I'm off to Kingston for a morning at Kwik Fit, getting a quick fix of rubber, grease and unburned hydrocarbons. I fear I'll be a bit of a fifth wheel: getting me to change a tyre is like asking the Michelin Man to check an article for spelling mistakes. But as I roll into Kingston on a sunny Tuesday, I look on the bright side - wielding a ratchet handle may help me fix my deflated masculinity.
The Kwik Fit site is wrapped around two sides of a car park, doors-up revealing cars on raised platforms in front of tyre-racks. Branch manager Wayne tells me that Kwik Fit handles everything from tyres and exhausts to chipped windscreens. 'No one looks forward to buying tyres,' he says. 'It's a stress purchase. So our job is to make it as pleasant as possible.'
I join Dan, the MOT man, in the new testing centre, running through the official Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (Vosa) checklist on a Vauxhall Astra. He's a proper car buff - he used to bunk off school to work in his mate's garage. This 'apprenticeship' did the trick: he's now a trained mechanic, but likes doing MOTs because he doesn't have to get his hands dirty. I could fit in here ...
Spending your working day up to your elbows in grime is a health hazard. If you don't wear the disposable gloves, you can develop dermatitis. I'm also warned not to scoff my lunch with oily fingers.
The MOT is like a medical check-up. A metal stick is pushed into the exhaust pipe to see what comes out. The Astra passes the emissions test and we raise her up to check underneath. Dan notes down the onset of rust on the gearbox, then drives her onto a set of rollers to test the brakes. The results are fed into a computer via a handheld gizmo - no dog-eared scraps of paper or grimy pencil behind the ear.
The final call at MOT time is the mechanic's: what one would fail, another may pass. But it's best to err on the side of safety - even if Dan did have a young woman in tears the other day when he failed her Mini. But surely, I ask, it's good for business to look on the black side? Dan laughs the idea off: Vosa would slam the bonnet down on that plan, and the garage, if it tried.
This car passes. 'Mr Astra will be happy for another 12 months,' he says. Happy is the order of the day: there's an air of contented concentration about the team. Each of the 10 has a specialist skill: there's the MOT man, the brakes dude and the service technician - the experienced jack-of-all-trades who's just one down from supervisor. A fully fledged centre manager earns about ú25k a year, plus bonuses for hitting customer service targets.
Bottom of the greasy pole is the trainee, starting on tyres. That's me. I have a go at changing one. There's a machine for this. A pedal drives the hydraulics and the machine grips, spins and tilts the wheel while I wedge a crowbar in and yank. It takes me five minutes to wrestle the tyre off a battered 15-inch wheel. I see an experienced fitter toss a big Mercedes wheel around. He whips the tyre off and pops a new one on in 20 seconds. Expert.
From tyres to brakes, and I watch Rich under a Citroen Xsara, measuring the discs. He explains carefully what he's doing, but I have no idea what he's talking about.
This isn't the busiest day. A handful of customers thumb through magazines, hoping to be on their way soon. One mechanic whistles the song from Willie Wonka: 'In a world of pure imagination ...'. Another hunts for an eccentric washer. The two combine in my head, and I picture the naked woodland shampooist from the Timotei ads ...
Finally, I work with service technician Michael, changing the oil and spark plugs on a white Merc. A trained fitness instructor, Michael had barely changed a wheel when he started here two years ago. That makes me feel better. I watch him go to work on the engine. Anyone could do it, he says. 'Hold that bit and turn that.' I demonstrate how not to use a screwdriver.
I'm not sure I'll give up my day job for a career in the motor trade, but as I wrap up my morning's work, I can at least say I have popped my vehicular cherry. I've changed a tyre and a set of spark plugs. Hardly exhaustive, but it's a start.