique 30 amp main fuse was blown. Still available but not well displayed in 21st century auto parts stores. All’s good until I use the wiper again—another 30 amp fuse. Hmmm. This could be a problem. A new, generic wiper switch. All good. For a few days, then…you know the rest. 

The brakes were original and the guy I bought Phoenix from, who drove it around town as well as on rocky trails, had even replaced all the brake shoes and had the (four-wheel) drum brakes turned. They weren’t round. Stopping had become iffy at best, but it wasn’t fluid loss. (Maybe a little seepage from a cross-threaded connection.) The engine, which burned no substantial oil, didn’t like the new carburetor and wouldn’t idle anymore. The original distributor was wobbly and, when removed for inspection, found to be so tight that it must have used 10 hp just to rotate it. I mean the bearings were shot. A new, pointless distributor fixed that, but the engine still didn’t like to idle at less than 1200 rpm. But at least it would idle.


I know what you’re thinking: All these older (if not original) components had worn out evenly and in unison; replacing one threw them out of equilibrium. I agree and that’s my point—for now. This is solid physical evidence for the Ghost in the Machine. Like I said, it isn’t alive or even conscious, but has become an entity of some kind. Physicists refer to emergent phenomena. That’s what I’m talking about.

At any rate, Phoenix’s ghost was very unhappy and the engine gave up the ghost as they say. It spun a bearing, just like my first car. And it did it at the most inopportune time, two months before I had to vacate the home I had put on the market. No time to rebuild an antique motor in SE Louisiana. So it got a rebuilt one from a newer model (a 4.2 L to replace the original 3.8 L straight six), shipped from Texas via New Hampshire. (That’s another story.)  With a new heart, Phoenix came to life, reborn. It also had a new electrical system, disk brakes in front, along with a rebuilt transmission and brand-new transfer case, as well as new differentials and complete axle assemblage in the front. I even threw in a new fuel tank and fuel lines (with a better electric fuel pump). It’s a new machine. The only original components are the alternator (probably a replacement) and voltage regulator; brake master cylinder, lines and rear brakes;  windshield wiper motor; instrument cluster; intake manifold (I’d replaced the rusted exhaust manifold with a tube header); body and frame.

How much of the original ghost can possibly remain?

This should be a new vehicle with a new lease on life. No more disequilibrium between components that have aged together. Right? 

Because of cross-threaded carburetor mount studs, machine work was required; I went ahead and had electronic fuel injection (EFI) installed by an experienced, licensed mechanic familiar with Land Cruisers (he had three of his own). 

Phoenix had a new ghost for me to deal with. 

I know what you’re thinking: I can’t possibly expect all these new/rebuilt/old mismatched parts to function in a coherent manner; after all, this unique combination of components isn’t the result of years of R&D by hundreds of engineers. I agree. The emergent ghost from the upgraded Phoenix has to have time to develop. That’s how my story ends and how it ties back to the beginning, that 1972 Chevelle.

The fuel injection system works fine until it doesn’t. That rebuilt (old) motor starts and runs great but sometimes stops at intersections, at red traffic lights. It just stops running. Starts up immediately—so far. Maybe it’s the brand-new, EFI system from a GMC motor, showing its antiquated design’s limitations. Who knows. The most-disturbing evidence of the new ghost in this machine occurred recently. Something deep in its bowels brought Phoenix to a halt when backing out of a parking space, with a loud bang and the sensation of mismatched gears inside the transmission or transfer case. Nothing fixed it, not even removing the rear driveshaft. An inspection revealed nothing in arrears. Nothing.

So my new/old truck has a ghost that is apparently unhappy. Maybe some of the old remained in the body or frame. Maybe it’s the voltage regulator. 

Maybe it’s me.

As unlikely as it sounds, maybe all those quantum fields that underlie reality are out of equilibrium between me and mechanical systems…

And their ghosts.

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