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To be not muffled

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When I asked my wife if she'd be interested in driving to Tennessee to tour a muffler factory, she asked if I was kidding. "Nope, not kidding," I replied.

She responded in parallel: "Nope, not interested."

I pointed out that the trip would mean a drive through the mountains, with its concomitant tunnels, waterfalls, wildflowers and scenic overlooks. She budged, slightly: "A muffler factory? You mean like on the rear end of a car?"

If you're into cars—and in our household, one of us is and, obviously, one of us is not—you know the names Borla and Abarth. Abarth sounds Dutch, but the factory is in Italy; Borla sounds Italian, but the factory is in eastern Tennessee. Like their Italian competitor, Borla manufactures high-end, high-performance, after-market exhaust systems, very specific stuff that compels automotive enthusiasts to drive for hours.

Last summer, the car club I belong to made a trip—a pilgrimage, even?—to Johnson City to tour the Borla plant. I missed that one, so I made my reservation early this summer. Mr. Mace, our tour guide, explained it all. There were the rolling, extruding, reducing and expanding operations done to tubes of 300-series Austenitic chromium-nickel alloy stainless steel, not to mention the arc and Tri-Gas TIG welding options. He detailed the all-important precision bending needed to form a Borla system, too. An exhaust system is an afterthought, the necessary add-on to any automobile. After all other parts are engineered into place beneath the car, the exhaust pipes must then be designed to snake around and past, over and under everything else that's down there, with room for mufflers and catalytic converters as needed. That's why the bends must be so precise, said the proud Mr. Mace.

As he led the tour, I wrote from time to time on a small notepad, an activity that a woman in the group observed with apparent interest. When we arrived in the shipping department, she asked if I worked for Magna-Flow or perhaps Abarth? No, I said, neglecting her naughty implication. I started to explain that I might write about the tour for a newspaper back home if the editor liked my piece, but I couldn't finish my sentence. "About a muffler factory?" she interrupted, frowning at my notepad and returning her attention to Mr. Mace.

As our diligent guide shouted above the noise of a punch press and a grinding wheel, I thought of Walt Whitman and the poem he wrote after hearing "the learn'd astronomer," where "the proofs, the figures ... the charts and the diagrams" were presented. Unlike Whitman, I didn't leave early. I stayed until the end, when Mr. Mace showed us the installation room wherein, if you bought your Borla at the factory, installation was free. You could even watch your car while it was up on the lift.

One dimension of car club membership is, as the saying has it, keeping up with the Joneses. In our group, we now have exactly 119 Joneses who set themselves apart as a club within the club: They call themselves, of course, The Borla Club. The cost of admission is $845, with free installation.

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