Mr. Engine

Ever since Jan Arne Markussen (66) was a little boy, he’s had engine oil on his hands. What was he to do, when his hands were no longer fit to work on engines?

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A lot of the practical knowledge I have accumulated over the years simply cannot be found in textbooks.
– Jan Arne Markussen

The solution, a 550-page handwritten book, lies in front of him on his coffee table in his flat in Flaktveit in Bergen. It is the result of 23 months of intensive work on the sofa. “Once I had started, I couldn’t stop. I just had to get it all out,” Markussen says. “For long periods of time I even slept on the sofa. I just rolled over, exhausted.” The book is all about old engines – how they are built, how they work, and, last but not least, how to maintain and repair them. The content is based solely on memory, written word by word into an A4 notebook with graph ruling. Or, to be exact, 12 notebooks, using 37 BIC ballpoint pens. “I bought a box of 40, and when I finished, there were only three left,” Markussen says, lighting up a self-rolled cigarette.

He didn’t think the book would sell at all, and was happy when a printer took on the task of printing 50 copies. They sold out quickly. Today, 1,600 copies have been made – sold or given away, primarily to people owning cars or boats with old engines, or to those with a specific interest in the field. Quite a few schools and companies have also bought it.

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Knowlegde Not Found in Textbooks

“A lot of the practical knowledge I have accumulated over the years simply cannot be found in textbooks. So I decided to write it down. But this is not a textbook as such, it’s far too personal. I’m quite critical of the system, you see, and I don’t try to hide it. I'm sort of beyond the pale, as they say.” Jan Arne is particularly critical of the Norwegian school system. He believes it is far too theoretical, causing a lot of young boys to drop out, only to become failures. “In my time, we took the boys straight from the streets and turned them into great mechanics,” he says.

Markussen lights another cigarette and turns a page. He is now nine notebooks into an English version. A pile of dictionaries, rulers, coins, calipers, pens and erasers are spread out on the coffee table. They tell a story of a man who prefers things done the old-fashioned way. The many illustrations are drawn by hand as well, with detailed precision. If he is not completely satisfied, he tears out the page and starts all over again.

“Don’t you have a computer?”
“Sure I do. But I never use it.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Haha, not to make money, that’s for sure. But it gives me something meaningful to do. My wife, Wenche, died of cancer ten years ago, only 50 years old. She left a big, empty space behind. In 2003 I had to close down the business due to health problems. My hands and shoulders just wouldn’t co-operate any longer,” he says.

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His Grandfather's Workshop

In 1917, his grandfather, Albert Markussen, started an engineering workshop in Florvåg on Askøy outside Bergen. After a while he moved the business to Nyhavn in Sandviken. As soon as his two sons, Leif and Arnold, were old enough, they joined the firm too. When Jan Arne grew up he was determined to be like his father, uncle and grandfather. He spent all his free time in the workshop, taking engines apart and putting them back together again. “Even as a young child I can remember thinking that this is my destiny. It’s in my blood,” he says.

The Markussens soon became known in Bergen and far beyond for their skills in repairing engines, particularly marine engines. Jan Arne himself couldn’t wait to get out of school to start working full time. In 1962, at the age of 16, his dream was fulfilled. “Ship owners, pleasure boat owners, fishermen, Hurtigruten...they all came to us,” Markussen remembers. He became known for his ability to diagnose an engine’s fault just by listening.

Jan Arne has a gold propeller hanging from a chain around his neck. He has constructed and built a couple of boats himself. But life is more than boat engines. In a garage nearby, a 1968 Buick Gran Sport 400 with a 450 hp v8 engine, is waiting patiently for dry summer roads. “I call her my middle-aged lady. When I touch her in the right places, she makes me smile."  

1. Jun. 2012