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Top Gear Philippines

Scale-model car engine

According to the movie WALL-E, humans will someday become grossly obese due to a lack of physical activity, the main culprit being our gadget addiction that renders us glued to computer screens for hours on end. It’s actually happening already. I watch kids today and am amazed they hardly move from a fixed spot because they’re busy fiddling with an iPad or blowing a zombie to smithereens on PlayStation. And in that brief window when they’re willing to let go of their fancy tablet, they’ll fish out their mobile phone from their pocket to reply to a text message. Human interaction is so yesterday.

When I was small--eons ago, for sure--our games involved a lot of physical action. We ran, we jumped, we screamed. I rarely came home without a bruise. Which explains why my legs could now double as a treasure-hunt map. And I was pleased with it. A wound was a badge we wore proudly. It meant we were tough. It served proof we could survive the mean streets.

I can’t help thinking that kids during my time would overwhelm and wallop the children of the current generation in any competition. I just feel we were stronger, faster, smarter in every possible way. Then again, maybe old-school street games were also to blame for why many adults today are so violent and so greedy.

Consider the games we played then. There was sumpit, in which we hit people with mung beans forcefully expelled from the mouth through a pipe, viscous saliva and all. There was luksong baka, in which we leapt over a hunkered playmate, ignoring the risk of tumbling face first. There was the bastardized version of dodgeball, in which we aimed and hurled a hard plastic ball at somebody, gender distinction be damned. There was the popular tirador, or slingshot, which we used to either make a guava fall from a tree or give another kid a bloody knot in the head. There was trumpo, or spinning top, which occasionally pierced our young feet with its rust-covered nail if we weren’t careful. And of course there was tumbang preso, which was really just an innocuous contest that featured flip-flops and tin cans, but whose name somehow translated to the murderous-sounding “whacked prisoner.”

On the other hand, those games that were seemingly safe taught us to covet the stuff of other kids and wager our own possessions in order to get them. Teks, marbles, agawang-base and cara y cruz--if you think about it--were the kiddie version of gambling and corruption.


So, okay, it’s not like my generation benefited from educational, constructive and benevolent games during our childhood. But at least we moved our body parts. Which made us lean and agile (I was, believe me), attributes that are probably lost on the kids of today. Not to mention that we earned street smarts.

Today, unless your kid is reading an encyclopedia on your iPad, he’s likely just wasting youthful hours on freakish fowls with anger-management issues. And he’s not moving his body parts, unless you consider slight wrist motions moving. Which is probably screwing his metabolism and setting him up for a life cursed with aesthetic rotundity.

What to do then? Surely, you can’t force your kids to learn and appreciate street games of yore. Good luck demonstrating patintero to them without eliciting a shrill three-letter acronym in their minds (WTF, by the way, doesn’t stand for “Wow, that’s fantastic”). These days, if the game you’re trying to introduce to your children doesn’t have a lithium-ion battery and a touchscreen, you might as well save your energy.

I have a suggestion. I got this idea over the recent Singapore Grand Prix weekend when I went to the Lion City as a member of the Shell V-Power Network of Champions. I flew to Singapore believing I would hang out with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, Shell being a technical partner of the Ferrari team. I was dead wrong.

Not only did rubbing elbows with F1 drivers not part of our itinerary (although we did meet Ferrari test driver Jules Bianchi), Shell literally sent us back to school--specifically to study car engines. When this was first announced to us, my initial reaction was: “Great. Thanks a lot. I came to Singapore just to be lectured about the internal-combustion engine when I could be checking out svelte F1 grid girls.”

But thanks indeed, Shell did exactly that. The oil company was bent on proving how very little we knew about a car’s engine, and why it was important to at least have a working knowledge of it. They talked about “engine health”--how the performance of an engine depends on the condition of its mechanical components, and how these components, in turn, rely on fuel and lubricant to contend with friction, wear and carbon deposits. So we played a couple of games.

First, there was a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey type of contest. Tacked on the wall was a schematic diagram of a gasoline engine. We were given stickers printed with various engine parts. We were to locate the indicated parts on the poster and label them accordingly: connecting rod, cam follower, inlet manifold, rocker arm, sump, valve spring, et cetera. For the first time in my professional life, I felt so stupid and helpless. It didn’t help that somebody blurted out, “I’m going with Vernon on this one,” convinced that a car-magazine editor would know every engine part like the back of his hand.


I did get several parts correctly, of course, but some of the items just sounded and looked alien to me. I felt a longing to be at a poker table--at least there you could bluff your way to a win without having to show your cards to others. In this game, your ignorance was there for everyone to witness. I had never been so embarrassed since high school, when a teacher asked me to lick the dead lizard I had impishly put on the desk of a classmate (I refused, in case you’re wondering).

Next, we were asked to assemble a scale-model car engine. The parts had been carefully laid out on the table so we’d have an easier time putting them together. For visual reference, there was a finished unit on display that we could check every time we were flummoxed by the manual. Shell had ordered this Haynes “Build Your Own Internal Combustion Engine” on for some $40, and it is this “toy” the title of this column refers to.

Glenn Wilson, Shell’s affable expert on fuel technology, said that compared to the scale model we were piecing together, a real car engine is so much more complicated--by a factor of 10, he reckoned. And there we were already sweating cold beads just trying to fabricate a simplified plastic crankshaft assembly.

There were four things I liked about this interactive plaything.

One, it’s educational. You’d learn how the cylinder head gasket, for instance, fits nicely over the cylinder block. You’d understand the concept behind the timing belt and the crankshaft pulley. You’d appreciate the role of even the minutest parts. Most important, you’d see the beauty of being able to build something, as opposed to tearing stuff apart. In this regard, Lego is also nice, but it doesn’t offer the same real-world relevance.

Two, this thing makes for a good bonding activity. If you chose to build this with a partner, you’d have to trust him or her with some chores and a lot of tiny parts, hence cultivating your sense of teamwork. The experience also develops familiarity. One of my teammates was Jiggy Cruz, who, I understand, is the nephew of PNoy. Should this guy continue the political lineage of his clan and make it to Malacañang someday, I would have the honor of being able to brag that I once “built” an engine with the President of the Republic. If you’re a father, imagine the quality time you could spend with your kid by working on this fun project together.


Three, the finished product is a superb household ornament. Long after you’ve completed the scale model, there will remain a lifelong reminder of that special time you shared with your son (or daughter). As you grow older, you will wish that you had more tangible reminders of your offspring’s youth. And I say that from experience.

Lastly--and this brings me back to the beginning of this piece--this activity requires movement. Purposeful movement. Enthusiastic movement. Yes, physical movement. Modern technology is transforming our children into slothful dummies. We can take their humanity back by putting in their hands toys that make a difference. A scale-model car engine is a good place to start.

Photos by Vernon B. Sarne


Vernon B. Sarne
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